In the last few weeks, those who have lost loved ones are asking about heaven. Thinking they are not alone, today I want to try to answer a few questions.
Much of what we believe and imagine about heaven comes from our popular culture, not from the authority of the Bible. Just like a computer always returns to its default settings unless you actively do something to change them, most people—including lots of Christians—have certain default settings about heaven.
Default Settings on Heaven
In The Adventures of Huck Finn, novelist Mark Twain portrays heaven through the eyes of Miss Watson, a Christian spinster who takes a dim view of Huck’s fun-loving spirit.
“She went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it….I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said, not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”
Is our default position on heaven is a sing-along of one great hymn after another, forever and ever. (….or is it praise songs? Maybe there will still be separate sections for “traditional” and “contemporary”?)
But be honest now…don’t we sigh and think “that’s it?” A never-ending church service? And then we feel guilty that we’re not more spiritual, and decide that, whatever heaven is, its not compelling enough to pull us toward it with the same eager expectation we see in the great Christian saints.
Thinking of them leads us even deeper into our modern default setting, namely, that heaven—even many Christians assume this—is simply an expansion of earthly bliss.
For people who have a miserable life on earth—think of people in the dark ages whose lives were nasty, brutish and short, or the degradations of African-America slaves—heaven offered everything they lacked: freedom from bondage or fear, enough to eat, no ravages of disease, and so forth. But w, who have more freedom than we can handle and a material existence that would indeed be heaven to many generations before us, have no need of heaven to escape our earthly woes.
Of course, we have our jokes about the “golfers heaven” where every shot is straight down the fairway. But all these familiar ways we talk and joke about heaven prove my very point. We have very little conception of what heaven could be apart from the same things we know on earth written in larger, golden letters.
Heaven in the Bible
When we turn to the Bible to correct our default settings about heaven, we find that heaven is not expansion of earthly joys. Rather heaven is the earth—indeed all creation- as it was always meant to be!
I don’t know of anyone who has written more wisely about heaven than CS Lewis. He tells the story of a woman who bears a son in a dungeon. The child grows up seeing nothing but the bleak stone walls, and a little patch of sky through the ceiling grating.
This woman is an artist, and so she draws her son pictures of the outside world so that they will not lose hope of one day seeing it again. Her pictures of fields, rivers and mountains are meant to show him that the outer world is far more interesting and glorious than the dungeon. But the boy misunderstands, and assumes that this world he has never seen is composed of lines on a page. Lewis concludes:
“Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the rise life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape; not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun.”
The apostle Paul in his great 15th chapter of his first letter to the church at Corinth offers two clear pictures of heaven as the world was meant to be. The grand hope of Christians is the resurrected body.
Popular imagination suggests an immortal soul leaving the body at death and journeying to heaven. Immortal souls is a Greek idea, not a biblical one. Immortal souls is the hope of Plato, not the hope of the apostle Paul.
The Resurrection Body
Opinion polls show that a vast majority of Americans believe in an after-life, even though they are skeptical about the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why? It’s simple. If everyone has an immortal soul, who needs a resurrection?
But Paul answers that there is NOT a natural transition of the immortal soul, now imprisoned in an earthly body and then released into a spirit world called heaven. Rather, the physical bodies that go into the grave are resurrected as brand new, better bodies—but still bodies. Look at his four contrasts:
“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;
it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory;
it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;
it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”
You might ask about that last phrase “spiritual body?” If Paul meant a disembodied soul, he would have said “It is sown a natural body…it is raised a spirit.” “Spiritual” is an adjective describing “body”, the same word for body describing the bodies you and I currently inhabit.
Think of Jesus’ own resurrection body clearly described in the gospels—a body that looks and acts like a regular physical body. For example, his disciples easily recognize him, he eats breakfast with them. However, this new resurrection body has certain spiritual powers, like appearing and disappearing, or walking through walls and—most important—unlike the earthly body, this new body is imperishable.
For anyone who has ever sat at a bedside watching a loved ones’ body waste away, this is indeed good news. It is good news as well for all who have endured an impaired body or mind on earth.
Joni Eereckson Tada, the Christian writer who has lived with a paralyzed body in a wheel chair since an accident as a teenager severed her spinal cord, says it well:
“Somewhere in my broken, paralyzed body is the seed of what I shall become. The paralysis makes what I am to become all the more grand when you contrast atrophied, useless legs against splendorous resurrected legs. I’m convinced that if there are mirrors in heaven (and why not?), the image I’ll see will be unmistakably ‘Joni,’ although a much better, brighter Joni.”
A Renewed and Restored Creation
But, it gets far better! Our resurrected bodies are just a tiny subset of a comprehensive resurrection or restoration of all creation! Listen to Romans 8:21-22;
“For the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
Acts 3:21 puts it this way:
“and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you–even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”
The truly biblical view of heaven is all things made new—a physical new heavens and new earth—as seen in Rev. 21:1-5:
Then I saw a new heaven and new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!“
This new creation comes full circle, from God walking with Adam and Eve on earth in the cool of the garden as we see in GEN 3:8…to God promising to live with us again in REV 21 when “the dwelling of God is with men.”
Being in a new resurrected body and being with other believers we love on a “new creation” earth with gardens and rivers and mountains even more grand than the first creation—this is our hope!!
Listen to the Scottish novelist George McDonald writing to his dying daughter:
“I do live expecting great things in the life that is ripening for me and all mine—when we shall have all the universe for our own, and be good merry helpful children in the great house of our father. Then, darling, you and I and all will have grand liberty wherewith Christ makes us free—opening his hand to send us out like white doves to range the universe.”
As McDonald expresses so beautifully, not only will all creation be restored, but believers will have meaningful tasks and work just as in the first creation—only far better: ”opening his hand to send us out like white doves to range the universe.”
Death is NOT Part of Life
In the Disney movie The Lion King, the king Mufasa explains to his lion cub son Simba how all life is interdependent, including the antelopes. “But Dad,” says, Simba, “don’t we eat the antelope?” “Of course, son,” Mufasa answers, “but when we die, our bodies go back to the ground and cause the grass to grow that feeds the antelope. Everything is tied together in the circle of life.”
How many times have you heard someone who is trying to be comforting say, “After all, death is part of life.” But while the circle of life is a wonderful song in that movie, and accurately describes the biological eco-system, it’ s horrible theology!
In the sweeping biblical view, death is NOT a natural part of the “circle of life,” but the result of a deadly poison—sin.
God created everything very good. But creation fell under a curse when men and women rebelled against God and set our own egos up as rival gods—what the Bible calls “sin.”
The sting of sin has injected its toxic poison of death in our lives and its 100% fatal. Death is an evil that did not exist in the beginning—and would not have existed—if men and women had not rebelled against their Creator.
It’s only when we adjust the default settings in our minds and look at death the way the Bible does that we can truly appreciate and join in with the apostle Paul’s victory dance at the end of this passage:
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Christians believe Jesus Christ will return to our planet in bodily form, just as he came the first time. When he does, our enemy death will be vanquished forever.
Our perishable bodies will be resurrected into new bodies that are imperishable. The entire universe will be restored to its original, pristine goodness.
But there is no natural transition from this life to what comes next. Living a good and moral life, even a religious life, is not enough because you and I do not have the power to defeat death. But Jesus Christ does.
Jesus’ resurrection is the bridge we cross to the new resurrected life awaiting all who trust him.