by Chris Ritter
Some people don’t believe in Heaven. Communism, the largest version of organized atheism, teaches that the promise of heaven is a tool for the control the masses. Promised “pie in the sky,” laborers would (they said) be content with their earthly squalor. Karl Marx called religion is the “opiate of the people” and heaven a pipe dream. When Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, splashed down after his 108 minutes orbiting the earth, it was considered a triumph for the (now-defunct) Soviet State. Khrushchev used the event as an opportunity for anti-religious propaganda, “Here is Gagarin, who flew up to the heavens, and yet, even he didn’t see God anywhere.” (For his own part, Gagarin was a baptized believer in the Russian Orthodox Church and is said to have been quite vocal about his faith.)
Is belief in heaven a distraction from the real stuff we are supposed to be doing here on earth? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis notes that the people who have made biggest positive impact in this life are the same people who believe most firmly in the next: “If you aim at Heaven, you get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
Some folks dismiss Heaven as an invention tied to our evolution as a species. We climbed out the primordial ooze and messed around until we evolved brains so large that we were able to comprehend our own deaths. This created a psychological crisis, so we required an antidote. Unable to bear the thought of our own end, we invent an after-life. But most religious systems, even Judaism, do not contain anything like our Christian understanding of heaven. You would think that Heaven would be the basis of all religion if it was our primary coping mechanism. It is not.
Some people don’t believe in Heaven because the descriptions they have heard don’t sound very appealing to them. “I don’t want to sit on a cloud and strum a harp every day for all eternity.” Well, neither do I! That is not a biblical view of heaven. That is a Saturday-morning-cartoon, Sylvester-and-Tweety-Bird version of heaven.
Some people DO believe in Heaven, but it is very different than the Heaven of the Bible. Hollywood has all sorts of movies about Heaven. The New York Times Best-seller list is often populated with books about heaven (Heaven is for Real, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, etc.) In fact, we have Don Piper speaking to us next month and he is the author of 90 Minutes in Heaven on which a major motion picture was based. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say. Everything must be weighed against God’s Word.
Most Hollywood versions of heaven are human-focused. If God appears at all, he is usually portrayed by Morgan Freeman and serves as a glorified tour guide. I have noticed at funerals that people feel at liberty to make up things about heaven just to suit our own taste. I hear stuff like: “I bet he is up there with Uncle Earl cheating at horse-shoes, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and smoking Pall-Malls.”
I have been tempted before to say, “I didn’t know you were Muslim.” In Islam, heaven is a place of carnal delights. The Christian view of heaven is a Paradise, but so much more than a giant Country Club. In the Bible, heaven is not our house, it’s God’s house.
Some people say they believe in Heaven, but live as if earth is all that there is. The fastest growing branches of Christianity tend to be the ones that promise earthly blessings… health and prosperity… if you just have enough faith. Heaven seems to be a distant after-thought.
I was talking to an elderly church member one time. She said something about Heaven that was pretty off-the-wall. I can’t now remember what it was. But I remember citing, as her pastor, a passage from Scripture that I believe clarified the issue at hand. I distinctly remember her reply: “Well, pastor, you have your Heaven and I’ll have mine.”
I don’t have a Heaven! She doesn’t have an Heaven! God has a Heaven! And we told to focus our attention there.
Colossians 3:1,2 says:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.Colossians 3:1,2
Philippians 3:20 says that our citizenship is in heaven. Hebrews 13:14 says, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Jesus says in Matthew 6:20 that our treasure is to be in heaven, not on earth. Luke 10:20 says that our names are enrolled in Heaven. 2 Corinthians 4:18 says the things we are not to fix our eyes on what is seen, but what is unseen. What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
We are going to spend a few weeks on what the Bible has to say about heaven and eternity. Accept no substitutes. What God has in mind is better than anything humans could invent:
But as it is written:1 Corinthians 2:9
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit.
The Bible does not tell us everything we would like to know about Heaven. But it tells us everything we need to know to have a living, loving, lasting relationship with Jesus Christ.
If Only There Was a Guidebook or Something…
Remember trips? Remember plane rides? Remember getting in our cars and going places? It seems like so long ago when any of us travelled. Sometimes when we were getting ready to visit a new place we would buy a guide book to let us know what it is like and what we will do once we get there. The Bible is our Guidebook about Heaven.
John Wesley, the Father of the Methodist Revival, said:
I want to know one thing: the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be “homo unius libri.”
Homo Unius Libri means “Man of One Book.” Wesley read and wrote, many, many books. He edited an entire library of great books by various authors that he wanted his people to read. But at the end of the day, he wanted to be considered a man of one book.
The Bible is a Book and it is also a divinely-inspired Library. Today I thought we would begin in the Old Testament section of the biblical library to lay a foundation for the coming weeks. Today we are looking at the context of Heaven. Next week we will look at the content of Heaven. Our scripture reading is from Daniel 12:
1“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. 4 But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.”Daniel 12:1-10 (New International Version)
5 Then I, Daniel, looked, and there before me stood two others, one on this bank of the river and one on the opposite bank. 6 One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, “How long will it be before these astonishing things are fulfilled?”
7 The man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, lifted his right hand and his left hand toward heaven, and I heard him swear by him who lives forever, saying, “It will be for a time, times and half a time. When the power of the holy people has been finally broken, all these things will be completed.”
8 I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?”
9 He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. 10 Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.
In some ways, it might seem like the Old Testament is mostly silent about Heaven. Judaism is a very this-worldly faith. God promised Abraham relationship, relatives and real estate… in this life. He never said to the children of Israel that they would live with him forever in Heaven.
The very first verse of Genesis mentions heaven. “In the Beginning, God made the heavens and the earth.” You notice that “heavens” is plural. In 2 Corinthians, Paul talked about being swept up to the “Third Heaven” in a vision. The first heaven would be the sky, the atmosphere: “The eagle soars through the heavens.” The Bible talks about the dew from heaven. When there was a drought, it speaks of the heavens being shut. The first way the Old Testament speaks of heaven is the sky above us.
The second layer would be the domain of the celestial bodies. Psalm 19:1 tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God. It must have been such a temptation for ancient man to worship the sun, moon, and stars. But the biblical authors declared that these are mere creations of our God. To look at the heavens is to get a sense of God’s grandeur.
3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,Psalm 8:3,4
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
4 What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
By the way, we know so much more about the glories of the cosmos than ever before. A hundred years ago Edwin Hubble (who grew up in Wheaton) noticed that some stars looked a little fuzzy. He finally figured out that these were not fuzzy stars or nebulae. These were distant galaxies… each comprised of billions of stars. Today the space telescope that bears his name allows us to see amazing images of a cosmos more vast that previously imagined.
I pastored in a small town during college. Another church in town was an independent Pentecostal church pastored by the town policeman. I remember that he would lay his service revolver on the pulpit when he preached. That kept everyone’s attention pretty well. He and I struck up a friendship. He was writing some new bylaws for his church. I was the only college boy he knew and he wanted me to look them over. On the section about Heaven he wrote, “We believe that heaven is a real planet.”
I asked him about that. He thought it defended against the idea that heaven as some sort of vague concept. I tried to talk him out of this by indicating it sounded like something written by a Mormon. Heaven is a real place, but it is not a planet. It is the place from which God reigns above and beyond the visible, created universe.
Consider Isaiah 66:1 where God says, “Heaven in my throne, and earth is my footstool.” When Solomon built the temple and dedicated it, he was painful aware of its inadequacy:
“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!1 Kings 8:27
In the same prayer, Solomon asks that when people pray in that temple, that God would “hear from heaven” and act on their behalf. Heaven is the throne from which God rules:
then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause.1 Kings 8:49
Heaven is the place from which God provides. He sends answers to our prayers from heaven. He provides manna from heaven.
Heaven is not a lonely place where God lives in isolation. In 1 Kings 22:19, a prophet says, “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left.”
Isaiah’s vision of heaven is perhaps the most detailed in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 9, he sees the Lord high and lifted up, and hem of his robe filled the temple. There was thunder and smoke around God’s enormous throne. It is difficult to miss Isaiah’ point: The central focus of Heaven is God himself.
In the time between the testaments, people started to use the name Heaven as a replacement for the name of God. God’s name was considered too holy to speak, so they would substitute Heaven. In the Gospels, the phrase “Kingdom of God” and the “Kingdom of Heaven” are used interchangeably.
Heaven’s close association with God’s rule continued into the New Testament. In Luke, the Prodigal Son says to his father, “I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
Going to Heaven
What we don’t get in the Old Testament is a lot of talk about people going to heaven. The dead went to Sheol, the grave. The patriarchs were “gathered to their fathers.” There are exceptions, of course. A chariot of fire came and swept up Elijah into heaven. And you have Enoch back in Genesis about whom it simply says, “God took him.” We have no idea what that means, but it has fired people’s imaginations ever since. Psalm 23 ends with the hope of dwelling in God’s house forever.
God’s covenant with the Israelites, as I said, was very this-worldly. They would be God’s people and live by his unique covenant. God would bless them and disclose himself to them. They would be his unique possession on earth. God told Abraham, “through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”
The world is corrupted by sin. Sometimes the sinful seem to be judged in this lifetime. Many times, however, they just seem to get away with it. Sometimes righteous people died horrible deaths as the hands of the wicked. How is God’s rule and justice going to ultimately be established?
The answer came through the prophets. There would be a cataclysmic Day of the Lord when God would set everything right. And it didn’t matter if you had died. On the Day of the Lord, the dead would be bodily raised and all would be judged. This day of God’s ultimate triumph was all tied up with the coming of the Messiah.
The text read from Daniel is a powerful example of this future hope. There will be a time of great distress. The dead will be raised either to everlasting life or everlasting contempt. It is then the righteous will shine like the stars forever and ever.
This is the setting into which Jesus was born. Almost everyone, except the Sadducees, had this hope of a Day of Resurrection. They believed the God was going to make all things new. As in Isaiah 65, there is the promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth.
But on Easter, something unexpected happened. One person was raised from the dead. And this Lord Jesus was ascended into heaven as he gave a message for the entire world of renewal and new beginnings. The New Testament calls the resurrection of Jesus a down-payment, a “first-fruits” of what is one day going to happen to all of creation.
Many Christians believe that Jesus went to Sheol and preached to the saints of the Old Testament and brought them into Heaven by his Grace. This doctrine is called “The Harrowing of Hell.” Google it. But whatever you think about that, it is clear that Jesus opened up heaven for his followers. But our time in heaven is just a part of the Eternal Life that Jesus provides for us.
We pastors stand at the graveside of the faithful and we lay bodies to rest “in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.” We are pointing to a larger victory than just surviving death by our souls going to Heaven. One day Jesus is going to return, take death by the throat, and make it give back everything it ever stole from us. It is not just that we survive death in heaven. One day death and hell will be thrown into the great Lake of Fire.
In the meantime, the Good News of forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ will be preached so that a maximum number of people can experience God’s blessings. God’s work would no longer be limited to one nation. God’s offer of salvation would be extended to all of Creation. Before the end, the Gospel would be preached to every nation. Those who respond to God’s grace are granted a place in Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth to come.
When the New Testament talks of Heaven, it is talking about the place where we are gathered at our deaths awaiting Jesus’ final triumph over sin and evil. At that future time, there will be a general Resurrection, Last Judgement, and a New Heaven and a New Earth. All things will be made new.
A Working Definition of Eternal Rest
I wrote this definition:
Heaven is a Home with the Father, Opened and Prepared for Us by Jesus, Revealed to us by the Holy Spirit as a Place of Blessedness for the Redeemed as we Move Together Toward the End of the Age and the Ultimate Triumphs of God’s Grace.
Jesus said in John 14, “I go to prepare a place for you.”
Over the next couple weeks, we are going to comb through the New Testament to find out what we can about that place Jesus prepared for those who follow him.
- What is it like?
- What will we do?
- Who will go there?
- What will our bodies be like?
- How will we feel?
It is going to be a great journey. Stay tuned.
“One day Jesus is going to return, take death by the throat, and make it give back everything it ever stole from us.” I will use and quote this. Too often death is romanticized as soothing. If King Jesus calls it the last enemy – then it is.