Many people believe that heaven will be a place of eternal singing or that they will get wings and live on a cloud, but many traditional beliefs about heaven are not exactly what is revealed in the Bible. So what does the Bible actually teach us about this eternal place?
Our study begins in the book of Genesis. In Chapters 1 and 2 we find God creating heaven and earth and all that is in them. After God has created all of the plants, animals, and people, we find that he claims all he has made is good. Adam lives in the garden with Eve, they rule over the animals and care for the land and the work they do is without toil or strife. We also know that in this perfect world, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit in the garden. The text even tells us that God walks with Adam in the garden and that they have a unhindered relationship that allows them to communicate on a personal level.
In Genesis chapter 3, sin enters the world and corrupts everything. It corrupts plant life, animal life, and human life. This corruption separates humanity from having an unhindered relationship with God. The corruption causes death. It causes work to be rifled with toil and it causes the relationships between humans and animals to be one of enmity. It also causes relationships between humans to be full of conflict.
Christians believe that Jesus came and died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to mend this brokenness. His job was to fix what was corrupt so that it could be restored to its former state.
Revelation 21 teaches that this restoration will come at the end of time; it also describes heaven as follows:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! 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. 4 ‘He 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 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15 The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. 16 The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. 17 The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits thick. 18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. 19 The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (NIV)
From this passage we learn several very important things about heaven:
- In the new state God will not visit humanity as he did in the original garden, he will dwell among humanity forever. (V 1-3)
- In the Gospels Jesus states that he is going to prepare a place for our eternal home, in this passage, that home comes and descends onto the new earth. Heaven and earth will be a unified place. (V 1-3)
- In this place there will be no death. (V 4)
- Not everyone will make it to this eternal home (VV 6-8)
- The eternal home will not be a garden but a city. It will be beautiful. (VV 9-22) The idea here is not that there will be no trees or plants, but that the people will be in a community. Humans will live among other humans and not secluded. This was God’s original intent. While he created humans in the garden, he told them to fill the earth. God created humans as communal beings, this will be fully realized in Heaven.
- The eternal state will be a place of purity. It will need no temple, because God himself will be there. It also mentions the kings of the earth bringing their splendor to God; this idea is in reference to the fact that all belongs to God. (VV 23-27)
In this picture we do not see humans becoming angels or getting wings. In fact, we see the exact opposite in the Gospels. After Jesus rises from the dead, he remains human and has his own human body. He still bears his scars from the cross, but there is no reason to think that we will all bear all of our scars from this life. We also see that in his resurrected body, Jesus gets hungry and eats fish. From this we can conclude that our eternal bodies will be physical bodies much like the ones we have now in form. Our bodies may retain some marks from our life now. We will still get hungry and still eat.
Heaven in many respects is a return to the garden, but we were commissioned to fill that garden as cultivators of a city. In heaven, the garden will become the city.
The heavenly city is a gift from God and it will be full of cultural goods. We read in Isaiah 60 that the heavenly city will be full of gold and silver and precious stones. It will have trees and governors. It will be a cultural place. The culture will be good, because God will fill the new creation with his presence and love. It is this filling that gives us hope now for that time.
Since the heavenly city will be full of culture we can conclude that in it we will still have work to do. We will have jobs, and the best part is…the toil that we face in our work now will once again be removed.
This eternal state begins when all passes away here; from this we can also conclude that the eternal state will not be timeless. It has a beginning, it simply has no end.
I would like to conclude this post with two quotes from Andy Crouch that sum up nicely the Christian beliefs about heaven.
“Human beings, in God’s original intention and in their redemptive destination, cannot be separated from the cultural goods they create and cultivate at their best.” (Crouch, 170)
“Our eternal life in God’s recreated world will be the fulfillment of what God originally asked us to do: cultivating and creating in full and lasting relationship with our Creator.” (Crouch, 173)