As Christians, we believe in the existence of an afterlife, but the Bible isn’t always very clear about what that will look like. Teachings about heaven and hell are couched in poetry, prophesy, and parables.
Sometimes when we, whether as pastors or everyday Bible readers, single out any one passage, we can come away with rather limited views like, ‘In heaven, we will constantly worship before the throne of Jesus; nothing else will matter to us.’ (Other times, Christians get their ideas about heaven from popular theories that have nothing to do with the Bible whatsoever. Like the idea that we turn into angles when we get to heaven.)
When it comes to a biblical understanding of heaven, we have to look at the whole of Scripture to get the picture. TTC’s Dr. Scott Shiffer helps us sift through some of the key passages, taking us from Genesis to Revelation.
A Biblical View of Heaven
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, he declares 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. 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 enjoying an unhindered relationship with God. The corruption causes death. It causes work to be rife with toil and it causes the relationships between humans and animals to be one of enmity, conflict, and strife.
Christians believe that Jesus came to this devastated world, 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, describing heaven through metaphor, primarily as a city. 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 and cultivate the garden into 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 the best of everything: the richest types of wood; gold and silver and precious stones; the strongest bronze and iron. It will be a cultural place. The culture will be good, because God will fill the new creation with his presence and love. The very governors themselves will be peace and well being. It is this (re)filling that gives us hope now for that time to come.
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’s Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling 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” (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” (173).
About the Author
Dr. Scott Shiffer has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and has been teaching religion classes since 2006. He leads Transformation Media Ministries, an organization to help believers think biblically about culture in America. Scott has given numerous presentations including one at Oxford. He has spoken at church retreats, youth retreats, conferences, and has taught discipleship classes for over 10 years. Scott is married and has three children. He has a heart for helping believers draw closer to God and for aiding them as they are faced with new challenges in America every day.