Imagine Heaven: What About Hell? by John Burke

Based on the book by John Burke, we continued our series called Imagine Heaven at Gateway Church in Austin!

Work through the Next Steps for this message with your family or in a small group.

You can listen to the message I shared at Gateway South Here:

You can watch the message and interviews from John Burke here:

Here are some notes from the message we shared:

On planet earth, we experience a small taste of heaven – love, joy, goodness, beauty, creativity, compassion, life together, but we also experience a small taste of hell – deception, abuse, alienation, dishonesty, divorce, anger, murder, war. We live between Heaven and Hell. But Why?

Consider the following six misperceptions on the issue of hell.

1. What explains how a loving God could allow so much evil and suffering on this earth? 

Many people think hell is eternal punishment for finite sins. I don’t think that’s what is happening. We are not temporal creatures given eternal consequences, we are eternal creatures given temporal chance after chance after chance to choose God. 

Temporary pain and suffering at times are necessary to save us from something much worse.  Pain and suffering can help us turn to God.

Jesus taught that hell is just as real as heaven, he spoke of an outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth, he spoke of a pit, and a fiery place – levels of a world turned away from God. Jesus made it clear that God doesn’t want any human going there.

Studies show that positive Near Death Experiences are not often reported because people fear being labeled crazy. So imagine how under-reported hellish NDEs would be?! Despite this, 23% of all reported NDEs are negative or hellish in nature.

Dutch researcher Dr. Pim van Lommel summarizes hellish NDEs: “To their horror, they sometimes find themselves pulled even deeper into the profound darkness. The NDE ends in this scary atmosphere. . . .  Such a terrifying NDE usually produces long-lasting emotional trauma…The exact number of people who experience such a frightening NDE is unknown because they often keep quiet out of shame and guilt.”

The reason some who experience hellish NDEs that include Jesus rescuing them is because they could still choose. They hadn’t crossed that boundary into eternity. They all came back. They were near death experiences rather than dying and crossing forever into eternity.

God allows pain and suffering as a merciful warning.

2. Why would anyone end up in hell?

Jesus said:

“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light….”
–  John 3:19-21

Oxford scholar C. S. Lewis, an atheist turned believer, said that God does not send anybody to hell:

“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked from the inside.” 

Erwin McManus explains:

“God is for you! The reality of hell is not a statement that God is against you. God isn’t dying to put us in hell. He died to keep you out of it! Hell is not a declaration that God does not love us. Hell is a declaration of a God who will not force us to love him.”

God loves us like no other. Jesus explained in Matthew 25 that hell was not created for people—but for the devil and his angels. They had a free will, we have a free will. God created both species to love God and experience his love and goodness forever. Angels made an eternal choice, so a 2nd chance is impossible. We’ve made the same choice, but we get a 2nd, 3rd, lifetime of chances to turn back to God.

God is giving us a way to be restored eternally to Him, now. Scripture explains:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God freely and graciously declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. – Romans 3:23-26

All the world’s religions basically say the same things about morality, but what does this teach us? We’ve all sinned! No one perfectly keeps the 8 fold path of Buddhism, the 5 pillars of Islam, the 10 commandments. We don’t even keep our own moral laws! Ever swore you’d never, but you did?

Yet God in his love and mercy paid His own price for justice, so He would be just in taking back all people who realize they need forgiveness and want God to be God of their lives. Because of Christ’s payment, God has removed every barrier between us and him, except our pride. He won’t force us to love or accept his gift, because love must be free.

The Scriptures teach there are many fallen angels—demonic spiritual beings who followed Lucifer. They are void of the love of God; they are consumed with their own desires. They lie to us about God and the path to life.

“You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. 32 And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… [Lucifer] has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. – John 8:31-44

This is why God tells us not to try to contact the dead, or seek out of body experiences, or Spirit guides—because Satan can masquerade as an angel of Light—so you are opening yourself up to a spiritual world that can deceive you.

Should the living seek guidance from the dead? Look to God’s instructions and teachings! People who contradict his word are completely in the dark.
– Isaiah 8:19-20

Evil seeks to whisper lies and deceive.

3. What about the people who have never heard of Jesus?

We hear lies that can effectively keep us from trusting God. The irony is that God loves people we don’t know enough to die for them, so why do we think God would care less about them than we do?

Truth is, we don’t know how God deals with people who have never heard the name of Jesus, but we can entrust others to God.

  • Jesus said, “it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish” Matthew 18:14 
  • I don’t take pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the LORD. “So repent, so you may live! – Ezekiel 18:32
  • The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9

So don’t reject Jesus because you’re worried about others. We know there will be people from every tribe and language in Heaven so don’t try to judge God—seek Him.

4. Why doesn’t God just make it so everyone goes to Heaven?

Because Love requires a free will. What would God do with Hitler, or anyone who does not want to submit to God’s rule? Force him? Take away his free will? But he’d be a slave, a prisoner in Heaven, not a loving child. If left with free will, he would chose eternally his will over God’s, and he’d be cast out just like the angels. God knows all this, and this earth is perfectly suited to shape us into eternally free, loving children.

Through earth’s sufferings, God is birthing eternally free children, and teaching the Angels, so all will forever choose to love him. That’s why Jesus still has the marks in Heaven. Angels and Humans all need to remember forever.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, where you’ve been, God’s grace will forgive anyone of anything. You don’t have jump through religious hoops, get your act together, or prove you’re worthy—He loves you more than you can imagine already. He wants you to know you’re eternally secure with him, and then He wants to lead you to truly make a difference by loving God and letting Him teach you to love others sacrificially. He promises to eternally reward a life well lived.

5. How can it be heaven if people I love aren’t there?

We can entrust those we’ve lost to a loving and merciful God.

Many of us have family who grew up in a time when authenticity and personal matters were kept private. We don’t know what happened in their hearts as a child, in the midst of a crisis in life, or even in their last moments on earth. How tragic would it be if we rejected God because we fear a family member is not in heaven when all along he or she is waiting for us there!

We need to allow God to heal us and bring His healing to our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors while we are with them.

6. Heaven sounds so amazing and hell so horrible, how can I know I am truly rescued?

We try to complicate something that is so simple. We need God. He came to rescue us by dying on the cross, and He rose from the dead offering His Spirit to all who follow Him.

Say “yes” to what Jesus did on the cross. Ask Him for forgiveness. Ask Him to transform you so that you can experience more of Him – more heaven on earth. Out of gratitude seek to live a new life with His help. Out of gratitude and love, seek to help others follow Him through loving, serving, and sharing with them.

Consider these verses:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9

Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. – Colossians 2:6-7

We cannot lose, what we did not earn!

With his help, we can experience the peace of heaven in spite of our hellish circumstances in this broken world. We can see Jesus’ prayer answered through our lives that “God’s Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.”


Showing 11 comments
  • Gary


    Interesting article. I have a couple of questions:

    1. If God knew that Adam and Eve would use their free will to sin, thereby condemning themselves and every one of their descendants to lives of pain, disease, hard work, war, rape, murder, and in many cases, an agonizing death, AND, for most people (“narrow is the road and few there are…”) an eternity in Hell…why then did he go ahead and create us? Wouldn’t it have been in the best interest of the overwhelming majority of humans NOT to have been created?

    2. According to traditional Christian teaching, humans are not eternal as God is eternal. We only began to exist (as a soul) at our conception. So we may have a free will for, on average, 70 years, of our total existence, but the remaining ba-zillion years will be spent WITHOUT a free will (no one will have the ability to choose to sin in heaven). So if God is perfectly happy with us being robots (beings without the ability to reject/disobey him) for most of our existence, why was it such a big deal for him to give us a free will for only a tiny fraction of our total existence? If having a free will is what is “fair”, and the reason for God giving us a free will is to be fair to us, then why didn’t he give us an ETERNAL free will?

    • Eric Bryant

      Hello Gary! You’ve come to the right blog post. Both are those questions are addressed in the messages shared. Feel free to watch the message from John Burke or listen to the one I shared. I would like to hear your thoughts after you’ve listened to the way we answered your questions.

  • Gary

    I grew up in an evangelical Christian home. I prayed to Jesus at age nine to forgive me of all my sins and to be my Lord and Savior. I was told that as a child of God, a Christian, God would speak to me “in my heart” with a still, small voice and that he would “move” me and “lead” me to do his will. All I had to do was to pray to him and to seek righteousness.

    I never heard God once. I never felt “moved”. I never felt “led”. I felt and heard nothing.

    However, all the evangelical Christians around me were hearing God and feeling God all the time! What was up? What was I (it had to be my fault, after all) doing wrong?? So I prayed harder. I repented of my sins harder. I repented of sins I wasn’t even aware of just to be sure. But nothing.

    In my teens, I came to a point in my life where I seriously questioned if I was a Christian. I must not be if God is not speaking to me. So I prayed to Jesus again: “Lord, PLEASE save me. PLEASE be my Lord and Savior. I commit my life; everything I am and have to you. PLEASE speak to me.”


    In my mid-twenties, I finally decided that either there was some sin that I was harboring in my heart (about which I was completely unaware), or, God just didn’t want me. So I left the Church. Now that I am older, I have had time to look at the evidence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it was never me…it was always God. Here is the evidence I found:

    Disease and Illness: Christians have the same rates of disease and illness as non-Christians. Jesus doesn’t seem to answer prayers for healing. The percentage of non-Christians, including atheists, who recover from illness is the same as that of Christians. Christians who claim that they were healed due to prayer cannot prove that their healing was not due to some other factor, such as the medication that their doctor was giving them or pure coincidence. If Jesus really heals people due to prayer, Christians should have a much higher healing rate. They don’t.

    Accident rates: Christians have just as many accidents as non-Christians. There is no evidence that Jesus provides any better protection for Christians behind the wheel than non-Christians, including atheists. So asking Jesus to keep you and your family safe on your road trip doesn’t seem to be of any benefit.

    Job promotion: Is there any evidence that Christians are promoted in their jobs more often than non-Christians? I doubt it. Praying to Jesus to give you that promotion or that raise that your family really and truly needs doesn’t seem to work.

    Food poisoning: Most Christians pray before every meal for God to bless their food. However, no study I am aware of indicates that Christians have fewer incidences of food poisoning or that Christians are healthier than non-Christians. Jesus doesn’t seem to respond to prayers for “blessing” food.

    Child Safety: This is a big one for most Christian parents. We pray to Jesus to keep our children safe. Studies, however, demonstrate that the rate of accidents, injuries, disease, and death among the children of Christians is no different than the rates for the children of non-Christians. Praying to Jesus to keep your children safe is not effective.

    But wait a minute! Maybe it isn’t Jesus will that Christians have lower accident rates, lower death rates, higher job promotion rates, lower food poisoning rates, or higher child safety rates! Well, that might be true. But you have to wonder, why do Christians bother praying for these things if God isn’t going to answer these prayers at a rate any higher than pure chance??

    But here is the nail in the coffin for the question of whether or not prayer works: Every evangelical Christian I know believes that God has a life-mate chosen for him or her, and that if each individual (true) Christian will sincerely pray to God and sincerely seek righteousness in his or her life, God will bring that special “one” to them. But here’s the problem: Christians, and even evangelical Christians, have the same divorce rate as non-Christians!! Jesus just doesn’t seem interested in answering prayers regarding choosing a life mate!


    How could it be Jesus’ will for Christians to marry the wrong person, when they had so sincerely prayed to God to lead them to “the one”? Why didn’t Jesus lead them to someone whom they would never stop loving and never want to divorce? How could it be Jesus’ will for Christian children to live in broken homes, without both their father and their mother? Now maybe you will say that it is not God’s will for Christians to divorce; that God did lead them to “the one”; that they should just stick it out and make the marriage work. But are we really to believe that the high divorce rate among evangelical Christians, who are some of the most devout people you will ever meet, is because they didn’t sincerely pray to God to save their marriages?? Come on.

    Prayer doesn’t work, folks. The evidence is overwhelming. All the Christians around you who tell you that God speaks to them, moves them, and leads them, are simply on an emotional rush…listening to the still, small voice of…themselves!

    • Eric Bryant

      Thanks for sharing your story. I can see how you came to your conclusion. A common misunderstanding is that God is like Santa Claus or a genie in a bottle. Unfortunately, there are many Christians who perpetuate this sort of thinking.

      Prayer has been most powerful in my life when I allowed God to shape my desires rather than when I told God what I wanted Him to do.

      We live in a broken world where we catch glimpses of the best of humanity and the worst of humanity as a result of the freedom we have. For some, the best of humanity might help them trust in the God who created us in His image. If you only look at the circumstances of people for proof of God or proof there is no God, you are missing so much more.

      If you have an open mind, I would be happy to send you a copy of a couple of books written for those who are seeking to discover if there is a God. One of those books would be Imagine Heaven by John Burke. If so, just let me know your mailing address by emailing me at

      • Gary

        Eric, have you ever taken a close look at the very foundation of your Christian belief system to see if it is just, good, and moral?

        Imagine your outrage if you were to hear the following news report:

        An armed police officer stood by and watched as a group of men brutally attacked, tortured, sexually assaulted, and then murdered a five year old girl. When the officer was asked why he stood by and did nothing while this horrific crime was committed, he responded, “She deserved it.”

        Would any decent human being accept this police officer’s justification for his inaction in preventing this terrible injustice? No. In fact, most decent people would want the officer charged as an accomplice to the assault and murder.

        So why do Christians let Jesus off the hook for the exact same crime?

        If the Christian belief system is true, for thousands of years, little children have been dying horrific deaths while Jesus sits on his throne in heaven, watching it all happen, but doing absolutely nothing to stop their suffering. Every day at least one small child drowns. Every day at least one small child dies in a fire. Every day at least one small child is blown to pieces in a war. Every day at least one small child dies of starvation or thirst. Every day at least one small child dies of disease. Every day at least one small child is beaten and abused. Every day at least one small child is sexually molested. And every day at least one small child is brutally murdered.

        And every day, Jesus does nothing…time, after time, after time.

        Jesus is either helpless and therefore not God, or Jesus is a sick, sadistic monster, dear Christian.

        While you joyously give thanks every evening to your loving Jesus for blessing your food and keeping your family safe, little children all over the world are suffering horrific deaths. The stark truth is, Christians, if Christianity is true, Jesus is an accomplice to some of the most brutal crimes known to mankind. How in the world can you worship such a being?

        • Eric Bryant

          Hello Gary,

          I appreciate your willingness to continue the conversation.

          Let me start by saying: I am so sorry for whatever has happened in your life or in the lives of those you care for that has caused so much pain. Often tragedy sends us towards God or away from God. Many atheists are actually angry at the God they don’t believe exists as a result of the pain they’ve experienced in life.

          By the way, it is absolutely ok to be angry at God. I would encourage you to be honest with God and pray to God with whatever is on your heart. He is not afraid of our doubts or anger or pain. He wants to help us through the pain and even be there for us. I know that might sound odd to you, but I would encourage you to read Psalm 13 where David prays a very angry prayer and then pray whatever is on your heart to God. Ask him “why?” and then ask him: “what now?” If you have an open heart and open mind, you might be surprised with how God answers your prayers.

          Our perspective as humanity is so skewed. In our eyes there is nothing more tragic than a child dying. To be sure, it is tragic. I have had to help with far too many funerals for infants and little ones. Yet those who have lost little ones who turn to God have described a peace in the midst of such tragic loss that surpasses understanding.

          Consider Psalm 116:15 which says: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”

          These little ones never had to suffer in our broken world. They went straight to the presence of God in heaven.

          One day, this may make sense to us. For now, our perspective is completely limited.

          In terms of unanswered prayers, we don’t know how God has protected us. In other words, we have no idea of the horrible things that we never experienced as a result of God’s protection.

          My offer still stands, if you have an open heart and open mind, let me know your address, and I would be happy to send you some resources to help in your journey.

          • Gary

            “These little ones never had to suffer in our broken world. They went straight to the presence of God in heaven.”

            How can you possibly say this, Eric? Tell that to a little girl who has been brutally tortured, sexually assaulted, and then murdered. If Jesus exists and is God as you say he is, and sat on his throne in heaven and did nothing to prevent this poor child’s suffering, he is a sick, sadistic monster, Eric. If you don’t see that, my friend, you have been terribly brainwashed.

          • Ruth

            I think that the peace and comfort Christians feel after losing a child comes from believing that their child is experiencing joy and peace with God. What about the parent whose child is suffering from abuse here on earth and they can’t do anything about it? Peace and comfort does not come no matter how hard you pray. Just excruciating pain. It’s the same scenario as having an adult child being held hostage somewhere and you know for a fact that they are being tortured. Because they don’t die you can’t feel the peace of knowing they are no longer surferring. Every second of every single day is torturous. No matter how hard you pray, you will never feel joy or peace unless you cease to care about and love your child, and personally speaking, I could never do that. So why does God let this continue on day after day, year after year, as you constantly cry out to him? It doesn’t feel like God is near, or even cares. There is no closure. There is no joy or peace. It’s like your living in hell.

          • Eric Bryant

            You are right. This broken world absolutely can be a living hell. For me I have found taking even the worst moments to God and to community can bring healing. I have seen this true even for those in the worst of circumstances. In fact, this morning a friend shared about going through what you just described and how all these years later he has found healing even in the midst of the scars that still remain.

            Let me encourage you and anyone else who is overwhelmed with evil: we have nothing to lose in reaching out to God and those who follow Jesus – not the religious but those who have a genuine and vibrant relationship with God.

            Thanks for sharing, Gary and Ruth.

  • LAS

    I followed these comments with great interest. I just want to encourage all who are wondering about God’s existence and goodness to keep trying him out, and to bring their feeling and questions to him. I have been a follower of Jesus since my college, 30 years ago. I struggled through all these questions at that time, and decided that God was good, and could be trusted. In the last several years I have gone through some very difficult circumstances, that have made me go back and think about some very foundational issues. Is God really there, and is he truly working for good in all these terrible situations. Every time I go down this train of thought, it’s logic that brings me back. It’s hard to see how a good God could allow so much pain. But what’s more impossible to imagine is why, if there is no God or no eternal existence, why would humans care about so passionately about justice, love and beauty. I could just say all those things don’t matter, but I can’t. The fact I feel so strongly that pain, hate, and injustice are wrong indicate that there is more than a material world. There’s got to be a god behind it. How could a soley material universe produce beings that care so much about these values. So that leads me back to the fact that God must care about these things and is bringing good out it all despite all the appearances to the contrary. Just my thinking, wish I could say it more clearly. Tim Keller of rRedeemer Presbyterian puts it much more clearly. You might check out his podcasts. Laurie.

    • Eric Bryant

      Thanks for sharing your story and great ideas for those needing a next step!

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