When it comes to heaven, it’s easy to be confused by all the opinions. What is heaven like? Where is it? Who goes there, and why?
Ask your neighbor, your dog groomer, or the person who delivers your mail. Or take a peek at social media. You might hear claims, for example, that all the interesting people will be missing from heaven. (Credit philosopher Frederich Nietzsche with that depressing opinion.) Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov thought the “boredom” of heaven would be even worse than the tortures of hell. And playwright George Bernard Shaw believed that “heaven is the most angelically dull place in all creation.” Is anyone encouraged yet?
Even Bible-believing Christians sometimes buy into the wacky potpourri of pop culture notions about heaven—particularly the cartoon version that dooms people to float about the clouds for eternity, strumming a harp. And will we see our beloved pets? As humorist Will Rogers once said, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”
Rogers needn’t have worried, though, because Scripture provides a clearly different perspective (explained in part below by Randy Alcorn).
There is much to ponder, and plenty of good news.
Heaven is a real place—not a feeling or state of mind.
We’re talking about a real place with an actual address, as real as Chicago, London, or Saturn. Jesus called it “my Father’s house” (John 14:1) with many rooms: a house where he is preparing a place for us. He promised the thief on the cross that he would be with him there (Luke 23:43). The apostle Paul wrote that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20).
That kind of citizenship was even more real to Paul than his Roman passport. And so it is with God’s redeemed people, whether we’re American or Canadian, British or Ugandan. We are citizens of heaven.
Heaven is where we were made to be.
C. S. Lewis wrote that “Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it.”
But we needn’t just take his word for it. Scripture urges us time and again to keep our eyes on heaven, and to know—even embrace—the hope to which he has called us (Eph 1:18).
Heaven is now—and not yet.
“Christians often talk about living with God ‘in heaven’ forever,” wrote theologian Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology, “but in fact the biblical teaching is richer than that: it tells us that there will be new heavens and a new earth—an entirely renewed creation—and we will live with God there.”
So even though being with Christ today in heaven is “better by far” (Phil 1:23), we’re ultimately designed to live a resurrected life on a redeemed earth. That’s what Peter apparently referred to in his post-resurrection sermon, when he said that Jesus must remain in heaven “until the time comes for God to restore everything” (Acts 3:21).
“God clearly says that Heaven will change,” wrote Randy Alcorn. “It will eventually be relocated to the New Earth (Rev 21:1).”
And that’s something all believers can look forward to.
Heaven is where we’ll rest—and work.
As Randy Alcorn wrote in his landmark book, Heaven, “Our best workdays on Earth—where everything turns out better than we’d planned, when everything’s done on time, when everyone on the team pulls together and enjoys each other—are just a foretaste of the joy our work will bring us in Heaven.”
Revelation 22:3 assures us that God’s people “will serve him” in the life to come. The curse associated with work (cf. Gen 3:17–19) will be lifted. So we’ll not only praise God in eternity, we’ll have jobs to do, decisions to make, projects to accomplish, flowers to smell, conversations to enjoy, art to create …
So much for the boring harps.
Heaven is where ultimate life decluttering begins.
Early church father John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) looked for focus and simplicity in heaven. He asked,
When will we lay hold on heaven and be able to stand on that height? For a great thing is it, that having cut all these cords, we should be able to lay hold of the city which is above. Putting away what does not matter, let us keep to what is necessary. Thus shall we lay hold of eternal life.
Heaven is what our hearts should long for.
Puritan pastor and writer John Bradford longed for “a better country” (see Heb 11:16) in this prayer:
“Dear Father, if only we had faith to see things as they really are! f only our hearts were persuaded, and our desires set afire with a desire for the things of heaven. Then we would live in longing for that which we now despise the most. It is like sailing over the sea to our home and country. Or like the pain of a woman in labor, as the child is delivered into a much greater place than the womb. So our souls are delivered into heaven.
Another Puritan pastor, Philip Doddridge, prayed this way:
May I never be so engrossed with the concerns of time to neglect the interests of eternity! May I pass through earth with my heart and hopes set upon heaven, and feel the attraction stronger and stronger as I approach nearer and nearer to that center we seek—until the happy moment comes when every earthly object disappears from view, and the shining glories of the heavenly world fill my improved and strengthened sight. Then I will be cheered by that which would now overwhelm me.
Heaven is where our bodies are restored—made new.
When did people start believing that physical and material things were evil, or that we might somehow be better off as friendly ghosts, without the burden of these troublesome bodies? Many people blame the influential Greek thinker Plato, who clearly favored the soul over the physical.
In contrast, the apostle Paul wrote that, as believers, our bodies are now “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), which was obviously a good, physical thing. And early church poet Ausonius believed that our renewed physical bodies were destined for eternity. He wrote how Christ
taught us that there is a road leading back to eternal life, and that the soul returns not alone, but with the body complete enters the realms of Heaven and leaves the secret chamber of the grave empty, covered with earth which cannot hold it.
Protestant Reformer Heinrich Bullinger had much the same idea. He once wrote that God
fashioned our body in our mother’s womb, breathing life into a thinking soul. May it come alive while it is joined to the body, and after the death of the body be translated into heaven, there to live in joy and happiness until it returns again into the body being raised from the dead in the last judgment. And then we may rejoice and be glad forever, without end!
“One thing’s for sure,” wrote Joni Eareckson Tada, “Earth can’t keep its promises, but aren’t you glad Heaven does? And oh the joy of one day enjoying not only new glorified bodies but hearts free of sin!”
Heaven is beyond our imaginations (or maybe not?)
Although the Bible is packed with often puzzling word pictures about heaven—including cities, gardens, and kingdoms—yet in these word pictures we can get a very real glimpse of the world to come. So although heaven will obviously surpass our expectations in so many unexpected ways, Scripture doesn’t leave us high and dry. Because “if we can’t envision it,” said Randy Alcorn, “we can’t look forward to it. If Heaven is unimaginable, why even try?”
Of course, if we do try, we seem to come up against a roadblock. The apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” what God has prepared for believers in heaven. But we can’t stop there. Because verse 10 adds that God has actually revealed those things through his Spirit!
Heaven is not our default destination.
It’s worth remembering that sin is an unfortunate issue for everyone ever born (Rom 3:23). Without intervention and a radical course change, we’re all headed for the same destination. Hint: it’s not heaven. And Jesus made it clear that his gate to life is narrow; those who find it are few (Matt 7:14). So even though we’re all designed for heaven, the only way to ultimately get there is through Jesus. That’s the message Paul and Silas had for their Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30–31).
Heaven is where we truly become ourselves.
God created us both physical and spiritual. Remember how, after the resurrection, Jesus urged his disciples to touch him and feel the real body (Luke 24:39)? This was someone who even enjoyed a fish dinner in his resurrected body. He is, as Paul describes it, “the last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45). And John reminds us that even though “what we will be has not yet appeared … we know that when he appears we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2).
As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth.”
Heaven is a grand reunion—minus the awkward.
And here’s the part many of us tend to emphasize: being reunited with loved ones who have gone before. Will we see our grandmother in heaven? And will we recognize her, and others? When the apostle Paul explained to Thessalonian believers what would happen in the life to come (cf. 1 Thess 4:14–18), he admonished them to “encourage one another with these words.” That sounds very much like a “yes.”
Heaven may even include dogs—eventually.
Debatable? Perhaps. But Isaiah did mention how ultimately wolves will live in peace with lambs, and predators with prey (Isa 11:6). Animals, and care for animals, is a clear and recurring scriptural theme. A command, even, in which God has our best interests in mind. We learn to care as we care for animals. As Randy Alcorn noted,
When Adam was created, God surrounded him with animals. When Noah was delivered from the flood, God surrounded him with animals. When Jesus was born, God surrounded him with animals. When Jesus establishes the renewed Earth, with renewed men and women, don’t you think he’ll surround himself with renewed animals?
Heaven opens the door to real, full life.
No, we’ll not be bored in heaven. Why not? According to pastor Mark Buchanan in Things Unseen,
Because it’s the one place where both impulses—to go beyond, to go home—are perfectly joined and totally satisfied. It’s the one place where we’re constantly discovering—where everything is fresh and the possessing of a thing is as good as the pursuing of it—and yet where we are fully at home—where everything is as it ought to be and where we find, undiminished, that mysterious something we never found down here.1
Heaven keeps us singing—in harmony.
How many traditional hymns have kept the church singing and praising over the years, reminding us of the hope of heaven? “Blessed Assurance,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” “When We All Get to Heaven”—the list goes on. Even today, modern hymns point us to the hope and reality of heaven, like this recent one from Matt Boswell and Matt Papa, “Almost Home.” In the words of the song, “Don’t drop a single anchor / We’re almost home / Through every toil and danger / We’re almost home / How many pilgrim saints have before us gone? / No stopping now / We’re almost home.”
Heaven is in the Bible (a lot).
It’s not hard to find heaven mentioned in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Here are just a few verses to get you started.
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
—2 Peter 3:13
He will wipe away 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. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place. And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.
The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
Thus says the Lord:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is the place of my rest?”
Heaven is home.
When we look forward to heaven, that outlook flavors all of life. Our view of heaven as home lights a fuse of expectation that cannot be extinguished until we experience the reality of our forever. Puritan pastor Isaac Ambrose wrote, “Now I see, and I read it in your precious promises, that my name is registered in heaven. An eternal weight of glory is reserved for me. Heaven is my home, my hope, my inheritance.”
And as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, “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 … Come further up, come further in!”
Heaven by Randy Alcorn
Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans
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Fount of Heaven: Prayers of the Early Church
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Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, Volume 2: St. Mark
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Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed.
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