What images come to mind when you think of Heaven? Do you think of a mode of life that is exciting and fulfilling? Or do the words of the epitaph of one dear soul come nearer to hitting the mark?
Weep not for me, friend, tho' death do us sever, I am going to do nothing forever and ever. (1)
Does Heaven awaken for you a sense of anticipation, or does it evoke visions of monotonous and boring inactivity?
What is Heaven really like? Is Heaven even something we should spend much time thinking about? Or should we relegate thoughts of Heaven to the dusty corners of our mind, lest we render ourselves of little earthly good?
In this essay we want to focus on what the Bible teaches about Heaven, and how these teachings should impact the way we live. We will note some of the foundational truths about Heaven revealed in Scripture.
We know first of all that Heaven is the spiritual realm in which the glory of God's presence is manifest, and in which dwell the angels of God, and all believers who have departed this world (Heb. 12:22-24). The few glimpses of Heaven given in Scripture reveal a pervading sense of the holiness of God (Isa. 6; Rev. 4-5), which had an alarming and overwhelming impact on those who were granted such visions (Isa. 6; Dan. 7:9-28). Isaiah, when he saw the Lord sitting on His throne, said, "Woe is me . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts."
We are also informed that it is a place which human words are inadequate to fully describe. Ezekiel could only describe what the glory of Heaven was "like" or "resembles" (Ezek. 1). In reporting on his apparent visit to heaven, the apostle Paul said that he "heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak" (2 Cor. 12:4). What he saw was not only impermissible but impossible to describe in human terms! Heaven is certainly among those things he described elsewhere as "things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered into the heart of man" (1 Cor. 2:9)! No wonder Paul says in another place that we shall be "astonished" when we see the Lord at His coming in glory (2 Thess. 1:10)!
Third, we know that for those who belong to Christ, Heaven is their immediate destination after death. To the thief on the cross, Jesus said, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Paul said that "to be absent from the body (is to be) at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8), and that should he depart this world, he would "be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23).
Many wonder if in Heaven we will still be subject to time. But there is really no reason to believe we will not be. To be infinite in relation to time is an attribute only God can possess. We know that Scripture speaks of "months" in Heaven (Rev. 22:2) and even "ages" to come (Eph. 2:7). Certainly also, the music which will be sung in Heaven requires a temporal mode of existence. It seems apparent also that in Heaven we will be cognizant, to some degree, of what is transpiring on earth. When Moses and Elijah met the Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration, it's recorded that they discussed Jesus' coming return to glory (Luke 9:30-31). And during the coming tribulation period we are told that the saints in Heaven will be anxiously awaiting the completion of God's purposes on earth (Rev. 6:10-11). Until His kingdom comes, even in Heaven the question will be asked, "How long, O Lord?" (as these saints are recorded as imploring).
Oswald Sanders said: "God has not told us all we'd like to know, but He has told us all we need to know" about Heaven (2). So, let's look closer now at more of what the Bible does tell us about existence in heaven.
Mark Twain once sarcastically asserted that in Heaven, for twelve hours every day we will all sing one hymn over and over again.(3) Hardly an inviting thought! The Bible, however, paints a much different picture of what life in Heaven will be like. Consider just a few of Heaven's most significant characteristics.
First, we know that our transition to heaven will result in a change in our spiritual nature. Paul spoke of "the hope of righteousness" for which we wait (Gal. 5:5); the expectation of being made wholly righteous. In Romans chapter 7 he spoke of being released from the internal struggle against indwelling sin, through being set free from our mortal body (Rom. 7:23-24). John said that when Jesus appears, "we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is" (1 John 3:2). Even now, we are told that as we behold "the glory of the Lord" we are gradually transformed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18). One day we will see Him "just as He is." And when we do, there will be something about our vision of Him that will purify our hearts from all sin and bond us eternally to Him! One result of this transformation will be the perfecting of our relationships with one another. On earth, even among the most mature of us, our relationships are hindered by barriers created by fear, pride, jealousy, and shame. But the Bible says that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). When we fully apprehend the perfect love which God has for us, and are cleansed from the sin that presently indwells us, our relationships with one another will finally be what God intended them to be.
Second, in Heaven our comprehension of the nature of God will be greatly expanded. The apostle Paul says that "though now we see through a glass darkly," then we shall "see face to face" and "shall know fully, as we are known" (1 Cor. 13:12). It is this knowledge I am convinced that will move us to spontaneously join the heavenly chorus in singing hymns of praise to Almighty God. From the few glimpses of heavenly worship we are granted in Scripture, we learn that our praise of God will focus both on who He is--the eternal, holy, almighty God (cf. Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8)-- and on what He has done (Rev. 4:11; 5:9-14). If our worship of God is muted now, it is at least partially because we do not yet fully comprehend the greatness of His glory and the awesomeness of His creative and redemptive work. But in Heaven we will gain much clearer insight into the wisdom of God displayed in the intricacies of His creation, and of His marvelous purposes manifest in His redeeming work. Some have wondered how we could be happy in heaven knowing that some of God's creatures are enduring His eternal judgment. It seems apparent, however, that in Heaven we will gain a much clearer perspective on the justice of God (cf. Rev. 18:20; 19:1-4). Perhaps the most perfect happiness of Heaven is impossible apart from some element of sorrow over the eternal loss of those who have rejected God's grace. No doubt, however, many of the mysteries of life and of God's ways in our individual lives will be more clearly understood, prompting us to join in His praise.
Finally, there is every reason to believe that there will be opportunity for growth in Heaven . . . not growth toward perfection, but growth in perfection. As a man, Jesus was indeed perfect. Yet Scripture tells us that He "grew in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and man." Scripture also tells us that one of the three virtues that will abide forever is hope (1 Cor. 13:13). And what is hope but the expectation of better and better things yet to come . . . the prospect of all for whom Heaven is our eternal home!
George Bernard Shaw one said, "Heaven, as conventionally conceived, is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable, that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seashore" (4). The interesting thing about Shaw's statement is that he was right . . . at least when it comes to Heaven as it is "conventionally conceived!" But the Bible informs us that the life that awaits us is not only "better" than anything we could ever dream of here, or even "much better," but according to the apostle Paul, "very much better" (Phil. 1:23)! Now we want to continue our consideration of some of these "very much better" things that await us in Heaven.
First, once God's purposes for life on earth are through, our physical bodies will be resurrected to a new order of life. Philippians 3:20 tells us that the Lord Jesus himself will "transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory" (Phil. 3:21). In 1 Corinthians 15, the relationship between our present mortal body and our future resurrection body is likened to that between a seed and the plant that comes to be when it is sown in the ground and "dies" (1 Cor. 15:35-38). When a plant rises from the soil, it brings into actuality all the potential that was packed in the seed from which it grew. When our bodies are transformed, they will possess in actuality all that we can now only dream of being capable of. Not only will our bodies be freed from illness and aging, but our capacities will be immensely expanded and transformed! Paul describes it as a body that is "spiritual, honorable, imperishable, and powerful!"
The second "very much better" thing that will await us is the creation of a new heaven and earth in which we shall live with Christ forever. Jesus referred to this transformation of the creation as "the regeneration" (Matt. 19:28) the same term used to describe the new birth of a believer. Paul described it as the time when it will be "set free from its slavery to corruption" (Rom. 8:21). In the Revelation we are told that in the new creation there will be "no more sorrow, pain or death" (Rev. 21:4). And in Isaiah's prophecy we read that the glories of the new creation will be so marvelous that "the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind" (Isa. 65:17)! Not only will the sufferings of this present life fade in comparison to the glory of this new world order (Rom. 8:18), but even the most wonderful of life's experiences will be so overshadowed by our new life that they will barely survive in our memory! When the apostle John was given a vision of life in the new creation, he was so overwhelmed that he had to be reminded to record what he was witnessing (Rev. 21:5), and to be assured twice that what he was beholding would really come to pass (Rev. 21:5; 22:6)!
And how will we occupy our time in this new order of life? The Scriptures tell us that in addition to engaging in united worship of God, we will serve (Rev. 22:3) and reign with Christ (Rev. 20:6; 22:5). The domain over which we will reign will no doubt encompass all of creation, for we're told that for Christ "all things have been created" (Col. 1:16), and that with Him we will inherit "all these things" (Rev. 21:7)! Though in many respects there will be a certain continuity between our present and future life, many tasks and occupations of the present order will no longer be needed. The enterprises in which we will engage will be totally creative and productive far more fulfilling and exciting than anything we know on earth today!
We want to focus now on the fact that there are some things about Heaven that will not be equally enjoyed by all.
Jesus on more than one occasion stated that not all who enter Heaven will enjoy its blessings to the same degree. Not that there will be any judgment or punishment for those who are heavenbound. "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). But Jesus did say that in His kingdom "many who are first shall be last, and the last first" (cf. Matt. 19:30).
The apostle John stated that it was possible for believers to enter Christ's presence "with confidence," or "to shrink away from Him in shame" (1 John 2:28). Peter wrote that it was possible for us to enter Heaven triumphantly, or in a "stumbling" fashion (2 Pet. 1:10-11). The apostle Paul said that we can either be "rewarded," or "suffer loss"; that it is possible to be "saved, yet so as through fire" (1 Cor. 3:13-15). Perhaps the "fire" referred to here is a reference to the searching gaze of the glorified Christ, whose eyes John described as "a flame of fire" (Rev. 1:14). "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10). The word for "bad" in this case refers not merely to what is "evil" but to what from God's perspective is "worthless." Not only will our "works" be evaluated, but also the very motives of our heart (1 Cor. 4:5). The Scriptures tell us that praise will come from God to every believer (1 Cor. 4:5), but for some there will be more, and for others less.
What is the nature of the reward that may be won or lost? Many passages speak of our heavenly reward in terms of the responsibility with which we will be entrusted by God when we reign with Christ in the new heaven and new earth. In Jesus' parable of the talents, He spoke of rewarding those who had been faithful by putting them "in charge of many things" in His kingdom (Matt. 25:21 23). In another place He spoke of putting some of us in places of authority over cities in His kingdom (Luke 19:17,19). To those who had stood by Him in His earthly trials, Jesus promised to place them "on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" in His future kingdom, as well as to seat them at His side at His table (Luke 22:28-30)! Not only would they be worthy of being entrusted with greater responsibility, but also capable of enjoying the closest fellowship with Christ!
In many passages heavenly rewards are likened to the "crowns" worn by victors in athletic contests. Whether literal or metaphorical, these crowns represent different aspects of our heavenly reward. The "crown of life" is promised to those who persevere under trial (James 1:12; Rev. 2:10), the "crown of righteousness" to those who long for Christ's return (2 Tim. 4:8), an "incorruptible crown" to those who exercise self control (1 Cor. 9:25), the "crown of rejoicing" to those who lead others to Christ (1 Thess. 2:19), and the "crown of glory" to those who serve unselfishly as spiritual leaders (1 Pet. 5:2-4).
The most important fact about our heavenly rewards is that they are based not on our position or ability, but on our faithfulness. Time and again Jesus told His followers that "he who is faithful in a little thing, will be faithful also in much" (Luke 16:10; 19:17).
Before we conclude, we want to think about just a few of the ways in which our life on earth should be impacted by what we believe about Heaven.
First, the hope of Heaven transforms our perspective on the disappointments and sufferings of this life. D. A. Carson was right when he wrote: "There is nothing in Scripture to encourage us to think we should always be free from the vicissitudes that plague a dying world" (5). But one thing the hope of Heaven can do is help us to put the "dark side" of life in perspective. Paul wrote: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18). The glory to come will be immeasurably greater than the depth of any sorrow we may know today!
But Scripture also tells us that our present sufferings actually play a role in preparing us for that glory to come! As the apostle put it: "For momentary, light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17). The very qualities and virtues that will fit us for Heaven are today being woven into our soul through the many afflictions of our present life . . . freeing us from the bonds of self-indulgence, creating in us a heart of compassion for others, and prodding us to draw ever closer to the One whose presence we shall enjoy for eternity to come.
Second, the hope of Heaven transforms our perspective on the true nature of success. On every side we hear the message that the "good life" consists in the accumulation of material possessions, the acquisition of power, or the enjoyment of sensual pleasure. Scripture does encourage us to enjoy the many good things of life with which we may be blessed (1 Tim. 6:17); but the hope of Heaven should remind us that this world and all that is in it is passing away, that its glory is for only a season (1 John 2:15 17), that we truly are "strangers and aliens" in this world (1 Pet. 2:11).
That's why it exhorts us to set our minds and hearts on Heaven and to seek the things that are above (Col. 3:1 3). God is urging us to turn aside from what in His eyes are "trivial pursuits" that end only in emptiness, and to devote ourselves to those ambitions that will yield fruit that will accompany us into the next world. When Jesus said to "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness," He was encouraging us to make these things our highest priority in life.
Finally, the hope of Heaven transforms our perspective on death. The Scriptures nowhere teach that as believers we are immune from or should deny the reality of the sorrow that death can bring. But in Christ, we share in His victory over death! We grieve, but we grieve not as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13), rather as those who are certain of our reunion with loved ones who have gone before, of receiving a glorious body that will never weaken or decay, of entering a wonderful new life beyond our fondest dreams, and of forever being with the Lord!
At the end of his beloved "Narnia Tales" C. S. Lewis describes the events that transpire as the characters in his story enter Heaven (6): "(T)he things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."
© 1995 Probe Ministries
1. Gilmore, John. Probing Heaven: Key Questions on the
Hereafter. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989, p.
2. Sanders, J. Oswald. Heaven Better By Far. Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1993, p. 10.
3. Sanders, p. 19.
4. Stedman, Ray C. God's Final Word: Understanding
Revelation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery House Publishers,
1991, p. 334.
5. Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord? Downers Grove, Ill.:
InterVarsity Press, 1990, p. 250.
6. Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1970,
For Further Reading:
Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord? Downers Grove, Ill.:
InterVarsity Press, 1990.
Conyers, A. J. The Eclipse of Heaven. Downers Grove, Ill.:
InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Criswell, W. A., and Paige Patterson. Heaven: Everything the
Bible Says About Heaven. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1991.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (3 vols. in 1).
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985, chapters 56, 59.
Gilmore, John. Probing Heaven: Key Questions on the
Hereafter. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989.
Graham, Billy. Death and the Life After. Dallas, Tex.: Word,
Jeremiah, James T. The Place Called Heaven. Schaumburg, Ill:
Regular Baptist Press, 1991.
Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Moody, D. L. Heaven. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995.
Oliphint, K. Scott and Ferguson, Sinclair B. If I Should Die
Before I Wake. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1995.
Sanders, J. Oswald. Heaven Better By Far. Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1993.
Stedman, Ray C. God's Final Word: Understanding Revelation.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1991.
1. Gilmore, John. Probing Heaven: Key Questions on the Hereafter. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989, p. 175.
2. Sanders, J. Oswald. Heaven Better By Far. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1993, p. 10.
3. Sanders, p. 19.
4. Stedman, Ray C. God's Final Word: Understanding Revelation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1991, p. 334.
5. Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1990, p. 250.
6. Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1970, pp. 183-184.
For Further Reading:
Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
Conyers, A. J. The Eclipse of Heaven. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Criswell, W. A., and Paige Patterson. Heaven: Everything the Bible Says About Heaven. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1991.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (3 vols. in 1). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985, chapters 56, 59.
Gilmore, John. Probing Heaven: Key Questions on the Hereafter. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989.
Graham, Billy. Death and the Life After. Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1987.
Jeremiah, James T. The Place Called Heaven. Schaumburg, Ill: Regular Baptist Press, 1991.
Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Moody, D. L. Heaven. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995.
Oliphint, K. Scott and Ferguson, Sinclair B. If I Should Die Before I Wake. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1995.
Sanders, J. Oswald. Heaven Better By Far. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1993.
Stedman, Ray C. God's Final Word: Understanding Revelation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1991.