Shortly after you die, you will find yourself in a queue outside the pearly gates, waiting for an interview with St. Peter. If you pass muster, you will be invited in, given a white robe and a regulation harp, and assigned your own cloud. As you begin to strum, you may recognize a few (perhaps not as many as you’d hoped for) of your friends, and probably many people you tried to avoid in your lifetime. And so begins your eternal life.
You don’t really believe that, do you? Mercifully, you don’t need to, because it isn’t true. But what do you think heaven will be like?
Most of us who believe in God also believe there is some kind of afterlife, in which we will be rewarded for our faithfulness or punished for our sins. That much is true — it is why Jesus came for us, died for us and lives for us. John reminds us that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
But what does that mean?
If the reward of the righteous is anything like the popular images, it may be rather boring. We need to take another look at what heaven in.
Thinking about heaven
In this article we’d like to get you thinking about heaven, perhaps in ways you never have before. We are not being dogmatic – that would be foolish and arrogant. Our only reliable source of information is the Bible, and that is surprisingly vague about what comes next. But the Bible does promise that if we put our trust in God, we will receive many benefits in this life (along with challenges) and we can expect benefits to continue forever in a world to come. Jesus was clear about that. But he was not so forthcoming about what that world to come will be like (Mark 10:29-30).
The apostle Paul wrote, “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist” (1 Corinthians 13:12, Message Bible). Paul was one of the few human beings to be given a “visitor’s pass” to heaven, and he found it hard to describe what happened (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). Whatever it was, it was real enough to change his priorities for the rest of his life. Death held no fears for Paul. He had seen enough of what came next to actually look forward to it. But most of us are not like Paul.
More of the same?
When we think about heaven, we have no alternative but to imagine it in terms of what we know. For example, medieval artists painted an earthly paradise, filled with details of their contemporary ideas of physical beauty and perfection. (Although where did they get the idea that cherubs resembled naked, aerodynamically improbable babies?) Styles, technology and tastes change, and medieval ideas of paradise don’t help us imagine a utopia today.
Modern writers use more up-to-date imagery. C. S. Lewis’s imaginative classic The Great Divorce describes an imaginary bus trip from hell (which he pictured as a vast and dreary suburb) to heaven. The purpose of the trip was to give those in “hell” a chance to change their minds. Lewis’s heaven takes some getting used to, and many of the sinners don’t like it, preferring the hell they know. Lewis stresses that he has no special insights into the nature of eternal life, and intended that his book should be read strictly as an allegory.
Mitch Albom’s fascinating The Five People You Meet in Heaven also makes no pretense to theological accuracy. He sets heaven in the context of a seaside fairground where the main character had worked all his life. But Albom and Lewis and others like them may be on to something. Heaven may not be quite so different from the environment we experience here and now.
Jesus, when describing the kingdom of God, often said it was “like” aspects of life as we know it. Not exactly the same, but sufficiently similar to draw an analogy.
Then and now
For most of human history, we had little scientific understanding of the nature of the cosmos. If they thought about such things at all, people believed the earth was flat, and the sun and moon went around it in concentric circles. Heaven was somewhere above, and hell was below. The traditional ideas of pearly gates, harps, white robes, wings and an unending worship service are what you’d expect from sincere people trying to interpret what little the Bible says about heaven in terms of the world as they understood it.
Today we know much more about the nature of the physical cosmos. We know that the earth is a micro-speck in an enormous and apparently expanding universe. We know that what seems like solid reality is, at a fundamental level, a wispy web of energy, bound together by forces so strong that for most of history we did not even suspect that they existed. We know that perhaps as much as 90 percent of the universe is made up of “dark matter”— about which we can theorize with mathematics, but cannot see or measure.
We know that even such apparently indisputable ideas as the “passing of time” are relative. Even the dimensions that define our ideas of space (length, width, height and time) are just visible and comprehensible aspects of a much more involved and intricate reality. Although it is impossible to imagine how they work, we are told by some astrophysicists that there may be at least seven more dimensions. These scientists speculate that those extra dimensions are as much a part of reality as height, length and breadth and time. They operate at a level that our finest instruments cannot measure, and even our minds can but ponder them briefly before becoming bewildered and disoriented.
The scientific breakthroughs of the last few decades have shattered traditional understanding of just about everything. So what about heaven? Do we need to look again at our ideas of what life might be like in the hereafter?
That’s an interesting word. Here-after. Not there-after or where-after. Is it possible that eternal life could be spent in a familiar environment, doing things we have learned to enjoy, with people we know and with bodies that we recognize? Could it be that what comes next will be an extension of the best of life as we know it, but without negative stress, anxiety or suffering? Well — and read this carefully — the Bible does not say it will not be like that. (I’d better run that by you again — the Bible does not say it will not be like that. That is, maybe it will be like that – we cannot know for sure.)
American theologian Randy Alcorn has spent years studying the concept of heaven. In his book Heaven, while carefully avoiding sensationalism and fantasy, Alcorn subjects every biblical reference that alludes to life after death to careful scrutiny. The result is a fascinating portrait of what the afterlife may be like. He writes:
We get tired of ourselves, of others, of sin and suffering and crime and death. Yet we love the earth, don’t we? I love the spaciousness of the night sky over the desert. I love the coziness of sitting next to Nanci on the couch in front of the fire, blanket over us and dog snuggled next to us. These experiences are not heaven — but they are foretastes of heaven. What we love about this life are the things that resonate with the life we are made for. The things we love are not merely the best this life has to offer — they are previews of the greater life to come.
So why allow our view of heaven to be limited to yesterday’s worldviews? Let’s speculate about what our enhanced understanding of our environment might tell us about life in heaven.
The Apostles Creed, the most popular Christian statement of faith, affirms the “resurrection of the body.” You may have repeated it hundreds of times. Have you ever thought about what it means?
It is popular to think of the resurrection in terms of a “spirit” body, a wispy, ethereal, unreal, ghostlike form. But that is not a biblical idea. The Bible indicates that a resurrected human being will have a real body. But that body will not be physical as we understand physical. Our concept of physical (or “real”) is bound by the four dimensions with which we experience reality. But if there are many more dimensions, then our definition of what is “real” is inadequate.
After he had been resurrected, Jesus had a real body. He could eat, walk, and appeared normal. He could be touched. Yet he was able to step in and out of the dimensions of our “reality” at will, appearing to walk through a wall. We interpret that as unreal, but perhaps it is normal for a body that can experience the full spectrum of reality.
So can you look forward to living forever in a form that is recognizably you, with a body that is not subject to death, sickness and decay, and is not dependent on air, food, water and the circulation of blood for its existence? It seems so. “Who knows how we’ll end up!” says the Bible. “What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him — and in seeing him, become like him” (1 John 3:2, Message Bible).
Imagine life with your mind — it would still be your mind — with the junk cleaned out and the priorities reordered, free forever to plan, dream and create. Imagine an eternity reunited with old friends, and the unlimited potential to make more. Imagine relationships with others, and with God, without anxiety, tension or upset. Imagine never having to say “good-bye” to people you love.
Not so Far
Far from being trapped forever in an interminable church service, eternal life seems to be a greatly enhanced version of the best of what we know now. There is much more “out there” than we can discern with our limited senses. Occasionally, God opens the door just a crack to show us a glimpse of a greater reality.
Paul told the superstitious people of Athens that God was “not far from them” (Acts 17:24-27). Heaven is not close in any ways we can measure. But it may not be merely “a happy land, far, far away.” Could it be all around us in ways we don’t have the words to describe?
Let your imagination run free for a while.
When Jesus was born, angels suddenly appeared to the shepherds in the hills (Luke 2:8-14). It was as if they stepped into our world from the realm that they inhabited. Is that also what happened in 2 Kings 6:17 when Elisha’s frightened servant suddenly saw legions of angels? Stephen, about to be stoned by an angry mob, was given a glimpse of sights and sounds that are normally beyond human experience (Acts 7:55-56). Is that how John saw the visions of the book of Revelation?
Randy Alcorn points out that “just as blind people cannot see the world, even though it exists all around them, we are unable to see heaven in our fallen condition. Is it possible that before sin and the Curse, Adam and Eve saw clearly what is now invisible to us? Is it possible that Heaven itself is but inches from us?” (Heaven, p. 178).
These are fascinating speculations. Science has shown us there is much, much more to the Creation than we can observe and experience with our present physical restrictions. This earthbound human life is a greatly limited expression of what we will eventually be. Jesus came to us as one of us, subjecting himself to the limitations of a human being, including the ultimate fate of all merely physical life forms — death!
Just before his crucifixion, he prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” He also prayed, “Father, I want those you gave me to be with me, right where I am, so they can see my glory, the splendor you gave me, having loved me long before there ever was a world.” (John 17:5, 24, Message Bible).
The last enemy
The promises of the new heaven and earth include “death is gone forever.” In the developed world, we’ve figured out how to live a decade or two longer. (Although sadly, we haven’t done very well in figuring out how to use the extra time.) But although it might be possible to postpone our appointment with the grave, death is still the unavoidable enemy.
As Alcorn points out in his fascinating study of heaven,
We shouldn’t glorify death — Jesus didn’t. He wept over it (John 11:35). For every beautiful story of people peacefully slipping into eternity, there are stories of confused and shrunken people, wasting away mentally and physically, leaving behind exhausted, confused and grief-stricken loved ones. Death is painful, and it’s an enemy. But for those who know Jesus, death is the final pain and the last enemy. (p. 451)
Wait. There’s more!
There is much more we could talk about. Providing we keep a sense of balance and don’t go off on tangents, to explore the possibilities of our lives after death is an exciting study. So let’s close with a final, exciting quote from Randy Alcorn:
With the Lord we love and the friends we cherish, we’ll embark together on the ultimate adventure, in a spectacular new universe awaiting our exploration and dominion. Jesus will be the center of all things, and joy will be in the air we breathe.
And right when we think “it doesn’t get any better than this” — it will. (p. 457)