In my ministry, I interact with many people who do not hold to biblical views about eternity. On one hand, many evangelicals have a wrong view of Heaven, believing it to be some fluffy, heartwarming place where they get to do whatever they want (except for sin of course). On the other hand, there are many religious groups where Hell is obscured. Some groups do not believe in Hell at all, others believe it is a place of temporary destruction, not eternal punishment.
In the myriad of views people hold, it is necessary to go back to the Scriptures to study the truth about eternal life and death. This is exactly what Edward Donnelly does in his exceptional work Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell.1Donnelly, Edward. Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell. Banner of Truth Trust, 2001.
Donnelly lays out the doctrines of Heaven and Hell in convincing and biblical logic. Though the author has passed into glory, his work remains as a testimony to his faithfulness, leading to his transition into the Heaven he wrote about. This article seeks to encourage readers to, once again, pick up this work and begin studying to better understand eternity.
It is essential that we give ourselves to studying this topic. As the myriad of views begin to gain more traction, Christians must know the truth about Heaven and Hell. Not only that, but it is important that preachers are informed about what to say to the believers and non-believers during their Sunday sermons. Reading Donnelly’s great book is a fantastic introduction to this subject.
Donnelly pulls no punches on this subject. He masterfully expounds the biblical teaching on this matter without shying away from difficult parts. The reality, as he sees it, is that the Bible teaches an eternal torment of punishment for non-believers. Jesus said, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46). Saying that Hell is non-existent or only a temporary place of destruction means that we have to conclude that Heaven is either non-existent or temporary. The same word “eternal” is used in referring to the two destinies in this verse. They must have the same meaning, otherwise, we face the most outrageous of discrepancies. Donnelly himself states:
“But in hell all of this will be taken from you. Everyone you love, everything you value will be removed from your experience. No sun will shine. No flower will bloom. There will be no laughter, no excitement, no fulfillment of any kind. These things are from God and to be separated from him is to be separated from all his gifts. You take them for granted now; you never thank the Giver and you have no idea of the extent of our indebtedness to him. But, when they are taken away, what poverty!”2Ibid., 36.
Not shying away from this subject does not make Donnelly uncompassionate. To the contrary, he, instead, shows his compassion for the lost. He states:
“What more can I say? You have seen a little from God’s Word a little of what hell will be like. I cannot believe that you want to go there. But, if you do not cry to Christ to save you, that is the destiny which you are choosing for yourself. Are you really determined on such ruin?”3Ibid., 46.
Such words are important today. Hellfire can be common in pulpits, yet devoid of the necessary grace to point people back to Christ. Too often, we want to scare people into Heaven by telling them about Hell. Donnelly, on the other hand, wants people to take Hell seriously while seeing the glory of Christ standing over that pit. This is how it should be.
Finally, Donnelly shows that the believer should be thankful for Hell. Immediately, some people will recoil from such a thought. How can we be thankful, knowing that loved ones are going to suffer for all eternity? Drawing on Puritan theology, Donnelly states, “God will be glorified in hell, and if the glory of God means more to us than anything else, can we be sorry that hell exists? We cannot; and in heaven we will be transformed, able to worship God for all that he has done, including hell.”4Ibid., 62. Hard as this is to grasp now, it must be true. Hell is where God deals with His enemies. We should love God more than any other, so we must know that we will rejoice when He does His work.
This leads us to consider the Heaven awaiting those who followed Christ in this life. Donnelly helps his readers reflect biblically on their coming eternity. Pastorally, Donnelly recognizes that we often fail to look forward to the coming heavenly reality. He states:
“One obvious reason why many of us do not reflect on heaven nearly as much as we should is that we are too preoccupied with this present world. We are surrounded by what we can see and hear, touch, taste, and smell. If I take a coin in my hand and hold it close to my eye, it will block out the sun and I will see nothing but that small shiny coin. Now the sun is bigger than a coin, but because the coin is close it blocks from my sight something incomparably greater. The daily realities of life may be neither big nor, ultimately, important, but they are close to us, they impinge upon us. And the danger is that the very closeness of this world blocks out the infinitely vaster prospect of the glorious world which is to come.”5Ibid., 65.
This dangerous trap is far too common among Christians. As media has made leaps and bounds in entertainment levels and the economy has forced us to think more seriously about money, there are plenty of distractions to keep us from thinking about Heaven. We have become too comfortable with the temporary world that both hates us and is fading away. Donnelly’s words are timely and must be taken seriously. We need to stop holding coins up to the glory of Heaven and focus our attention beyond the veil instead.
What is the remedy to this? Donnelly answers:
“Our neglect matters because, as Christians, we are throwing away one of our most powerful evangelistic weapons. God offers to sinful, miserable human beings an eternity of unimaginable happiness. What a stupendously glorious possibility!”6Ibid., 68.
This should both encourage us to evangelize and also help us to find peace in the blessings and trials of life. We have been saved from the wrath to come. What amazing and gracious peace that should give us. It is peace that should drive us to tell people the Gospel.
Heaven and Hell are, therefore, vastly practical doctrines. What we believe about them now will impact our eternity. Knowing this, it is vital we get them right. To that end, I encourage readers of this article to get a copy of Donnelly’s book and find the way forward to a biblical understanding of these doctrines. The benefits will be great for your soul.