Question and Answer

Heaven

Question:

I have some questions about Heaven. What do you think Heaven will be like when we get there? Also, what will we do in Heaven? Will everyone know each other in Heaven, like even distant relatives that you never even knew on earth or complete strangers? Do you think people in Heaven or Hell can see and know what's going on here on earth and know what their loved ones are doing?

Answer:

These are wonderful questions; they show that the Lord truly has "put eternity in our hearts" (Eccl. 3:11). We certainly should be interested in knowing something about the place where we will spend eternity (if we belong to Jesus and are clothed in His white robe and washed in His blood).

When you speak of "Heaven," I am not sure if you mean to speak strictly of that time when we will be spiritually with the Lord in heaven while awaiting His second coming to earth and our resurrection or if you mean both that and the whole of eternity after His coming again, when there is a new heaven and a new earth and the heavenly city of God comes down out of heaven to earth. I am going to assume you mean just the former.

There are plenty of ideas about heaven in popular culture around us. (Think of the "Family Circle" cartoons in which Grampa is often depicted looking down from a fluffy cloud on his family on earth and occasionally exerts some helpful influence, or other cartoons in which souls in heaven lie around in white gowns on clouds with harps, or are depicted before a great gate having to give St. Peter some accounting of their life on earth before they can get in.) Similar pop images of angels abound. All of this sort of thing arose during the Middle Ages when people knew very little of what the Bible actually says.

And what the Bible actually says about heaven is not a great deal.

1. Believers in Christ, when they die, their bodies are buried in the ground and their spirits or souls (virtually synonymous words for our inner, non-physical being) go to be with the Lord in heaven (Phil. 1:23, 2 Cor. 5:6-8).

2. Though Scripture sometimes speaks of the death of believers as "sleep", this is to emphasize its temporary nature and that it will be rest from earthly toil and trouble and not to mean that we will literally be asleep (that is, unconscious). Paul's longing in the verses just cited points to this truth, as do Revelation 5:9, 6:9-11, 7:15, 14:3, etc.

3. The souls in heaven are perfected (Heb. 12:23), despite our continuing to be beset with indwelling sin as long as we live in this life. There is no biblical basis for believing there will be an in-between place in which the soul will be purged (Purgatory). If we are trusting in Christ when we die, we go straight into His presence (his promise to the thief on the cross, Luke 23:43).

4. In those few glimpses that Scripture gives us of heavenly life, we must be careful to distinguish what is actually being taught to us from the literary devices that go with it. For example, in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Lazarus is depicted as being carried to heaven by angels "to Abraham's bosom." This was a popular Jewish way of speaking, and our Lord makes use of it as dressing for his story. Abraham would have to be a vastly huge man to have the souls of all the saved in his bosom. Also, still making use of the popular thinking of His day, our Lord speaks of the rich man looking up from his torment in hell to see Lazarus and speak to Abraham. The point of the parable is given in verse 31.

5. In the Bible's depictions of the activity of saints in heaven, the emphasis seems to be on praise and worship (Rev. 4 & 5, 15:3,4), "they are before the throne of God and they serve Him day and night in His [heavenly] temple" (Rev. 7:15). Might there be other ways to serve Him besides singing in loud anthems? I won't say there won't be; maybe there will. But what the Bible does say, is that we will be praising and worshiping the Lord God and the Lamb.

6. On re-reading your questions I see that your first question specifically is this: What will heaven be like when we get there? (rather than, What will we be like?) Read again Revelation 4 & 5, which open a window from this world into the heavenly court of God. Not all that is described is intended to give a photographic reproduction of what heaven truly is in itself. (Does Jesus now look like a woolly lamb? Does He have an actual sword sticking out of His mouth as in 1:16? See 2 Cor. 12:1-4). While we can't take all that is said as being a literal description of heaven "in itself," it shows us the centrality of God the Father enthroned in majesty, the ongoing mediatorial role of His Son, the Lamb—no longer to be slain, having died once and for all to atone for our sin, but now appearing at His Father's right hand as our Priest), and it shows us fabulous beings representing all creation, all angels, and all the church bowing and worshiping.

7. Will people in heaven know each other? On the one hand, I have to say, having surveyed passages put forward as teaching that we will, that I do not see them teaching this clearly. It is a natural desire to want our loved ones here to be part of our fellowship there. And I cannot say it won't be so; I rather think it makes sense to think we will know each other.

On the other hand, what is clear is that our focus will be on our Lord and our joy in Him will be unbounded and perfect. In the words of the hymn, "The Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel's land." (I highly recommend a little book by William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter (Baker Book House, 1995; also available from Banner of Truth). Hendriksen covers all of these question and many more besides—all from Scripture, not from "Christian" mythology, folklore, and tradition. Yet on this question, I find I must say that I think he reads more out of the Scripture than the passages warrant; but I am willing to be shown to be wrong.)

8. Can souls in heaven know what is going on here on earth? The prayer of the souls under the heavenly altar depicted in Revelation 6, might be taken to depict a general awareness of what is going on down here (in this instance, the fact that the cruel tyrants who killed the martyrs have thus far—as John sees the vision—not been dealt with by God).

The point of the vision, it seems to me, is to indicate a connection between the prayers of saints and martyrs in heaven and events taking place here on earth. I am not sure we can say it teaches that saints in heaven see and know what happens on earth. Of course, there is no sorrow for the saints in heaven; so any knowledge we might imagine them having of our affairs could not be knowledge that causes grief—their sufferings are past, they are resting from all their labors (Rev. 14:13, Heb. 4:9,10). There is no indication I am aware of that, apart from prayer, they are able to exert any influence on earthly affairs (cf. Luke 16:29-31).

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 32 (Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead) well sums up much of what we have discussed here:

"The bodies of men after death return to dust and see corruption; but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately o God who gave them; the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowlegeth none" (Sect. 1).

I hope my answers are of help to you. And I certainly hope that it is out of a God-given faith in Christ that you long to be with Him in heaven. Please feel free to ask any follow-up questions.


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