Thinking Of Heaven - Part 1
While it may be commonly thought that it is possible to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good, the actual truth of the matter seems to be quite the opposite. Some of the greater Christian thinkers and doers in history have noted that those who have the clearest contemplation of the life to come and all that Jesus promises by way of reward and experience commit themselves to do more for the good of others here on earth. It is to that end of helping us to be decidedly heavenly minded (laying up everlasting treasures there - Matthew 6:20) and helping us to spend ourselves for the glory of God and the good of others in this life on earth that I undertake to write this series of short articles.
A Matter of Time
Scripture has quite a bit to say about what will be experienced after this present life. However, I have found that there is confusion about when certain things will be. To begin with, both 2 Peter 3:7-14 and Revelation 21:1 speak of a present heaven and earth and new heavens and a new earth to come. The transition point between these two realities seems to be a time of God righteous judgement (Hebrews 9:27 and Revelation 20). In reading scripture it is important to distinguish between the two so that we have some idea of when we will experience certain things. For instance, from 1 Corinthians 15 Paul makes it clear that we will get resurrected glorious bodies. But that will happen when the Lord Jesus returns. So someone may ask, if we do not get our resurrection bodies until the Lord returns what is the condition of all of us who die before the Lord comes back? A good question. With this in mind, I have found that Scripture seems to have a great deal to say about the future realities of the new heavens and the new earth and perhaps a little less to say about what our existence will be like in the present heaven. This may be because scripture seems to teach that our eternal state will be in resurrected bodies in a renewed universe (heavens and earth; Romans 8:18-30; 1 Cor. 15:50-58; Philippians 3:20-21). Thus our present experience in God's heaven with God is glorious but temporary.
Reading and Understanding Scripture
To answer some of our questions, we may have to make inferences from the available data in scripture. When we do so we must be mindful of the context of the passages we refer to and the genre of those passages. Are we reading a parable, or one of the New Testament letters? Is the passage we are pondering found in the poetry of the Psalms or much of the prophets, or is it a narrative, or a proverb? Each of these types of writings has ways of communicating that help the biblical author make his point. And we must submit to what the author means to communicate. So as a biblical writer describes or mentions something about the present heavens and earth or the new heavens and earth, we must seek to understand him on his own terms. Then after that we must take the lesson of that passage and compare and contrast it to the lesson of other passages and thus increase our understanding about the subject as a whole. Because the Bible not only has human authors but more importantly God as its author we can expect the pieces of the Bible's picture of heaven to fit together and shed light on each other.
While we may not get firm answers to all of our questions, God has made some things very clear. When those who trust in Jesus get to the present heaven there are some things we can know for certain. Here just a small sample.
1. Jesus told the thief on the cross next to him that "today, you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). This is tremendous because it happened to a sinner like us who repented and placed his faith in Jesus before he died. Also, in this passage Jesus said it would happen today, speaking of a present afterlife experience, not a future (new heavens, new earth) one. Next, and most wonderfully, Jesus said that the present experience for this believer after death would be with him. And Finally, Jesus called it Paradise. Now that is something wonderful to look forward to!
2. How do we know the experience for the thief after his death will be similar for us who die as believers in Christ? Paul addressed this in 2 Corinthians 5:8 (see the context verses 1-10). He uses specific wording to communicate that it is the common experience for the Christian who has died to be with the Lord and that is where we would rather be.
3. We know the present experience of heaven is something to look forward to because Paul echoes this again when he said that to depart and to be with the Lord Jesus was better by far. See Philippians 1:23.
4. Finally, we know that if we understood clearly what it will mean to see the Lord it would fuel our work for the Lord now with joy, zeal, and purpose.
There are so many questions we could ask about what happens when we die. What will our experiences be like in this present time, called the intermediate state, and in the time to come called the eternal state. I believe scripture invites our questions and I believe scripture provides answers to many of them in order to fuel our hope. We will begin to answer some of these questions from scripture in forthcoming articles.