Among believers and unbelievers alike, not many topics are surrounded by greater confusion than the idea of heaven.
Most Christians’ concept of heaven derives more from Plato than it does from Paul. When we think of heaven, many of us picture a place floating within the clouds where we will one day live forever. There is elevator music on a constant loop, and everyone can fly. We think of heaven as a place where a golfer never hits a slice and a fisherman never misses a catch. We imagine heaven to be full of naked, baby angels and disembodied people playing harps.
Such a concept of heaven is great if we don’t mind borrowing ideas from a combination of non-Christian Greek philosophy and medieval, poetic literature. But if we want a perception derived from Scripture, our concept of heaven must dramatically change.
This popular idea of heaven starts to break down as we consider several questions, using the Bible as our reference point:
Do believers go to heaven right after they die? Or is there some sort of judgment day first?
Where do people go between death and judgment day?
What about the fact that the Bible teaches a bodily resurrection?
Why does the Bible say that there is a new heaven and a new earth?
Why do we need a new earth if we’re going to heaven?
Clearly, our image of a harp-strumming, cherub-populated, marshmallow-clouded heaven is in need of some tweaking.
The Bible teaches that our hope is not in heaven, per se, but in resurrection. Our hope is not that we will escape the earth and fly off like spacemen; it is that God will renew the earth and put it back the way it should be. The Bible teaches that God will purge evil from among us, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Isa. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rom. 8:20-21). Additionally, it teaches that our souls will be reunited with our bodies, and we will all be bodily resurrected (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2; John 11:23-24; Luke 14:14; Matt. 22:30; Phil. 3:11; 1 Cor. 15:23). The eternal state involves both a physical earth and physical bodies.
This means that the eternal state will look far more like Eden than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
A Better Definition
Based on the biblical account, heaven appears to be both a place and a state. But more than that, it is best described as the realm in which God’s rule (i.e. God’s Kingdom) is most fully manifested. This explains Jesus’ prayer that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He is saying, “Let Your kingdom and rule come to us as it is with You right now.”
Heaven seems to be a place where we rest between death and resurrection, but our ultimate hope is that heaven and earth will be united as they were in Eden. Heaven is a waiting room for the new heavens and new earth, just as hell is a waiting room for the lake of fire.
In Eden, the realms of heaven and earth were together. God walked with man. When sin entered the world, these realms were separated. In the book of Revelation, these realms come back together. It is interesting that in Revelation we don’t go “up” to heaven, but rather heaven comes “down” to us. To quote N.T. Wright, “Heaven is great but it is not the end of the world. What we are interested in is life after life after death.”
A Better Hope
This brings us great encouragement because it means that the triune God is in the business of redeeming everything! It means that God is reconciling the cosmos to Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ, and through the power of His life-giving Spirit.
Our hope is in the resurrected Christ, for His resurrection means that we will be resurrected, as well (1 Cor. 15:23). Here’s what is great about that: Resurrected bodies don’t get sick. Resurrected bodies don’t get cancer. Resurrected bodies don’t struggle with sin. Resurrected bodies don’t die. Resurrected bodies don’t have knee pain, headaches or back injuries. Resurrected bodies dwell with God personally in a new heavens and new earth—the way it was meant to be.
So, no, we won’t live in heaven forever—not, at least, the way we may have imagined. Instead, we’ll live forever as citizens of the new Eden—a fully new creation in Christ. And that beats playing the harp any day.