Most of our thoughts about the future are punctuated by question marks. This is true in the short term; we wonder what the rest of this week will be like. But when we think about eternity, our questions multiply. For those who treasure Christ’s promise—“I go to prepare a place for you . . . I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2–3)—one of the biggest questions is “What is heaven like?” Even the form of that question implies that we can think about heaven only by analogy. It is like a wedding feast (Rev. 19:9), a many-roomed house (John 14:2), a city (Heb. 11:10, 16) with gates of pearls and streets of gold (Rev. 21:21), a country whose hills flow with sweet wine (Amos 9:13).
None of the Bible authors offer anything like a highly descriptive tourist guide to heaven . . . not even those who had been to heaven and back. After being caught up to paradise Paul could not lawfully express what he had experienced (2 Cor. 12:1–6). To convey his vision of heaven similes were John’s go-to figure of speech; page for page the word like occurs four times as often in Revelation than in the rest of Scripture. Truly “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).1 The reward of heaven will be to believers “such a glory as never entered into the heart of man to conceive.”2
Maybe because heaven seems so unfamiliar to us we struggle to believe it is real. We might not doubt the existence of heaven, but it can still feel less solid, less tangible, than the world we now know. So, how real is heaven? What is it like? And how should the reality of heaven affect us now?
The Reality of Heaven
The biblical descriptions of heaven are indeed heavily metaphorical. This does not, however, argue for heaven’s unreality but for its surpassing grandeur. In fact, that the biblical writers could successfully illustrate heaven by way of earthly analogies should suggest to us that the Promised Land is not as unfamiliar as we might suspect. When the ancient Israelites yearned for that “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:17) they anticipated something more real than that metaphor suggests. They certainly did not imagine a land with milky, sticky rivers, a bizarre ancient-Near-Eastern version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. They anticipated a land of bounty, “the most glorious of all lands” (Ezek. 20:6, ESV); and they were not disappointed with what they found (Num. 13:27).
We might also be unnerved by the fact that the heaven into which Jesus ascended seems to be dauntingly ethereal, a place humans would find uninhabitable. We might even suspect that “the heaven into which Christ has gone is not a place distinct from earth and hell, but rather just that the heavenly kingdom is present everywhere.”3
But the Bible speaks of heaven as a definite place, the place where Christ now dwells in real flesh (Acts 1:11). The promise made to the patriarchs, which they did not receive in their day (Heb. 11:13), was a tangible inheritance of land (Gen. 17:8), or as Paul translates, the cosmos,the whole world (Rom. 4:13). God will fulfill that promise to them and their seed in the new heavens and earth (Heb. 11:14–16), and not by spiritualizing the gift of land into something less substantial.
Dispensational eschatology tends to see the millennium as the time when God fulfills tangible promises of restoration. But what if these promises are fulfilled more richly, not merely during a thousand-year period of partial renewal but throughout eternity in a renewed heaven and earth?4 John’s Revelation helps us reconcile the apparent discrepancy that Jesus went to heaven by ascending into the air, and God’s promise of a highly tangible heaven. In the age to come heaven and earth will not be distinct; heaven will come to earth and “the tabernacle of God” will be “with men, and He will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3).5 We should not be surprised if a physical heaven sounds more inviting than a rarefied one. “Our heavenly hope is not only of saved souls but of a saved creation (Rom. 8:19–21) . . . Whatever the condition of ‘the life everlasting,’ it is more, certainly not less, than the embodied joy that such imagery suggests. We are creatures of time and space, and we will transcend not our humanity but the bondage of our humanity to the conditions of sin and death.”6
Eternal life will perfectly answer the best longings of God’s embodied children. “The Bible assures us that God will create a new earth on which we shall live to God’s praise in glorified, resurrected bodies. On that new earth, therefore, we hope to spend eternity enjoying its beauties, exploring its resources, and using its treasures to the glory of God.”7 Such is the message of both Testaments of Scripture. In the new heavens and new earth (Isa. 65:17) “they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (v. 21). God’s “elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain” (vv. 22–23). Animals will populate the age to come though one will no longer prey on another (v. 25).8 In the age to come, when the kingdom of God is fully bestowed, God’s people will eat and drink at Christ’s table in his kingdom (Luke 22:17, 29–30; Matt. 8:11).9 Geerhardus Vos explains that these physical descriptions of the age to come should not “be interpreted allegorically, as if they stood for wholly internal spiritual processes: they evidently point to, or at least include, outward states and activities, of which our life in the senses offers some analogy.”10At the same time, if every apocalyptic image of the age to come is not to be taken in a strictly literal manner (e.g., streets of gold), they aremeant to trigger our imagination to hope for better things.
If this very physical view of heaven somehow seems anticlimactic, we need to ponder God’s undiluted approval of his first creation. When God made the heavens and the earth it was undeniably physical, and it was very good (Gen. 1:31). Any vision of an intangible heaven ill-suited to fully embodied humans radically underestimates the vision of Scripture.
The Riches of Heaven
The Bible’s promise of eternal life is not just a promise of life without end but also life without defect.11
Heaven Is a Reversal of the Pain of the Curse
The Bible frequently describes heaven as a place from which everything negative is banished. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). No one in heaven will hunger or thirst (Rev. 7:16) or fear (Rev. 21:8). Earthly relationships in the Lord, now sullied by sin, will be restored.
With the advent of sin people lost closeness with God and with each other, work became painful, and death began to reign (Gen. 3:1–19; Rom. 5:14). The words are hard to read: “The Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden . . . so he drove out the man” so he could not eat of the tree of life and live forever (Gen. 3:22–23). In the new heaven and earth Christ grants his friends “to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).
Christ’s overthrow of sin at the last day will destroy its negative consequences so familiar to us. In heaven, “they shall be fully and for ever freed from all sin and misery.”12 Even things we now find tiresome, like work, will become a great delight.13 When God renews the world, which was created for man’s sake, it “shall at length be renewed and be clad with another hue, much more pleasant and beautiful.”14 Never again will God’s people encounter an unclean thing (Rev. 21:27). When God finishes reversing the curse in the new heavens and earth (Rev. 22:3) he will restore everything that was lost. In those days will the former troubles be forgotten for God’s children (Isa. 65:16).
Heaven Is a Realization of Fellowship with God
We who are but “a particle of [God’s] creation” long, more than anything, to know God and be known by him.15 Believers gain great comfort from their present status as children of God. But our present relationship with our Father is strained by our misunderstanding of his purposes and disobedience of his will. The friendship with God we now experience in part we will gain fully in heaven (1 Cor. 13:12). John sees it this way: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). The elect shall enjoy eternity “in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity.” The communion which “the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory” shall be “perfect and full.”16Heaven, as one of our young daughters once suggested, is the place that God keeps his promises; and the essence of his promise is perfect friendship.
Heaven Is a Realm of Worship
One heavenly scene that John repeatedly records is the exuberant worship of the redeemed (Rev. 4:8–11; 5:9–14; 7:10–12; 11:16–19; 15:3–4; 16:5–7). If the everlasting worship of God does not seem altogether inviting now—imagine a Sunday service that never ended—it is because our present worship is disrupted by sin and weakness. Now we worship God with mixed desires; then our love for God will be perfected (Jude 1:21). Now we worship God in bodies given to fatigue and distraction; then our bodies will be incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:42). Now we worship God in churches populated by people who hurt and misjudge each other; then we will truly be a holy family, finally able to consistently love our neighbor as ourselves. As we worship God now, he sometimes seems distant (Ps. 10:1). Then he will always be present (Ps. 16:11), and we will glorify and enjoy him as never before.
Heaven Will Host a Renewed Humanity
In heaven believers shall be “filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul.”17And not simply in the abstract but in pursuit of the best thoughts and activities that currently mark our humanity. God’s first people were to be culture-makers (Gen. 2:5; 4:19–22). Should we suspect that his vision for creaturely creativity will have diminished in the age to come? Anthony Hoekema reflects the sentiments of Hendrikus Berkhof and Abraham Kuyper in suggesting that “the unique contributions of each nation to the life of the present earth will enrich the life of the new earth” and that the redeemed will “inherit the best products of culture and art which this earth has produced.”18 In his glorious vision of the new heaven and earth John previewed the nations and kings of the earth bringing their glory and honor, cultural products in the form of gifts and sacrifices, into the holy city (Rev. 21:24–27).19
Heaven is an inestimably great reward (1 Pet. 5:4) tailor-made for God’s beloved people which we should pursue at all cost (Matt. 13:45–46). That some will find heaven to be a greater reward than others (Luke 19:15–19) should not bother us. If even now we are encouraged to “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom. 12:15) we can expect the entire category of unfairness to vanish with this old earth.
The Response to Heaven
Far from being an irrelevant topic, God breathes into our hearts the hope of heaven to help us on our journey to that great city.
Heaven Excites Us to Practice God’s Will
Jesus taught his disciples to pray to our Father, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). With this prayer we recognize that only God can make us more heavenly, while fervently committing to put into practice a divine ethic (cf. Phil. 2:12–13). We should pray and strive “that we all may live on earth as in heaven, with all joy and gladness, according to his divine will.”20 As the new heaven and earth are “an eternal, happy Sabbath from all deadly works”21 we ought to begin this rest here and now.22
Heaven Trains Us to Respect God’s Earth
Strangely, some people who seem least interested in a creator are the most zealous for creation, while those with a rich theology of divine creation and (at least the raw materials for) a theology of the restoration of the cosmos sometimes seem the least interested in ecological stewardship.
This should not be.
“If our goal is to be liberated from creation rather than the liberation of creation, we will understandably display little concern for the world that God has made. If, however, we are looking forward to ‘the restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21) and the participation of the whole creation in our redemption (Rom. 8:18–21), then our actions here and now pertain to the same world that will one day be finally and fully renewed.”23 Humans are the proper image of God. But the rest of God’s creation—like that which he purified with the great flood—is good and should be treasured by believers because it “leads us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, His eternal power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith (Rom. 1:20).”24Calvin is right: “Wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty” and overwhelm us by “the immense weight of glory.”25 How can this reality not mightily impact Christian ecology?
Heaven Encourages Us to Pursue Deep Fellowship
Heaven will be quintessentially relational. Those concerned that marriages will cease in glory (Mark 12:25) will be overjoyed to find that the most transferable traits of marriage will then be shared by heaven’s entire population. There is no doubt that we will deeply recognize (to put it too mildly) our redeemed friends as well as the vast host of God’s people.26 Fittingly, the Somerset Confession(1656) follows its article on heaven by insisting that “it is both the duty and privilege of the church of Christ (till His coming again) . . . to enjoy, prize, and press after, fellowship through and in the Spirit with the Lord, and each with the other (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:26; Eph. 2:21–22; 4:3–6; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 3:9; Col. 2:2).”27 One of the best ways to show an interest in heaven is to begin to live in harmonious love with others, and especially with other believers.
Heaven Helps Us to Be Patient in Tribulation
A theology of “suffering which says nothing of heaven, is leaving out almost the whole of one side of the account.”28 Randy Alcorn reflects on Lewis’s thought: “Present sufferings must be seen in light of the promise of eternal happiness in God. The scales can’t be balanced in this life alone.” But as Paul says, “Our light affliction . . . is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). Again Alcorn: “It’s not that temporary suffering is so small; it’s that eternal glory is so huge.”29 Believers, even in the midst of the greatest tribulation, can confidently expect God to wipe away their tears and remove their rebuke (Isa. 25:8; Rev. 7:14–17). We can better endure reproach when our hearts are set on a greater reward (Heb. 11:26; 12:2).
Heaven Helps Us to Long for God
Wilhelmus à Brakel urges believers to “focus continually upon the glory of this inheritance, and by faith traverse heaven” by using John’s Revelation as a glimpse into their future.30 In Scripture, wrote Richard Baxter, “Heaven is set open, as it were, to our daily view” for our encouragement, that we might long for the city of God (Heb. 11:10) and enter therein.31 This longing for glory does not distract us from godliness but infuses in us the kind of hopeful disposition necessary to follow God and rejoice in the hope of his glory (Rom. 5:2).
One of the most beautiful images of heaven is also the simplest and most familiar to us. Heaven is home. As a pastor, I commonly hear death-bed-ridden believers say: “I want to go home.” Heaven as home is a concept many believers have learned from the Psalms. My grandfather chose Psalm 84 as his funeral text. After a ninety-seven-year pilgrimage he could say with the writer: “My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord” (v. 2). He had come to believe that a day in God’s courts is better than a thousand (v. 10). But he was not enamored with the beauty of God’s tabernacle (v. 1) because of its architecture. His deepest longing was to be with God. “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (v. 2). A home is a place where one feels native, where fears of exclusion melt away. To make his point, the psalmist speaks of a sparrow finding a home for her young. Like that nest—built to fit around the young sparrows—believers will be able to say without hesitation, “The Lord of Hosts is nigh, our father’s God Most High is our strong habitation.”32
Have you ever been on vacation and found yourself eager to get home? Similarly, a longing for heaven can speed and strengthen us on our way to God.
Why does heaven seem strange, even unreal to us? What are some of the dangers of such a view of heaven?
How does God’s promise to bequeath land to the patriarchs (Gen. 17:8; Heb. 11:13) help us understand heaven (cf. Rom. 4:13)?
Read Isaiah 65:17–25 and reflect on the tangible descriptions of the new heaven and earth.
Why is a physical heaven so important to our hope of glory?
Have you ever faltered over the thought of heaven as unending worship? How would you help a believer who found such a prospect uninviting?
Christ is the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45–49) who will return to reverse the curse invoked by Adam’s sin. How are you encouraged by the thought of heaven as analogous to, but better than, pre-fall paradise?
Should we work for a sort of heaven on earth (cf. Matt. 6:10)?
What practical steps could you and your group take to better reflect the fellowship that believers will enjoy in heaven?
1. Paul seems to be alluding to Isaiah 64:4, in the context of which the prophet pleads that God would “rend the heavens” and “come down! That the mountains might shake at Your presence” (v. 1). When Paul insists that “God has revealed them to us through His Spirit” (v. 10), he seems to have in mind the events connected with Christ’s first coming. The events following Christ’s second coming still remain shrouded in glorious mystery.
2. Belgic Confession, art. 37, in James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol. 2, 1552–1566 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 449.
3. Against which the Bremen Consensus (1595) argues. James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol. 3, 1567–1599 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 660.
4. See Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 275–76.
5. Lest we think that the new heaven and earth must be two distinct places Vos reminds us that “the OT has no single word for ‘universe,’ and that the phrase ‘heaven and earth’ serves to supply the deficiency. The promise of a new heavens and a new earth is therefore the equivalent to a promise of world renewal.” James Orr, gen. ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), s.v. “Heavens, New (and Earth, New),” by Geerhardus Vos.
6. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011),988–89. Similarly Vos says, “The eschatological kingdom differs from the present kingdom largely in the fact that it will receive an external, visible embodiment . . . It will have its outward form as the doctrine of the resurrection and the regenerated earth plainly show.” Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 54.
7. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 274.
8. The Hungarian Confessio Catholica states, without proof, that while “the material of created things will be renewed and freed form corruption . . . dumb animals will not be resurrected.” Dennison, Reformed Confessions, vol. 2, 625. Citing Romans 8:22, 23 (“the whole creation groans”), Loraine Boettner offers a more balanced conclusion: “As in this present world one generation of plants and animals succeeds another, so in the new earth there will be plant and animal life, no doubt much more luxurious and varied and permanent than here, but . . . the individual ones that we have known will not be there.” Immortality (Philadelphia: P&R, 1956), 86.
9. Romans 14:17 could seem to suggest that the kingdom is merely spiritual and in no way physical. But Paul is making the point that citizenship in God’s kingdom does not hinge on how one “[pretends] to champion meat and drink, as though that were essential to God’s kingdom.” Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 188.
10. Vos, Redemptive History, 54. Elsewhere Vos explains that regarding the creation of the new heavens and earth Scripture anticipates “a restoration of the primeval harmony on a higher plane such as precludes all further disturbance” (emphasis added). Orr, “Heavens, New.”
11. Vos, Redemptive History, 54.
12. Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 90,in The Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol. 4, 1600–1693 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 318.
13. What if you could imagine without limits and build without frustration or disappointment? What if your body never ached and your plans never failed? Would not work be enjoyable?
14. Anglican Catechism(1553),Dennison, Reformed Confessions, vol. 2, 29.
15. Augustine, The Confessions (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1949),1.
16. Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 90,in Dennison, Reformed Confessions,vol. 4, 318.
17. Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 90,in Dennison, Reformed Confessions,vol. 4, 318.
18. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 286.
19. Dennis Johnson comments that the nations will bring their “wealth” into the city though not for the purpose of consumption but as “gifts and sacrifices of the earthly sanctuary, to be offered to the divine King enthroned on it.” Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 318–19.
20. Large Emden Catechism (1551), Dennison, Reformed Confessions, vol. 1, 632. “Heaven is in the consciousness of Jesus the goal towards which every aspiration of the disciple in the kingdom ought to tend” (cf. Matt. 6:19–21). Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History 306.
21. Large Emden Catechism (1551) inDennison, Reformed Confessions, vol. 1, 598.
22. Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 103 in Dennison, Reformed Confessions, vol. 2, 794.
23. Horton, The Christian Faith, 989–990.
24. The Belgic Confession, art. 2 in Dennison, Reformed Confessions, vol. 2, 425.
25. Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), 1.5.1. Thanks to John Jeffery for drawing my attention to this quote and to the many places in Calvin’s Institutes where he speaks of the majestic “theater” of creation (1.5.8, 1.6.2, 1.14.20, 2.6.1).
26. Though the disciples clearly felt out of place by the meeting, they certainly knew Moses and Elijah who appeared with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration having been dead for hundreds of years (Matt. 17:3).
27. Dennison, Reformed Confessions, vol. 4, 455.
28. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017), 638.
29. Randy Alcorn, (September 28, 2013). C. S. Lewis on Heaven and the New Earth: God’s Eternal Remedy to the Problem of Evil and Suffering [web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/c-s-lewis-on-heaven-and-the-new-earth-god-s-eternal-remedy-to-the-problem-of-evil-and-suffering
30. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol 4. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1995), 368. The closing section of Brakel’s dogmatics unravels the false notion that heavenly-mindedness results in spiritual laziness (see esp. pp. 367–70).
31. Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), 656.
32. Metrical version of Psalm 46.
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.