If you knew for certain that you only had three days left to live on Earth, how would you spend your remaining time? Recently I posed this question to a group of high school seniors. Their answers included skydiving, traveling, surfing, and (of course) sex. I followed up with a simple question, “So you think there may be some pleasures and experiences in this life that if you don’t partake of them before you die, you may miss out in Heaven?” All but two of them said, “Yes.”
Sadly, the prospect of Heaven had simply not captured their imaginations. Despite the unsurpassable majesty of Heaven, they thought there were experiences in this life that could be more fulfilling and exciting. Could the same be true for us? Is it possible that we have failed to capture the wondrous beauty of Heaven?
In a quote from Randy Alcorn’s book, “Heaven,” science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov writes, “I don’t believe in the afterlife, so I don’t have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.” This view, sadly, is common even among Christians. Our vision of Heaven is often limited to an extended, boring, uninspiring church service. Somehow Heaven has not captured our imaginations and transformed our lives.
How did this happen? Where did we get such a view of Heaven?
Lacking an eternal perspective can set us—and in particular, young people—up for discouragement and sin. So many of us think there are certain pleasures that if we don’t experience them now, we may never. Since God will forgive us, why not indulge? So many of us think we want sex, money, drugs, good grades and popularity. But what we were truly made for is to be in relationship with God and others now and, ultimately, to dwell in Heaven. Missing this truth can have disastrous consequences in this life.
In Alcorn’s provocative book “Heaven” the author demonstrates that an unbiblical view of Heaven has deeply infiltrated the church. In fact, he says that if we truly understood the reality of Heaven, it would radically transform our present lives. We would have far more resolve and boldness if we saw the world from an eternal perspective.
What is Heaven like?
We have too often been taught to “spiritualize” the new Heaven and new Earth into a non-physical realm. But here is the problem with such a view: The New Heaven and New Earth can’t be merely spiritual (understood as non-physical) for we will be resurrected. A non-physical resurrection is like a colorless rainbow. It’s a contradiction! We have misunderstood the biblical doctrine that the New Heavens and New Earth are a physical place where God and his people live together, surrounded by physical beauty with real gardens, cities, kingdoms, rivers and banquets. We will be resurrected with physical bodies to live in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
The world we live in now offers us a glimpse of the joys and pleasures we will experience in the New Heavens and New Earth. Alcorn explains, “All our lives we’ve been dreaming of the New Earth. Whenever we see beauty in water, wind, flower, deer, man, woman, or child, we catch a glimpse of Heaven. Just like the Garden of Eden, the New Earth will be a place of sensory delight, breathtaking beauty, satisfying relationships, and personal joy.” In other words, the greatest joys of life in the present are merely signposts to an even greater reality in Heaven. Consider a few of the biblical descriptions of Heaven.
Heaven as home
Heaven is described as home: After a long trip on the road does anything seem more appealing than going home? Sleeping in our own beds, a home-cooked meal and fellowship with family and friends are some of the greatest joys in life. When Jesus spoke of his pending death, he spoke of building us a home with his Father in heaven (John 14:2). To understand Heaven is to grasp the real meaning of home. Undoubtedly many people have had difficult home lives. But our true home in Heaven will have all the good aspects of home, increased many times, without any of the bad.
Heaven as community
There will be community in Heaven. Without the presence of sin we will be free to be more relational than we are now. Heaven is not like the Buddhist nirvana, where people lose their individual personalities. Rather, we will maintain our identities, memories, gifts and passions to be used for God’s glory and the good of the larger community. The New Jerusalem in Heaven is often described as a city of dazzling beauty (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21:2). Cities are full of inhabitants, streets, buildings, cultural events, entertainment, athletics, and other community events. If the New Jerusalem didn’t have these city-defining characteristics, then why would Scripture so often refer to it as a city? Heaven will have the positive aspects of the city minus the crime, poverty, pollution and corruption that mark cities today. To imagine such a beautiful community is to take a large step toward envisioning the world God is planning to bring about as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Heaven as rest
Heaven is described as a place of rest. One reason we will rest is because we will serve God in Heaven. There will be work in Heaven! But this is not work as we often experience it today. There will not be pressing deadlines, stressful co-workers, homework assignments or bitter competition. Rather, we will feel truly fulfilled because we will work in a manner fitting to the way God has designed each of us. The pain, corruption and sin that tarnish work today will be gone forever. We will be free to work for the benefit of God, others, and ourselves. Have you ever felt truly fulfilled as a person? Have you ever felt the power of truly serving other people? That was a small taste of what work will be like in Heaven. And as a result of our work in Heaven we will experience the most peaceful and fulfilling rest imaginable.
Will there be sex in heaven? While there may not be sexual intercourse as we presently understand it, there will be deep pleasures beyond anything we can presently grasp. In his book “Miracles,” C.S. Lewis explains how sex is a signpost for an even greater fulfillment in heaven:
“I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.”
Will there be animals in Heaven? While the Bible does not answer this question conclusively, there are significant clues indicating that animals will be with us in Heaven. For one thing, animals have always played a significant role in God’s creation. Animals populated the Garden of Eden, God saved them in the flood, and they were present at the birth of Christ. And there is precedent for believing they will populate Eden restored as well. Consider Isaiah 11:6 “The leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them.”
Second, the Bible teaches that animals have souls (Genesis 1:30; 2:7). While they are not human souls and animals are not made in the image of God, animals and humans do share a unique feature: they are living beings. This does not guarantee that animals survive death but it does indicate that God may have a future plan for animals as he does for both mankind and Earth. It would be consistent with God’s character for Him to populate Heaven with animals.
The truth about Heaven
Heaven is not merely a lofty idea created to give people comfort amid the pain of life. Rather, Heaven is a real place, awaiting believers in Jesus after their death. As Jesus demonstrated in his resurrection, death is not the end but merely a portal into eternal life. Shortly before his death Jesus put it this way: “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
Have you taken the time to really reflect on the reality of Heaven? When we die we will eternally be with our Creator! Do you get goose-bumps just thinking about it? Are you eagerly anticipating the day when this life ends and you enter into God’s presence forever without any of the painful effects of sin? If not, it may be possible that you have lost a vision for the majesty, beauty and power of heaven.
by Sean McDowell
McDowell is an expert in the biblical worldview, an assistant professor in the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. He also serves as head of the Bible Department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools.