I have a confession to make. I sometimes wonder whether heaven will be boring. Not a good thing if it lasts forever! I’ve made a couple of posts previously about “heaven” (here and here). In this post I aim to make a biblical case for why “heaven” will be eternally stupendous.
In his wonderful book Surprised by Hope NT Wright points out that few Christians today have a biblically shaped perspective on eternal life. Popular Christian thinking has it that heaven and hell are eternal states we enter upon death. Our spirit, which is immortal, leaves our mortal body and we enter either an eternity in heaven, a non-material place of worship and joy, or eternity in hell, a non-material place of torment.
This is not the way the Bible pictures the future.
The Bible Focuses on the End of the Age, Not the End of Life
The first thing to note is that when the Bible thinks of eternity, its focus is planted firmly on what occurs at the end of the age, no what happens at the end of our lives.
For the Biblical authors the future will not be an endless rerun of the present, but there will be an ending of one era and the beginning of another. The difference between the eras is not that one will be material and the other immaterial, but that where the present age life is marred by sin, in the next age everything will be made right. In the new era we will not be disembodied spirits who have left the earth to float around heaven, but renewed people with renewed bodies, minds and wills, living in renewed communities, in a renewed creation, in renewed relationship with God.
This is pictured beautifully in the Book of Isaiah, which addressed the people of Israel several centuries before Christ.
“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
In this vision, salvation means a restoration of earthly life to what it was meant to be. Isaiah assures this society of peasant farmers, in which every household had its own small plot of land on which they grew their own food, that in the new creation they will live long lives on their own land, enjoying the favour of God, and free from those things that currently mar their lives – disease, early death, enemies, exploitation, predatory animals.
The image is not however limited to Israel.
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.(Isaiah 2:1-4)
This passage needs to be understood as part of the unfolding of God’s plan to restore blessing to the world. According to Genesis 12:1-3 this would occur through Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites. Just how blessing would come through Israel is spelled out in Exodus 19:4-6. The Israelites had been rescued from slavery in Egypt and were now to be a model of life under the reign of God (see Genesis 12:1-3 and Exodus 19:4-6). This would cause nations to seek out the God of Israel and so bring blessing back to the world. Isaiah sees a time when this will be
The Book of Revelation picks up the theme when it sees history concluding with a new Jerusalem located in a new heavens and earth. This image brings together the notion of a redeemed creation, a redeemed Israel and a redeemed humanity. Within the holy city all that mars life is eliminated, its inhabitants live in the very concrete and vivid presence of God, the nations of the earth “walk by its light”, and creation has been healed (Revelation 21-22).
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
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 water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death…”
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
These images are somewhat poetic and symbolic, visions of the future described in ways that spoke to the circumstances of their time. How literally should we take them? In the movie Mask for example, Cher plays the mother of Randy, a teenager with severe facial deformities. A significant moment for Randy occurs when he serves as a volunteer at a camp for blind children and a romance blossoms between him and a teenage girl blind since birth. When Randy speaks of colour she says she doesn’t understand. In a powerful scene he leads her into the kitchen and takes a rock warmed in the oven and places it in her hand. “That’s red” he says. Randy then takes a rock from the fridge and put it in her hand, “That’s blue”. The young woman is excited. “I get it. I get it!”
She hasn’t really seen colour but she gains a sense of its significance by comparing it to something she can see and touch. Is that how we should read the texts in Isaiah and Revelation? Could they be describing a non-material world in terms of something we know? The rest of the New Testament suggests not, for it establishes that the future will be modelled on the resurrection of Jesus. Just as he was raised to a new life in a new body, so will we be.
In Romans 8 we read:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
Those who belong to Christ will be resurrected from the dead, with bodies suited to life in the new world of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 15). Likewise, the creation itself will be liberated, free to function as the safe, abundant space for humankind and the animals that God intended it to be.
It is this framework, of eternal life as a future in which creation is redeemed, that is assumed by Jesus. He speaks of two ages, the present age which is marked by the inbreaking of God’s reign into a dysfunctional and violent world, and an age to come, in which all opposition to God’s reign is overcome.
This future hope is contrasted with present realities in Jesus “beatitudes”:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
The age to which Jesus spoke was one in which the Roman Empire wielded power with vicious brutality. Soldiers extorted wealth and forced Israelites to labour for them. Intolerable tax burdens were forcing peasant farmers into debt, and when they couldn’t repay their debt, off their land and into poverty. Disease and hunger ravaged frail bodies. Governors imprisoned their opponents. Rebellion was violently put down – cities razed to the ground, rebels crucified, survivors enslaved. To those who were “poor in spirit”, crushed by the brute power of Rome, Jesus promises they will inherit the kingdom of heaven, a world where goodness, love and justice reign. To those who “mourned” the death of loved ones, loss of well-being or land, Jesus promises the age to come will bring comfort. To the “meek” who watched helplessly as their land was taken from them, Jesus promises the age to come will see them inherit the earth. To those who long for justice, Jesus promises they will have it. To those who cultivate mercy rather than vengeance, purity of heart rather than hardness of heart, peacemaking rather than violence Jesus promises they will be recognised as the true children of God. In other words, the next age will be marked by a reversal of things as they are now.
Eternal life is not then a flight from this world into heaven, but heaven coming to earth and transforming it and us. It is the answer to our prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”
What precisely will it be like? It’s difficult to say. We know eternal life will be experienced in human bodies on a redeemed planet, yet in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul makes clear that the bodies we will have are not the same as the bodies we have now. The same is true of our social structures. Jesus, for example, says that in heaven there will be no marrying. What we can say is that eternal life is to spend forever in a world that is just as it was intended to be, a universe made right and whole, a universe where God is manifest in ways we can only dream about, where communities are marked by grace, goodness, love and justice, where we enjoy healthy bodies, hearts and minds. It’s a universe where we can forever keep on growing, keep on learning, keep on exploring, keep on meeting people who inspire and engage us, keep on being delighted by love and creation.
What Happens To Us When We Die?
What then happens to an individual between the time of their death and the future resurrection? The Bible has surprisingly little to say about this period, often described as the “intermediate period”. Some believe our conscious self continues, others that we remain unconscious until the resurrection. The mainstream perspective is that the evidence favours the idea that believers at least will find themselves in the presence of their loving God. Paul seems to indicate this in Philippians 1 when he writes
If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Given “heaven” is where God’s presence is fully manifested, in this sense believers will go to “heaven” after they die, but this will not be our final home. Rather, after heaven comes new life on a new planet. When we imagine eternal life, we should not think of spirits floating on clouds singing praises to God. Rather we should think of material beings living in a material world where everything that mars and destroys life has been eliminated and where God’s presence is known in ways qualitatively different from now; less of spirits with harps and more of feeling the grass beneath your bare feet on a sunny day as you laugh with friends.