Summary: A look at heaven and hell
Today, I’m going to be talking about heaven. A man died and went to heaven. St. Peter asked him, “Why should I let you into heaven?” The guy said, “Well, I tried to help other people.” “Can you give me an example?”
“Sure. Once I was in a roadside diner and a group of Hell’s Angels were in there bothering a little old lady. They had knives and guns and were scaring everyone in the place. So I stepped up to the leader and spun him around and punched him the face and said, ‘Hey! Why don’t you leave that little lady alone? And while you’re at it, you and your filthy friends clear out of here and get on your bikes and ride away.” “Wow, that was pretty brave, when did that happen?” “About five minutes ago!” There are a lot of jokes about heaven but most of them are certainly not based on reality, and they can be misleading. For instance, there’s nothing in the Bible that teaches St. Peter is going to meet people at the Pearly Gates and admit them into heaven. Peter can’t get you into heaven— only Jesus can—and that’s no joke.
Americans are fascinated with the idea of heaven; they just don’t know what the Bible teaches about heaven and how to get there. According to a Pew Research Poll 74% of Americans believe in heaven, and 54% believe if they do enough good deeds they can earn entrance into heaven after they die. But only 39% of Americans believe in hell. The Apostle Paul certainly believed in heaven and hell, and in an amazing passage of scripture before us today, he makes a claim that he once experienced a vision of visiting of heaven. Read 2 Corinthians 12:1-7.
Was Paul talking about himself? If he is, why does he refer to himself in the third person when he says, “I know a man in Christ who was caught up to the third heaven?” It was a common practice for Jewish rabbis to use the third person when talking about themselves. Jesus referred to Himself many times like this. For instance in Luke 19:10 He said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” We know for sure Paul is talking about himself because he says, “to keep ME from becoming conceited because of these visions.”
The next question we must answer is, “What is the third heaven?” You’ve probably heard of the “seventh heaven” but that phrase never appears in the Bible. Jewish Kabala says there are seven levels of heaven and Islam also teaches there are seven levels of heaven. But the phrase “seventh heaven” never appears in the Bible. Instead the Bible teaches there are three heavens. Both the Hebrew word for heaven, shamayim and the Greek word ouranos describe three different realms.
The first heaven is the atmosphere around the earth. For instance, the Bible says, “The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 28:12) The first heaven is the atmosphere where the birds fly and where rain forms and falls. The second heaven is outer space. For instance, when God made His promise to Abraham He said, “‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” (Genesis 15:5) The third heaven Paul mentions is the dwelling place of God (Paradise). This is the most common use of the word “heaven.” For instance we read these words about Stephen when he was being stoned, “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” (Acts 7:55-56) Based upon Stephen’s vision, paradise isn’t located on some distant planet. It seems to be another dimension that is nearby, perhaps even superimposed on this visible world. Only certain people at certain times are allowed to see it.
This experience of visiting paradise had such a profound effect on Paul that it changed his life. Why do you think Paul was so passionate about preaching the good news of Jesus Christ? He knew there was a torturous hell to be avoided and a tremendous heaven to be gained. That’s what kept him going in the face of tremendous opposition. That’s why when he was in prison facing execution he could say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain!” (Philippians 1:21) He had seen heaven and he was excited about going there!