Your Marriage Gives A Glimpse Into Eternity: Is It Heaven or Hell?

I had the privilege of officiating the wedding of Gettysburg College alumni last weekend. Revelation 21:1-8 has become my favorite passage for marriage ceremonies because it gives a vision of the greatest wedding of all time — God’s. In heaven, Jesus will take His bride (the church) as his own and they will live happily ever after. This passage at the end of the Bible hits all five senses as it compares the mysteries of eternity to marriage .

  1. Sight: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and . . . I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:1-2) In heaven, God’s people will be like “a bride adorned for her husband!” Is there anything more beautiful? Consider the hope this offers those ashamed of their flaws and failures — to be seen as supremely beautiful by God!
  2. Sound: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.’” (Rev. 21:3) These are the most anticipated words in the whole Bible. Before that great wedding day, we enjoy visits from God, messages from God, and walks with God — engagement, but not marriage. But starting that day, all boundaries will be removed. We will share one home and finally get to enjoy full, intimate access with the one for whom we were made! Consider the hope this offers those who are alone and forgotten.
  3. Touch“He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 21:4) Notice the tenderness of the divine touch. In heaven, God will wipe away all tears. Verse four continues, “death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” If there is no mourning, what tears remain for God to wipe away? I think these are wedding tears. The kind you shed when you look at your beloved and realize “I don’t deserve you, but I am so thankful you are mine!” Before heaven, we share lonely and painful tears. In heaven, we will share tears that result from laughing until you cry and God will be right there: laughing, smiling, and pulling us close to gently wipe away every happy tear! Consider the hope this gives those who presently drench their pillow with bitter tears.
  4. Taste“I am making all things new… It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of water of life without payment.” (Rev. 21:5-6) All things will be made new as we drink from the spring of life, without payment! “It is done” echoes the words Jesus cried from the cross. We feast for free because God already paid the bill for the wedding banquet. Savor the feast — living water, a new earth… resurrected bodies! Only God can afford such a lavish spread. Consider the hope this offers to those who, after tasting all this world offers, remain thirsty for more!
  5. Smell – God’s wedding banquet delights four of our five senses, but God reserves the sense of smell to warn us of an alternate reality. Hell will be God’s final divorce from covenant breakers. “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.” (Rev. 21:8) Burning sulfur tops the list of terrible odors. The warning is clear. Hell, like divorce, stinks! All those who choose separation from God – through covenant breaking – will eventually be granted their divorce.

People mock the idea of hell the same way newlyweds mock the idea of divorce. They think they are too good for it. They believe their hearts are too pure and their love is too strong. While such thinking appears honorable and optimistic, it is actually quite naïve. We are all capable of turning heaven into hell, through covenant breaking – with God or with our earthly spouse. The relational principles that govern present reality reflect the ones that govern ultimate reality. A healthy marriage, like a right relationship with God, is heaven on earth. But a sick marriage, like a broken relationship with God, is a living hell. Covenant breaking always creates a living hell – in this world, and the next – apart from God’s intervening grace.

So, take warning. Let the mere scent of hell snap you awake like smelling salts. Recognize the stench of: faithlessness, sexual immorality, idolatry and lies. Turn back to your beloved (both God and your spouse) in repentance, humility, and love.

For those struggling in marriage, you will find endurance as you first realize what Jesus has done for you. As covenant breakers, you and your spouse are bigger sinners than you both realize. But, at the same time, you are also more deeply loved than you can imagine. Jesus Christ died for you and your spouse while you were still sinners. (Romans 5:8) Your heavenly spouse entered the hell you created for him. He tolerated its stench and absorbed its pain so that you could delight in the undeserved benefits he provides.

So, take hope! God’s love can transform any marriage, even ones that reek with the stench of hell. Lean on your divine spouse, Jesus Christ, who absorbed hell and offered heaven in return. Only then will you have strength to absorb the living hell that your earthly spouse sometimes drags you through, and discover the miraculous love that empowers you to offer heaven in return.

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Find Hope for Your Marriage

Revelation 21:1-8 pictures the greatest wedding of all time — God’s wedding. It takes place in the capital city of the new earth. I use this passage when officiating weddings because the bride and groom need a sober vision for marriage and experienced guests often need a hopeful vision.

Beautiful weddings are a sensual experience, touching all five senses. God’s wedding will be no different.

  1. See: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and…I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (21:1) Is there anything more beautiful than a bride on her wedding day? Not from the groom’s perspective! The groom busts with joyful anticipation as he gazes upon her beauty. She has adorned herself for him — not the groomsmen, nor even the guests. God looks at His bride with the same delighted anticipation. He gazes at the most beautiful bride in the world — sinners transformed by love and grace.
  2. Hear“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” (21.3) Finally, the Father grants the bride (Christians) and groom (Jesus) intimate access to each other. During engagement boundaries exist. The bride is allowed to enjoy messages from God, walks with God and even visits from God. But on the wedding day, the Father will loudly proclaim that the bride may finally dwell with Jesus forever. Their access to each other will be full and forever. What a pleasant sounding proclamation.
  3. Touch“He will wipe every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (21.4) On this broken earth we shed lonely, painful tears. But in heaven, there will be no more sad tears. Wedding day tears will replace them. Precious tears will well up from gazing upon our beloved because we will realize we don’t deserve any of what we’re receiving. In heaven, Jesus will pull our face close to His and gently wipe away every tear that leaks with the joy of laughter.
  4. Taste: “It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of water of life without payment.” (21:6) Life in this lonely and harsh world leaves us thirsting for more. In heaven, our thirst will be satisfied with the best God has to offer — the spring of life. Even better, we will receive it without paying! Like a wedding, we will feast for free because someone else has already paid for the banquet. He who sits on the throne will say, “It is done.” Everything has been taken care of. God himself has paid the bill! Only an eternal and infinite God could afford such extravagance. He will lavish it upon Jesus, and His bride — a wedding gift that’s merely the deposit of a bigger inheritance.
  5. Smell“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8) Burning sulfur is the worst smell — outranking dead bodies, sewer gas and wet dog. John reserves the last of the five senses to describe hell — the great divorce from God. When officiating weddings, it is tempting to skip this verse. But skipping would make my description of marriage unbelievable, especially in the ears of experienced people. Verse eight keeps it real. The list of sins span the gamut, but they have one thing in common — covenant breaking (cowards, faithless people, the sexually immoral, etc). People mock the idea of hell for the same reason newlyweds mock the idea of divorce. They think they’re too good for it. Their love is too strong. They refuse to entertain the possibility that their marriage could one day become a living hell. But when tested in life, people are more than capable of turning the heaven of their wedding day into a living hell.

Because we are sinners our marriage has the seeds of hell within it. But in Christ our marriage will also have the seeds of heaven in it. Your marriage will increasingly look like heaven or hell over the passing years! Let the mere scent of hell (covenant breaking) snap you awake like smelling salts and turn you back to your spouse in humility and love.

Hope for marriage comes as we recognize Jesus’ perseverance to endure hell for His bride and offer heaven in return. As you embrace your eternal spouse, Jesus Christ, you will be able to absorb the hell your earthly spouse sometimes drags you into and offer them heaven in return. It will feel like death, but as you carry your cross, Jesus will raise you to a new, heavenly love for your spouse. Then the gates of hell will come crashing down in your marriage as you grant forgiveness, offer compassion, speak encouragement and serve patiently.

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How can you hope in a God who would send people to Hell?

13482833454_7“So you actually believe God sends people to Hell!” one student commented during a spiritual discussion group I facilitated on campus. He meant to ridicule another student for saying she believed Hell was real. After several others shared their opinion he reasserted, “I don’t understand how anyone can place their hope in a God who would send people to Hell?”

“What do you believe Hell is?” I asked.

He believed hell was a dangerous idea used to control people. He thought it was unjust because the punishment exceeded the crime which was usually committed in ignorance. He said it was unloving because people were treated without dignity. He mixed his argument with absurd images of Hell portrayed in media and concluded the doctrine of hell belonged to humanity’s primitive past.

While this student didn’t respect organized religion, he still respected Jesus.  So we looked at Luke 16 to see what Jesus said about Hell. What he discovered challenged his assumptions.

In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus contrasted two men: Lazarus and a rich man.  During his life, the rich man had everything; designer clothes, wealth, status, and comfort.  But Lazarus begged daily for food at the rich man’s gate while dogs licked his sores.  Both men eventually died.  The rich man was buried.  Dignitaries likely attended his funeral. Jesus mentioned no burial for Lazarus.  The nauseating implication was that the same dogs that licked Lazarus’ sores consumed his body. Lazarus was dishonored. He couldn’t get any lower. However, the rich man was on top and honored continuously.  Seemingly the only thing Lazarus had over the rich man was a name. (Lazarus, the Greek version of Eleazar, means “God is my help“).  But some commentators disagree and argue that “Rich Man” was not merely a description but actually the name Jesus used to refer to him. “Rich Man” was his true identity. In other words his riches, not God, gave his life ultimate meaning.

However, after death things flip upside down. Now Lazarus was on top.  He sat at the place of honor at Abraham’s side.  The Rich Man sat far away in dishonor.  In the agony of hell, the Rich Man called out for pity.

To accurately understand what’s happening, you must slow down and read Jesus’ words very carefully.  When you do, you will notice several things that contradict people’s assumptions about Hell.

  1. Contrary to popular belief, the “Rich Man” never asked to get out of hell.  Instead he attempted to pull Lazarus into his hell.
  2. In hell the “Rich Man” had lost all status but lived in denial of that new reality. He still treated Lazarus like a servant who should be sent to relieve his thirst.  Like an addict, the Rich Man clung to his illusion even when it yielded no satisfaction. He refused to relinquish control even after he’d lost all power.
  3. The chasm between heaven and hell is uncrossable, but not due to distance.  Abraham had a conversation with the Rich Man, but could not connect to him.  Jesus’ picture of hell was unyielding stubbornness that results in impenetrable isolation.
  4. The rich man never asked for forgiveness because he never admitted he had done anything that required forgiveness. He defended his innocence by arguing that Abraham needed to send Lazarus to his living brothers to give them fair warning — something he believed he had been denied. Abraham refused and reminded him that Moses and the prophets gave everyone fair warning.  In the story, Jesus exposed the convenient lies those in hell continue to tell themselves.
  5. Abraham rebuked the Rich Man saying, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. The issue is stubborn hearts, not ignorant minds.  Ironically, after telling this story, Jesus raised another Lazarus from the dead and it only provoked greater hostility (see John 11). But the greatest irony would be Jesus’ own resurrection.

Contrary to popular belief hell is not excessive punishment for a crime committed in ignorance. God simply gives people what they demand — a life on their own, apart from Him. Since the main Biblical metaphor for heaven is “a wedding” between God and His people; it’s appropriate to think of hell as “the great divorce”.

I asked my skeptical friend, “If God finally grants a divorce to those who’ve demanded it their whole lives, does he dishonor them? Does he prove to be unreasonable, unloving or untrustworthy?”

“I need to rethink things.”  he admitted. “But I still think God should comfort them!”

Another student didn’t miss a beat. “But what if they don’t want God’s comfort? What if they insist that their comfort comes from elsewhere?” She paused then continued, “It would be like an alcoholic whose thirst grows unquenchable simply because alcohol cannot quench it. That’s what happened to the Rich Man.  Riches were his god, so he refused comfort from the only one who could give it.”

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