The following is the latest post in my “Questions I Hope No One Will Ask” series. Check out all the posts in this series here.
Thus far in human history, outside of Jesus Christ (and possibly Elijah and Enoch), one out of every one people die. We are all painfully aware of this fact and assume that one day it will happen to us as well. For many, this creates great anxiety. For others, it is a fact filled with wonder and excitement. Still, for some, there is false hope and expectations that will not be recognized. Books about what happens after we die always do well. In fact, if you want a guaranteed place on the New York Times best seller list, simply die, come back to life and tell about your adventure. These are called near death experiences (NDEs). People will line up for miles to ask “What was it like?” “Who did you see?” “Where did you go?” One of the great cult movies when I was a teenager was Flatliners with Keefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts. In it, a group of young med students conspired to kill themselves with the hopes that the others would bring them back to life after a short stint in the afterlife. When they came back, they told others about their experiences in the great beyond.
A Brevity of Christian “Personal Eschatology”
Christians believe in the afterlife. While it is true that one out of every one people die, according to the Christian worldview, one out of every one people will continue their conscience existence even after their bodies lose life. In short, we believe that if Christ does not come first, we will all die and experience a time of existence without a body. For believers in Christ, this time will be spent in a place currently called “heaven” or “Paradise”. Unblievers will be some place awaiting judgement. We call this time between death and the resurrection of our bodies the “intermediate state of existence.”
Intermediate State of Existence
The intermediate state of existence is probably the most mysterious of all issues of what we might call “personal eschatology.”
What we know about the intermediate state of existence for Christians:
- We will be with Christ (2 Cor. 5:6; Luke 23:43).
- It will be better than being on earth (2 Cor. 5:8).
What we don’t know:
- What we will be doing.
- If we will have an “interim” body, though it does seem we will find extension in space and be “recognizable” (1 Sam. 28:15; Matt. 17:1-9).
- Where it is (it is not really up or down geographically; it could be some sort of scifi parallel plane of existence).
What I am pretty sure of is that most modern accounts of near-death-experiences (NDEs) don’t give a biblical picture of what the intermediate state is like (but that is a different story).
The New Earth
This intermediate state will be cut short when we are rejoined with our physical bodies at the resurrection of the dead (John 5:29; 1 Cor. 15:13-22; 1 Cor. 15:51-53; 1 Thes. 4:17). Some believe that this will immediately be followed by a thousand years where Christ reigns on the present Earth, then a second resurrection (Rev. 20:12-15), then judgment, then the (re)creation of a new universe (including the earth). Some Christians believe the same minus the thousand year thingy.
No matter what your position regarding the particulars, all roads of orthodox Christian “eschatology” (the doctrine of the last things) converge on a new or recreated earth where the presence of God is evident and real unlike any time since Adam roamed Eden.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.”
It is in this new earth that we will spend eternity. Yes, that is right—eternity. Christians believe that all humanity shares in an immortal spiritual existence. While we are not eternal as God is eternal (i.e. timeless), we are everlasting (i.e. once created we will never cease to experience conscience existence). Of all the things that are difficult—indeed, mind bending—to comprehend, I think everlasting existence on the new earth has to rank pretty high. It is not simply a really, really long time. It is time without end. As the old hymn goes, “When we’ve been there ten-thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less day to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.” While there is no such thing as an infinite going into the time-bound past, there can be an infinite going into the time-bound future. And that is what we have in store for us. An infinite future. Forever and ever.
This begs the question of the hour: “What will we be doing for all eternity?” Won’t we run out of things to do? Won’t we get bored?
When we die we become angels
This is a common misconception of religious folklore. People do not become angels. Angels do not become people. They are separate creations with their own attributes, characteristics, and purposes.
We will eventually be annihilated
Though it would seem that this goes without saying, it is important for us to know that believers will never one day come to a stop sign that says, “End of the road,” “Game over” or “Thanks for playing.” There will not be a going out of existence party for anyone. As mentally bizarre as it is to think about, the Bible makes it clear that we will shine for all eternity (Dan. 12:2; Luke 16:9; Rom. 6:22).
We will be flying around doing whatever we can dream
There is a very common misconception about heaven that I find even among the most faithful and theologically astute of all Christians. It is this idea that we will be able to do anything we want on the new earth. While I cannot be definite about the physics of creation or the physiology of the human body, I am pretty sure that things will remain very much the same as they are now. We will need to breath oxygen, we will need vitamins, we will eat, and gravity will hold us down to the earth. I cannot turn to a particular biblical passage which speaks directly to this issue, but I can assume some things from a proper biblical theology of creation and redemption.
When God created everything, he proclaimed that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Quickly after this, the fall occurred. God had a plan, which we will call “Plan A.” Plan A got sidetracked before it even had time to get moving. Included in Plan A was a certain physiology of humanity and physics of the universe. It was all very good. When man rebelled, God did not say to the other members of the Trinity, “Well, it was a good idea, but now that is out the window. Let’s go to Plan B.” There is no Plan B. God, after the fall, immediately began to restore and redeem Plan A. That is why we call it “redemption”. That is why Peter said that Christ must be in heaven until the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). Redeeming Plan A is the reason why all of creation groans and longs for Christ to come (Rom. 8:22). Plan A included “rules” of life including eating, drinking, walking from place to place (not instantaneous travel like on Star Trek or walking through walls!), breathing, technological advancement, and gravity (not flying). There is no reason to think that redeemed Plan A will be modified that much. I do believe there will be some differences, but not as many as we often suppose.
We will live in a relational state of esoteric equilibrium where all relationships are the same
I have to admit . . . this scared me when I was a kid. One of my teachers at the Christian school I went to fed me some information that made me no longer interested in “attending heaven.” I asked her if my mother was still going to be my mother in heaven (a reasonable and important question for any ten-year-old boy who loves his mom). She said, “No. It is going to be so great that you will love everyone the same. You will not love or care about one person more than another.” But I did not want to love everyone the same! That is not great. I love relationships. I love special relationships. The greatest thing about the relationship with my mother was that it was not the same.
Since this time I have come to realize that this ideal of equilibrium, where people lose all distinction, personality, and particulars that make this life great (like love for a mom) is not only unbiblical, but fits more in with a pantheistic worldview where all is god and upon death we are diluted into this Great Energy.
In truth, the greatest things about earth as it is now will only be transfered, purified, and intensified on the new earth. We will still have and develop special relationships. Our children will still be our children in some very real way. Our mom’s will still be our moms. While I don’t think we are going to be married in the sense that we are now (Matt. 22:30), we will not lose the dynamics and special relationship that we share right now with our spouse. While sex may not be present, I believe there will be a form of sexual relationship that is parallel to that which we experience now. Restored Plan A will be more familiar than you realize.
We will be bowing down before the throne of God for all eternity and we will enjoy it
When I was a kid and asked what we were going to be doing in heaven for all eternity, I was told that we were going to be bowing down before the throne of God forever and ever, nonstop. Talk about a downer. What gives? From one person I was told that I would be able to fly like a superhero and the next tells me that I won’t have time because I will be eating heavenly dust 24/7. Between you and I, I have to tell you something: there is nothing in this world that I have ever heard that made me consider the possibility of life in hell as better than heaven than the idea that we will be forever on our knees bowing before God’s throne. I know, I know . . . Anathema! Perish the thought! But if you were honest with yourself, you would say the same thing.
In truth, there are two reasons why this makes the list of wrong ideas about heaven and neither of them are “Because I don’t want to.” First, this very idea comes from a gnostic worldview that somehow the only way to worship and please God is through physically evident acts of worship. In reality, while I am sure that we will all fall on our face before the Lord many, many times, worship comes through every area of our life. Worship comes through the enjoyment and obedience to God’s gift of stewardship of our bodies, other people, the earth, and our labor. Yes, I do believe that we will be worshiping God in everything we do on the new earth, but that does not translate to being on our knees 24/7. Second, there is nowhere in the Bible that says we will literally be on our knees 24/7. There are some angels described in Revelation 4:8 whose job description fits such, but not ours.
When we talk about “heaven” we are really talking about “the new earth.” I think it is important for us to use such terminology to avoid the many misconceptions there are out there about heaven. “Heaven,” strictly speaking, is the place that God resides. When God creates the new earth, heaven will literally be on earth as God makes his habitation there (Rev. 21:3).
On the new earth, we will be, in a very real sense, picking up where we left off in Eden. Sin will be no more and God’s original intent will be realized. The good intentions and plan of the creation will find their glory and perfection there. We will have jobs and responsibilities (Luke 19:11-27). We will have bodies much like we have now, just without sickness, death, and sin (1 Cor 15). We will be eating and drinking (Matt. 8:11-12; Matt. 26:29; Rev. 22:2). I imagine that we may even sit at coffee shops (Credo Houses!?) and hang out with friends. There will be challenges and times of growth. I believe that there will be technology and advancements in technology (after all, is technology a result of sin? Don’t answer that!). We will learn, know, and be known. And we will have and develop relationships, some more special than others. In short, while I cannot tell you what we will be doing as definitely as I would like, I can tell you that we will be serving an infinite God who has infinite creativity and power. We will never get bored. In fact, I think we will one day talk about our fears of boredom and laugh out loud (through a text message it will be “lol”).
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”