That place where you go when you die. First, you stroll through the pearly gates and meet St. Peter, then you get a crown and a mansion and can eat all you want. There’s a temple and lots of holy people around, angels singing from the clouds. You get a harp. It’s great.
Of course, that image is entirely wrong. Oh, some of it is in the Scriptures, but the way we perceive it and the way it will truly be are two different things.
First of all, there is not a single reference in the Scriptures to good people getting to “go to heaven.” Go ahead, look for it.
Let’s get some cold hard facts down before we go forward. For the sake of argument, let’s take the truth of the Scriptures as a given and recognize the following:
- There will be a resurrection of the dead. Jesus believed it. Paul believed it. There’s no missing it.
- There is a difference between those who are found “in Christ” and those who are not. (We can argue about what that means another time.)
Resurrection is a Change of Life
Now that we’ve laid those things out there, let’s consider the fate of those “in Christ.”
Although all will be resurrected, those in Christ will not suffer “the second death” described by John. This is inherent in their unity with Christ. These people – described variously as the faithful, the righteous, and a number of other descriptors – will continue in life.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” (Jesus)
The life that they will continue however will be a transformed one. According to the Apostle Paul:
…Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:50-54)
The resurrection of the righteous will be to “the kingdom of God” – something that is incorruptible and does not die. Paul is at great pains to point this out. We will not be resurrected just to repeat this life. We will be resurrected to a different kind of life. He does not view death as an end, but rather as a transformation.
He also seems to connect our death to the “last trumpet.” This might have been because Paul believed the resurrection would happen in his lifetime. Every generation of Christians has. Paul believed he lived in the last days of this age because he did. We do as well.
Where Do We Experience This Change of Life?
The medieval church divided the afterlife into four realms:
- Hell – the place where the unbaptized pagan and heretic goes to be tormented forever
- Limbo – a theologically necessary place for the unbaptized children of believers
- Purgatory – the cleansing place where believers have their sin purified
- Heaven – the presence of God, reserved for the cleansed, or sanctified – hence the term saint
It is important to note that their reasons for this division were of theological necessity. Very early on in the development of institutional Christianity (after the 4th century CE), baptism into the church was considered the beginning of salvation. Baptism cleanses one from original sin (the sin we inherit from Adam) and initiates you into the Kingdom. This is why liturgical churches still baptize infants.
Obviously, during our lives we commit our own sins. We are not cleansed of the tendency toward sin, just the original sin. Therefore, since God cannot have sin in his presence, we will have to have that sin cleansed from us before we can join him in heaven.
It is easy to see how this four-tiered system developed. Later, a medieval poet named Dante Aligheri perfected the idea and developed levels within these realms. Although the most famous part of his Divine Comedy is “Inferno”, there are two other parts as well – “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”.
When one reads the Scriptures with an open eye, it becomes quickly evident that God is not in the business of taking us somewhere else. According to Paul, we are changed instantly. We don’t go somewhere to wait for the end times. We go there instantly.
I am not going to claim how this works, but I don’t think that right now all the righteous people are up in heaven watching us and cheering us on. This idea of everyone watching us originates in a very poor interpretation of Hebrews 12:1. It would appear that there is something going on. The Revelation speaks of a marriage supper and an awful lot of singing and shouting. But my point is that whatever is going on/will go on in wherever Paul meant when he said “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:7), it is not some kind of eternal state of bliss with clouds and harps.
The Restoration of Eden
Here’s what John, the writer of the Revelation, seemed to believe would happen at the end. His vision of our eternal place was a global restoration of Eden. In one single magnificent image (Revelation 21), he pulls everything from the Hebrew Scriptures together. The heavens and earth will be destroyed and remade. God’s mountain will descend from earth, and the New Jerusalem of Ezekiel’s visions will stand on its top. God Himself will dwell among us once again.
To be honest, I don’t think anyone can be absolute on the details. Our fanciful imagery doesn’t do justice to the image of the prophets, who saw roads and altars and people working fields in this new heaven and new earth. This eternal destiny isn’t just a big party. It seems to be a restoration of what Eden was supposed to be.
- In Genesis 2, Adam is called to care for the garden. He is supposed to tend it. Because of sin, that got twisted into making bread “by the sweat of his brow” in Genesis 4.
- In Genesis 2, the beasts of the field seem to all get along with each other and man. There is a natural rhythm. By the time of Noah in Genesis 9, animals are afraid of humans. Sin has turned creation against man.
- In Genesis 1-3, God walks in the garden. He comes down for chats with Adam and Eve. I don’t need to quote Scripture to tell you that doesn’t happen anymore.
All of the Edenic things will be restored. The world is upside down today. God, through Jesus, is putting it right. John saw the final steps of that putting right. We glimpse what it will be like, and those hints of eternity keep us moving forward.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
God is not destroying and rebuilding. Yes, there is destruction of that which cannot be redeemed and transformed in creation. But he is at work restoring what our sin stole from us. The eternal destiny of man is not somewhere else but where we were intended to be in the first place – in his presence. And his presence truly is paradise.
What Do We Call It?
Referring to this eternal destiny as “heaven” is so common today, that I use the terminology myself. But I am careful to explain to people that it doesn’t mean what they think it means.
Remember when I started this with saying the Bible doesn’t say people “go to heaven”? That is because there is a lot mythology tied to that phrase. It is true. But in the Bible, Jesus does use the word “heaven”. He uses it as a synonym for God over and over again. If you read the Synoptic gospels, you will see that the gospel writers used “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God” interchangeably whenever quoting Jesus or talking about his mission.
It is not wrong to refer to our eternal destiny as “heaven” as long as we know that means the presence of God. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses love to point out that people don’t go to heaven when they die. You can throw them off their game by showing the parallels of Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God and point out that heaven is wherever God is.)
My preference is to refer to our eternal destiny as “in the presence of God.” Because Jesus gives us new life through his atonement for sin, then we can enter into synergy with God’s Spirit. We experience, as I mentioned, hints of the eternal and the change from this life to the next should be a relatively seamless one as we journey with Christ.
After all, the same John who wrote the Revelation also wrote:
The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)
We are being transformed through Christ’s resurrection to be like him. This is not a transformation we can necessarily detect or hold over the heads of others in the manner of the Pharisees. Rather, it is a mysterious transformation that occurs as the Spirit of God draws us to Jesus.
Heaven is not here on earth. We don’t create it. We don’t carry it with us. But at the same time, it is being formed in us because Jesus is at work. The church that is moving with Jesus should be transformed by His Spirit.
There is plenty imagery to aspire to. Think of Enoch in Genesis 5:
All the days of Enoch were 365 years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. (Genesis 5:23-24)
We pass from this life to the next in union with Christ. There is just one life that passes through resurrection. We should not so much be looking forward to “getting away” from this world but to continuing our journey with God.
That’s my opinion, anyway.
Some Parting Thoughts
A friend once asked me why I would want to go to heaven, knowing that all the judgmental bigots that exist in Christianity were also planning on being there. He would rather die uncertain than be certain he would be with the Christians he had known in life. That’s rough – but unfortunately, it is a true assessment of what calls itself the church here on earth.
Sadly, there is very little of heaven at work in most organizations and groups that call themselves churches today. Because they have bought into the medieval ideas, either they reject the whole afterlife (liberalism) or they become obsessed with death (most of evangelicalism, if we’re honest with ourselves). Perhaps if we realize that we are journeying toward the coming Age rather than either trying to be it now or longing for it as a “payday some day”, we would become hints of heaven ourselves.
I can think of no better way to end this post than with Jesus’ own prayer:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.