WHAT IS HEAVEN?
Written by Doug Ponder on July 28, 2013
Into the Heavens
In 1961 the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space. As his ship moved past the clouds, past the atmosphere, he looked out the window into the vastness of space. It was then that he was purported to have said, “I do not see any God up here.”
In the 21st Century, Gagarin’s remarks seem silly. At the time, however, a number of people thought of space as “the heavens.” In everyday speech we still sometimes refer to space in the same way. Add to this loose language all the cartoon depictions you’ve seen of heaven and you’ve got a good idea of how our society has become so confused about heaven.
Heaven Is Where God Hangs His Hat
So, what is heaven? Heaven is the Bible’s word for God’s home. It is the dwelling place of God. Now, perhaps you are thinking, “But I thought God’s presence is found everywhere?” That’s true (Psalm 139:7). But ask yourself this: “If God’s presence is found everywhere, then what is the difference between heaven and earth?” In other words, if God is everywhere, then in what sense is heaven his “home”?
The answer seems to be that heaven is God’s home because it is the sphere of existence in which his blessings are fully recognized, appreciated, and enjoyed. Heaven is also the realm in which God’s desires are carried out completely and willingly, “from the heart” and without any need of coercion. (This clues us in to what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”)
Sometimes we talk about “feeling at home” to express that we are comfortable, at ease, or peaceful. Our homes bring us this feeling because they are a place of refuge, solace, and familiarity. In a similar way, heaven is the ultimate source of refuge, solace, and familiarity, because heaven is where God uniquely manifests (displays, expresses, demonstrates) his presence.
If you were trying to explain heaven to a small child, perhaps you could do so like this. Right now, in the current state of life on earth, we don’t always feel God’s presence. God is with us, even though not all people are aware of his presence, appreciate his presence, or depend upon his presence. In heaven, in God’s home, everyone is completely and unfailingly aware, appreciative, and gladly dependent upon the presence of God. Heaven is God’s home. And when you’re with God in his home, you’ll feel at home too. You’ll be safe from the lure of temptation, free from the consequences of your sin, and removed from the presence of all evil, harm, sadness, sickness, and death.
The Place of Heaven in the Story of God
The surprising story of the Bible is that in the beginning, God’s home was with us on the earth (cf. Gen. 3:8), and that’s how it will be again in the end. Jesus gave the apostle John a glimpse of this glorious future, which he described using powerful symbols and metaphors to paint a picture of the future of heaven and earth.
He wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Rev. 21:1-5).
So that’s where things are headed. The old way of life on earth will be transformed and renewed—it will “pass away” just as the old self passes away when someone becomes a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:16). Jesus will make all things new, which includes everyone who belongs to him. They will be resurrected to live on God’s renewed earth, where he will dwell with them and they will be his people (cf. Rev. 5:9-10).
Heaven Isn’t Heaven without God
Not everyone will take part in this glorious renewal of heaven and earth. Jesus himself says, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:6-8).
Jesus gives the water of life, without payment, to those who want it, the “thirsty.” But the thirsty must go to him to receive that life. There is no life without Jesus, and there is no heaven without him either. That is why some Christian scholars have said that all who want heaven will be there, because to desire heaven is to desire to be with God himself. But those who could be happy in heaven if Jesus were not there will not be there. Never forget that the gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God (1 Pet. 3:18), who alone makes heaven worth going to!
The Second Death
What about the “second death” that Jesus warns us about? He is referring to the fate of those who continue in their rebellion against God by resisting his Spirit and refusing to submit in faith to the rule of Jesus. As the famous Christian author summarized, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” Lewis was pointing out that God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11), yet he gives them what they want: an eternity without him. An eternity without God is a kind of existence is so wretched that it is called “the second death,” because there is nothing in it that resembles the goodness or beauty of life.
Sometimes people wonder, “Will people change their mind after they die? Will they get a second chance to submit to the benevolent rule of Jesus?” The better question is this: Would people repent and submit to Jesus, even if they could do so after death? The Scriptures give not one example of this happening. Why? Because, as Lewis points out, “They enjoy forever the horrible freedom [from God] they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved.” They continue wanting to do what they want, when they want, how they want, for whatever reason they want—that kind of selfishness is hell, but it is what they want, and God gives them over to this desire.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.