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7 Things You Need To Know About Heaven

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Adriel Sanchez

Adriel Sanchez is pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he also serves the broader church as a host on the Core Christianity radio program, a live, daily call-in talk show where he answers listeners' questions about the Bible and the Christian faith. He and his wife Ysabel live in San Diego with their five children.

Heaven: How to Get There

Most Americans living in the United States believe in heaven. Pew Research released numbers in 2014 that indicated around 7 people in 10 understood heaven to be the place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.” A Pew Forum study conducted a few years prior found that when it came to the criteria for making it past the pearly gates, three opinions emerged: those who believe actions are the ticket; those who emphasize particular beliefs; and those who view “making it” as a combination of right faith and action. Whereas Americans are fairly unified in believing in heaven, we can’t agree on how to get there.

As religious pluralism has become more dominant in the United States, many – even professing Christians – have embraced the view that “all paths” can lead to God. You don’t need to take any particular route in the trek up the heavenly mountain, so long as you’re sincere, and lead a generally good life. The big question becomes, How good does one have to be to make it to the peak of Zion? The Bible’s answer may surprise you. “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Ps. 24:3-4)

According to Scripture, entrance into heaven isn’t for those who have lived pretty good lives – it’s for the blameless. Jesus shocked a crowd in his most famous sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20) You have to understand that for Jesus’ audience the Scribes and the Pharisees were the pinnacle of holiness. Externally they could maintain a decent front, but they continually broke God’s law in their hearts (Matt. 23:27). Heaven isn’t for people who can look pure on the outside, it’s for those who truly are pure in heart (Matt. 5:8).

Before you get discouraged, this is where the gospel comes in. You see, most people today understand that admission to heaven requires some degree of righteousness, they just never really say how much. God’s Word gives us the answer: we need a perfect righteousness. God supplies that righteousness for us in his Son, Jesus, who came and fulfilled all of the righteous requirements of the law on our behalf – and then suffered the curse of the law in our place. In Jesus, we are carried up the heavenly hill. He’s the way (John 14:6), and our forerunner (Heb. 6:20).

Psalm 24 goes on to suggest this very fact. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!” (v.7-8) The mighty warrior King, Jesus, enters through the ancient gates and brings his people with him. His clean hands were nailed to the cross, and his pure heart was stabbed by a Roman spear so that the blameworthy might become blameless, and the guilty justified.

How do we get to heaven? By trusting in Jesus Christ and receiving his free gift of righteousness by faith (Rom. 5:17). We can’t make the celestial climb on our own resources, and because heaven is a place of perfect purity, our inherent righteousness isn’t sufficient to earn heaven. God’s grace is revealed by giving us an “alien” righteousness: a righteous standing that doesn’t come from within us, but comes from outside of us. Jesus earned heaven by his life, and gifts it to his children by forgiving our sins and uniting us to himself.


Footnotes

  • http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/10/most-americans-believe-in-heaven-and-hell/

  • http://www.pewforum.org/2008/12/18/many-americans-say-other-faiths-can-lead-to-eternal-life/

  • http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2009/01/27/heaven-not-a-gated-community/

Is Heaven Going to Be Boring?

When the Bible describes God’s eternal kingdom, it paints a picture for us of the most glorious feast, nothing less than a heavenly party. These biblical depictions are important because it seems we can’t get the popular presentations of heaven—complete with halos and harps—out of our heads. At least for some of us, cloud hopping with background strings isn’t very appealing. The good news is, that image, however ingrained it may be, is nothing like what the Bible tells us heaven is going to be like. Note the words found in Isaiah:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Isa. 25:6-8)

We’re given a clue that this text is referring to the finality of God’s coming kingdom (what some theologians call the consummated kingdom) by the promise of “wiping away tears from all faces.” John, in the book of Revelation, uses this same picture to describe the new heavens and the new earth. He sees the heavenly Jerusalem descending upon the new earth and he hears a loud voice, saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” (Rev. 21:1-4) We’ll return to that passage in Isaiah 25, but for now, it’s important for us to see that heaven is going to be a feast. Not a feast with cold buffet food and Martinelli, but with the most flavorful meats, and the smoothest wines!

The other great thing about this feast is who we’ll get to eat with. Imagine sitting down with the saints throughout history who have followed Jesus. Eating with faithful mothers, missionaries, and martyrs. Jesus gave us a glimpse of the banquet table at one point in his ministry. While healing a certain soldier’s friend, Jesus praised the soldier’s faith, saying, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 8:11) We’ll get to recline with the great heroes of the faith, men, and women who have gone before us, and we’ll get to hear the stories of God’s deliverances firsthand from their glorified lips.

If we can recognize the patriarchs in heaven, then surely we will also be able to recognize our own loved ones in Christ who will be joining us at the feast. This means that heaven won’t only have the best food—it will have the best company, too.

Food, family, and friends are great, but the primary reason heaven isn’t going to be boring—the best thing about heaven—is that God will be there. The Psalmist understood this, saying, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” (Ps. 73:25) The Psalmist recognized that there’s nothing that compares to the beauty of God. For all eternity, God will captivate our hearts at the feast. His infinitude will never grow dim, and we will never be distracted. It’s the best party because he is the Lord of the feast, and God is a lavish host.

Worshipping with Angels

Heaven is filled with unending adoration of the Triune God. It’s not that there will be times of feasting, and times of worship (it isn’t uncommon today for people to limit the word “worship” to singing praise to God), but that every action in heaven will be a form of worship. In fact, the Bible frequently depicts heaven as God’s true temple, and temples are places of worship.

Just think of Moses’ construction of the tabernacle. God gave Moses very specific commands about how the tabernacle was to be built, and this was because it was to mirror God’s dwelling place in heaven. In the book of Hebrews we read that the Old Testament priesthood that served in the temple “served a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’” (Heb. 8:5) The earthly tabernacle was a visual aid that gives us an earthly representation of the heavenly reality. Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III gives us a glimpse into the tabernacle:

The air inside the tabernacle was often cloudy from incense and the smoke of sacrifices, the latter coming in from the outside. Nonetheless, as one stood in the tabernacle and looked around, he would see a deep blue background with images of cherubim looking as though suspended in midair… it is hard to miss the idea that the impression was to be a heavenly one. As one walked into the tabernacle, he would be symbolically transferred from an earthly location to a (symbolically at least) heavenly one.

This same experience is carried into the Jerusalem temple built by Solomon. When Isaiah received his vision of God’s throne room in heaven, he saw with his own eyes the angels worshipping God saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa. 6:3) The glimpses we receive of heaven throughout the Old Testament confirm that it is fundamentally a place of praise.

When we turn to the New Testament, heaven is also depicted as a mountain of worship, “Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” where there are innumerable angels in festal gathering (Heb. 12:22-23). In the book of Revelation, we learn that in the New Jerusalem God himself will be the temple (21:22), and elsewhere we see God’s throne surrounded by all creation crying out, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13) Imagine singing the praises of God with people from all places and times, alongside of angelic creatures whose beauty our minds can only begin to fathom. Perfected voices will sound off in an antiphonal chorus of saints and seraphim, magnifying the one who is enthroned, and the redeemer of humanity, the Lamb!


Footnotes

  • Longman III, Tremper. Immanuel in Our Place. Pg. 29

No More Tears

The temple imagery of heaven reveals to us that heaven is not only a place of praise, but a place of peace. In the Old Testament, King David had his heart set on building a temple for God to dwell in. Although his intentions were good, and he would help to prepare the way for its eventual construction, David was not permitted by God to follow through with his heart’s desire. The reason given for this is found in 1 Chronicles 22:7-8, where David explained to his son, Solomon, “My son, I had it in my heart to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on earth.’”

God did not want his temple to be associated with the pain of bloodshed, and hence, David was not allowed to be the chief architect of the building project. Instead, David’s son Solomon (whose name is derived from the Hebrew word for peace, shalom) would construct the temple. Since the temple itself was simply a model of God’s heavenly dwelling, God was demonstrating through this that ultimately heaven would be a place where war and sorrow came to an end. Heaven is where the brokenness of humanity and the tears shed because of disappointment and death are no more.

Isaiah 25 speaks of God swallowing up death forever and wiping the tears from our faces. John heard a loud voice from God’s throne saying, “God 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.” (Rev. 21:4) In heaven, death itself will pass away, along with every cause for pain that we’ve experienced on earth. The pain of rejection, the pain of injustice, the pain of terminal illness, the pain of abuse, the pain of hunger; all of the tears which God has recorded (Ps. 56:8) will be wiped away. The vicious stinger of death, sin (1 Cor. 15:56), will be finally and forever removed, and we will be freed to feast with God having shed the struggles that characterized our former lives.

There’s one more thing that should be said as we consider an existence without sorrow. That is, our suffering today – as bad as it may be – will be so eclipsed by the world to come that the present plight will seem small. This is not the Bible’s way of downplaying our suffering, rather, it demonstrates that somehow heaven is going to be so magnificent that the old world’s pain won’t bleed into the new creation. Paul said, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17) There’s no comparison between the light and temporal pain we face today and the massive weight of glory we’ll feel in God’s presence. In the words of Randy Alcorn, “Even the most painful experience in life is but a temporary setback. Our pain and suffering may or may not be relieved in this life, but they will certainly be relieved in the next. That is Christ’s promise.”


Footnotes

  • I’m indebted to Longman Immanuel pg. 41 for the correlation between the temple and peace.

  • Alcorn, Randy Heaven Pg. 460

Being Heavenly Minded Will Make You Earthly Good

There’s an old saying that goes, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” Is it the case that the more we focus on heaven, the more we neglect the world around us? At least historically for followers of Jesus, this has not been true. C.S. Lewis wrote,

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven.

Sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the hope of eternal reward gave the early church the ability to care for society in unprecedented ways. This was especially demonstrated by the Christian responses to various plagues that struck the Roman empire. When all others fled for the hills, it was the church – armed with nothing more than heavenly minds – that cared for the diseased and dying. The belief in a God of love together with the hope of eternal life hasn’t historically resulted in negligence on the part of the church. In fact, the very opposite is true! When we lose the hope of heaven, and abandon the promises of Scripture, it’s then that we begin to live selfishly.

The apostle Paul made it absolutely clear that believers are supposed to keep their eyes fixed on heaven. He wrote, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Col. 3:2) In Paul’s mind, fixing our eyes above doesn’t result in laziness, but in godliness. As he continued his words in Colossians 3, he explained that God’s heaven-gazing children are to live lives of compassion and service (verses 12 and following). The connection between our heavenly hope and godly living is also picked up by the apostle Peter:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Pet. 3:11-14)

Our lives today should be characterized by the virtues of heaven. The fruit of the Spirit of the age to come can already be tasted in this present evil age. The love which we experience in fellowship today will be one of the few things that we’ll get to carry into eternity (1 Cor. 13:8-13). As we set our hope on heaven, and more specifically on Christ who awaits us there (Heb. 12:2), we experience the transforming power of God that frees us to lay aside our sins, and seek the good of our neighbors.


Footnotes

  • Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity Pg. 134

  • See Stark, Rodney The Rise of Christianity Chapters 4 and 8.

Resurrection Bodies

When many people think about heaven today, they picture what theologians sometimes refer to as the intermediate state. When we die, our bodies are separated from our spirits. Our spirits enter into the presence of the Lord, and our bodies remain on the earth. Speaking about our heavenly dwelling, Paul said, “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:6-8)

Entering into the presence of Christ in heaven is going to be far better than any earthly experience we’ve had (Phil. 1:23), but it isn’t our final hope. This is why this period is called the intermediate state, because it lies between our present earthly existence, and our final glorification. Our redemption is holistic in that it includes not just the salvation of our souls, but also our bodies! Paul says, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil. 3:20-21)

This means that our ultimate destiny isn’t some sort of eternal disembodied existence, but an embodied life of worship. The reunification of our bodies and spirits will take place on the Last Day described in 1 Corinthians 15:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (vs. 50-53)

Picture the day when our lowly bodies, which succumb to sickness and death, will be changed and clothed with immortality. It’s this resurrection that Christians have always held as the ultimate hope of our union with Jesus. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:5) The ancient Christian creed written in the 5th century, the Nicene Creed, concludes, “…I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” For the last 2,000 years, Christians have confidently looked forward to the new – glorified – bodies which God will bestow upon us.

What will these bodies be like? The new bodies which God will raise us up with are like Jesus’ current glorified body. He met with his disciples after his resurrection and walked with them upon the earth. Our Lord’s body could be felt (Jn 20:27), and could consume food (Jn. 21:9-19). Jesus stressed that he wasn’t a phantom, or a spirit (Lk. 24:39), but a glorified person. One day, through Christ’s work on our behalf, we will be too!

Heaven on Earth

Ironically, we cannot talk about the hope of heaven without also talking about the restoration of earth. Just as our spirits will be joined to our bodies, one day heaven and earth will be joined so that the planet will be heavenized. John received a vision of this grand union, likened to a marriage ceremony, at the end of the book of Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’ (Rev. 21:1-3)

The heavenized earth will be absolutely stunning. God’s throne will be the focal point of the new creation, and from it will flow the river of the water of life that nourishes the tree of life (Rev. 22:1-2). This imagery at the end of the Bible of the river of life together with the tree of life (along with the reality of God dwelling among his people) is reminiscent of the garden of Eden (Gen 2:10 & 3:24). Like the temple in Jerusalem, Eden itself served as another visual depiction of heaven. The most beautiful Hawaiian sunset or breathtaking alpine vista, the most magnificent human city or ornate place of worship are all but small foretastes of the city which God has prepared for us. When heaven and earth merge, earth will become the ultimate paradise, permeated with the glory of God. This is in ultimate fulfillment of what the prophets anticipated (Hab. 2:14; Isa. 6:3), and it should be the expectation of every believer in Jesus Christ.

The final state of the universe reveals to us that God cares about the created world which he made. God doesn’t abandon his creation. He doesn’t only save our souls and leave our corpses to perish along with the cosmos. God restores everything, and through the gospel of Jesus Christ, we look forward not only to the redemption of our spirits, but of our bodies, and of the whole created order. Paul said, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:20-21) The abolishing of sin and death will lift the ancient curse upon the earth described in Genesis 3:17-18, and all creation will praise its maker.

In this new creation, God’s glorified people will dwell forever upon a glorified earth. We will join the festal choirs of angels, and we will quench our thirst with the water of life, and feed upon the tree of life. There will be no more songs of lament, only hymns of praise to him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb – who opened for us the gates to paradise through the wood of the cross.


Footnotes

  • See the wonderful description of this in Meredith Kline’s God Heaven and Har Magedon. (Pg. 28)