What is Heaven?
Prophecy Series Part 17
A little boy got on the elevator in the Empire State Building in New York City. He and his daddy started to the top. The boy watched the signs flashing as they went by the floors: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70. They kept going, and he got nervous. He took his daddy’s hand and said, “Daddy, does God know we’re coming?”
This morning I want to talk about Heaven. Man’s longing for life after death in a better place is as old as man himself. Every culture, it seems, has some expectation of life after death whether in a place of great paradise or great pain. Buddhists believe in Nirvana – a state of bliss of being absorbed into the supreme spirit. North Americans believe in an eternal hunting ground. Muslims believe in a place of eternal sensual delight. In the pyramids of Egypt, embalmed bodies had maps placed next to them as guides into the future world. One author notes, Anthropological evidence suggests that every culture has a God-given, innate sense of the eternal B that this world is not all there is. You don’t have to look at the history of man to know every human heart has the unifying belief in life after death. The Bible says in Eccl. 3:11 God has, …set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. God has placed eternity in our hearts, but we don’t understand it. We’re aware there is more than just this life, but we can’t get our minds around it. Man’s intuitions and cravings surely do not mock him, J. Oswald Sanders observed.
Can we know what eternity is going to be like? In a way, we can. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever,… There are a lot of things we don’t know about Heaven, but God has not left us totally in the dark. Actually, we can know a great deal about Heaven because He has revealed it to us in His Word (Numb. 23:19; Jn. 17:17). If God had not revealed them to us in His Word, we would be utterly lost.
What can we know about heaven? This morning we’re going to look at what God’s Word says about Heaven. Sometimes we learn best about something when we learn what it isn’t. There are a lot of myths out there that tells what Heaven isn’t: Common Myths About Heaven
I. Believers become angels. It’s not uncommon for people to think that someday when they die maybe they’ll become an angel. Angels are mentioned in 34 books of the Bible with a total of 273 times and not once is it ever mentioned that people become angels. Angles are subservient or secondary to the priority of people. God did not send a Savior to die for angels; He sent a Savior for people. The Bible says angles minister to people. Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who inherit salvation? (Heb. 1:14). The Bible even suggests each of us have a guardian angel (Matt. 18:10; Acts 12:15). And one day we’ll meet them. The Bible says we’ll judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3). Believers do not become angels.
II. Peter guards gates of heaven. This is another myth that is strange. I don’t know how many jokes I’ve heard about someone meeting Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. The Bible says nothing about Peter guarding heaven’s gates. Where did this idea come from? Probably a misinterpretation of Matt. 16 where Jesus tells Peter He’s going to give Him the Keys of Heaven. What He is saying to Peter, and to all believers, is that we have been given the privilege of opening the door of heaven to people through their faith in Christ. That’s what Jesus means when He says: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven… (Matt. 16:19). Peter does not guard the gates of heaven.
III. Heaven cannot be understood. This is one of the myths that I have bought into for years. The danger of believing that heaven is so unimaginable is that you stop imagining. You don’t see heaven in the Bible even though your eyes read it. You shrug your shoulders and yawn when Paul says, …Set your hearts on things above,… You dismiss it as though what Paul is talking about is one of those, “You had to be there,” kind of moments in order to grasp what he is really saying.
I have to confess my thinking has changed significantly. I’ve realized after spending hours of reading and researching that the Bible talks a lot more about Heaven than I ever imagined. Paul’s words in Col. 3:1 Set your hearts on things above… stopped me in my tracks. I began to realize God never gives us a command we cannot obey. That means He must talk more about heaven than I gave the Bible credit. The very realization is absolutely exciting.
H.G. Wells in The Country of the Blind tells the story of a tribe in a remote valley deep in a towering mountain range. During a terrible epidemic, all the villagers lost their sight. Eventually, entire generations grew up having no awareness of sight or the world they’re unable to see. Because of their handicap, they do not know their true condition, nor can they understand what their world is like. We’re not very different. We’ve believed heaven is so beyond our imaginations we no live in The Country of the Blind. But we can know.
Someone might say, “The Bible says, No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined that God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9). If no eye has seen,” they say, “how can we know?” Verse 10 is the answer: but God has revealed it to us by His Spirit. God reveals the things we can’t know by His Spirit. Though, this verse is not talking specifically about heaven, it is talking about God’s wisdom in our salvation – heaven isn’t ruled out.
IV. Heaven is where everyone goes. Or, at least where good people go. Many people think heaven is for good people and since most people would say they are basically “good,” that means they are going to heaven. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, Today you will be in paradise… He wasn’t talking to a good person but someone being executed for stealing. No one deserves heaven because he or she is “good.” Heaven is for the forgiven. Lewis Sperry Chafer said it best: Anyone can devise a plan by which good people may go to heaven. Only God can devise a plan whereby sinners, who are his enemies, can go to heaven.
A news article entitled: “Next Stop Pearly Gates or ….Hell?” said that for every American who believes he or she is going to hell, there are 120 who believe they are going to heaven. A lot more people think they’re going to heaven than those who think they’re going to hell. Why is that? Because they think they are basically good or because they don’t want to believe in hell, but the Bible teaches it nonetheless. Charles Spurgeon told his students once, When you speak of heaven, let your face light up. When you speak of hellCCwell, then your everyday face will do.
The Bible does not say “good” people go to heaven. In fact, Jesus said, Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and in Your Name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from Me, you evil doers!” (Matt. 7:21-23). Jesus was saying that it’s not “good” people who go to heaven, but those who do the Father’s will. What is the Father’s will? Jesus gives the answer a few verses later: …everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…(Matt. 7:24). That’s it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums up Jesus words best, Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes. To say we believe in Jesus means we obey Him. By obeying Him we show that we believe in Him.
I know this is not new to you. But I say this because if we say we believe in heaven then we must also believe in hell. If we’re serious about God’s Word, then we cannot be cafeteria Christians. God’s word is not like eating a mixed salad where we take out the things we don’t like.
Our problem is we don’t want to sound like a self-righteous judgmental Christian. I certainly don’t want to. But the truth is: the Bible says Hell is as real a place as heaven. Jesus, in fact, said more about hell than He did heaven. He said hell will be a place of eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:50). Paul wrote that those who reject Christ: …will be punished with everlasting destruction and shout out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power (2 Thess. 1:9). God loves us too much not to tell us the truth.
Dorothy Sayers clarifies: The doctrine of hell is no “medieval priestcraft” for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin…We cannot (deny) repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ. One of the most unloving things we can do is to let someone go to hell without telling them about Christ. Hell is the single greatest human tragedy in the universe.
Heaven and hell are both real. And the only thing that separates one from the other is our choice to accept His offer of forgiveness that He paid the ultimate price to purchase for us – His life. It’s my prayer that we take God at His word. He loves us enough to tell us the truth.
Common Questions About Heaven
I. Where is Heaven? A little girl was taking an evening walk with her father. Wonderingly, she looked up at the stars and exclaimed: “Oh, Daddy, if the wrong side of heaven is so beautiful, what must the right side be!” People have long wondered what Heaven is like.
Jesus says Heaven is an actual place. It’s not just a state of being, as some like to emphasize, it is an actual place. It’s a space/time dimension that exists as real, even more real, than what you see right now. I am going there to prepare a place for you,…(Jn. 14:2). It is physical. Paul said, I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). Though the Bible doesn’t give us details of what the first and second heaven are, it does give us clues: 1st heaven is the sky Psalm 78:8; 2 Sam. 22:8; Job 26:11, Hosea 2:18: Dan. 7:13. 2nd heaven is the stars (Gen. 1:14-18). John saw it as an actual place. So did Isaiah and Ezekiel.
One passage that has always fascinated me is 2 Kings 6:17 where the Prophet Elisha asks God to open his servant Gehazi’s eyes to see the invisible angelic army that surrounded them. They were real. Some of what the Bible says about heaven might be figurative. But not all of it. Too much of it speaks of heaven being a literal place. Where is heaven? It is a literal physical but unseen dimension. So, what it like?
II. What is Heaven Like? Jesus said to the thief who died next to Him, Today you will be with Me in paradise (Lk. 23:43). It is paradise like the Garden of Eden. It is a physical paradise. The Bible tells us there are a number of physical things there right now. Jesus in His glorified incarnational state is there. The tree of life in the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve were cast out is there (Rev. 2:7). Some think that present heaven is the garden of Eden. The garden of Eden wasn’t destroyed, but an angelic guard with a flaming sword was placed at the entrance to prevent them from coming in again and eating the tree of life (Gen. 3:24). That same tree of life will be in the New Jerusalem on the New Earth after the Millennium (Rev. 22:2). Hebrews says the real Tabernacle is there; the one that was shown to Moses as a pattern of the one God commanded him to build (Heb. 8:5). People where clothes there (Rev. 7:9). There are horses there and at least one eagle (Rev. 19:14; 8:13). There are musical instruments there with singing (Rev. 8:6). There will be no more fear of sinning or the possibility of messing up and getting thrown out (Heb. 10:14). Jesus indicates there is some great eating going on (Matt. 8:11; Lk. 6:21). There is wonderful laughter (Lk. 6:21). It is a place of satisfying rest (Rev. 14:13).
This is a good place for me to clarify something important about Heaven. Heaven right now is not the eternal heaven. The Bible clearly teaches Heaven right now is temporal and someday, after the millennium, there will be a New Earth and a New Heaven which we will have full access to and much more. In the New Heaven and New Earth there will be no sun or moon, or night. The gates of the New Jerusalem will never be shut or locked; there will never be a need again.
III. Will we recognize each other? YES! That’s much of what will make Heaven, Heaven looking forward to being reunited with loved ones and friends. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11). Why would he mention their names we’re not recognizable?
During Jesus transfiguration in Matt. 17 it says the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mountain. How did they recognize them? They’d never seen them. Probably the strongest reason to believe we’ll recognize people is the appearance of Jesus Himself after His crucifixion (Lk. 24:39). I think in heaven we’ll have instant recognition of people. The hope to see one another in heaven is entirely natural, genuinely human and in harmony with Scripture writes J. H. Bavinck.
IV. Are there animals in Heaven? Four-year-old Danny was fascinated with a dead fish floating in the river. After studying it for hours, he asked his mother, “Will the fish go to heaven?”
Knowing she was out of her theological league, she said, “We’ll ask Pastor Dave when we get to church.” “Does he know lots about fish?” This is a very common question. For those of us who are animal lovers, we really hope God does. Does the Bible give us any information? Paul does in Romans 8: For creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:20-21).
We often forget that the curse of sin was not just on people, but the whole world. All of creation longs to be free from the curse Paul says. Redemption in the Bible means more than just people, but all creation. This redemption, by the way, probably means the new heaven and new earth. I want to borrow from Randy Alcorn’s reasoning here in his book entitled “Heaven”: If God created a new race of humans on the New Earth – rather than raising the people who lived on the Old Earth – would it fulfill the promise in Romans 8 of redemption, deliverance, and resurrection? No. Why? To have meaning, the people who are redeemed and resurrected into the new world must be the same people who suffered in the old world. Otherwise, their longing for redemption would go unmet. As goes mankind, so goes animals. If we take to its logical conclusions the parallel Paul makes between humans and animals groaning, then at least some of those animals who suffered on the old Earth must be made whole on the New Earth (Alcorn, Heaven, pp. 397-8). I agree with his reasoning.
The Bible does teach there are animals in heaven right now. Why wouldn’t God bring give you your favorite dog or cat or bird or turtle? If you had a pet snake – forget it.
If God resurrects animals – then what about extinct animals? Why not? All