100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

#53: What will heaven be like?

Heaven is a place which we all hope to go when we die. It is known to be a “better place”. The idea that the soul lives on in some kind of paradise can be somewhat comforting when you have lost a loved one, but for many, heaven is just a myth which people have devised to take away some of the fear and heartache of death. For others, heaven is a real place where everybody goes when they die, unless they were some kind of criminal. People have all kinds of ideas about whether there is a heaven, what it is like, and how we get there. But heaven won't exist just because we believe it does; nor will it cease to exist just because we don't believe in it. And it won't have streets paved with gold just because we believe it will, nor will we get there by praying the Lord's prayer once a night, or by giving money to charity, just because that's what we believe it takes to get there. We need to find out the truth about heaven.

Some of the prophets in the Bible saw visions of heaven, and these are the only information we really have about what heaven might look like. In the Book of Revelation it tells us that John was taken up into heaven. What he saw is described in Revelation 4. He saw God on a throne, and around Him were four “living creatures”, as well as 24 “elders” sitting on thrones. And the creatures and the elders worshipped God continually. This vision is very similar to the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Old Testament. However, these visions are probably more symbolic than literal. They communicate to us about the rule of God over all creation, and the worship due to God. We actually know very little about heaven, even from the Bible. The Apostle Paul tells us that he saw heaven but was not permitted to tell us what he saw. In fact, he tells us that no man may utter what he saw.

When Jesus was crucified there was a thief crucified with Him. The thief believed in Jesus at that moment, and Jesus told him “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43). We know, then, that it is “paradise”, and that those who believe in Jesus as their God and Saviour will go there when they die. Paul also tells us that he “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8).

Now, there is only one way to heaven. Consider this passage where Jesus is speaking of His imminent death and resurrection...

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:3-6)

In another place, Jesus said “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). Being “born again” is what happens when we put our faith in Jesus Christ. This is how Christ is “the way” - no one comes to the Father except through Christ, because unless we are born again we cannot see the kingdom of God.

Now, as we've seen, the Bible doesn't say much about what heaven is like. There are a few reasons I can identify for this. Firstly, it ought to be enough to know that heaven is where God is, and to be there is to be with God. Could there really be anything more exciting about heaven than that? But the second reason is that heaven is a temporary dwelling place for us! Heaven is where we go when we die, but we will not be there forever – we will be physically resurrected, and we will live once again on the Earth for all eternity. The Bible has far more to say about the “new heaven and new Earth” than it does about heaven because this Earth, gloriously renewed by God, will be our final home. Tomorrow we shall elaborate on that.

But before we leave off today, I have heard an interesting idea put forward that there is no intermediate or temporary state after we die, but that we directly find ourselves in the new heaven and new Earth. When Jesus said to the thief, for example, that he would be in paradise that day, Jesus was not saying that he would just be transported to a different place but to a different time - the time when Jesus has restored the new heaven and new Earth, and that new Earth is “paradise”. While this sounds interesting, there are passages of Scripture which don’t seem to fit this idea. For example, Paul spoke of being “away from the body and at home with the Lord”, indicating a prolonged intermediate state in which our soul is separate from the body. So I don’t think we can say that there “is no heaven”, or that heaven is really the same thing as the “new heaven and new Earth.”

But until tomorrow...

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

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