A Study of Heaven
Is heaven real? If so, how does one know?
In spite of bogus claims of having visited heaven, such as that professed by Ellen G. White of Seventh-day Adventist fame (1945, 32ff), no one has died, gone to heaven, and returned to earth to tell of the experience (cf. II Corinthians 12:1-10).
All we really know about heaven is what is revealed in Scripture. In thinking of the celestial realm, one might approach the subject from three perspectives: logical, historical, and biblical.
Logic and Heaven
What happens to one's personality when he dies? There are but two possibilities: something (continued existence), or nothing (non-existence). If nothing, life is an unfathomable mystery — a senseless riddle. If something, is there a relationship between the life that now is and the something yet to come? Philosophers have long recognized the connection between a moral sense of "oughtness" and the conviction of an existence beyond death.
The French philosopher Pascal wrote: "It is certain that the mortality or immortality of the soul must make an entire difference to morality" (1941, 219). If there is no afterlife-consequence resulting from the way one lives on earth, there is no enduring motivation for the noble existence.
If there is something after death, what is the nature thereof? If that state is happiness for everyone, then what is the ultimate benefit of goodness over evil? One might as well live wickedly if eternal bliss is inevitable. If the future is entirely bad, where is the incentive for benevolent conduct? The only proposition that makes sense, that compels a life of quality, is this: there are two eternal destinies—one is blessed, the other wretched. This reality is a powerful factor in the ordering of one's life.
History and Afterlife
There are certain thoughts that appear to be so ingrained in the human psyche that they seem innate. The idea of a superhuman power or powers, ultimately responsible for the universe and humankind, has been virtually universal throughout history.
Out of the dimness of the patriarchal age and the incredible suffering of a godly man came the conviction that there is a realm beyond death where "the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest" (Job 3:17). The ancient Egyptians constructed their tombs in preparation for a life beyond, and our own Native Americans had their "happy hunting ground."
Even among the scattered populations of today's world the notion stubbornly persists that there are future rewards and punishments in the afterlife. If one assumes that the human mind is reasonably sane, he must conclude that these concepts essentially are axiomatic.
The clearest, most certain argument for the reality of heaven is the testimony of sacred Scripture.
Since "life and immortality" have been "brought to light" through the "gospel" (II Timothy 1:10), it is to be expected that the New Testament will contain more information on heaven than does the Old Testament. Nonetheless, there are clear allusions to the eternal reward of the faithful in the earlier revelation as well.
Abraham certainly had some concept of heaven, for Scripture notes that "he looked for the city that has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God." The patriarchs died "in faith" and confessed that they were but pilgrims on earth. They desired a "better country," and that place God had "prepared for them" (Hebrews 11:9-16).
Moses forsook Egypt and chose ill-treatment with Jehovah's people, accounting the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, looking toward to "the recompense of reward" (Hebrews 11:24ff). David believed he ultimately would be with his deceased baby in a better place (II Samuel 12:23).
It goes without saying that our Lord Jesus Christ spoke frequently of heaven. He promised that those enduring persecution would have reward in heaven (Matthew 5:10-12). He encourages us to lay up treasures in heaven that will abide (Matthew 6:19-21). In leaving earth's environment, he promised to prepare a place where the faithful might ultimately be with him (John 14:2-3). The New Testament documents are punctuated repeatedly with promises of heaven for those devoted to Christ (cf. Philippians 3:20-21; I Peter 1:3-5).
The pledges of the biblical record are only as good, of course, as the credibility of the ancient book itself. Happily, the vast encyclopedic volume of solid evidence that establishes the trustworthiness of the Bible documents is entirely sufficient for the conscientious student who pursues the matter with intellectual integrity. With the passing of years, our hearts beat the more rapidly with joyful anticipation of the eternal, heavenly kingdom.
The Nature of Heaven
It is a most unfortunate circumstance that the biblical representation of heaven has been so skewed by misguided teachers whose mode of thinking is so earth-bound that heaven cannot be perceived except in terms of a material or physical environment.
From the very nature of the case, some symbolism is required to represent the non-material, spirit realm. There is a vast difference, however, between recognizing the use of symbols (such as those common to the book of Revelation) and materializing heaven itself. Let us consider several examples of how man has perverted the nature of heaven by fashioning his own concept of the final abode of the saints.
The Islamic Heaven
Mohammed's idea of a "bedroom" heaven was crude beyond adequate expression. Noted historian Phillip Schaff described it as "a sensual paradise, with blooming gardens, fresh fountains, and an abundance of beautiful virgins" (1894, 1543).
McClintock and Strong depicted Islam's paradise as follows:
"As to the various felicities which await the pious (and of which there are about a hundred degrees), they are a wild conglomeration of Jewish, Christian, Magian, and other fancies on the subject, to which the Prophet's own exceedingly sensual imagination has added very considerably. Feasting in the most gorgeous and delicious variety, the most costly and brilliant garments, odors and music of the most ravishing nature, and above all, the enjoyment of the Hur Al-Oyun, the black-eyed daughters of paradise, created of pure musk, and free from all the bodily weaknesses of the female sex, are held out as a reward to the commonest inhabitants of paradise, who will always remain in the full vigor of their youth and manhood" (1969, 414).
A separate place is reserved for women since "they are not of a prominently spiritual nature," and likely could not enjoy the male environment! The majority of inhabitants of hell are said to be women.
The more liberal wing of Islam attempts to smooth over the sensual and harsh nature of the "Prophet's" teachings (Ali 1946, 1464-70), but history is what it is!
The "heaven" of Joseph Smith Jr. bears no resemblance to the biblical domain of righteous bliss. In a "vision" allegedly received February 16, 1832, Joseph Smith claimed there are three levels of heavenly "glory": the Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestia — supposedly corresponding to the sun, moon, and stars (I Corinthians 15:41). Smith, who was significantly influenced by the dogma of Universalism (cf. Tanner 1987, 196ff), contended that most all of the human family eventually would inhabit one or the other of these spheres (Smith 1952, 76).
Celestial: This realm is blessed by the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is reserved for the faithful who accept the fullness of the gospel, together with those who would have done so had opportunity presented itself to them, as well as unaccountable children, and those who have entered the covenant of "celestial" marriage. Eventually all of these can evolve to the status of "gods."
Terrestrial: This state is inhabited by people who reject the gospel, but nonetheless are moral. It also is the abode of those who accept the gospel but do not remain faithful to the Lord. It houses as well those on whose behalf others obey the "post-mortem" plan of salvation ("baptism for the dead"). Finally, it includes the heathen who never was exposed to the truth. This sphere is blessed only by the Son and Holy Spirit.
Telestial: There is no such word as "telestial." It is a term coined by Smith to depict the state of those who "received not the gospel," and—along with liars, murderers, adulterers, and whoremongers—are thrust into the "eternal fire" of hell, but who are to be rescued from torment when Christ has finished his work (a clear contradiction). Only the Holy Spirit visits this place.
Ultimately, then, there is almost no one left for true everlasting punishment in hell — only Satan, his angels, and those who knew the full gospel but committed the unpardonable sin (yet see Matthew 25:46). It is not difficult to discern that Mormonism rivals Catholicism's idea of Purgatory. In fact, Joseph Smith came to believe there is no eternal punishment for any man (19.6).
The "Watchtower" Heaven
The Jehovah Witnesses have almost no concept of the distinction between literal and figurative language in the Bible. Accordingly, they extract two texts from highly symbolic portions of the book of Revelation (Revelation 7:1ff; 14:1ff) and conclude that "the final number of the heavenly church will be 144,000, according to God's decree" (Let God Be True 1946, 113). The balance of humanity, they contend, will live on God's glorified earth. (For a discussion of the "heavenly 144,000" theory, see Jackson 2004, 55-58.)
The "Heaven-on-Earth" Theory
The notion that this earth will be purged by fire at the end of time and restored to a material paradise is extremely popular in the denominational community. As Presbyterian scholar Charles Hodge declared: "Earth shall become heaven" (1860, 141).
Some of the restoration pioneers advocated a similar view, amidst other eschatological (end-of-time) confusion (e.g., millennialism), and there seems to be at least a minor escalation of this theory today among some younger preachers. There are serious fallacies associated with this concept:
- Repeatedly, the Bible makes a clear distinction between the heaven that is reserved for the saved, and the earth (see Matthew 5:34-35; 6:10, 19-20).
- The proof texts upon which the "heaven-on-earth" idea are based are: Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1. The fact is, each of these passages in context clearly demonstrates figurative language. In the Isaiah texts, the "new heavens" and "new earth" are symbols prefiguring the Christian dispensation (cf. Isaiah 65:17 with Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:6-9 and Isaiah 66:22 with Isaiah 2:2-4 and Isaiah 66:20b).
In II Peter 3:13 the "new earth" cannot be the present globe, for the same context indicates that at the Lord's return the earth shall be "burned up" or "dissolved" (II Peter 3:10-11).
Nor can Revelation 21:1 refer to the material earth, for that will have "passed away" and be "no more." (For a more extended discussion of this theme, see Will Heaven Be on Earth?.)
- There is a principle in logic which states that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. If 2+2=4, and 3+1=4, then 2+2 and 3+1 are math equivalents.
If it is the case that the faithful are promised a place that is called "heaven," which is distinguished from "earth," and likewise there is an eternal realm designated as the "new heavens and new earth," then it follows that the "new heavens and new earth" are the equivalent of heaven. The former is a figurative expression for the latter. Just as the "new heavens and new earth" of Isaiah's prophecies foretold of a new spiritual environment, the church, even so, the "new heavens and new earth" of both Peter and John speak of a new spiritual realm — heaven.
- Frequently it is claimed that Romans 8:20-22 teaches a restored earth in the final order of things. This is an unfounded conclusion. The material creation in this context has been personified so as to express the keen anticipation of the consummation of earth's affairs when its purpose has been realized.
This type of argument certainly is not without precedent in the Scriptures. In Psalm 114, the inspired writer describes the deliverance of Jehovah's people from Egyptian bondage. In conjunction with that glorious event, various elements of the creation are depicted as cooperating with, and rejoicing at, Israel's freedom. The sea saw it and fled, the mountains skipped as rams, the hills frolicked like little lambs, and the earth trembled.
The Old Testament is replete with this type of symbolism (cf. Psalms 96:12; 98:8; Isaiah 35:1; 55:12).
- Do the final two chapters of the book of Revelation represent a renovated material earth for people with physical bodies? Are there mountains, rivers, and animals, as some allege? Is Jerusalem a literal city with foundations, gates, jewels, etc.?
If one views the items mentioned in Revelation 21 in a material or physical sense, numerous problems arise. For example, if the language is literal, how can "Jerusalem" be both a "city" and a "bride"? If literalism prevails, why is Jerusalem a "city" in one verse, yet the "tabernacle" in another (Revelation 21:2-3)? Are not these figures of speech that represent the "peoples" of God (Revelation 21:3b)? How many other things in the Apocalypse must be literalized, e.g., incense, instruments of music, horses, a serpent, dragons, harlots? (For more on this, see below.)
Here is another interesting question: if the "new earth" is to be both material and physical, as many contend, what will happen on the last day of earth's history?
Since all dead bodies that come forth from the grave will be spiritual, and not physical (I Corinthians 15:44), won't the Lord, following the renovation of the earth, have to reconstitute the spiritual body, making it conform once more to the physical or material earth?
The Origin of the Theory
The fact is, this idea of "transforming" the earth had its origin in the pseudepigrapha literature of the inter-biblical period, and not in Scripture.
For instance, in the book of I Enoch, there is this statement: "I will transform the heaven and make it an eternal blessing; and I will transform the earth and make it a blessing" (I Enoch 45:4).
There are numerous other references of similar import. J. W. Roberts wrote:
"Some apocalyptic writers had thought that the present earth would merely be transformed (Jubilees 1:29; Enoch 45:1), though others predicted that "the first heaven will pass away, a new heaven will appear" (Enoch 91:16). This [latter view] accords with the New Testament expectation (Matthew 5:18; II Peter 3:12; Hebrews 12:27), though John does not describe the process of destruction. He has said, "...earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them" (Revelation 20:11)" (1974, 179).
Professor Frank Pack observed:
"This new heaven and new earth is that which is spoken of by our Lord. It would appear that this is best understood as the vision of heaven itself, thought of in terms of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city in the new heaven and the new earth" (1984, 93).
It is a most unfortunate thing that the true Bible teaching on heaven has been so misunderstood and misdirected — by well-meaning souls in some cases, by carnal and unscrupulous manipulators in other instances. Many are so earth-oriented in their perspective that they cannot possibly envision how they might be happy eternally in a purely spiritual realm. Hence, just as some have fashioned a "god" in their own image, materialistic people construct their "heaven" of earthly elements. Both are wrong!
Perhaps it would be fitting to conclude this segment with a comment on atheism's "heaven." It won't take long! For atheists there is no heaven—in more ways than one.
Unbelievers assume that the totality of man is flesh; there is no soul. When the brain dies it is the cessation of a mechanical process; one's existence ends. There is no consciousness ever again. Death supposedly is analogous to an automobile that is worn out and will never be operative henceforth.
Why then do we have funerals and cemeteries for our loved ones, but not for cars? Can a hunk of organized metal reason, express love or fear, feel guilt, or appreciate beauty? It taxes rationality to the breaking point to contend that matter is all there ever was, is, or will be with reference to a person.
If there is nothing after death, what is the difference between a Hitler, who murdered six million Jews, and the exterminator, who kills six million cockroaches?
Biblical Symbolism of Heaven
The study of heaven has been a much neglected theme. When William Shedd produced his celebrated work, Dogmatic Theology, he utilized only two pages on "heaven," while consuming eighty-seven pages on "hell"! (1971, 664-754). Surely heaven is worthy of greater attention.
What is God like as to his essence? Jesus declared that "God is spirit" (John 4:24), but who knows what spirit is? None of us has ever seen one. We know what spirit is not. It is not flesh, bones, or blood (Luke 24:39; Matthew 16:17), i.e., physical.
In view of the inability of the human mind to fathom the "deep things of God" (I Corinthians 2:10), the Scriptures accommodate our limitations by the use of figures of speech. One of these is called anthropomorphism ("man form"); this is describing God symbolically in human terms, e.g., eyes, ears, arms, hands (Isaiah 53:1; 59:1; Hebrews 4:13). It is a serious error to think of God the Father literally as a physical being, as our Mormon friends do (Smith, 130:22).
Similarly, heaven is a spiritual realm. The Bible, therefore, employs a variety of figures of speech to represent the grandeur of heaven, and it is a mistake to literalize these symbols. Yet such is common among well-meaning, though misguided, students.
Figures for Heaven
The Hebrew term samayim (heaven/s) is found 421 times in the Old Testament, and its corresponding Greek companion, ouranos, is employed 273 times in the New Testament. Both expressions are used in several different senses, in each case being defined by the context.
"Heaven" may refer to the realm of the birds (Genesis 1:26; Matthew 8:20) or the region of weather phenomena (Genesis 8:2; James 5:18). The term also can embrace what we call "outer space," the arena of the planets and stars (Genesis 1:14; 22:17).
Then there is the place where the abode of God is focused — called "heaven" (Matthew 6:9), the "heaven of heavens" (Deuteronomy 10:14), or "the third heaven" (II Corinthians 12:2).
There are many figures of speech that represent the heavenly sphere. Heaven is represented as a "city" (Hebrews 11:10) or a "country" (Hebrews 11:14-16). Jesus characterized it as both a "house" and a "place" (John 14:2). It may be depicted as a "temple" (Isaiah 6:1) or a "throne" (Matthew 5:34). It is called "glory" (I Timothy 3:16) and a "kingdom" (II Timothy 4:18). It is the ultimate "holy city, the new Jerusalem" (Revelation 21:2) and the garden-like Paradise of God (Revelation 2:7). It will be our eternal "home" (II Corinthians 5:8).
The New Jerusalem
In Revelation 21:1-22:5 there is a marvelous depiction of the celestial home of God's people. Symbolically it is represented as "a new heaven and a new earth," "the holy city, new Jerusalem." It is pictured as "coming down out of heaven" (Revelation 21:2). The "coming down" is not to be viewed as a "spatial" movement (Jones 1971, 116), as evidenced by the subsequent repetition of the phrase (Revelation 21:10). There is the suggestion of something which partakes of the "heavenly" nature.
This section of Revelation falls into four principal segments:
- its inhabitants, the redeemed (Revelation 21:1-8);
- its symbolic structure, in grandeur and scope (Revelation 21:9-21);
- its glory, safety, and sanctification (Revelation 21:22-27);
- the river of life (Revelation 22:1-5).
Let us consider these segments.
(Revelation 21:1-8) – There is a merging of several figures of speech as the image of the holy city itself gives place to its inhabitants, the victorious people of God—under the picture of a bride who has been made ready for her husband. The picture of the tabernacle appears, i.e., the dwelling place of God. He is personally with his people and they belong to him. All of their sorrows and pains are vanquished. Trials give way to "all things new."
The eternal God provides the "water of life" that will perpetually quench the thirst of the Lord's people. The reward has not been merited, but is freely given; yet, the gift has been bestowed only to those who, by obedient faith, have "overcome" (cf. Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). This place and people stand in stark contrast to the vile inmates of hell.
(Revelation 21:9-21) – There is now a symbolic depiction of the city. It is heavenly in nature, blessed with the glory of God himself. The city is surrounded by a wall, great and high — reflecting the concept of absolute security. The gates are ever open (Revelation 21:25); there is no threat from without; heaven's enemies have been dealt with already (Revelation 21:8).
On the gates are written the names of the tribes of Israel and the wall is undergirded by twelve foundations upon which are the names of the twelve apostles. The number twelve likely is a figure for the full complement of the redeemed—from both Old and New Testament eras. The symbolism is clear inasmuch as there were thirteen devout apostles. Literalizing the context is inexcusable.
The heavenly "Jerusalem" is represented as vast in area (1,500 miles in each direction — width, breadth, and height). It is perfectly clear that this is not a literally restored earthly Jerusalem. Coffman has shown that if one allows 1/10th of a mile to the level for the height, that would be 15,000 levels, allowing a floor space of more than thirty-three billion square miles, "many times the total area" of our planet (1979, 484). This is another indication that heaven is not a renovated "earth."
The cubed shape of the city is reminiscent of the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, which was the dwelling place of God (Exodus 25:22; I Kings 6:20). The unparalleled beauty and value of the city are portrayed by pure gold and brilliant gems. To illustrate, the "building of the wall was like jasper," even as "pure glass" (Revelation 21:18). The original term (iaspis) designates any opaque stone; it possibly refers to the diamond (Danker et al. 2000, 465). The term "building" (endomesis — used only here in the New Testament) can denote that which is built-in, or as we might describe it, inlaid. Here it may suggest a diamond-studded wall. As one writer noted, the "language breaks down in endeavoring to describe the radiance, the glory, the wealth, the beauty, and the magnificence of this great city" (Pack, 90).
(Revelation 21:22-27) – Both the Father and the Son become the divine sanctuary in this segment. Jesus also is represented as "the Lamb," referring, of course to his sacrifice for sin (John 1:29). The inseparable connection between the Father and the Lamb is clear testimony of the deity of the Son. Such is a strong indictment of cultists like the "Watchtower" devotees, who claim that Christ was "nothing more than a perfect man" (Let God Be True 1946, 87).
In this wondrous realm there is no "night," hence no need for artificial illumination—or even the sun—for the splendor of heaven is that of the glory of God and the Lamb (Revelation 22:5). This is another clue that this is not a renewed material universe. Mention of the "nations" (Revelation 21:24, 26) reveals that the population is international in composition (cf. Revelation 7:9).
The sustained purity of heaven is emphasized by the fact that nothing unclean will ever enter the sacred domain (cf. Revelation 22:15). Those who glory in their carnality should take careful note. Furthermore, heaven is reserved only for those whose names are written (perfect tense, "permanently written," [Revelation 21:27b]) in the Lamb's book of life. These are they who, by obedience to Christ, entered his spiritual body (I Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:26-27), the church (Colossians 1:18, 24), hence have been "enrolled" in heaven (Hebrews 12:23).
(Revelation 22:1-5) – There is a connection between the books of Genesis and Revelation. Things that went wrong at the commencement of human history, as revealed in Genesis, are shown now to be rectified in the eternal order of heavenly things. God's great plan has never failed in spite of the multitudes that are lost (Matthew 7:13-14; 22:14).
This section on heaven concludes with a discussion of the "river" of the "water of life," i.e., in the imagery, it is that which sustains life eternal (cf. John 4:13-14). The water issues from God's throne, a suggestion of divine authority. It is not that which man could initiate for himself.
All needs of the saints are provided — water to quench thirst, food from the tree of life to sustain, and perpetual health from the leaves of the tree of life. We must ever remind ourselves that these are spiritual symbols, for there is neither sickness nor death in heaven. Note that the "nations" stand healed. The nations that once made war with the Lamb have been conquered by his love (Roberts, 193).
The curse imposed in Eden has been removed forever. Those who have the Lamb's "name" on their forehead — a symbol of identification, perhaps suggesting also their mental assent to his teaching — bask in the radiance of his face and rejoice in serving him evermore. (For comments on the balance of this chapter, see Jackson, 223ff.)
The materialistic approach of many with regard to heaven — with its supposed literal buildings, streets, physical bodies, marriages, animals, etc. — that has consumed the sectarian community and is making in-roads in the church, is disturbing. It cannot but make one wonder how some people could ever expect to enjoy heaven once they are confronted with the reality that there will be no shopping malls, golf courses, fishing streams, or hunting seasons. No Monday Night Football or the legion of other material pursuits that utterly consume the attention of far too many professing disciples of the Lord. When baseball is thrilling, yet Bible study, prayer, and worship services are dull, the biblical heaven is lightyears from the heart.
Some Facts about Heaven
But what will heaven be like from a personal point of view? What are some of the qualities that will reward the believer who remains faithful, perhaps even in the face of pain and death? (Revelation 2:10). What makes our ultimate "home" so precious?
John wrote: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. From henceforth, yes says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; for their works follow with them" (Revelation 14:13). Note the following: "Blessed" (makarios) is a New Testament term that always describes people. It carries the idea of happiness, a state of bliss (cf. Matthew 5:3ff; John 13:17). It is the hope of every child of God (Titus 2:13).
This bliss is a present reality that extends into eternity. It is promised to those who die "in the Lord." One cannot die in the Lord who has lived out of the Lord. The happiness is accompanied by "rest" from "labor," a term that signifies work to the point of exhaustion — a condition that scarcely describes some members of the church. The rest is entered only by diligence (Hebrews 4:11).
The Reward of Reaping
The agricultural motif of sowing and reaping abounds in Scripture. Several principles of this symbol are: One reaps only the kind he has sown, whether for good or bad (Galatians 6:7-8). The harvest is more abundant than the quantity of the seed sown. The sower must be patient, for he will reap in due season if he does not faint — a warning about possible apostasy (Galatians 6:9).
Elsewhere the Lord provided other glimpses. In one of his parables he has a father say to his boy, "Son, go work today in the vineyard" (Matthew 21:28). There is an object of the command — the son; an obligation — work; the urgency — today; and the designated place — in the vineyard. There will be a glorious reward in heaven, but such will be realized only by obedient service.
A Realm of Righteousness
Heaven will be thrilling indeed because of the absolute goodness that characterizes it continuously. It will be inhabited by the Holy Godhead (Revelation 4:8), holy angels (Luke 9:26), and the "just" (i.e., justified) ones who have been made perfect (Hebrews 12:23).
There will be no police or prisons, and no "most-wanted." The pristine environment will be bereft of pimps, prostitutes, and porn-shops. There will be no sniffers, puffers, or drug-shooters who are "high" on "substance." Heaven will be void of all those renegades who have entered the bowels of everlasting hell (Matthew 25:41-46; II Thessalonians 1:7-9; Revelation 14:9-12; 21:8; 22:15).
A Region of Responsibility
Some may be alarmed to learn that heaven will not be a place of mere recreation and retirement, though an atmosphere of constant supreme joy will prevail. One writer, who has depicted heaven as a material kingdom on earth, crudely literalizes by describing it as a place of "partying," with amazing food and fine wine, along with music and dancing. (Lebhar 2006, 297). But the paradise of God will be a place of responsible service.
John declares that in heaven God's "servants shall serve him" (Revelation 22:3b)and such will be continuous (cf. Revelation 7:15). From our presently jaded vantage point, it is difficult to imagine that the thrill of serving God will be so consuming one will never grow weary of it. How this challenges our dull minds!
In one of his parables, Jesus told of ten servants who were entrusted by their master with money to invest in trading. When they were finally called to account, each was rewarded with responsibility in direct proportion to the manner in which he had utilized his preparatory ability (Luke 19:16-19). This seems to clearly indicate varying levels of responsibility in the heavenly administrations (cf. II Timothy 2:12; Revelation 3:21; 22:5).
Reunion and Recognition
When faithful Abraham died, he "was gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8). This cannot refer to the interment of his body, for his people were buried in Mesopotamia; but he was interred in Canaan. The phrase must allude to a reunion with faithful ancestral patriarchs. Both Jacob and David expected to be reunited with loved ones. The former anticipated going "to [his] son," Joseph, whom he perceived to be dead at this time (Genesis 37:35). Clearly David expected to see his sweet child in the afterlife (II Samuel 12:23).
Jesus told of many who "shall come from the east and the west [an allusion to the Gentiles], and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:11). As noted earlier, heaven will embrace an international conglomerate of saints. Such a promise implies an awareness of fulfillment when finally realized. Will we know Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Certainly. Will Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob know Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? There is clear recognition of kinsmen here.
The problem is frequently posed: "If I will know my loved ones who are in heaven, I certainly will know that some of them are not there! In that event, how could I possibly be happy?" Three things may be said about that. First, God will "fix" all potential problems; this is expressed in the promise that the Lord "will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Revelation 7:17; cf. Revelation 21:4). Second, with a tremendously heightened sense of spirituality, we will not view loved ones who died in rebellion to God with the same jaundiced vision we now have. Third, if the Lord himself can be happy (see "blessed" [makarios], "happy" – I Timothy 1:11; 6:15), with his greater love for humanity than any of us has, we should be confident that the joy of heaven will eclipse any and all sadness of this life's remembrances.
The Reliability of Our Hope
Since the Bible occasionally speaks of the prospect of heaven as a "hope," some are inclined to assign a rather weak meaning to "hope,"—as, for example, "I hope to strike it rich some day." That is not the significance of biblical hope. Genuine hope includes both a "desire" for something and a "confident expectation," or "solid assurance," of the goal to be attained (Mounce 2006, 340).
In Paul's magnificent defense of the gospel before the Roman governor Felix, he argued his case upon the hope that "there shall be a resurrection both of the just and unjust (Acts 24:15; cf. 23:6). Elsewhere, the apostle contends for the validity of the general resurrection on the basis of the historical certainty of Christ's resurrection.
In I Corinthians 15, Paul affirms that Jesus "was raised on the third day according to the scriptures" (I Corinthians 15:3). He introduces a string of witnesses to the risen Lord, not the least of which was a company of some five hundred people on one occasion, of whom most were still alive for examination (I Corinthians 15:6). He stakes the entire credibility of the Christian message upon Jesus' resurrection; upon that foundation our faith and hope are based (I Corinthians 15:16-19). Thus, our hope of eternal life (i.e., heaven) is grounded in that resurrection. Is, then, the resurrection narrative credible?
Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853), one of the founders of the Harvard Law School, was a world class legal scholar. His multi-volume work, A Treatise on the Law of Evidence, is considered one of the classics of judicial literature.
Greenleaf also produced a profound volume titled, The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice. Therein he forcefully demonstrated that the Gospel records pass the test of historical-legal credibility with flying colors. Christ was raised; there will be a general resurrection, and the righteous will enter heaven (John 5:28-29).
Oh the wonder of heaven! What confident anticipation undergirds the Christian's hope. Prepare for your eternal home!
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