People who believe in life after death – Christians, mainly – have widely varying speculations as to just what “Heaven” is like. This is understandable given that we are told almost nothing concrete about it in the Bible. Perhaps we’ve grown up hearing snippets of verses that extol its “streets of gold”, God’s glorious presence and throne, and have heard (incorrectly, I would argue) of the “mansions” that God has prepared there for those whose trust is in Him. Perhaps we’ve also been influenced by the “Hallmark Heaven” which depicts on greeting cards a place sitting on the clouds behind golden or pearl gates, and inhabited by flying cherubs playing lyres or harps.
Such images are the stuff of our childhood (if, indeed, we have heard them at all), and no doubt that have grown into pictures in our minds of just what it’s like.
But what do we actually know about “Heaven” with some degree of confidence, apart from the symbolic or commercial descriptions and mis-interpretations we may have collected along the way?
Where or What is “Heaven”
Heaven is the “place” where God is (e.g. Mat 6:9, Mat 7:11). We can be confident that it is not a physical place because God is not physical; He’s Spirit (John 4:24). So from this we can conclude that the idea of “going to Heaven”, whatever else it is, is two things: 1) our transitioning from the physical to the spiritual (which most understand to be our spirit surviving our physical death), and 2) coming into the presence of God.
This is the common Christian understanding. In point of fact, the Bible itself nowhere talks about people “going to Heaven”. What it does talk about is the faithful living eternally (John 3:16, John 5:24, 1 John 5:13, 1 John 5:25, John 10:28) and doing so either with or “in” Christ Jesus (who for Christians is God) (2 Peter 1:11).
It seems, however, that there are two distinct phases of Heaven: one that currently exists, and one that will exist (i.e. the “new heavens and the new earth” of Revelation 21) when Christ “returns” (i.e. is once again manifested to us here).
Among Christians, there is some debate on the state of Christ-followers who die before this “second coming” of Christ. Some believe that they will be instantly in the presence of God – conscious; perfected; having some form but not yet in their resurrection bodies. A lot of this belief is based on their mental, perhaps childhood, images of what Heaven is, rather than specific Bible teachings.
There is a verse that many use to support this view and that is Paul’s statement, within his rhetorical argument with himself about struggling on with his ministry or giving in to death, “we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8, Phil 1:23). Their logic is simple: “If I’m dead I’m ‘absent from the body’, so as soon as that’s true I must be ‘at home with the Lord’”.
Others believe we’re not “with the Lord” until we have been resurrected following Christ’s return. What do we do in the meantime – between our physical death and our resurrection to judgement by and eternal life with Christ? Perhaps the favorite idea is referred to as “soul sleep” – a condition apparently of unconsciousness. The Bible doesn’t support this idea. But nevertheless, it remains widely held.
Either way, the final act before our ultimate entrance to the place we call Heaven (or the other place) is to stand before Christ and give an account of our lives (Rev 20:11-15, Mat 25:31-41). This “place of habitation” is more precisely identified as “the new heaven and the new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, Rev 21:1). The Bible tells us very little about the nature of this “new earth” or it’s “New Jerusalem”. We’re told in Rev 21 that:
“ He 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.”
Matthew 22:30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
There are other hints and tidbits, but nothing that could be conclusively claimed (e.g. ruling over “cities”, streets of gold, etc.)
But What Is It Like?
Which brings us to the key question: What will it be like? Having seen that we’re not told a lot about it[i], we’re free to speculate. And what do we know that can inform our speculation? What follows is, my opinion and speculation.
If we step back and survey the overall narrative of the Bible, it’s hard to miss its core message that God seeks the faith and love of His created humankind. In today’s terminology, He seeks a devoted, single-minded “relationship” with us (1 Cor 7:35, Luke 16:13, Deut 6:5-7, Exodus 20:3-4, etc.). The picture here is of the faithful believer rejecting all worldly concerns and distractions and focusing his devotion instead preeminently on his Lord. This is the nature of the “relationship” God seeks for and with us, and that He intends to achieve through Christ.
Meanwhile, where’s our focus? We wonder if we’ll be able to be reunited with our parents again; whether we’ll see our beloved grandmother again and maybe even taste her wonderful chocolate chip cookies again; and even whether we’ll be reunited with our beloved pet who faithfully saw us through so many tough years. In other words, our hope focuses on everything but being with and experiencing the One who we profess to love.
Such a reaction is so very human of us. Focusing on ourselves, we tend to think something like: “Just take the bad stuff away – the poor or painful health; the relationships that have left scars; the ache of the ones we loved and lost – and the rest of it will be just fine.” Notice the focus: bad stuff that has happened or is happening to us. This is a tragic mistake.
Let’s imagine for a moment what it might be like to come into the presence of Perfection – perfection of love, of caring and of concern; perfection of knowledge; perfection of constancy (i.e. in that this Perfection can never become less perfect than perfect). Admittedly, we have no experience with such Perfection, so imagining it is quite impossible. But try. Stretch your thinking.
Imagine the happiest moments in your life and the circumstances that led up to them. Remember a time when you were welcomed in love when you thought you were going to meet with rejection or discipline…or worse. Imagine a time when just you and the one you loved were together, having no other commitments or concerns or pressures, sharing in each other; learning more about each other; recounting both losses and joys to each other.
Now multiply the intensity of your feelings in those moments by 1000. By a million. This, I want to suggest, begins to approximate the feeling we will experience in the presence of God. Everything you’ve ever desired to be “made right” in life will be. Every yearning for pure honesty and sincere love and genuine appreciation in every human relationship you’ve ever had you will now continuously experience.
Speaking for myself, it’s very difficult to get past the honesty bit. When’s the last time you truly felt deep down in your soul that you were being dealt with completely honestly? When’s the last time you truly believed that someone in your life was authentically interacting with you simply because you were you, and not because s/he wanted something for themselves from it? When’s the last time you experienced someone using their guile with you to achieve something for themselves?
Forget, for a moment, trying to imagine God’s welcoming, loving perfection. Can’t you not wait for the day when you’re with Him and can’t even remember what insincerity and guile are like? Can you imagine the sense of relief you’ll feel realizing that at last you’re free to love and be loved without reservation?
It is truly hard to imagine the intense sense of joy we will experience. And from our joy will erupt thankfulness on a scale we just can’t imagine. Everything will finally be right; as it should be, and as it was planned to be from the very beginning. The One who gave us the life that we then experience will be the sole focus of our love and thankfulness. And we all are now and will be members of Him, sharing in His life and glory (2 Thess 2:14, 1 Cor 12:12, John 17:21).
Who Else Is There, and Will I Care?
Now the last couple of these verses, just cited, seem to imply that Christ is both God and the multiplicity of those “in” Him – His followers. They all share a spiritual union with Him. In Heaven, it would seem that this union would be perfected. But the Bible doesn’t seem to think that this perfection of spiritual union means a loss of individual identity – a kind of sub summation of our individual identities into His. On the other hand, it doesn’t specifically say. It does say (1 John 3:2) that we will be “like Him”, and that we will “see Him as He is.” So this implies that we will remain in some sense distinct from Him.
Will we know of others there? There is some Biblical evidence that we will. For example, in John’s vision in Revelation 6:9 he sees “the souls of those of all who had been slain for the word of God” gathered under the altar he sees. We’re also told there were “elders” there, one of which spoke with John. Later he sees a “multitude too large to count” of people standing before the throne crying out in praise “to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:10). The Elder says these are those who have “come out of the great tribulation” and that:
15“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
So allegorically at least, based on John’s vision, there are other souls of people in Heaven that we will be able to perceive. Do they talk among themselves? About what? Do they interact? Remember, God – the Alpha and Omega, the Creator of the Universe – is in the house. Is there any motivation to interact with anyone but Him? Will we even want to interact with anyone but Him? Think about it for a moment. Would anyone want to interact with you, assuming they could, when they could talk directly to God instead?
Our only experience here is interacting with each other and getting immediate feedback from one another. Yes, we interact with God here. But that interaction is not of the same type as our interpersonal interactions. Once we can directly interact with the Source of All Things, I think we can legitimately question who else we might want to interact with in lieu of Him.
Based on this line of thinking and speculation, I have begun to believe that Heaven for me, an individual, will be a glorious communion between me and my God. Forever. And I think this because I am starting to understand that God is so infinitely magnificent and glorious and welcoming and loving that our only desire will be to be with Him. Of course, this was His plan all along. What do you think?
[i] This likely means it’s just not that important to God for us to know what it will be like.