Until recently I believed that after we die, we go to heaven where there will be no sickness, tears, sorrow or pain. I could look forward to having angel wings, playing a harp, and looking down on loved ones for eternity. The streets there would be paved with gold and there would be pearly gates. It was all rather surreal and, while I desired to go there, it seemed like something more akin to a fairy tale than a real place. When I finally understood the reality of God, these notions of heaven didn’t fit with what I had learned about Him and His plans for us. Surreal and magical is not the mode in which I had learned God operates.
“…the world in which Adam and Eve lived would have been the perfect temperature, the perfect humidity, without pests or diseases, and without anything that would detract from their enjoyment of knowing God in a perfect, undiluted way. Surely, this is what is meant by the word ‘paradise’.” What Was Life Like In the Garden of Eden Before Sin? by Robert Driskell on August 7, 2012
When God created humans He put them in the Garden of Eden where He planned for them to live forever. If the Garden was to be a place of eternity, it would have had to have been a perfect place designed to meet all our needs. It would have included all the extras God gives us to demonstrate how much He loves us. In my mind, a place like the Garden of Eden would be a wonderful place to spend eternity and more desirable and realistic than a heaven with streets paved of gold.
Revelation 21:4 – “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Life here is short. We’re given 70 or 80 years max then we’re taken to another place to live forever. While this world certainly is challenging and full of undesirable things, there are moments when we can sense what God actually had in mind: the beauty of nature; loving people; comfort, joy and peace; intimacy with God. When I turned my life over to Christ, I was more aware of His goodness and as my life settled into the calm, peaceful existence God wanted for me, I began to see one of the ways He shows His love is in the variety of things He gave us to enjoy. I’m sure streets of gold are beautiful, but can they compare with the beauty of lush, green acres of grass? How will cities of gold compare to the breathtaking view of budding trees and flowers in springtime? Why did God go to such pains to create so many beautiful flowers here, why so many different shades of green? I came to believe that these creations could not possibly have been meant to be temporal – these amazing things were more suited for God’s original eternal plan.
I read a book where someone expressed concern that they will be bored in heaven. They could not fathom how an existence where all we do is praise God could be fulfilling or sitting on a cloud and playing a harp would be an ideal existence. I had never thought about being bored in heaven, but after reading that, I began to think about those times in life when I had accomplished something or did something for someone that brought such joy. The amazing feeling of love I get from knowing Jesus is sometimes so overwhelming that I can’t even express the emotions I experience. These feelings are also God’s gift to us. Although they would need to be fine-tuned so we are doing them in a way that is not self-serving, realizing our potential, serving others, and loving God are great sources of fulfillment, peace and joy. I added them to my list of things I hoped heaven would include.
2 Corinthians 12:2-4 – “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.”
As I learned about God’s nature and how He works in the world, I began to realize the things I believed about heaven probably weren’t accurate. As my theories eroded, I still knew it to be a real place and I yearned to know the truth about it. I thought I had found my answer when books about people who had visited heaven and returned to earth came to my attention – I could know about heaven by reading their experiences. But these accounts only added to my confusion. Their stories were even more surreal than the beliefs I had held. If these people had actually gone to a real place, their stories should match. If three people go to Hawaii, I should find things in their stories that match. I found little, if anything, similar in the stories I took the time to read. Each person’s experience included such amazing things that another person who had actually gone to the same place would surely have told us about them. I can’t imagine that Colton Burpo’s rainbow-colored horse is a fact of heaven that Don Piper simply forgot to mention! I’m sure these people had some kind of experience, but I do not believe it was a visit to the actual “place” of heaven. Furthermore, the apostle Paul is quite clear about John’s visit to heaven and the fact that he was not permitted to talk about the things he had seen and heard; as Hank Hanegraaff puts it in his book AfterLife: “Paul did not so much as countenance writing a 67th book of the Bible titled 90 Minutes in Heaven.” The apostles John and Paul knew better than to talk about a visit to heaven and would not pronounce a definitive conclusion about the experience – they wrote what God directed them to write and focused on taking the Gospel to unbelievers. Finally, since no new revelations are to be forthcoming following those given by Jesus’s eyewitnesses, we can safely dismiss the claims made by any visitors to heaven or hell.
Mark 4:39-41 – “Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?”And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!””
I love reading about Jesus turning water into wine, healing sick people and raising people from the dead. As a child, I equated His miracles with magic, much like Mary Poppins was able to do! Even as an adult, my understanding about them was more along the lines of magic. God can do anything He wants to do. Then I heard a Christian teacher talking about how Jesus’s miracles were used to display His power over nature: water fermenting, bodies healing, filling fishing nets with fish, calming storms, and walking on water. Processes that take months or years, Jesus was able to bring to completion in seconds. Forces of nature were altered with His words. I had never thought of miracles in this way. Jesus didn’t perform “magic.” He exercised His power over our physical world, operating in His world as only He is able to do. Somehow that realization made God more of a reality. While I still understood that His miracles were supernatural, understanding that they are a demonstration of His power over the things He created moved them from “magic” to a more understandable and believable phenomenon.
Hank Hanegraaff in his book AfterLife: “…the imagery of Revelation is not intended to tell us what heaven looks like but rather is intended to tell us what heaven is like.”
I wanted an explanation about our life after death that was on the level of what I had learned about Jesus’s miracles. As my confusion and curiosity increased, God brought messengers and messages to my attention with a new level of understanding from the Holy Spirit. As I learned more about Biblical interpretation I learned about the imagery, metaphors and other figures of speech used to communicate ideas and aspects which we would not otherwise understand. Interposing these literary tools on Bible passages about our life after death brought me to the understanding I sought.
2 Corinthians 5:8 – “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord”
When we die, our soul separates from our physical body and we are present with God. Immediately upon death, we will know God as a reality and, for those who rejected Him the experience of hell (separation from God) begins as they understand God’s great love and exactly what it is they have rejected. Those who have died experience God apart from their physical bodies. This phase of life after death is referred to as relational, rather than locational, as you could not find a map of all the existing universes and stick a pin in the spot where heaven is. This doesn’t make it any less real. It is merely a supernatural way of existence until the final phase of life after death begins. We will exist spiritually until Jesus returns to this world.
Isaiah 65:17 – “See,I will create new heavens and a new earth”
Isaiah 66:22 – “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord,….”
Revelation 21:1,2 – “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
When Jesus returns, the final phase of life after death begins (Hank Hanegraaff refers to it as “life after life-after-life). At this time, all people who have died will be resurrected and their souls will be returned to a physical body. Including those still living at the time of Jesus’s return, all people will receive eternal, perfect bodies like that Jesus had when He was resurrected – no longer subject to decay and deterioration. Jesus will also bring a new earth – a newly-created earth that, like our new bodies, will not decay or rot, where God will live among us. Christ’s sincere, committed followers will live in this new, perfect, eternal world going about a life much like we know now, but totally free from sin: no greed, no murder, no lust, no covetousness, no lies. God will reign and we will live for eternity just as He planned in the beginning, in a new Garden of Eden where sin is no longer a possibility. It is not an eternal home of clouds, angel wings and harps, but a world much like what we experience now, free from the things that bring us sorrow and despair. There will be things that will be different in the eternal world, but it will resemble this world more so than a place where magical creatures embody the images that have been used to describe the experience.
Although we can accurately say we will go to heaven after we die, we will spend eternity on a “new earth.” And, to me, that matches up perfectly with God’s working in the world thus far and the promises He has given us. It is in keeping with the reality of who God is and His original plan for us.
Genesis 1:26, 27 – “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness,so they may ruleover the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth,and over all the creatures that moveon the earth.” God created humankindin his own image, in the image of God he created them,male and female he created them.”