February 18, 2023 - Heaven

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Today we’re going to talk about Heaven. If you have lost a friend or loved one in recent days, or if you have found yourself in a fight for your life where it seems like your days on earth might be numbered, Heaven may be on your mind or has been on your mind lately. A lot of us have mixed feelings about Heaven. We may be like the Anglican priest who was asked what he expected after death. He says, “If it comes to that, I suppose that I shall enter into eternal bliss, but I really wish you wouldn’t bring up such depressing subjects!”

Is Heaven nothing more than a mythical pie in the sky, a flowery sentiment designed to soothe the trauma of a bereaved soul? Is Heaven a figment of our imagination? Or is Heaven a real destination for our souls that should excite us to the very core?

If we ever plan or hope to be in Heaven some day, we had better check the place out. We had better do our homework on where we hope to spend eternity. We had better be ready, lest we miss out, lest we be caught unprepared for the prospect of life in Heaven. And we had better work on not getting so attached to life down here.

How many plans have we made toward making that journey to a place called Heaven? My heart keeps protesting, “Lord, I had planned to spend longer down here! Don’t make me leave here yet!” How very different is Paul’s desire to “depart and be with Christ,” which he says is “far better.” (Philippians 1:23) Which is more real to us: our businesses and our bills, or the reality that we shall soon spend forever somewhere else?

What do we know about Heaven? None of us has been there and back to bring us any firsthand information. We can’t rely on people who have had near-death experiences, because such persons are never brain-dead; we can’t be sure whether they’ve seen Heaven, or just a vision inside their brain. All we can rely on is whatever God’s word says about Heaven, plus educated guesses based on what we already know. Also, because Heaven is another world, we may have to speak of it in less-than-perfect earthly symbols, just as quantum physics must use symbols to describe ideas that are beyond putting into words.

Where is Heaven? If Heaven is in or beyond the sky, then why can’t we get there by space flight? Some would say that Heaven is in our hearts. If so, death is terrible, because it kills Heaven! A better answer is that Heaven is another dimension. Serious scientists talk about multiple parallel universes. We should have no problem believing in the existence of just one. Jesus ascends upward just so that no one would go looking for him on earth.

For now, Heaven may be located in another dimension, but when God creates new heavens and a new earth in Revelation 21 (as God promised to do in Isaiah 65:17), God will bring Heaven down to earth, as we see in the New Jerusalem. What does God say here? “The dwelling of God is [now] with people.” We don’t go up to live with God; God comes down to live with us! And what a city God builds for us! John tells us that the Holy City measures 1500 miles cubed.

Imagine all the space! We are told that there will be no night there, but we can still see the stars. There will be no ocean, but there will still be bodies of water, like the river of the water of life that flows down the main avenue from God’s throne, lined by multiple trees of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (the new earth will be a place of healing). It sounds like the Holy City will be full of parks.

Notice: John sees no temple there. John did see a temple in Heaven (only one) during the great tribulation, presumably the original Heaven (before the new one). But now on the new earth, the entire Holy City becomes God’s temple, whose only purpose is for praising God.

Randy Alcorn argues in his excellent book on Heaven that here is where Heaven and earth come together. The curse brought by Adam and Eve is lifted, and Creation is restored to what it was before our first ancestors trashed the place. Because the curse is lifted, we will be able to live with God and see God’s face like we never could before.

Imagine! A new earth, more beautiful and alive than ever before, without the garbage and death and disease that has plagued the old earth! Paul writes in Romans 8 that the whole creation groans together, waiting for this moment when the creation will all be set free from bondage to decay and suffering. We can hardly wait! We have been homesick for this world that we’ve never lived in before. God has put that homesick longing in our hearts, to keep us from getting too comfortable down here.

We have not invented an imaginary Heaven patterned after our life on earth. No, earth is a reflection of Heaven, rather than vice versa. Our present earth and present bodies are valid reference points as to what to expect in the life to come. In fact, C.S. Lewis writes that our earth is “crammed full of heaven”! The best and most beautiful parts of our old world are sneak previews of the new world. Here on earth we can see traces of the perfect world that once was and is to come. Our present earth is merely a shadow of what once was Eden and what will be the New Earth.

People often ask if believers go straight to Heaven when they die, or do we fall asleep and then wake up on Resurrection Day? Randy Alcorn’s book has helped me put the Bible’s data together on that question. Randy argues that we go straight to the present Heaven, which is a temporary Heaven, while we do not receive our new bodies until Christ returns to earth. Then God makes the new Heaven and the new earth. That’s when the resurrection happens. At the moment, while the earth is still under the curse, God’s people in Heaven still long for justice down on earth, but are told they must wait. The time for no more sorrow has not yet come. People in Heaven care about how bad life is down on earth, but they are not devastated by that knowledge.

That raises another question. Are we being watched by those who have gone before us? Hebrews 12:1 gives us Biblical grounds to say yes: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that lies before us.” I think of Claude Hughes, the pastor I trained under in Maryland who died of a brain tumor at age 41. I always used to wonder, “God, why couldn’t Claude have lived to see me today?” Now I know that Claude is watching from the grandstands.

Will we recognize loved ones in Heaven? Keep in mind that when Jesus rises from the dead, his friends don’t recognize him at first, but on second glance, they make the connection. His appearance has changed, but they can still tell it’s Jesus. Think of what happens at class reunions. Can you imagine meeting a childhood friend who’s been gone 50 years? That’s what meeting people in Heaven will be like. Heaven will be a place where we’ll be reunited with a lost mate, or a child or parent we never knew, if we have placed our faith in Christ. Will the crippled be made whole? Apparently yes, but remember that the risen Jesus still had his scars. What age will we be? Our best guess is that we will either be raised at the age of our physical peak as humans, or (in the case of infants) we will get the chance to grow up.

What kinds of pleasures will there be in Heaven? Heaven is not an orgy of self-gratification, like the Islamic paradise. Heaven is a place where our desires will be turned into the unselfish kind. Will there be food? Revelation 7:16 says there will be no hunger or thirst, but in Luke 24, the risen Jesus is still able to eat food like he did before. Will there be marriage? Jesus clearly teaches no. It sounds like in Heaven there will be a kind of intimacy so thrilling that the kind we know could only be a cheap substitute. Together, we will be the bride of Christ.

The pleasures we have pursued on earth will seem like childish toys in Heaven. Revelation 21 clearly says there will be no more grieving, crying, or pain. No more tears – no more fears – no more regrets. Plus, it will be a place of laughter! Luke 6:21 says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” Heaven is a place where each of us can become a child again, full of wonder and laughter, without a care in the world, a never-ending playground.

What about the gates of pearl and streets of gold? What that language tells me is that what is precious down here is common and even worthless in Heaven. Heaven will be where Hell’s richest human will look at you with envy. Yet no one can own 1 square foot of Heaven. In fact, to enter Heaven, we must let go of all earthly treasures.

What about heavenly rewards? Apparently each person will bring to Heaven different capacities to enjoy and appreciate God. The bigger a cup we bring, the more we can enjoy.  The better you’ve known God on earth, the better you can enjoy God in Heaven. The more of a lasting difference you’ve made for Christ on earth, the more treasure you’ve laid up for yourself in Heaven. What can we take with us? Every act of service and care, every investment in God’s work, and every prayer we have offered. That gives us incentive to sacrifice and forego some pleasures and experiences in this life now for the sake of Christ or our loved ones, with reason to believe that we can enjoy them later.

Some people ask, “Won’t Heaven be boring? What will we do, sit on the clouds forever and ever?” Keep in mind that Heaven is not endless time. The new Heaven will be a timeless reality. Years are useless for measuring eternity. Plus, the God we will dwell with in Heaven is a truly awe-inspiring God, a never-ending adventure, a Person we will never finish exploring. How can anyone be bored with Someone whose face shines brighter than our sun, a God we cannot gaze on in our present state without experiencing meltdown, a God from whom earth and sky shall someday flee in terror? Sounds like an awesome God in any sense of the word!

Heaven is excitement! Imagine a never-ending dance, or a football game where everyone is on their feet cheering their hearts out! That’s what Heaven will be like. It’s strange how we who live in the most fantastic fun and games factory ever made (modern tech society) can claim to be bored – like the spoiled kid in a mansion with 1000 expensive toys. Heaven will not be boring. Heaven will be overwhelming.

Will there be music in Heaven? Some say music was invented in Heaven. The Bible does mention harps and singing. I believe that music from all over the world will be offered in praise to God. What language will we speak? All we know is that we will finally be able to understand one another. Will there be animals in Heaven? Revelation 5:13 pictures every creature in Heaven and on earth singing praise to God. (It sounds like there will be animals.)

What else will we do in Heaven? It will take forever just to explore the place and meet everyone we want to meet. We will worship. We will rest. But we will also work. God will put us in charge of managing the new earth, free from the curse that made work so frustrating. What does it mean when Revelation says we will “reign” or “rule” forever? That means care and responsibility. But Heaven will not be a place where we ourselves become gods – we’re not talking about that kind of rule. We will never be in a position to receive worship. We will not create or rule over planets of our own, like God does. God rules the entire universe; there are no other gods. We will be like God only in that we will finally be purified from sin and will never die. It will be joy unspeakable just to be a part of that world, without being any sort of god.

How will we ever get along in Heaven, if we can’t get along on earth? I figure Heaven must be a big place, if I can be happy there without having to put up with people I can’t stand. Life teaches us that some shared experiences can turn enemies into friends. Heaven must be one such place, where all the stuff we used to fight about will no longer seem important. No longer will we fight about who has what, or who’s greater than whom. And God will get rid of our rough edges.

We humans are so far from getting our act together here on earth, that some have suggested that we need a place to finish the process of preparing for life in Heaven. Catholic theology calls this place Purgatory. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 3 that on Judgment Day, all the junk in our lives will be burned away. Paul teaches in chapter 15 that when Christ comes, we who believe will be transformed in an “atom” of time. That’s where we are made fit for Heaven.

Heaven is a place where we will finally come to understand the truth, about ourselves and about reality. The Bible says there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed someday. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 13 that now we see reality like a poor reflection in a mirror, but in the end we will see face-to-face.  Heaven is also the place where God rights all the wrongs and injustices that remain unresolved through time. How will that work? We can’t be sure, but it would appear that those who have been deprived of life or loved ones or opportunities will have those blessings restored to them.

But that only applies to those who have been reconciled to God through faith in what Christ has done for us on the cross. Those who reject Christ’s mercy and remain at war with God will be allowed to suffer what their deeds deserve. God will say to them, “OK, have it your way.”

Will the knowledge that there are people suffering in Hell spoil the joy of Heaven? No. As Randy Alcorn puts it, “Happiness in Heaven is not based on ignorance, but perspective.” In Heaven, we will be able to see why people who are in Hell belong there. In fact, the very reasons we loved those who have gone to Hell may disappear (after all, God is the one who gives us those traits we find loveable in others). The person we once loved may no longer be the person they become when God withdraws from them. We will love only what God loves. Like God, we will take no joy in the suffering of those in Hell, but the joy of Heaven will overwhelm whatever sadness we may feel.

Will there be many or few in Heaven? The Bible says there will be a crowd greater than anyone can count, from every race, tribe, people, and language. But Jesus says the number of those who find the way to life will be relatively few. Look at it this way. The number of all humans who have ever lived is probably close to 10 billion. If you take just 2% of that total, we come up with 200 million. 2% of humankind doesn’t sound like much, but Heaven will be far from empty, whether those who go there will be 2%, 20%, or more of those who have ever lived.

How can we make sure we are among those few who find that narrow way to life? No one goes to Heaven by their own good deeds. Christ is the One who has paid the price for us to enter Heaven. All we can do is place our faith in what Christ has done on the cross for us.

Heaven is a place we won’t want to miss for the world. Wishing doesn’t make it so. Wishing never makes any dream come true. Peter Kreeft says that Heaven is either a fascinating lie or a fascinating fact. Whatever is true of Heaven is true, regardless of what we think. We will soon be spending forever somewhere else. We had better be prepared for that day.

Thinking about Heaven has led me to want to do a better job reorienting my life around Heaven. Randy Alcorn talks about the “shallow hopelessness of life centered on a fallen and failing world.” He says, “Heaven should affect our activities and ambitions, our recreation and friendships, and the way we spend our time and money.” We need to invest, not just in what we see on earth, but in what really matters! We need to stop acting like Heaven is a myth, or a long and boring meeting, or a distraction from so-called real life! And as Randy says, “Life on earth matters not because it’s the only life we have, but precisely because it is not – it’s the beginning of a life without end.” He says, “We were all made for a person and a place. Jesus is the person. Heaven is the place.” Jesus said he goes to prepare a place for us (and we might add, he is preparing us for that place). Today I pray that you will take that step of faith that will allow you to share in the joy that we call Heaven, by placing your faith in Christ alone to put you right with God.

Next time will be our last broadcast on Biblical Words and World. I will be sharing my testimony, and I’ll be recapping all that we have talked about through these past 2 years. God has called me to be a transitional pastor at a church in southern IL, a calling that requires my full attention. It’s been a joy and a privilege to be on the radio with you here on KUTR. Join us for our final broadcast next time on Biblical Words and World!