Between the quintessential blaring light and creepy armed cherubs, popular culture presents Heaven as a mythical and ultimately undesirable place. Thankfully, Christians escape the cheesy harp and halo and instead look forward to living in a real place, with real bodies, serving a real God.
Christians sometimes use the verse, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him,” to suggest that no one can know much about heaven (1 Cor 2:9, NIV). This passage does not say “you can never understand anything about heaven,” instead it says, “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit within Christians gives them new insight into God’s great mysteries. While certain aspects of heaven are still mysterious, many others are explained in scripture.
A Real Place
Heaven is not a vague idea somewhere in the sky. The heaven Christians look forward to will be brought by Jesus when he returns. After Jesus has come back, he will bring the “new heaven and new earth” where we will spend eternity. The phrase “new heaven and new earth” comes from a passage in Revelation. John, the writer of Revelation claims:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them” (Rev 21:1-4).
After Jesus comes back, removes all of Satan’s power and rules over everything, the Christian’s new resurrected body lives on Christ’s redeemed earth. This new earth is linked and connected with God’s dwelling place. On this present earth we live with pain and self-centeredness because we lost our connection with God. But in the new heaven and new earth we can have a relationship with him totally free from sin.
Revelation 21-22 provides a picture of the end, when the relationship between God and humans is perfectly redeemed. The holy city, or ‘Jerusalem’ descends from the clouds and John describes its great walls and jewels. This will be a place of unconquerable strength and surpassing beauty. John also describes the throne of God, and from it flows a river of life that flows past the tree of life. Some believe these verses prove there will be trees and rivers, solid and familiar as we know them now. Others interpret John’s vision metaphorically, understanding the flowing river and leafing tree to represent new and abundant life.
Max Lucado’s book 3:16, The Numbers of Hope reminds Christians, “Jesus has gone to ‘prepare a place’ (John 14:2). Like hell, heaven is tangible and touchable: as real as the soil in your garden, as physical as the fruit in your orchard.” Far better than a never-ending church service, Revelation conveys a Holy City descending from above. Cities, Holy or not, contain culture, architecture, fellowship and vivacity. We get to experience perfect ‘city life’ inundated with God’s goodness and beauty.
A Real Body
Another teaching in the Bible about life after death is that we will be given new bodies. After Jesus resurrected from the dead, he was not only a spirit or a ghost, but he had a real body. When the disciples first saw him, they were afraid and thought he was a spirit. Jesus responded “Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And right after this, Jesus said he was hungry and he ate some fish (Luke 24:36-43). From this account it seems clear that we will have real functioning bodies that touch, feel and experience hunger. Although Jesus’ body functioned like a normal human body, it also had supernatural functions. Jesus was able to suddenly appear and disappear places (John 20:19) and withhold his identity (Luke 24:16). It is unclear if we will have these same supernatural qualities, but it is clear that we will be given an immortal body. 1 Corinthians 15 gives a joyous account of our bodies, that we started “perishable, but will be raised imperishable” (15:42). Our bodies will not be made of the old flesh and blood that could be killed and eventually will die, but our bodies will be made of a spiritual and unconquerable quality, so that death will no longer be able to conquer us with its disease and creeping old age.
Most people are afraid to die and can’t believe dying would be better than living.
What happens in between death and Jesus’ return?
If heaven doesn’t come until Jesus returns, some may wonder, “what happens in the meantime?” When people die right now, where do they go? Many evangelical Christians argue strongly for the view of an ‘intermediate heaven.’ This intermediate heaven would be a ‘body-less’ time in God’s presence. In other words, if I died tonight I would be in God’s presence but I would not yet have a new physical body, and I would not yet be living in the new heaven and new earth. One reason for believing this from scripture is Paul’s account in 2 Corinthians 12 when he talks about a man, probably himself, having a vision or experience of paradise. Paul says, “I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows” (2:2). Paul’s account here gives Christians a reason to believe that there is a dwelling place with God in the interim, and when Christian’s die they are immediately taken to God’s presence.
There is an alternate view held by some people that when a Christian dies there is no intermediate experience. There is simply a death, and then when Jesus comes back there is a resurrection of that body. People who take this “physicalist” view believe that there isn’t a soul or spirit to leave the body after death and experience heaven. Rather there is only the body, that body dies and again resurrects at the right time. This view seems to make sense of the phrase Paul uses that some people have “fallen asleep” as a euphemism for death. Perhaps Paul says this because Christian bodies “sleep” for a time and are resurrected at the end.
These two views are relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of God’s promise, because whichever way he chooses to do it, we will live with him in paradise. In William Shakespeare’s plays, a tragedy ends in death and a comedy ends with a wedding. In this sense, the bible is a comedy. It ends with the marriage of Christ and his bride, the perfect ending in God’s perfect plan.
Who gets to live in the New Heaven and New Earth?
Christians and many non-Christians believe in heaven. When you ask, most people would say that when they die they are going to heaven. One non-Christian friend told me, “The people who get to go to heaven are those who are ‘good.’ I believe you just know if you are good or bad.” In my interviews, non-believers overwhelmingly agreed that to go to heaven you have to be good. On one level, they are right. The accessibility of heaven hinges upon goodness. Perfection, actually. The difference is that Christians confess they can never be good enough to be saved. As such, they need a savior, Jesus Christ, to cover them. If a Christian died tonight and God asked him or her, “Why should I let you into heaven?” he or she could confidently respond “on my own, I don’t deserve heaven. But I believe the promise that Jesus covered all my failures. Because of Jesus, you should let me in.” No matter how ‘good’ we think we are on our own, goodness is not enough to save us. Jesus’ sacrifice is the only thing good enough to save us. Salvation rests in Christ alone, confessing his death and resurrection and obeying all he has commanded (Romans 10: 9-13).
“Better by Far?”
Whether we know it or not, all of our hearts long for heaven. Paul, the great follower of Jesus, claims that dying and being with Christ “would be better by far” than continuing to live on this earth (Phil 1:23). Most people are afraid to die, and cannot believe Paul thinks that dying would be better than living. Paul knows that life does not end when he dies and he looks forward to being reunited with Jesus. When heaven and earth are reunited, God promises, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).” God perfectly designed a place for his children free from this world’s diseases and heartache.
In the same way that God created Adam and Eve to rule over the earth, in the new heaven and new earth God will restore humanity’s perfect authority over the earth. We will not be bored.
In this perfectly designed realm, we will also worship God with all the nations. People from every tribe and language will worship God together. Heaven will be a place of diversity and joy, a place where there is peace and everything wrong in the world is set right. Isaiah prophesies of a time when, “The lion will lie down with the lamb”—signifying the end of death and destruction for personal gain (Isaiah 11:6). It’s so hard for us to imagine a place free from darkness, but heaven promises to be a joyful place overcome by the light of Christ.
Heaven also promises to be “better by far” because God promises to give his people work to do. Not only do we get to spend eternity with God, we also inherit land to rule over and take care of. Surprisingly, the Bible teaches that Christians receive the title “co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8) and they will “reign with him (2 Timothy 2:12).” God gives us positions of power to lovingly rule over his creation. It is unclear what kind of reigning humans will do, but the Bible promises shared power with Jesus Christ. Power and authority is often abused in this world. However, the authority we gain with Christ is loving and good. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology comments on a Christian’s allowance of authority,
all things will eventually be subject to us, under the kingship of the man Christ Jesus…this will fulfill God’s original plan to have everything in the world subject to the human beings that he had made. In this sense, then, we will ‘inherit the earth’ and reign over it as God originally intended.
Imagining God giving us the ability to reign over the earth seems unbelievable, but God gives an example of this generosity in the story of Adam and Eve. When God created humans, he commanded men and women to “fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28). In the same way that God created Adam and Eve to rule over the earth, in the new heaven and new earth God will restore humanity’s perfect authority over the earth. We will not be bored.
Living a redeemed life in resurrected bodies, on a perfect earth, free of pain and suffering, equipped with authority and activity, makes heaven incredibly desirable. After all, what human does not long for perfection? And yet, a large part of our humanity still clings to this earth. C.S. Lewis, well known author of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe displays a Christian’s desire for this present earth in the last book of his series called, The Last Battle. In this book, the children reach heaven and their friend exclaims “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” Christians will not long for heaven until they properly realize that heaven is home, the only place they will every truly belong.
How Does Heaven Apply to Daily Life?
A proper belief of heaven positively affects the way we live every day. Looking forward to heaven offers hope and encouragement. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “If only for this life we hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor 15:19). Paul claims that if Christians live with no expectation of life after death they deserve pity. Knowing that Jesus resurrected gives us confidence we will also defeat death in the end.
A firm belief in heaven inspires good and courageous acts. C. S. Lewis’ work Mere Christianity says, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in:’ aim at earth and you will get neither.” Lewis believes that to do any good on earth we must think more about heaven than about our present existence.
Christians will not long for heaven until they properly realize that heaven is home, the only place they will ever truly belong.
Dr. Langer, professor of integrative learning at Biola University, uses Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. Langer says, “King had a sincere Christian faith, a hope and a vision for justice. His courage is born among a confident hope in heaven that led him to faithful action.” King’s hope of heaven helped him continue hoping and working in the face of daily death threats. Viewing heaven as a place filled with pleasure and freedom instills valor and perseverance in Christians while they live on this earth.
Afraid to Die
After all this explanation of heaven, and how wonderful it will be, you still might be afraid to die. Some people think that Christians shouldn’t be afraid, and if they are then they do not have very good faith. This concept is not true. It is okay to be afraid of death. Some Christians you meet will tell you they are not afraid to die at all, because they have a peace and a confidence about everything heaven will be. This response is awesome and I fully believe God blesses people with such faith that eradicates all fear. But, some Christians also say, “Yes, I am afraid of death.” When I told a professor that I felt afraid to die, his response helped me so much. He said “In the words of Paul, ‘death is our last great enemy,’ so in some senses, I don’t think you’re supposed to feel too good about death.” Death is an enemy, it is not beautiful. That being said, this enemy has been defeated by Christ. Even a fear of the death’s unknowns does not need to paralyze us. Jesus teaches us to trust him in this life, which means we can fully and completely trust him with our life to come.