The great hope of Christians is not that they will go to heaven when they die, but that Jesus will raise them from the dead in an incorruptible body to live with him and the rest of God’s people in the new creation. The physicality of the new creation city that John reveals in Revelation 21 has led Christians through the ages to envision the new creation as a material place much like our own world but without sin and the suffering that sin has caused.
If the new creation will be a physical place populated by the people of God in physical bodies, then an obvious question follows: “Who will we know in heaven?” Although the Bible doesn’t directly answer the question, there are many clues in Scripture that give us the sense that we will know and be known by others in the new creation.
When Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob died, these patriarchs of the Old Testament were said to be “gathered to [their] people” (Gen. 25:8; 35:29; 49:33). Some scholars see this as merely a euphemism for death, but it is more likely that these old covenant believers understood that death was not the end of their existence, that they would see and be with their family who had died before them.
When King Saul consults the medium of Endor and asks her to summon the prophet Samuel from the grave, he recognizes the old man wrapped in a robe as the dead prophet (1 Sam. 28:14), and Samuel also recognizes Saul as the one who has “disturbed” him from the grave.
When King David mourns the death of the son he had with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:23), David tells his servants that even though the child cannot return to him, David will go to him when he dies. David expects to see that particular child again after he dies.
In Matthew 22:23–33, the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection) try to trick Jesus by asking a ridiculous question about a woman who through Levirate marriage was married to seven brothers: “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” Jesus answers that in the resurrection people will neither marry nor will they be given in marriage, suggesting that the people we knew and had relationships with in this life will be with us in the new creation but related to us in a different way.
Jesus goes on to rebuke the Sadducees by reminding them that God is not the “God of the dead, but of the living.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob kept their names in heaven, and it is also likely that they kept some key part of their identity intact—knowable by their family and others.
In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:23), the rich man—though in torment in Hades—recognizes both Lazarus (someone he knew on earth) and Abraham (someone he did not know).
Paul comforts the Corinthian church by reminding them that Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23), and just as his resurrection body was recognizable by his disciples, the implication is that ours will be as well.
Sometimes, family members of those who died after extreme illness, pain, or suffering will say things such as “She’s dancing with Jesus now!” While we can appreciate the sentiment of safety, renewal, and hope those words express, they are not yet true. When believers die, we wait in heaven for the resurrection of our bodies.
Like the saints who are gathered under the throne of God in Revelation 6:9–11, we will wait as disembodied spirits for the victory of God to be made complete. But as we wait, and especially when our bodies and souls are reunited in the new creation, we will remain the particular people we are today, knowing not just those whom we loved in this life but also those such as the Old Testament patriarchs and the New Testament apostles who were loved by God.
Our reunion at that Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–10) will be like the best party where old friends reunite and where new friends feel like old friends after the first toast. Gathered together by the God of the living, we will with one voice praise our Savior. We do not know today exactly what we will look like, or if children who died will be raised as adults, or if…the questions are almost endless! So, with the Apostle John in 1 John 3:2, we simply say, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Adapted from Eric Landry, “Who Will We Know in Heaven?,” Modern Reformation, Sep/Oct 2016. Used by permission.