Is the church still serious about heaven?

When my wife Emma and I made the decision to pursue further theological training in a different country, the theoretical date of departure lay some fourteen months in the future. Nevertheless, almost immediately, it began to affect our lives, from how we spent our time (applications for courses, etc.), how we spent our money (why buy that since we know we’ll be getting rid of it in twelve months?), to the way we conducted our ministry (who is going to replace us in what we do?). From our human perspective it was a hypothetical future—an uncertain hope—and yet its power shaped our understanding of life here in the present in very tangible ways. When you know the direction you are travelling, it is generally easier to know which paths to take now. The future contextualizes—gives proper perspective to—the present, endowing it with its proper significance.

As Christians, we don’t have an uncertain hope for the future. Instead, we have a hope which is certain and sure, because the God who has promised it is certain and sure. How much more, then, should this future affect us now! And yet, of all our doctrines, the study of the last things (‘eschatology’) is often treated as the poor cousin, rarely thought of, and not very involved in our immediate family of familiar, core doctrines of revelation, Christ, the atonement, sin, and so forth.

In this article, I’d like to spend some time thinking through the different, albeit related, realities of ‘heaven’ and the ‘new creation’. I want to whet your appetite to discover more of our present and future reality. I’d like to help you to see that, rather than being a secondary doctrine, a strong grasp of our future (a ‘robust eschatology’, if you like) is an essential pillar in any theological framework, providing the appropriate context to think about God, the gospel, and ourselves before him. This is by no means all there is to say about the future—indeed, judgement and hell are not things I’m dwelling on here—but it does complement Jonathan Gibson’s excellent article on hell in Briefing #381.

What is ‘heaven’?

We encounter the word ‘heaven’ in the very first sentence of the Bible, and this sentence also gives us the most basic meaning of the word, that of ‘sky’: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). In other words, as we walk outside and look around us, God made everything above our heads (heavens/skies) and beneath our feet (the earth). In modern language, God made the universe.

In both Old and New Testaments, the word for ‘sky’ in the original languages is translated in our English Bibles as either ‘sky’ or ‘heaven’. The distinction isn’t really that helpful, since, as a result, we’ve tended to equate the following metaphorical meaning of ‘sky’ as ‘heaven’, and leave our English ‘sky’ to translate the normal use of the word. In Greek and Hebrew, however, it’s all rolled into one—and this will be handy to remember when it comes time for us to think about ‘the new heavens and earth’ later on.

Metaphorically, however, ‘heaven’ in the Bible is the ‘place where God dwells’. This is appropriate, if we think for a moment about life in a pre-aeronautical, predominantly agricultural society. The sky was entirely beyond human experience; while man is made from the earth to work the earth, and will eventually, given the fall, return to the earth (Gen 2-3), the sky is inaccessible. Nevertheless, the sky is the origin of much that affects human life: the seasons, sun and rain (and so crops and livelihood), calendars, direction, tides and navigation. Transcendent, yet powerfully involved in human life, heaven is an apt metaphor to describe God! It is ‘from heaven’ that God speaks (Gen 22:11), and observes the earth (Ps 102:19). It is from heaven that God rules—where his throne is established (Ps 11:4; Isa 66:1)—and from where he is sovereign over the affairs of men (Ps 113:4-9, 115:3).

This is not to say that the sky actually is God’s dwelling place, as if the ancients had no ability to think metaphorically. Perhaps the best illustration of this is Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple in 1 Kings 8. In the course of his prayer, he uses ‘heaven’ in its basic sense of ‘sky’—the place from where rain comes (8:35)—but repeatedly he either calls heaven ‘God’s dwelling place’ (8:30, 39, 43, 49), or assumes it to be so (8:32, 34, 36). And yet this is in full recognition that it is metaphorical language, as Solomon prayed: “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you” (8:27).

If heaven is metaphorical of the dwelling place of God, then it is also metaphorical of the place where God’s presence is experienced in its fullness. This is not to limit God’s presence, which is everywhere (Ps 139:7-12), but his presence is experienced in heaven in a way that is beyond what is experienced presently on earth. For starters, as Jesus taught us to pray, it is where God’s will is done (Matt 6:9-10). It is pictured as the throne room of God, not just God’s throne (Rev 4), so, by implication, ‘heaven’ is the place where others dwell in God’s presence—particularly angels (Mark 13:32), although the Bible stresses God’s distinctiveness from them. Others may be in heaven, but God made the heavens (Ps 96:5).

This association of heaven with God himself is so much the case that, at times, heaven is used synonymously with God in the Bible. This is perhaps most easily seen in the consistent use of ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ instead of ‘Kingdom of God’ in Matthew’s gospel.

Perhaps most oddly, most wonderfully, this metaphor of the sky being the dwelling-place of God is a physically-enacted metaphor in Scripture, most noticeably in the life of Jesus; God spoke from heaven at his baptism (Mark 1:11), the Spirit descended on him from heaven (Mark 1:10), Jesus looked to heaven to pray (John 17:1), and he ascended into heaven before his disciples, and will return in the same way he left (Acts 1:9-11).

When speaking of ‘heaven’, then, we are speaking of God, his presence and dwelling-place—a present and eternal reality, just as God is a present and eternal reality. It’s a spiritual reality, since God is spirit, but in our limited human understanding we need spatial metaphors to grasp it; God has chosen to use ‘sky’ to describe it.

What relationship does the Christian have with heaven?

The answer is simple, and yet, as with most simple things in Scripture, profound: Christ. And the answer shouldn’t surprise us, should it? As Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). If heaven is God and his presence, then our only expectation of experiencing heaven (God) must be in Christ.

And Jesus is in heaven now, following his resurrection and ascension; he is at God’s right hand. As Stephen saw:

But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56)

Jesus is the one “whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke” (Acts 3:21).

Yet Jesus’ return to the Father is not an abandonment of us. As Hebrews says: “For Christ has entered … into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24). He is our high priest who has gone through the heavens, who “always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25).

But the Christian’s relationship with heaven is more than Christ simply doing things there on our behalf. Right now, in Christ, we are in heaven too! Because we are united to Christ, our lives are now hidden with Christ—who is seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1; Eph 2:6). By Jesus we may approach God with confidence and assurance (Heb 10:19-22). We have come to the heavenly Jerusalem (Jerusalem being a symbol of God dwelling with his people), to God and to Jesus and other Christians, who are likewise in God’s presence in heaven (Heb 12:22-24). Heaven (the presence of God) is the current spiritual reality for those who are in Christ.

The Christian future

So far, nothing that we’ve been observing from the Bible seems to have anything to do with ‘eschatology’ or ‘the last things’. But unless we have them in our minds, we will fail to grasp what the Bible does say about our eternal futures.

The first thing to observe about the eternal future is that it is ‘earthly’. The fall may have corrupted our flesh, and the whole of creation is subject to futility and decay, but ‘earthiness’ is part of our createdness. The great promise and hope of the Bible is the future bodily resurrection of all flesh on the day of Christ to face judgement, some to everlasting life, and others to everlasting shame and contempt (Dan 12:1-3). Those who receive everlasting life will go to be in ‘the new heaven and new earth’ (Is 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1); in other words, a new creation (a new place of tangible things above my head and below my feet).

The phrase ‘new heavens and earth’ has often confused Christians, who can’t understand why God would need to create a new dwelling place for himself if the first one was untrammelled by sin and perfect already. But if we understand ‘heaven’ in this phrase with the basic meaning of the word as ‘sky’, then it makes sense; God is dissolving all of this creation, and making a brand new one.

The idea that the physical world is only one stop on ‘our journey’—and so it is not intrinsic to our humanity—is very common, especially in popular culture; once we die we’ll continue elsewhere in a bodiless, spiritual state. The Bible has a different view; physical creation is good, if subject to futility, my physicality is part of my createdness, and I await the day when it is made new. In fact, without this perspective, Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead doesn’t make much sense. Eternal life is not bodiless and only spiritual; it is both body and spirit together.

But what happens to those who die before Jesus returns? This was the question of the Thessalonians. Have they been lost, because they didn’t make it to the day of renewal? No, Jesus doesn’t lose them, and in fact will bring them with him on the day he returns (1 Thess 4:13-18). Christians often debate at length whether Christians are awake or asleep during this ‘intermediate state’. It’s an interesting question, but ultimately beside the point, as the pastoral message of the passage is that the Christian does not need to fear death, for themselves or other Christians, because they go to ‘be with Christ’ (Phil 1:23); a temporary bodiless, spiritual state, hidden with Christ in God. In other words, we ‘go’ to be where we are already spiritually.

Heaven and the new creation

There is one more crucial element that needs to be observed in all this: the relationship that heaven has with the new creation. And unless we grasp this, we’ll ultimately misunderstand the wonder and joy of the new creation, as well as how determinative it is for us now in the present.

Heaven is more than the place where Christians are now, and where they go when they die while they await resurrection into the new creation. In the new creation, heaven comes to earth. That is, God dwells with his people. The presence of God is experienced on earth as it is in heaven (Rev 21:1-4, 22:3).

In the new creation, we will so experience the presence of God that we will ‘see his face’ (Rev 22:4). What was previously impossible for man to do and still live (Exod 33:20; 1 Tim 6:16), will be the very nature of eternal life. The Bible does not give many details on what eternity will look like, but when it does, it speaks primarily in terms of knowing God fully, of seeing him as he is (1 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2).

‘Heaven’ is our destiny in Christ: presently, where we are hidden in Christ; temporarily, for those of us who die and are ‘with the Lord’ before Jesus returns; and in the future, when we are resurrected into the new creation, where God will live with us. In other words, our future is God himself: an uncorrupted people, uncorruptedly worshipping him in an uncorrupted creation, unhindered in his presence, knowing him uncorruptedly. We presently experience the ‘overlap of the ages’, being spiritually alive with God in Christ already, and we wait for our bodies and creation to catch up after the day of judgement occurs.

Living in light of our present/future reality

In thinking about the relevance or ‘cash value’ of eschatology for present life, we immediately face a great danger. On one hand, thinking through practical outworkings is entirely appropriate, since the heart and mind flows over into action; faith bears fruit, and what we believe about our future will affect our lives. God has spoken it to us now, and so we hope to live in light of it now. This is where I began the article, and where we’ll turn in a moment.

On the other hand, if we esteem and measure this truth by its pragmatic value, we actually haven’t learnt anything. If the questions we are asking are “why should I bother with this?” or “is it really that significant for my ministry?”, we are in effect saying that God’s revelation of himself (and our future of being in his presence) isn’t good enough in itself to hear. No, God’s word—his self-revelation—is inherently worth listening to, because it is God’s word. The joy and excitement of any truth—but especially this one (to know God even as we are fully known!) is already established by the ‘mere’ telling of it, not because it has helpful correctives to church practice.

If we demand that God gives us a reason why we should listen, our minds are set on earthly things, not on heavenly things. Couched in those terms, the arrogance is appalling, and our dissatisfaction with God (and therefore heaven) is apparent. In what conceivable world would God need to justify to people that he and the promise of his presence is worth thinking about and looking forward to? Only in this sinful one. Which, in the end, is why we need to think through the implications now, not to establish the worth of eschatology, but to work out this important truth in our lives.

When we understand heaven and the new creation as knowing God unhindered in the presence of God, one of the first things that ought to be apparent to us is that eschatology is absolutely fundamental to any understanding and assessment of church. If ‘church’ is simply the word for ‘gathering’, and gathering/dwelling is at the heart of God’s plans for us in heaven/the new creation, then what we do together now must be shaped by the reality that we are already churched in heaven, and will be ‘churched’ in the new creation.

This must be the driving shaper and assessor of our present gatherings. There appears to be an increasing trend in churches to evaluate how ‘good’ church was according to its entertainment factor. We rate church on how funny it was, how entertained I felt, how witty the preacher was, how warm I felt as I headed home. Eschatology instead puts church in proper context, and frames our perspective properly. To what extent did we gather together around God in Christ? To what extent did the word of God dwell richly amongst us as we taught and admonished one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? In other words, how and how much did we express the reality we already have and look forward to in heaven/the new creation?

Rather than dwelling on this further, however, there are other implications a robust eschatology has for our understanding of God and ourselves in this present. There is much to be said, but let me draw our attention to three areas: our present satisfaction with dissatisfying materialism, our preaching and what we preach, and the character of our evangelistic conversations.

Our materialism

We live in an incredibly materialistic age. I’m not talking about late Western society—although that exhibits it clearly enough and, sadly, we Christians seem to enjoy it eagerly enough. No, I’m talking about ‘this present age’. It was in first century Palestine that Jesus preached about money and God, telling his hearers to store up treasure in heaven (with God) rather than here (Matt 6). Paul too was able to talk to the Philippians about people whose “end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things”. In contrast, of Christians he says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:19-21).

The challenge for Christians in every age is to put their minds on heavenly things rather than earthly things. It may look different from century to century, but it is still at heart the same struggle; will we serve worldly things, or God/heavenly things?

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it is enough for us to preach against materialism and our greed for created things. Humanly speaking, people will only live for something if they are convinced it is worthwhile. While we may acknowledge in our heads that materialism is bad and that we should live for heaven, it’s only when we are captured and capturing each other with how good God is that we’ll long for him. We need teaching, preaching and conversations which highlight how ultimately dissatisfying and temporary this world is, but that at the same time focus on the contrasting satisfaction of knowing God, which can only produce a thirst and yearning for more; in other words, we need to share positively about our longing for heaven and the age to come.

The common image of heaven and hell is that hell ‘is where the party is’, and heaven is boring. As much as we know that isn’t true of hell, I suspect we secretly harbour the view that heaven is boring because we don’t know what heaven is in positive terms. In the end, our reluctance for heaven and preference for this world is—at best—either an ignorance that heaven and the new creation is about God, or—at worst—it is a dissatisfaction with God himself.

Our preaching

In light of this, then, I’d like to turn to the frailty of current trends in preaching that I’ve observed. When I hear senior clergymen telling young preachers that sermons need to be intensely practical, that it’s about what the congregation needs to do for the week to come, I think we’ve departed from the Bible’s idea of preach­ing, and certainly haven’t understood that preaching is an eschatological task.

When was the last time you heard a preacher say that, in the new creation, they’ll be out of a job, because we’ll all know God, from the least of us to the greatest of us (1 Cor 13; Jer 31:31-33)? When was the last time that they framed their preaching eschatologically, giving us a taste of God and how much greater it will be when we see him, face to face in heaven/the new creation?

Don’t get me wrong, application and the imperative are important—God’s revelation of himself in Scripture certainly comes in that form at times. But if we leave it there, we will subvert our task into pragmatics, and ultimately rob the church of godly living. The task of the preacher is to say “Here is your God in Christ!” When we have an eschatological perspective then this will naturally be what we see as our task in the here and now.

An eschatological view of revelation insists that, on that day, we’ll be like God “because we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2); our character is shaped by our knowledge of God. And our present preaching will therefore fit in that context. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”. And so, the apostles saw their task in this light: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5).

An eschatological view of preaching will not only frame our words with the taste of the goodness promised, but will actually shape our understanding of the task (less telling people what to do, and more declaration of God and the goodness and blessing of his glory). Let God do his work of transformation—he causes the growth after all—and let’s do our (temporary) work of saying ‘know the Lord’. This is preaching in light of our future, and it is preaching that produces a longing for our future.

Our evangelism

When it comes to our gospel telling, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that we are very good at talking about what God has saved us from. We are saved from death by being given life, we are redeemed from the guilt power and penalty of sin, and we are propitiated from the wrath of God.

But what are we saved for? When we grasp the nature of heaven and the new creation, we are in a far better position to retain and communicate the ‘for’ aspects of the gospel (without ever removing the ‘from’ aspects—a full eschatology would encapsulate judgement too, which would definitely preserve the ‘from aspects’, and stop us from sliding into a social gospel). In other words, understanding the new creation will help us see that we are saved for life, we are redeemed for freedom, and we are reconciled to God.

I believe that we are doing God a disservice—and ultimately ourselves—because we are not properly filling out the context of the gospel. Why does God save us? Because he loves us, not because of the righteous things we’ve done (Titus 3:4-5). Of course! But why does God save us? To bring us to God (1 Pet 3:18)! Yes, in his love God saves us, but better still, in his love God saves us so that we can enjoy him forever.

Our doctrine is not abstract; rather, our knowledge or its lack flows directly into how we live our Christian lives. How often do you hear Christians speak about hope in eternal life? When was the last time that someone described the Christian life to you as one spent ‘patiently waiting’, or ‘eagerly awaiting’ Jesus to bring us home? Or when did you see, in the midst of suffering, lives characterized with endurance, patience, long-suffering, or perseverance, all of which are predicated on the fact of our eternal hope?

Writing these things blazes stinging rebukes on my heart and mind. When was the last time I even thought this way, let alone could say my life was characterized by it? We make this ‘first fifty years’ of struggle against sin, persecution and the frailty of human life harder than they need be, all through forgetting to long for and speak of how good it will be when we get to the new creation (to see God face to face), and neglecting to consider how amazing it will be to be with Christ (which we already have a taste of). The chief end of man is not to glorify God, but to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The chief end of man is heaven: heaven in the new creation.

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