What Heaven Is and Is Not

Read Luke 23:32-43.

Heaven is pretty easy to come by these days. Evidently, you can find it in a kiss, at the beach or in a piece of chocolate cake. But what is heaven, really? Even when I ask other Christians this question, I get rather elaborate responses not too far from the things noted above: the warm, even romantic embrace of loved ones; an eternal round of golf on the back nine of Augusta; long coffees with friends; fishing in a clear mountain lake; a chimerical paradise filled with all of our favorite things. While these images are quite lovely, they are fueled by a popular, not a biblical, imagination.

Evidently, you can find it in a kiss, at the beach or in a piece of chocolate cake.

The Bible suggests that our best picture of heaven is the Garden of Eden, as recorded in Genesis 1-2.  It is a place bursting with life and vitality, filled with plants, rivers and fruit-bearing trees and, most significant, with the presence of God (compare to Ezekiel  40 and following). The image shifts rather significantly in John’s revelation, where the new creation is described not as a garden, but a city (Rev. 21-22). The river and tree of life (on either side of the river!) remain, however, and again, most significant, God’s presence is central. The glory of God in this eschatological image is increased as the people of God in the end are not just the two humans in the garden but countless humans from every tongue, tribe and nation and all the cultural artifacts of human ingenuity – the ongoing work of God’s creatures in fulfilling the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28, Isa. 60) – repurposed for God.

Most important, heaven is simply where God is. It is always rather striking to me how conspicuously absent God is from the richly detailed images given in books, movies and descriptions of near-death experiences. These images often include much of nature, serenity, light and joy in seeing long-deceased loved ones. While there are many parts of this I appreciate, these images seem to represent a problem in our theology – specifically, an absence of God.

When this life is centered on the pleasures of this life, idolatry will emerge in force, and our eschatological imagination will be stunted. When this life is centered on the risen Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, shows us the love of God and transforms us into his likeness by the power of the Holy Spirit, idolatry is rejected, and our eschatological imagination of the life to come is stoked.

An accurate picture of this life to come must always find its center in Jesus Christ. Any deviation will lead to idolatry in this life and disappointment in the life to come. In other words, if you are not very interested in Jesus, you are probably not going to be very interested in heaven.

I’m pretty sure Jesus did not die and rise again so that we could spend eternity fishing, playing golf or having coffee with friends. He died and rose again so that we could be with him forever. Heaven finds its locus in Jesus Christ. He said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43, italics mine). This suggests that heaven is ultimately about being with Jesus: finding true wholeness, true joy and true life in relationship with, submission to and worship of the Lamb forever.

This image leaves much to the imagination, but it also encourages us that we can experience heaven today, albeit only in part, as through a glass darkly. How do we see Jesus today and experience his presence? In a life of worship, in community with his people and in service to our neighbor. As God’s people today, we present a sign of heaven – the reign and rule of God on earth as in heaven – by living devotedly to Jesus Christ.

Travis D. Else is senior pastor, First Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa.

Photo: Andrew Ruiz, Unsplash