There are times in life when we all think about heaven. Whether it’s while reading a book about “a little boy’s astounding story of his trip to heaven and back,”1 attending a funeral, caring for a dying parent, or navigating our own health issues, our minds can’t help but to think of the afterlife.
Will we see loved ones there? Can those in heaven now see us? Do we go there immediately after we die? Where is heaven? And what will we do there . . . for eternity? Bottom line: What is heaven like?
Heaven in the Bible
Some think the afterlife is just a myth. There is no heaven; when people die, they just cease to exist. Others think everyone goes to heaven after they die. Still others believe in the existence of both heaven and hell—and that one’s relationship with God on earth determines one’s eternal destiny.
However one gets there, the common picture of heaven typically includes floating on clouds, strumming harps with angels, and not much else. Fortunately—since clouds and harps aren’t the most appealing or exciting idea of an afterlife—that’s not how the Bible describes heaven at all.
The Bible actually teaches something quite different about what happens after death. The apostle Paul suggests that our souls will go to be in God’s presence.2 But a soul without a body is not our final destination, according the Bible, so theologians refer to this as an intermediate state.
It is “intermediate” because the Bible says that one day—no one knows when—Jesus will return to the earth and raise our old, decaying bodies to new life, where we will stand before God in judgment. Those who placed their faith in Jesus will spend eternity with him.
But here’s the kicker: eternity will not be lived in some mysterious, disembodied existence. The book of Revelation—the final book in the Bible—says that God will create a new heaven and a new, redeemed earth, where those who followed Jesus will live forever with God. Everything that was bad and evil will be gone—only goodness, beauty, and truth will remain.3
So what will this new-earth-afterlife actually be like?
Navigating the Mist
The Bible doesn’t say much about life on this new earth. And when it does, biblical writers often seem to have been at a bit of a loss for words. So they used metaphors and symbolic imagery to describe something that they didn’t fully understand—like you and I often do when trying to relate experiences or emotions.
One theologian has likened it to navigating in a mist: “All Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. Signposts don’t normally provide you with advance photographs of what you’ll find at the end of the road, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t pointing in the right direction. They are telling you the truth, the particular sort of truth that can be told about the future.”4
So, with that caveat, here are a few key signposts that might point the way forward.
Life on a new earth will have no sin, sorrow, pain, or death.
As a glimpse of what this will be like, the apostle John wrote of the redeemed earth: “‘[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”5
It’s hard to imagine a world without greed, selfishness, anger, or injustice. A world where cancer is no longer a threat, poverty is eliminated, and apologies are an unnecessary thing of the past. It’s almost impossible to consider—and yet it’s the life we all desire. One might even say it is the life we were originally made for.
The new earth will be beautiful and brilliant.
John describes this eternal home by saying: “It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.”6 It’s almost like all the most beautiful places on earth now—the Grand Canyon on a misty morning, the Himalayas covered in fresh snow, a tropical island glistening in the sunlight—will be available to enjoy all at once in a pure and unadulterated experience.
The new earth will also be a city of flourishing people.
The “old” earth began in the Garden of Eden with God calling on humans to populate and cultivate the land.7 The new earth demonstrates the fulfillment of that mission.
John’s vision included a glimpse of a glorious city, complete with streets, gates, and walls; trees of fruit and rivers of life; and people living their lives to the fullest in an expression of their worship of God.8
The new earth will include the presence of God himself.
Perhaps most significantly, John describes eternal life this way: “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”9
In other words, if “heaven” represents God’s space and “earth” represents humanity’s, in eternity heaven and earth come together in such a way that God and people live with one another. What humans can only glimpse now in fleeting moments of transcendence, we will experience forever in God’s uncontained presence.
Imagining the Unimaginable
Admittedly, this idea of heaven can seem far-fetched to many—understandably so. It requires tremendous imagination to envision what John described as a real and tangible possibility. But perhaps our imaginations hold the key.
Every worthy destination, every realized dream, begins with imagining that which seems unimaginable. And if God really does exist—and if there is more to this life than just this life—maybe a new and redeemed life with God on a new and redeemed earth isn’t so far-fetched after all.
- The best-selling adult nonfiction book in the United States in 2011 was Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). See http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/media_entertainment/nielsens-tops-of-2011-entertainment/.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, 2 Corinthians 5:6–8.
- See Revelation 21–22.
- N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008), 132.
- The Holy Bible, Revelation 21:4.
- Ibid., Revelation 21:11.
- Ibid., Genesis 1–2.
- Ibid., Revelation 21:10–22:5.
- Ibid., Revelation 21:3.
- Photo Credit: Khoroshunova Olga / Shutterstock.com.