My tenth installment into the “. . . And Other Stupid Statements” Series.
Premise: We often make heaven such an esoteric place that no one really wants to go there.
Since I was young, I was excited about getting to heaven. We all were. I remember when my mother told my older sister, Kristie (yes, my wife’s name is also Kristie), about heaven. She told her that Christ was going to come someday to take us there. Upon hearing this, Kristie quickly ran out of the room. When my mother called to her and asked her way she was leaving so abruptly, she said, “I am going to get my shoes so I can be ready to go.”
But I also remember having my hopes dashed by something that produced a great amount of guilt. During a Sunday School session, while we were discussing heaven, the question on the table was if heaven was forever, what were we going to be doing all that time. Wouldn’t we be bored? The teacher responded in a way that is representative of many people’s understanding of heaven: “When we get to heaven, we will be bowing down before the thrown of God twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”
Talk about taking the wind out of the Superman sails of a little boy such as myself! I had big plans for heaven (which included flying 3-5 hours a day). It was hard enough for me to bow down before the throne of God for five minutes a day, much less for all eternity 24/7. Simply and unspiritually put, that does not sound like too much fun. The answer was always the same when I would timidly admit my fear of ultimate and eternal boredom: “When you are in heaven, sinless and in perfect submission to God’s will, you will be perfectly and joyfully content bowing before the throne of God all day, everyday.”
I would think to myself (although I would never admit it), I am not sure that I want to go there. I mean, I love God and certainly don’t mind bowing before him, but 24/7? If this is something that I will enjoy, it probably is not really me in the resurrection. For years I lived with the unspoken shame that I did not really want to go to heaven.
It was not until many years later that this burden of guilt and fear was taken off my shoulders. It was not until then that I found out that “When we get to heaven, we will be bowing down before the throne of God 24/7” was a stupid statement.
Where it comes from:
As best I can tell and remember, the primary reason why many people believe this is from the book of Revelation:
“And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is THE LORD GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, WHO WAS AND WHO IS AND WHO IS TO COME.” And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.” (Rev 4:8-11)
The idea is that, just as the four living creatures worship God in this way day and night without ceasing, so will the twenty-four elders. These twenty-four elders are representatives of Israel and the church, and, thus, all the inhabitants of heaven, including us, will be bowing down before the throne of God 24/7.
But I don’t believe the Bible presents such a view of heaven. In fact, I think Evangelical “heavenology” is in as much a need of a major overhaul as just about any other doctrine. In fact, even my previous hopes about heaven don’t pass biblical muster. I believe with a more systematic and biblical view of heaven things change quite a bit.
Other misunderstandings I have since come to realize were wrong about heaven:
- The eternal heaven is separate from the Earth
- In heaven we will be able to fly (or do anything we want)
- In heaven we will know everything
- In heaven, you will not love anyone more than another
- In heaven there will be no challenges, advancements, or failure
Where it goes away:
I often tell people today that one of the biggest surprises that Evangelicals will have when they get to heaven is not how different it is, but how similar it is.
A few points:
Not “Plan B.” This is the most important thing for us to realize. Our love affair with Gnosticism (i.e. spirit=good, material=bad), finds its way into our view of the afterlife. Unless we greatly qualify what we mean, I think that it is more proper for Christians to speak of the “New Earth”—a physical earth—rather than heaven. God is not on “plan B.” In other words, God did not create all that there is, have a plan, implement it, only to say “Shucks, that did not work. On to ‘plan B'” when Adam sinned. God’s activity through Christ is about redemption, not calling a Code Red. God is restoring all things, not re-imagining all things. Revelation 21-22 speaks about our final abode as a recreated earth. This recreated earth is the restored earth. Restored to what? The way things were supposed to be. We find quite a bit of imagery, from the rivers to the restored tree of life, that mirrors the Garden of Eden.
“Can’t do anything we want? Like fly?”
Why would we think we could? Because it is heaven? And God’s ultimate will for us is to be able to do anything and everything? Although I cannot be sure, I have no reason to believe that I will be able to defy gravity on the new Earth. Gravity is good and necessary now, and will be then. It is not the result of sin that gravity came into being. Why would God move to a “plan B” that does not have gravity?
“But won’t our bodies be ‘spiritual bodies’ with ‘power’?”
“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1Co 15:42-44)
Yes, but the idea here does not refer to the ontological quality of our bodies (i.e. what we will be able to do), but the spiritual state of the physical body without sin. It is “spiritual” not in the sense that it will be ghost-like and it is “powerful” not in the sense that it will be able to defy the natural laws that God originally intended, but it is spiritual and powerful in that it will not be controlled by the flesh any longer. The sin principle will have been extinguished. This will be the greatest change we will notice.
What will be the same? We will be eating and drinking. We will not communicate through ESP, but with lips, tongue and breath, following the laws of physics. We will have five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot, two eyes, two ears, hair, finger prints, tear ducts and so on. All of which will perform the function which they were originally intended. Why? Because we have to have them to function! Again, “Plan A” restored, not “plan B.”
Relationships will take effort. Food will be digested from the stomach, to the small intestine, to the large intestine. If you close your eyes while walking, you will trip and fall. We will need to eat to sustain our bodies (Rev. 22:2). Physical pain will serve as a warning if you touch something hot. We will need to learn before we can accomplish. And so on. There is no reason to think that any of this will change since none of it came into being as a result of sin.
Our relationships will take effort. Our mannerisms will give us away. You will have times when you want to be alone. We will have distinct personality characteristics. Some will be more shy than others. We will not all look, act, and be the same. Some will have greater talent in one area than another. I probably will not (immediately) be able to slam a basketball. Heck, Kristie was not too far off when she went to get her shoes upon hearing about heaven’s reality. I have no reason to believe that shoes are a result of the fall!
In sum, we have every reason to believe that whatever was not brought into being through sin will stay the same.
Restored stewardship. Now we get to the “What will we be doing?” part. Of course we will be worshiping God in sinless fellowship, but this worship will come by fulfilling the original intent. There will be no need to “fill the earth” though procreation (Gen. 1:28), but there will be the mandate to subdue it as stewards of God’s creation.
Christ gives us a glimpse into our stewardship when he tells of the Parable of the Pounds (Matt. 25:13-31). Read it. In it Christ teaches that what you do here matters for eternity. How you invest your life in this age, determines your responsibilities in the next. While salvation comes to all by grace alone through faith alone, this does not mean that there will not be rewards in heaven. Some people will be in charge of many things and some will be in charge of fewer: “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'” (Mat 25:23). In Luke 19:11-27, it is described as stewardship over “cities.” I don’t think we should be too literal with this, but the fact is that we will have great responsibility. We will have jobs. We have every reason to believe that we will have to be on time to work, have certain job requirements, have a certain skill set, deal with others who are “under” us, and have successes (and, possibly, sinless failures). The labor that we do will not be from the sweat of our brow any longer (Gen. 3:19). In other words, we will find joy and contentment in what we are doing. We will all love our jobs!
In these things, we will worship and fellowship with God. Far from spending all of our time bowing down day and night before the throne of God, heaven will be full of varied activities, responsibilities, pleasures, and accomplishments. God will bring heaven down to the new Earth and for all eternity we will fellowship with God the way he originally intended, being his vice-regents on the new earth.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4)
Far from being a place of endless boredom and monotonous activity, heaven (i.e., the new Earth) will be a place where we realize together with God the glory of his original intent.
To me, that sounds much better than anyone can hope. And I did not even have to make it up!