Heaven When We Die?

in a somewhat condescending way, the long-standing belief among evangelicals that when Christians die they go to heaven. In one sense, this outcry is good and constructive. It is an understandable and much-needed response to the unbiblical gnosticism of some “fundamentalist” Christians who denigrate material creation, diminish the reality of a future bodily resurrection, and fail to reckon with the centrality in God’s redemptive purpose of the New Heavens and especially the New Earth.

So, is my answer to the question posed in the title, No? Not quite. My answer is: Immediately, Yes. Eternally, No. Or again, to simplify, when a Christian dies he/she immediately passes into the conscious presence of Christ in heaven. But when the day of resurrection arrives, he/she will be given a new and glorified body in which all of God’s people will live and flourish on the New Earth (of Revelation 21-22).

What we’re talking about is known as the intermediate state, that period and/or experience of the individual believer between (hence, “intermediate”) the time of physical death and bodily resurrection. The biblical evidence for the intermediate state is unmistakable: see 2 Cor. 5:6-9; Phil. 1:21-24; Luke 16:19-31; Heb. 12:22-24; Rev. 6:9-11 (and perhaps 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Our focus here is 2 Corinthians 5:6-9. But first, a brief word about 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 is in order.

In these verses Paul speaks of his desire to be alive when Christ returns, for then he would not have to die physically and experience the separation of body and spirit, a condition he refers to as being “naked” (v. 3) or “unclothed”. Paul’s perspective on life and death may therefore be put in this way: It is good to remain alive on this earth to serve Christ (Phil. 1:21a,22a,24-26). On the other hand, it is better to die physically and enter into the presence of Christ (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21b,23). However, it is by far and away best to be alive when Christ returns, for then we avoid death altogether and are immediately joined with the Lord in our resurrected and glorified bodies.

According to 2 Cor. 5:3, if the believer remains alive until Christ returns she will be found by the Lord clothed with a body (the present, earthly one), and not in a disembodied state. To be without a body is to be “naked” and thus in a very important sense unnatural and less than ideal. Clearly, Paul envisaged a state of disembodiment between physical death and the general resurrection (cf. “unclothed” in v. 4). Verse 4 I take to be an expanded repetition of v. 2.

We now turn our attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6-9. There Paul writes:

“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. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:6-9).

Note first of all the contrast set forth in vv. 6 and 8. The contrast is not primarily between two modes of human existence, as if one is in the body and one out of the body (although this is a valid contrast); nor is the contrast primarily that between two possible relationships to the Lord: one with the Lord and one away from the Lord (although again this is valid enough in itself). Paul’s primary contrast is between two successive spheres of Christian residence or existence: now in the body and then with the Lord. The major point, therefore, is that life now in the body is to be followed immediately by life then with Christ.

IN the body = ABSENCE from the Lord
OUT OF the body = PRESENCE with the Lord

As one must be either in or out of his body (for there is no third alternative), so he must either be absent from or present with the Lord (for there is no third alternative). In 2 Cor. 5:1-5 Paul has shown that physical death means the loss of bodily existence. Here he explains what this entails for the Christian. There are but two possible modes of existence for us: if we are physically alive and in our bodies we are absent from Christ / if we die physically and leave our bodies we are present with Christ. The two experiences are mutually exclusive. Departure from mortal corporeality on earth marks the beginning of residence with the Lord in heaven. Continue reading

Worship in Heaven

Blog article: tribe, people, and language—will gather to sing praise to God for his greatness, wisdom, power, grace, and mighty work of redemption (Revelation 5:13-14). Overwhelmed by his magnificence, we will fall on our faces in unrestrained happiness and say, “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” (Revelation 7:9-12).

People of the world are always striving to celebrate—they just lack ultimate reasons to celebrate (and therefore find lesser reasons). As Christians, we have those reasons—our relationship with Jesus and the promise of Heaven. “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” (Revelation 21:3). Does this excite you? If it doesn’t, you’re not thinking correctly.

As I share in my book Heaven, I find it ironic that many people stereotype life in Heaven as an interminable church service. Apparently, church attendance has become synonymous with boredom. Yet meeting God—when it truly happens—will be far more exhilarating than a great meal, a poker game, hunting, gardening, mountain climbing, or watching the Super Bowl. Even if it were true (it isn’t) that church services must be dull, there will be no church services in Heaven. The church (Christ’s people) will be there. But there will be no temple, and as far as we know, no services (Revelation 21:22).

Will we always be engaged in worship? Yes and no. If we have a narrow view of worship, the answer is no. But if we have a broad view of worship, the answer is yes. As Cornelius Venema explains, worship in Heaven will be all-encompassing:

“No legitimate activity of life—whether in marriage, family, business, play, friendship, education, politics, etc.—escapes the claims of Christ’s kingship. . . . Certainly those who live and reign with Christ forever will find the diversity and complexity of their worship of God not less, but richer, in the life to come. Every legitimate activity of new creaturely life will be included within the life of worship of God’s people.” [1]

Will we always be on our faces at Christ’s feet, worshiping Him? No, because Scripture says we’ll be doing many other things—living in dwelling places, eating and drinking, reigning with Christ, and working for Him. Scripture depicts people standing, walking, traveling in and out of the city, and gathering at feasts. When doing these things, we won’t be on our faces before Christ. Nevertheless, all that we do will be an act of worship. We’ll enjoy full and unbroken fellowship with Christ. At times this will crescendo into greater heights of praise as we assemble with the multitudes who are also worshiping Him.

Worship involves more than singing and prayer. I often worship God while reading a book, riding a bike, or taking a walk. I’m worshiping him now as I write. Yet too often I’m distracted and fail to acknowledge God along the way. In Heaven, God will always be first in my thinking.

Even now, we’re told, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). That God expects us to do many other things, such as work, rest, and be with our families, shows that we must be able to be joyful, pray, and give thanks while doing other things.

Have you ever spent a day or several hours when you sensed the presence of God as you hiked, worked, gardened, drove, read, or did the dishes? Those are foretastes of Heaven—not because we are doing nothing but worshiping, but because we are worshiping God as we do everything else.

In Heaven, where everyone worships Jesus, no one says, “Now we’re going to sing two hymns, followed by announcements and prayer.” The singing isn’t ritual but spontaneous praise (Revelation 5:11-14). If someone rescued you and your family from terrible harm, especially at great cost to himself, no one would need to tell you, “Better say thank you.” On your own, you would shower Him with praise. Even more will you sing your Savior’s praises and tell of His life-saving deeds!

[1] Cornelius P. Venema, The Promise of the Future (Trowbridge, UK: Banner of Truth, 2000), 478.

Heaven for Eternity?

heavenIn an article entitled “Where God’s People Go When They Die,” Randy Alcorn writes:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. — 1 Thessalonians 4:13

When Marco Polo returned to Italy from the court of Kublai Khan, he described a world his audience had never seen—one that could be understood only through the eyes of imagination. Not that China was an imaginary realm, but it was very different from Italy. Yet, as two locations on planet Earth inhabited by human beings, they had much in common. The reference points of Italy allowed a basis for understanding China, and the differences could be spelled out from there.

The writers of Scripture present Heaven in many ways; for instance, as a garden, a city, a country, and a kingdom. We’re familiar with gardens, cities, countries, and kingdoms; they serve as mental bridges to help us understand Heaven.

Usually when we refer to Heaven, we mean the place where Christians go when they die. When we tell our children, “Grandma’s now in Heaven,” we’re referring to the intermediate, or present, Heaven. The term intermediate doesn’t mean it is halfway between Heaven and Hell, in some kind of purgatory or second-rate place. The intermediate Heaven is fully Heaven, fully in God’s presence, but it is intermediate in the sense that it’s temporary, not our final destination. Though it is a wonderful place, and we’ll love it there, it is not the place we are ultimately made for, and it is not the place where we will live forever. God has destined his children to live as resurrected beings on a resurrected Earth.

So, as wonderful as the intermediate Heaven is, we must not lose sight of our true destination, the New Earth, which will also be in God’s presence (because that’s what Heaven is, the central place of God’s dwelling).

Will Christians live in Heaven forever? The answer depends on what we mean by Heaven. Will we be with the Lord forever? Absolutely. Will we always be with him in exactly the same place that Heaven is now? No.

In the present Heaven, everyone is in Christ’s presence, and everyone is joyful. But everyone is also looking forward to Christ’s return to Earth, when they will experience their resurrection and walk on the earth again.

It may seem strange to say that the Heaven we go to at death isn’t eternal, but it’s true. Let me suggest an analogy to illustrate the difference between the intermediate Heaven and the eternal Heaven. Suppose you live in a homeless shelter in Miami. One day you inherit a beautiful house in Santa Barbara, California, fully furnished, on a gorgeous hillside overlooking the ocean. With the home comes a wonderful job doing something you’ve always wanted to do. Not only that, but you’ll also be near close family members who moved from Miami many years ago.

On your flight to Santa Barbara, you’ll change planes in Denver, where you’ll spend an afternoon. Some other family members, whom you haven’t seen in years, will meet you at the Denver airport and board the plane with you to Santa Barbara, where they have inherited their own beautiful houses on another part of the same vast estate. Naturally, you look forward to seeing them. Now, when the Miami ticket agent asks you, “Where are you headed?” would you say, “Denver”? No. You would say, “Santa Barbara,” because that’s your final destination. If you mentioned Denver at all, you would say, “I’m going to Santa Barbara by way of Denver.”

When you talk to your friends in Miami about where you’re going to live, would you focus on Denver? No. You might not even mention Denver, even though you will be a Denver-dweller for several hours. Even if you left the airport and spent a day or a week in Denver, it still wouldn’t be your focus. Denver is just a stop along the way. Your true destination—your new long-term home—is in Santa Barbara.

Similarly, the Heaven we will go to when we die, the intermediate Heaven, is a temporary dwelling place. It’s a wonderfully nice place (much better than the Denver airport!), but it’s still a stop along the way to our final destination: the New Earth. It will be great to see friends and family in the present Heaven whom we haven’t seen for a while. But like us, they will be looking forward to the resurrection, after which we will actually live on the estate that God is preparing for us.

Another analogy is more precise but also more difficult to envision, because for most of us it’s outside our experience. Imagine leaving the homeless shelter in Miami and flying to the intermediate location, Denver, and then turning around and going back to your city of origin, which has been completely renovated—a New Miami. In this New Miami, you would no longer live in a homeless shelter but in a beautiful house in a glorious pollution-free, crime-free, sin-free city. So you would end up living not in a new home but in a radically improved version of your old home.

This is what the Bible promises us—we will live with Christ and one another forever, not in the present Heaven, but on the New Earth, which God will make into Heaven by virtue of the location of his throne and his presence, and where he will forever be at home with his people.

Calvin’s Maladies and the Longing for Heaven

the wife of one of the more important leaders of the Protestant Reformation in France. She had recently recovered from a struggle with numerous physical afflictions. In direct reference to her diseases, and all of ours as well, Calvin said:

“They [that is, our physical afflictions and diseases] should, moreover, serve us for medicines to purge us from worldly affections, and retrench [i.e., remove] what is superfluous in us, and since they are to us the messengers of death, we ought to learn to have one foot raised to take our departure when it shall please God” (John Calvin, Selected Works, Vol. 7; 1551; ed. H. Beveridge and J. Bonnet [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983], 331ff.; emphasis mine).

We ought to learn from our physical afflictions, said Calvin, to live every day with “one foot raised” to take our departure into heaven when it shall please God. Do we live every day with one foot lifted ever so deftly off the ground in constant alert and anxious expectation of the moment when we will depart this world and enter into the splendor of heaven and the presence of God himself? I strongly suspect that Calvin did, and that there is much about living now in expectation of that day that we can learn from him.

Calvin is a remarkably helpful guide, a man of great wisdom, insight, and personal energy when it comes to thinking about the resurrection of the body and our anticipation of eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth. We see this in no fewer than four ways.

First, Calvin was in the truest sense of the term a pilgrim on this earth. Calvin knew from personal experience what it meant to be a sojourner and an exile in this life. In his commentary on 1 Peter 2:11, Calvin describes the children of God, “wherever they may be, as “only guests in this world” (Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, translated and edited by the Rev. John Owen [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005], Vol. 22, p. 78). As he reflected on Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3:1 that we “seek the things that are above,” he argued that only in doing so shall we embrace our identity as “sojourners in this world,” that is to say, people who “are not bound to it” (Commentaries on The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, translated by the Rev. John Pringle [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005], Vol. 21, p. 205).

Nowhere does this emphasis in Calvin come out with greater clarity than in his comments on Hebrews 11 and 13. Calvin concludes from 11:16, where the author mentions the patriarchs’ “desire” for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” “that there is no place for us among God’s children, except we renounce the world, and that there will be for us no inheritance in heaven, except we become pilgrims on earth” (Commentary on The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, translated by the Rev. John Owen [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005], vol. 22, p. 285 [yes, Calvin believed Paul wrote Hebrews]). His observations on 13:14 are especially instructive. There the author of Hebrews describes the perspective of all believers in saying: “For here [i.e., on this earth] we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” In light of this, says Calvin, we should consider that

“we have no fixed residence but in heaven. Whenever, therefore, we are driven from place to place, or whenever any change happens to us, let us think of what the Apostle teaches us here, that we have no certain abode on earth, for heaven is our inheritance; and when more and more tried, let us ever prepare ourselves for our last end; for they who enjoy a very quiet life commonly imagine that they have a rest in this world: it is hence profitable for us, who are prone to this kind of sloth, to be often tossed here and there, that we who are too much inclined to look on things below, may learn to turn our eyes up to heaven” (ibid., 349).

This keen sense of being a pilgrim and sojourner on earth was reinforced in Calvin’s heart by the harsh realities of his life. Forced to flee Paris because of his inflammatory remarks about the Roman Catholic Church and the need for reform, Calvin is reported to have descended from a window by means of bed-sheets and escaped from the city disguised as a vine-dresser with a hoe upon his shoulder. The next two years were spent as a wandering student and evangelist. He settled in Basel, hoping to spend his life in quiet study. Calvin returned to Paris in 1536 to settle some old financial matters. He decided to go from there to Strasbourg to be a scholar, but as a result of his famous encounter with William Farel ended up in Geneva. Trouble erupted when he and Farel sought to administer church discipline and to restrict access to the Lord’s Table to those who were spiritually qualified. The two were literally kicked out of town in April of 1538. Continue reading

Why Heaven?

So why John would you think you are fit to enter heaven after death?

In and of myself, I have no hope WHATSOEVER of entrance into God’s heaven. My only hope is found in the word SUBSTITUTION – that there was One who stood in my place, that my very own sins were transferred to Him as He hung on the tree, that He bore the punishment that was mine, that He died in my place, that He drank the bitter cup of Divine wrath for me; and that grace upon grace, the righteous life of that One was credited to my account when I trusted in Him, and that I stand in His righteousness alone. I have no other plea but this: that based on the sure foundation of SCRIPTURE ALONE, that CHRIST ALONE the Perfect Savior is my Subsitute, and that He is mine by GRACE ALONE, through FAITH ALONE, to the GLORY OF GOD ALONE.

Concerning Differing Degrees of Reward in Heaven

Luke 19:16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’

18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’

Jonathan Edwards was a wonderful and precious gift of the ascended Christ to His Body, the Church (Eph 4:7-14). Through his writings, he remains so.

Some years ago, John Piper recorded a section of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon preached in December, 1740, on Romans 2:10. Dr. Piper regards this section as the best thing he has ever read on the issue of varying degrees of reward, glory, happiness and holiness in heaven. I would agree.

I believe Jonathan Edwards provides satisfying answers to questions such as “how is it possible that there are varying rewards in heaven and yet it also be the place of supreme happiness for the saints?”

It is vintage Edwards. He has obviously given this a great deal of thought as he has pondered and meditated deeply on the biblical texts.

It comes from page 902 of the second volume of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. It last about 7 minutes and can be found here.