|The New Jerusalem and the angel with the key to the bottomless pit, by Albrecht Dürer|
Do Christians go to heaven when they die? Paul said that when he died he would go to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). Since the Lord is in heaven, Paul wanted to be there, too. Some people say he’s enjoying the presence of God. Others say he is unconscious. Either way, he is in heaven with Christ.
What is this place called heaven—or is it a place? Solomon recognized that heaven cannot contain God, and yet paradoxically it is his dwelling place (1 Kings 8:27-30). Although God is omnipresent, he is not present everywhere in the same way. He lives in believers, for example, in a way that he does not live in unbelievers. We "come into his presence" by becoming more aware of his presence.
Scripture shows that God, although he is everywhere, has chosen to dwell especially in heaven—or perhaps we should say that humans have used the word heaven to refer to the divine realm. Humans knew that God did not dwell on earth, nor in the underworld. They could not see God in the sky, either, but they used the word for sky to refer to the location of God.
Many people had a rather simplistic understanding of God’s location, and others would have been more sophisticated. Despite the misunderstandings and the limitations of human words, God inspired the writers of the Bible to use the word in Hebrew and Greek that is translated into English as heaven for the divine realm. Sometimes heaven is simply a way of referring to God himself, sometimes it refers to his glory, or his power, or his holiness. He is bigger than heaven, but heaven refers to his full presence.
Limits of language
Of course, since God is spirit, words that suggest distance and space can be used only metaphorically. Heaven is neither up nor down, neither east nor west. It cannot be located on a three-dimensional map of the galaxies. So when people are worried about place, about whether Christians "go" to heaven when they die, they are struggling with terminology that isn’t adequate to the task.
Our words can’t do justice to spiritual realities. Take the trio of love, joy and peace, for example. The love of Christ surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). God gives us an inexpressible joy (1 Peter 1:8). And his peace transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Words fail us when it comes to discussing these spiritual realities. If we can’t even discuss love, joy and peace completely, how much more will we be limited when it comes to discussing the presence of God?
The Greek philosopher Plato once created a parable that illustrates our limitations: There was a race of people who lived their entire lives in a cave. Their only contact with the outside world would be shadows on the wall. They had only a monochrome, two-dimensional understanding of reality. Now suppose that one of the cave-dwellers was brave enough to venture out of the cave to discover the world of color, texture, smell, depth and density. How could the explorer explain these concepts to a people who had no experience with them? It would be impossible to describe the aroma of coffee, the concept of iridescence, or the warmth of sunshine. The sun would sound like bizarre fiction. An ocean tidepool would be weird beyond belief.
In the same way, we live in a limited world. We see only a fraction of reality. Though we may hear that a spiritual world exists, we cannot see it or investigate it. Those who leave this world to explore the afterlife never come back. Only Jesus has crossed the divide.
Only a few people have seen the glories of God. "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him—but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:9-10). So we must acknowledge our inabilities when it comes to discussing our eternal future with God.
Heaven is in the realm of the spirit. When Paul says that God "has blessed us in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 1:3), he is not talking about a place, nor about the future. He is talking about a spiritual reality—spiritual blessings right here and right now (same verse). When he says that we are seated with Christ in heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6), he is not talking about a place. He is talking about spiritual realities: that our life and existence is now with Christ.
With Christ, we are able to enter heaven even before we die. "We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus" (Hebrews 10:19). We enter his presence not through physical transport, but in the innermost person, in heart and soul. It is a movement of the spirit, not of the body. It is a change in attitude, not in altitude.
Our citizenship is now in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We really belong in the spiritual world. God is calling us heavenward, toward this reality (verse 14). Since that is where we belong, we need to focus on heavenly realities. It is our future, and it is our calling even today. We share in a heavenly calling; we have tasted a heavenly gift (Hebrews 3:1; 6:4). We have already come to a heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22). These are spiritual realities.
A wonderful future
But there is much more to come. Although we have tasted the good things of God, we long for much more. Though we have glimpsed the goodness of God, we want to see it more clearly and more abundantly. We want to be saturated with his love and glory. Like Abraham, we long for a heavenly homeland (Hebrews 11:16).
We yearn to be with God, for him to satisfy our deepest desires. And in 10,000 years, we will have only begun to learn his infinite wisdom and compassion. We have an eternity of joy in front of us. "You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand" (Psalm 16:11). Words cannot describe how good it is. It is everlasting joy, blessed peace, and the righteousness of God (2 Peter 3:13).
Our inheritance is being kept for us in heaven (1 Peter 1:4). There are spiritual rewards waiting for us. There is an eternal "house" reserved for us in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:1; John 14:2-3). This will be our home, and that is why the word heaven is used for the eternal destiny of all God’s redeemed children. To be in heaven is to remain in Christ in the presence of God. No matter where in all of existence that is, it is heaven, and we will be there.
"Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling" (verse 2). We are tired of the pains and sorrows and sufferings of this world. We "groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:23). Even so, we wait patiently (verse 25), knowing that soon enough, there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain (Revelation 21:3-4; 22:1-5).
In the resurrection, we will have a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44). In some way we will be like Christ in his resurrection (1 John 3:2). It will be heavenly, in every sense of the word. "Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven" (1 Corinthians 15:49). We will be people "of heaven" (verse 48).
The rewards of heaven will be ours to enjoy forever. Exactly when we start experiencing that glory is not very important. Our exact location is not very important. The important thing is that we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17). And even more important, it is through the Lord, and only through the Lord, that we can be there at all. It is only by grace that we can enter the kingdom of heaven.
But thanks be to God, for he has given us the victory. With Christ, our future is secure: "The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (2 Timothy 4:18).
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