Heaven is for real – right here

Why is it so important to know that heaven is for real “up there,” when heaven is for real “down here”? I imagine it’s because, for many Christians, the ultimate Christian hope is going to heaven after we die and spending eternity with God where he is, and he’s up in heaven, right? And having that hope makes all our suffering down here worth grinding through, all our good deeds worth doing, all our repentance, belief, obedience and going to church worth the reward we’ll get when we’re whisked off this mess of a planet forever to live in the bliss of heaven instead.

And there may be some sort of “heaven” awaiting us after we die, but the focus of the gospel is not us leaving the earth to go to heaven; it’s Jesus bringing heaven to the earth.

God’s goal in creating earth is to merge heaven and earth right here. He demonstrated that clearly in his instructions to the Israelites to build a tabernacle in the wilderness and later a temple in Jerusalem. It was in that tabernacle and temple that heaven came down to earth. It was the place where heaven and earth met, clearly demonstrating God’s wish to be where we are, not whisk us off to where he is. We may temporarily be where he is after we die, but Jesus returns to this earth bringing us with him, and he sets up his HQ down here, not up there.

What Christians are far more interested in, then, is demonstrating heaven is for real down here, right now, because this is what Jesus came to this earth for. He came from heaven, bringing heaven to earth, taught the ways of heaven to his disciples, and told them to follow him, because in following him earth and heaven would merge in their lives too. They would literally become the temple of God, the place where heaven and earth meet, the evidence of which would be Christians doing very heavenly things “on earth as it is in heaven,” like loving their neighbours and not judging anyone as inferior or unworthy of love and respect.

They would demonstrate a very different way that would often conflict with the typical ways and cultures of this world, causing them considerable and sometimes overwhelming suffering. But turning to their Lord and King they would always bounce back with confidence and trust, proving yet again that heaven is for real right here, right now, because nothing in this world can rip heaven out of Christians. They are proof that heaven is here already – and it’s here to stay.

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Which Christian view of the afterlife is correct?

Christians have at least three views of the afterlife, which is disturbing, because how can Christians differ on what happens to us after we die? But we do.

The first view is that we go to heaven after we die and that’s where we stay forever. It’s our ultimate hope, that one day “Jesus takes us home” – as so many hymns and funeral services state.

The second view is that we go to heaven (or paradise) immediately after we die, but only until the resurrection. During our temporary stay in heaven, or paradise, we are conscious. The resurrection then occurs and we are given new bodies and back to the earth we come again.

The third view is that we go to the grave when we die where we remain unconscious until the resurrection, at which point we receive new bodies and come back to the earth. At no point in this third view are we conscious in either heaven or paradise.

So which of these three views is correct, especially when all three views find their support in Scripture?

The first view uses Philippians 3:20 which says “our citizenship is in heaven,” and Hebrews 11:16 which talks of us “longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”

The second view has no trouble with either of those verses, or all the other verses that talk of us being seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6), being raised with Christ to sit with him at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1), or Jesus preparing a place for us in his Father’s house (John 14:2) – BUT – Christ then returns to the earth at the last day (John 11:23-24) and brings all those in heaven with him back to the earth to live and stay here (Colossians 3:3-4, Revelation 5:9-10).

The third view, meanwhile, quotes John 3:13, which says, “No one has ever gone into heaven” (including King David, Acts 2:34), so there’s no way any of us go to heaven at any time after we die. Instead we stay in our graves unconscious until Jesus returns to raise us from the dead and we live with him on the earth forever (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).

So which of those three views correctly describes what happens to us after we die? Is it escaping off to heaven after we die to live with Jesus in heaven forever? Is it spending time in paradise awaiting the resurrection and then living with Jesus on the earth forever? Or is it staying unconscious in the grave until the resurrection and living with Jesus on the earth forever?

It can’t be all three, so which is it?

Is heaven a place?

I was asked in response to a previous blog (‘Heaven is in Hell too’ Feb2/16) how heaven could be in hell when heaven is a place. Surely heaven is ‘the place’ we go to after we die, it’s the place where God dwells and rules from, and it’s the place Jesus ascended to after his resurrection, meaning heaven must be a location ‘up there’ beyond the reach of humans, separate from our world, and accessible only to Spirit-filled human souls, not to flesh and blood.

And there’s no doubt that heaven is another realm, or kingdom (as Jesus called it in Matthew 4:17), but heaven is also a realm that can enter and be part of our realm, as we see in Matthew 3;17, when “a voice from heaven said…”

The voice came from the realm of heaven, yes, but it also spoke in our realm and could be heard in our realm, meaning the heavenly realm and the earthly realm can mix and operate together in the same place at the same time. It shows clearly that the heavenly realm and the earthly realm aren’t that far apart. They’re not in separate locations unable to access each other; they are, in fact, very close and easily accessible to each other.

And it’s been that way since the beginning in Genesis. Heaven was here on the earth in the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, and God being involved in every detail of earth’s design and operation, and God walking and talking with the humans he’d created in his likeness, and God even making garments of skin for Adam and his wife. The heavenly realm was totally absorbed by, involved in, and present in, our realm. And if Adam and Eve had followed God’s instructions they would have been given access to God’s realm forever.

So God walked and talked with Abraham instead, and created a nation from his descendants, with whom he dwelt in both the tabernacle in the wilderness and in Solomon’s temple. The heavenly realm was here, and easily accessible. God wasn’t ‘up there’ he was down here filling Solomon’s temple with his glory, 2 Chronicles 7:1-2, and appearing to Solomon at night (verse 12) to tell him in verses 15-16, “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.”

Thats where God’s heart is, in our realm. He’s not in some far off distant place, he’s here with us where he loves to be; the heavenly and earthly realms operating together, as one.

Heaven is in Hell too

Hell began the moment Adam and Eve decided God wasn’t worth listening to, because from then on the natural and beautiful became ugly and odd. They even hid their nakedness from each other, the very thing they found totally attractive before, but as Paul said in Romans 1, this is what happens when humans don’t “think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God” (verse 28). They enter a world of weirdness, where human thinking becomes futile and foolish hearts are darkened (verse 21), a major manifestation of which has been “the degrading of their bodies with one another” (verse 24).

Who’d want to live in a hell like that, where even the beautiful human body is misused and abused for selfish lust (verse 26)? But it’s a hell we’ve become used to, where it’s common place to hear of young women and children being sexually molested, and young people questioning their sexual identity, and people even risking life and limb to change their gender. The Bible isn’t squeamish either about the weird ideas people have about sex, like Lot being quite willing to hand over his virgin daughters to a lust-filled crowd of men. Who worries about going to hell later, therefore, when it’s clear we’ve already got hell in the here and now?

But how does anyone get out of this hell when he doesn’t know he’s in it and he doesn’t want out of it?

There’s a clue in Genesis 3:8, when God enters the hell Adam and Eve have created. He comes “walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” and he calls out to Adam in verse 9, “Where are you?” In other words, heaven enters hell. Heaven comes looking for people in hell. It doesn’t leave Adam and Eve in their hell to suffer without an understanding of what has happened and why. Heaven hasn’t deserted them, or rejected them. Instead, heaven stays in their hell with them.

And back in Romans 1 and 2 it’s the same story: God is very angry at the stupidity and stubbornness of ridiculous humans, but to those who dare to judge and condemn people for the hell they’ve brought on themselves (2:1-3) Paul asks, “do you show contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, tolerance and patience?” (verse 4). Paul is not denying that the world humanity has created is hell and those who “approve” of it thoroughly deserve the depraved minds they’ve got (verses 28, 32), but heaven is in hell too, being kind, tolerant and patient, because that’s what leads people to repentance (verse 4). Heaven lets us know what hell is like first, but only to help us realize that God is worth listening to after all.

Heaven sounds awfully boring

Ending up in a retirement home doing crafts, playing cards, watching TV, and going for outings is not my cup of tea. The boredom of it all will likely kill me off quicker than illness. I’d rather be like my Dad, who was actively involved in his church to the last week of his life. And isn’t that what we humans are built for, to be active and alive, and delighting in the fruits of our labours?

The idea of going to heaven, then, when all that comes to a halt and we sit around gazing on God’s face and singing in choirs and playing harps sounds way too much like those boring twilight years in a retirement home. And yet that’s the hope offered in much of Christianity, that we hold on grimly through this life’s pain, suffering and temptation, because beyond it all awaits escape from our troublesome bodies and escape from this sin-filled world to the peace and quiet of heaven forever.

For a while after we die I can see heaven being a blessed relief, especially after a long, hard life with its usual share of sickness and tragedy, but once we’re rested, then what? Is that it forever? We just rest? But aren’t we resurrected at some point in time after that and given new bodies full of God’s energy? Surely, we’ll burst if we can’t do something, like a child stuck in a car all day travelling.

I think of Paul who knew God was a God of energy, and with God’s energy flowing through him all sorts of exciting things could happen, which Paul lived for and loved (Colossians 1:29). So how on earth (or in heaven) is Paul going to adjust to floating around in a spiritual body and playing sweet music for eternity? And what will be the point of giving Paul life and energy back again at the resurrection if all he can do with that energy is stroll the golden streets plucking his harp?

But in the life he lived as a human Paul got a taste of what having the Holy Spirit was like. He came alive (Romans 8:11) and he was filled with love (Romans 5:5), and love cannot sit still and do nothing. It was love that stirred God to create the universe, love that stirred him to create us, love that stirred him to rescue and restore us, and love that got his plan of filling everything with his love, creativity, wisdom and energy back on track. That’s the lifeblood of heaven and it’s anything but boring, and that’s what Paul looked forward to, when one day heaven fills the earth.

Is it souls that need saving, or bodies?

A leopard seal only eats the breast meat of penguins, because that’s the only part worth eating, and it discards the rest. It’s like Christians who believe the only part of us worth saving is our soul, because at death our body is discarded. Souls are what count, they say, and especially if souls are immortal, because a fate much worse than death awaits a bad immortal soul. To many Christians, then, it is souls that desperately need saving, not bodies.

But what’s a soul without a body? Imagine being an artist commissioned to paint a picture of souls in heaven. What does a soul even look like? No one seems to know, because in every painting of heaven I’ve seen souls are always in bodies – which makes sense, because how can you play a harp without fingers? Or how do we wander the golden streets of the heavenly city without legs and without eyes to see where we’re going? Or how do you sing in a heavenly choir without a voice box?

Despite Christians thinking it’s only souls that count, then, the picture they paint of heaven is of souls with bodies. But how can that be, when surely it was only our souls that went to heaven when we died, and we left our bodies behind? Maybe we’re not so keen after all to get rid of our bodies – and Scripture supports that too, because in Romans 8:23 we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” It’s not the saving of our souls we’re groaning inwardly about, it’s the saving of our bodies.

We like our bodies – and, fortunately, so does God. He wants our bodies redeemed as much as we do, because he wants us ruling this earth alongside Jesus Christ as kings and priests (Revelation 5:10), and for that we need bodies, because how can a floaty thing like a soul rule people? And how can it rule on earth when it’s floating round heaven forever instead?

Clearly, then, it’s immortal bodies that count, not immortal souls. We need bodies that never decay or die, like the body of the resurrected Jesus, which is exactly what God intends to give us. That’s why the death of our bodies in the Garden of Eden was so disastrous, but Jesus solved that by taking the death of our bodies into his own body. That’s why he came in a body, because it’s our bodies that need saving, not our souls.

And that’s why Jesus one day “will transform our lowly bodies” to “be like his glorious body,” Philippians 3:21. It’s our bodies he wants to save.

We’re in heaven: So now what do we do?

I picture myself in heaven after a few weeks of being there sitting on a cloud leaning on one elbow and muttering to myself, “Now what?” Because now what do we do? We’ve gazed on Jesus’ beauty, toured every nook and cranny of our heavenly mansion, talked with all our relatives and ancestors, met all the famous people of the Bible, and done the rounds of the golden streets of the heavenly city in our new spiritual bodies, so now what do we do – for the rest of eternity?

And yet this is the great hope dangled before grieving people when facing the death of a loved one – or the approach of their own death – that heaven awaits, and in an instant after death they’ll find themselves in a completely new and totally unfamiliar dimension somewhere beyond the universe where God lives, and they’ll live there with him and their loved ones forever. No one quite knows what it looks like, or what they themselves will look like, but the cartoon image of people dressed in long white robes with a halo over their heads, a harp in their hands and a serene look on their faces has caught on, even when there’s no such picture in Scripture.

It all sounds terribly boring, and just as boring for God too, I imagine, with all these disembodied souls floating round his heavenly home with nothing to do except sit on clouds, play harps and sing in choirs a lot. It must be a terrible anticlimax for him after all those centuries of hard slog patiently working with every human being to make us all fit for eternal life, to then leave all that labour and excitement behind, have nothing more do with the earth or humans or animals or any part of his amazing physical creation anymore, and end up instead with all these souls wandering round heaven seeking beatific visions.

I suppose it’s better than hell, at least, but hell doesn’t make much sense either, because how can a soul feel torture? If all that’s left of us after death is our soul and not our physical bodies with nerve endings, how can flames have any effect on us? How can a soul feel the jab of a demon’s pitchfork?

But this is the cartoon mess we’ve got ourselves into as Christians when we say our souls go to heaven or hell forever. Being a disembodied soul in heaven sounds boring, and being a soul in agony in hell is nonsense when you haven’t got a body that feels pain. Could we drop the cartoon, then, and see what the Bible really says?