Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my family and those whom God loves:
You don’t have to be a Christian to be intrigued by the topic of heaven. Most of the world’s religions envision a place where deities live and where people under certain conditions can ascend to after death. Perhaps this is why the topic is popular among people today with Amazon listing 50,000 results for books with the word “heaven” in the title and Google currently recording 1.090 billion search hits (“hell” has 849 million). What exactly is “heaven” though?
Early in my ministry my choir director had the choir sing “Heaven is a Wonderful Place.” It was a pretty simple song, but catchy because this how people want to see heaven: “filled with glory and grace.”
There apparently is an old Norwegian catechism that tells the story of God our Father calling some people to the home palace of heaven and then sending them to this “island colony called the earth.” After describing to them what their life on earth would be like, the Lord said to them, “The greatest danger is that you may fall in love with this island so that you will not care to return to the home kingdom. So love the island because it is My possession, but do not love it because it is your home. It is not your home! Your home is here in the palace with Me.”
This sounds like how someone once explained why so few people attend worship on the West Coast. He said, “It’s because they think they’re in heaven.”
Isn’t that the way it is for most of us? We have become so familiar with life in this world that we can only imagine heaven to be like this world, but version 2.0.
At a staff meeting the senior pastor once asked the rest of the staff, “What do you think heaven will be like?” As they went around the table staff member gave responses describing their view of heaven. Second to last was the senior pastor who said, “Heaven for me will be like sitting on a nice hot beach?” The associate pastor was last to respond and after hearing the senior pastor’s description the associate said, “That sounds more like hell to me than heaven.”
Some college students were interviewed about their perspectives of heaven and here are some clips from what they said:
One student said, “Heaven is a bar filled with all of your best friends and their friends too. Your wallet is never dry. The band is great, the dance floor is something wicked, and there is no last call. . . . . . . Or at least this is what I hope heaven looks like.”
Another said, “I’m not afraid to die although I’m pretty well acquainted with the fact that we live and we die. It’s all part of this “journey.” I don’t know what comes after death – If anything at all, but I won’t live out of fear.”
Another student responded, “If heaven and hell exist I’m relying on my hope to get me in the right door.” “I think I’m a relatively good person in a world full of evil and temptations. I try to have good intentions. I mean if heaven denies me simply because I was never baptized and I don’t go to church that’s pretty (expletive). That’s an elitist club (he says) that I don’t even wanna be a member of!”
A final student said, “I used to say heaven is going to have the most beautiful golf coarse you’ve ever seen. Every time you play you shoot a 59, a really really good score! That’s my tongue in cheek answer to what heaven was going to be like, that is, until I give up golf. Then I don’t much care if heaven even has a golf coarse.
With heaven being perceived in so many different ways, one wonders whether a some people will be disappointed when they arrive. Added to these multiple pictures is the general belief that everyone, except perhaps ax murderers will be there.
Our human nature, so corrupted by sin, keeps us from being able to comprehend something as perfect and eternal as heaven and so we imagine it to be the best of what we have experienced in this far less than perfect world. Even so, it is truly amazing that a sense of life beyond the grave is set in our hearts despite the fact that we can only imagine scenarios of heaven that would eventually become boring for even the most avid golfer.
And what about all those funerals that I have presided over where I’ve heard people suggest that they will see their loved one in heaven? Is there also some fear in our hearts that someone I once knew and loved in life won’t be there? How disappointed will some people be with heaven because the one they loved here won’t be there?
So what is heaven really like?
The answer, of course, to be correct, does not come from our imaginations or even someone’s near death experience, but has to come from God’s inspired Word, It was St. John the apostle, writing from his secluded little Island called Patmos, who provided us with the revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him (Revelation 1:1) concerning heaven.
It is fitting that, as John closes out the final book of the Bible, that he addresses this topic of heaven, our home for all eternity. In his vision in chapter 21 he sees a new heaven and a new earth. The new heaven is Jerusalem, the holy city of God, where the Church, the people of God, redeemed and cleansed of sin by the blood of Christ live forever. This Jerusalem is adorned as a bride prepared for her husband. She is beautiful and perfect, without spot or blemish.
It is this image of a bride that St. John is inspired to use (Revelation 18:23; 19:7; 21:2; 21:9; 22:17) as he communicates the relationship between Christ and his Church into eternity. Reverend Alan Taylor in his sermon, “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” describes it this way:
Throughout this life, the Church (the bride) longed to see her groom face to face. He loved her unto death, even death on a cross. She knew that was true. He came to her with letters of love that no husband, save He, could be pure enough and self-less enough to pen. He served her with His body and blood that she might be strengthened in her love for Him, knowing the depth and the height and breadth of His love for her.
And now, in the new Jerusalem, God dwells with her. In this world, having seen her groom only dimly, as in a mirror, now, she sees Him face to face. She is overwhelmed by joy, joy not unlike that experienced by Adam and Eve when God walked among them in the garden in the cool of the day.
Because she came to Him through suffering and pain, God wipes the tears from her eyes. And when He wipes away her tears, they fall no more, for the first order of things has passed away.
Finally, she knows what it means to be perfectly and eternally content! Her heart’s desire is to live with her groom, with Christ, forever. She doesn’t conceive of hurt or of loss, because her sin, the source of all her suffering and pain, the source of all her discontent, is no more. What she longed to be in life, she now is in eternity, pure, holy, righteous, everything God created her to be.
It was that old Norwegian catechism the concluded with God saying, “your home is here in the palace with Me.” What is heaven like? Perhaps it’s best that rather than imagining heaven as place, we rest in the assurance of the Person we will be with, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
John says, “God will dwell among them.” That is the essence of heaven, to be in the presence of Christ, and to know His love in perfect contentment for His bride – for you, me, for all who believe and are baptized (Mark 16:16). Sin is no more, as is everything connected to sin: sorrow, mourning, crying, pain, and yes, even death. All these are gone and in its place is the joy of the Lord’s presence.
While it is hard for us to imagine exactly what heaven will be like, the One who receives us there, the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world, moves us, nonetheless, to long to be with Him – Safe in the arms of Jesus.
While we walk this earth may the Holy Spirit fill us with that longing to be with Jesus as we walk by faith, hope and love.
Grace be with you,