Heaven

 

Donald Macleod

 


 

The Bible speaks often and eloquently of heaven; much more often than it does of hell. The reason is simple. The Bible's main concern is with God's people and their life and destiny. References to the impenitent are little more than incidental.

The teaching on heaven can be organised around three questions: Where is heaven? What goes on there? and, Who are to be there?

 

Where is heaven?

The Bible points us first of all towards what it calls 'a new heaven and a new earth' (2 Peter 3:13). People sometimes ask, Is heaven to be on this earth? In a manner of speaking, Yes! Not on this earth as we know it today, however, but in a new heaven and a new earth. One day God will recreate the whole universe. There will be a great moment of regeneration, a moment of new birth for the cosmos itself, when the God who made the world will pull it apart. In its place He will call into being a new universe: one which is a continuation of the old world but yet is radically and splendidly different. Just as the resurrection body is continuous with our current mortal body and the 'new man' is continuous with the old, pre-conversion human being, so there is continuity and yet discontinuity between this present universe and the new world God will one day create.

We don't know in detail what the differences will be. We do know that the world to come will be a world free from the curse (Gen 3:17) introduced by sin: free from all vanity, all futility, all competition between man and his environment and all competition between man and other creatures.

It's possible, too, that the great forces we are now familiar with will be added to, or made to behave in different ways. The forces of gravity, nuclear power and electromagnetism may be modified. Even the speed of light may be modified. All that is speculative. What the Bible makes absolutely clear is that not only man's soul and body but eventually his whole environment will be transformed and revert to its Edenic condition: even, probably, to a condition more splendid than the original Paradise.

That is the Christian vision: a new soul in a new body in a new universe, each in perfect harmony with the others, and man able at last to live out his full potential to the glory of God.

Secondly, heaven is the place where God's people are. We will be with the Lord together, said Saint Paul (1 Thess. 4:17). It is not the main thing about heaven. The main thing about heaven is the proximity and fellowship of Christ Himself. Yet it is not an unimportant thing that it is the place where the whole church is gathered: all those who have gone before us; all to whom we were bound in this life by ties of friendship, affection and love and from whom we are now separated by death.

God has promised us to bring us together again. We feel so acutely the frustration of death and bereavement. Sometimes we wrestle with time itself, wishing we could go back into another era where we could find our brother, our father, our mother or our friend. But we know it's not possible. We cannot move out of this present moment back to some past, lost moment in time. We cannot live the same day twice. We cannot traverse the space between ourselves and the dead. We cannot talk with them, or share, however much we might wish to. To know love is to know pain because over all love there stands written, `Until death do us part.' But God promises reunion. We shall be 'together'. They will not come to us, but we shall go to them (2 Sam. 2:23).

It is, of course, true, that in the world to come all such relationships are transformed. But that doesn't mean there is less love. There is more love. `Shall we know each other in heaven'?, we ask. The real theological question is, Shall we be ourselves in heaven? Of course we shall! I shall know myself as myself, and others will know me as myself, and this very fact of the survival of our identity means the survival of acquaintance, recognition and love. It remains one of the great if commonplace elements of the Christian hope that death separates believers only temporarily. The Paraphrase (53 ) is no cliché, but a monumental truth:

A few short years of evil past,
We reach the happy shore,
Where death-divided friends at last
Shall meet, to part no more.

The more the years go by, and the more those we know are taken from us, the more important it becomes that God saves personalities and promises us a church of triumphant immortals, who will know unending fellowship, co-operation and communion.

Thirdly, heaven is where Jesus is. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8): to be with Christ, which is far better (Phil. 1:23). The Bible's teaching on this is quite remarkable because it depicts us as sharing so fully and unreservedly in the privileges of God's only Son. Jesus Himself prayed, 'Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am' (John 17:24). He wants us to be where He is. He wants us in that place where we can see His glory (John 17:24): where we can see the glory of God in His face (2 Cor. 4:6). He wants us to be so close to Him that we can see the joy, the eminence and the splendour the Father has given to him. Above all, He wants us to see how much the Father loves Him (John 17:24).

But suppose we ask, Where, more precisely, is He? The answer is given in the great prepositions of John's Gospel: prepositions which carry in them some of our most astonishing pictures of heaven. For example, Christ is beside the Father (John 17:5); He is towards the Father (john 1:1); and He is in the Father (John 17:21).

That's where He is now: back in the glory He had beside God and towards God and in God. He insists (John 17:24) that we are to be there with Him, face to face with God: not merely located near Him, inertly and passively, but relating to Him actively and dynamically. Our love will go out towards Him, and His will return to us. We shall live for Him, and He for us. We shall see the love in His eyes.

But heaven is also to be in God. The Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father (John 17:21). God is in Christ; Christ is in God. The glory Christ has is that He is in God the Father. Language is being stretched to its extremest limits to express relationship and intimacy, to articulate the earnestness and energy of this divine affection. It is impossible to achieve this intimacy in human relationships, but in the Godhead there is this remarkable relationship in which each Person encircles the others. They live in and through each other. This is what the early church Fathers called enperichoresis. The Father, the Son and the Spirit live wrapped up in each other, distinct, yet one; penetrating each other in a union of incomprehensible intimacy and yet remaining so distinct as to be beside and towards each other.

Perhaps we think of it too physically. It may be more akin to the idea expressed in 1 Samuel 18:1: 'the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David'. In some such way our souls shall be bonded with God. We shall never be God, or gods. But we shall be gathered up into the life of the Eternal. The life of God is already in our souls, and our souls in the life of God. But here in this life the participation is partial, limited by the weakness of our own faith. Ultimately, it will be raised to the highest conceivable (and even inconceivable) perfection. Remaining fully ourselves, we shall be in God, encircled by His love, secure in His embrace and sharing in the blessedness and peace which lie at His own heart. He will hug us close, enfolding us in the embrace of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Of course it stretches our credulity! But it becomes even more incredible when He says, `I have given them the glory which you gave me' (John 17:22). We share fully in the relation of the Son with the Father. Equally with Jesus we are sons and daughters of God. We are not eternal sons; we are not begotten sons; but we are adopted sons and we are joint-heirs with Christ. Every believer has the privileges of a first-born.

Of course, there are levels at which we must insist on the uniqueness and the pre-eminence of the Son, but at this level of biblical teaching all the emphasis falls on the on the similarity and the identity between my relation to God as a son and Christ's relation to God as a Son. We have the same inheritance. We have the same Father. We shall bear the same image. We shall share His blessedness. We shall even share His throne. More stupendously still we shall share his nature (2 Peter 1:4) , so that in our faces, as in His, angels will see the glory of God.

But heaven is also our home. 'In my Father's house are many rooms' (John 14:2). 'I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever' (Psalm 23:6). Then are they glad because they have quiet and he brings them to their desired haven (Psalm 107:30). For the believer, death is a home-going. Surely this biblical perspective challenges our reluctance to die! Surely, too, it challenges the way we cling to this earthly existence! For the believer, this world is a foreign country. We have here no continuing city (Heb. 13:14). We are strangers and pilgrims (1 Peter 2:11). We are stateless aliens: colonists far from home (Phil. 3:20). We are beset by sin and harassed by the devil and agitated by restlessness and imperfection.

Why should we want to remain here forever? Home is where our Father is and where our Elder Brother is and where, in increasing numbers, our friends and loved ones are. In New Testament perspective, the believer is not simply `not frightened' of going home or simply `willing to go'. He desires to `depart and be with Christ, which is better by far' (Phil. 1:23). It wasn't that the Apostle was weary of life. He had learned the secret of being content in any and every situation (Phil. 4:12). But he wasn't neutral as between living and dying, staying and going. For the good of the church, he was willing to stay (Phil. 1:24), but his desire was to depart and to be with Christ.

I sometimes think that God has very strange children: they never want to come home! Is it God-honouring that we should want to stay in this foreign country? Why, when the alternative is to see Jesus? Is the fact that `the time is short' (1 Cor. 7:29) not at last a consolation rather than a threat?

Here in the body pent
Absent from home I roam
Yet nightly pitch my moving tent
A day's march nearer home.

It is just here that we see the contrast between the natural man's view of death and the Christian's:

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And let there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.
Tennyson, Crossing the Bar

To the non-believer, death means launching out into the deep, into the Great Unknown, a terrifying, uncharted ocean of darkness and uncertainty. To faith, the prospect is entirely different. The chariot is coming `for to carry me home'. This was exactly how the psalmist saw it:

Then are they glad because at rest
and quiet now they be;
So to the haven he them brings,
which they desir'd to see.

Matthew Henry put it memorably: `He whose head is in heaven need not fear to put his feet into the grave.'

 

What goes on there?

Again, there are three answers to that.

First, what the Father does: 'God will wipe away every tear from their eyes' (Rev. 7:17). The figure is a maternal one: the mother wiping away the tears, every last one, with meticulous tenderness. Why the tears? Because the children have been in the Great Tribulation (Rev. 7:14) and it's almost as if when they get to heaven the tears are still there and God the Father is saying with such tenderness, 'It's all right, it's all over now!' Not only are the pain and sorrow over. God Himself comes so close. We feel his touch upon our souls.

This highlights once again the uniquely Christian concept of God as Servant. It is as if God exists for the children. It's also so maternal: a mother investing so much of herself in her child, prepared even to lay down her life for him. Here is God Himself serving. On earth, Christ washed His disciples' feet. In heaven, God wipes away the tears and tends the bruises. I'm not sure that the memory of all those tears is necessarily eradicated. The Bible speaks of God putting our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). He knows every one of them and for each He has His own comfort and His own recompense.

Secondly, there is what Jesus does. 'The Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water' (Rev. 7:17). Christ, too, is active in heaven. Here He is, entitled to His own Sabbath, His work done, and yet what is He doing? It's so beautiful! The AV says that He will feed them. The NIV captures it more precisely: the Lamb will shepherd them. Technically, He will be their pastor. The flock is to be shepherded by a Lamb! He knows what being a sheep is like. He has taken our nature. He has been in our situation. He has been in the crushing. He has been in the valley of the shadow of death. He has been at the very storm-centre of death itself. He remembers.

This image reminds us, too, that even in heaven we are not going to be self-sufficient and autonomous. We are still going to need pastoring. We're still going to have needs. Unfallen Adam had needs, and God met those needs. Glorified, heavenly man will have needs and Christ will meet these needs. We will never lack: not because we shall never want or desire, but because every need is instantly met by the Great Shepherd. Heaven doesn't mean being independent, physically, intellectually or spiritually. It means that we shall have all our needs met in Christ. He will lead us to 'springs of living water'. He will lead us to the fountains of the water of life. And where are these fountains? In the midst of the throne! (Rev. 22:1). In this present world God feeds us from the river of life. In heaven, we are fed at the source. The Shepherd takes His flock on this marvellous journey into the very heart of Godhead: into the core of His sovereignty and love.

Of course, John's 'midst of the throne' is pure poetry. But what poetry: the flock grazing eternally, under the loving eye of the Shepherd, at the heart of the grace and glory of God! It is no easy thing to put flesh on this. We certainly have no guarantee that we are nearer the truth when we reduce it to theological propositions. Heaven means standing close to the majesty of God. But that is always the majesty of love, which means that the believer's privilege is to stand eternally where it all began. No doubt he will gaze and gaze upon it, but he is not taken to the fountain merely to look. He is taken to drink. We will quite literally enjoy God. In a sense we already enjoy his love, even in this present life. But here it comes through the filter of providence, mixed with adversity and sorrow and distorted by the currents of demonic and human hatreds. There, it comes unmixed and undiluted, directly from its source in the in the very heart of God Himself.

The journey is an endless one. Death is not the end of our pilgrimage. It's only the end of the beginning. Through endless ages the Lamb will be showing us new things about the glory of God. We shall never exhaust the fountain. The feast will never be over. We shall never, never stop travelling. We shall never stop getting to know God: not, any longer, in a book, but beside Him, face to face with Him, in Him, at the very source of Life.

There will be a future in heaven: an infinitely extended prospect as, day by day, the Lamb leads us to new pastures. God is a God of infinite dimensions. His riches are unsearchable (Eph. 3:8). His love passes knowledge (Eph. 3:19). His peace is beyond our understanding (Phil. 4:7). He will always remain a mystery, never bounded, never defined and never controlled. Never shall we reach the point where we say, 'At last! That's it! I know it all! I know Him through and through. I know all the wonders of his grace.' On the contrary,

When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun.

 

What do we do there?

First, work. The re-creation of the universe will involve a re-publication of the creation mandates to subdue and replenish the earth (Genesis 1:28). The First Adam reneged on these mandates, but the Last Adam resumes and fulfils them (Heb.2:8). The final state of the believer is not going to be a purely spiritual one. Nor will heaven reflect the kind of Puritanism which sacrifices every other human instinct and interest to the religious. We shall have resurrection bodies and these will be, by definition, physical. We shall live in a physical environment and we shall engage in physical, as well as spiritual and intellectual activity. If the Garden of Eden required to be kept and tilled there is no reason to think that the new creation will be any different. Paradise was no mere seminary where Adam and Eve whiled way the hours in theological discussion. I'm sure they did that, and that they did it with more relish than any of my students. But Eden offered scope for art, science and technology as well theology. The same will doubtless be true of the world to come. Bearing the image of the heavenly, we shall explore, colonise, serve, keep and enhance our magnificent environment. Not only the Creator, but the Creation, too, will be an object of wonder. It will challenge our intellects, fire our imaginations and stimulate our industry. The scenario is a thrilling one: brilliant minds in powerful bodies in a transformed universe. With energy, dexterity and athleticism here undreamed of we shall explore horizons beyond our wildest imaginings.

We will also worship there. We will serve Him day and night in His temple (Rev. 7:15). The New Jerusalem as the Apostle John saw it was a perfect cube (Rev. 21:16), reminiscent of the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 6:20). But John saw no temple in the City. It was all temple (Rev. 21:22). The presence of God, the Shekinah, was absolutely everywhere. The insignia of his majesty and the reminders of his love were everywhere. Here, in this life, the knowledge of the One we have never seen moves us to `joy unspeakable and full of glory'. There, we shall see him as he is. We shall see him face to face. Our worship will be a response to that: not something exacted or extorted, but `the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. The vision before us (the majesty of God unveiled in the transfigured humanity of Christ) will forbid silence. It will invoke, irresistibly, wonder, love and praise; and these will find expression not only in the voices of individuals, but in the symphony of all the redeemed. They will come from north and south and east and west. They will include black and white, rich and poor, learned and un learned, the weak and the powerful, introverts and extroverts. Each will sing her own song. But it will be no cacophony. It will be a great harmony, a symphony of grace, awe-inspiring in volume and yet euphonious and melodious as the harp (Re. 14:1-3): the response of humanity to the wonderful works of God.

And heaven is rest. Maybe rest above all. Here, in this life, responsibilities, pain and temptation. Here, harassment by the demonic, persecution by the world and disappointment in friends. Here, relentless, remorseless pressure, requiring us to live at the limit of our resources and at the very edge of endurance. But there, rest: `the battle's o'er, the victory won'. The toil is behind us and the danger past. No more the burden of unfinished work or the frustration of in-built limitations. No sin to mortify. No flesh to crucify. No pain to face. No malice to fear.

But it's not all negative. It's not simply rest from. It means sharing in God's Sabbath. And what is that? It is God's delight (Isaiah 58:13) in His own creation; and God's delight in the magnificence of His Son and in the glory of His work. We shall share that, looking at our saviour and saying, 'Less would not satisfy and more could not be desired.'

Heaven means sharing in the blessedness of God so that in the very depths of our being there is divine contentment, joy and fulfilment. There is total shalom: a sense of sheer well-being. Every need is met. Every longing is fulfilled. Every goal is achieved. Every sense is satisfied. We see him. We are with him. He holds us and hugs us and whispers, `This is for ever.'

 

Who will be there?

Who are going to be there? They are pictured for us in Rev.7:9-17.Three things stand out.

First, they have been in the Great Tribulation. They have been crushed. It seems unavoidable. They have been martyrs for Christ. They've been persecuted by the secular and religious powers. They've been pursued by Satan and plotted against by the Parliament of Hell. They've been in the depths. They've sat under juniper trees and prayed to die. They've been depressed beyond measure and sometimes despaired of their very lives. Time and again they wrote themselves off as worthless. But now, there they are, standing before the Throne.

Secondly, they've washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. How splendid it is! They've been in the crucible of pain and in the laver of affliction, but they didn't was their robes there. They washed them in the blood of the Lamb. They hungered and thirsted after righteousness and they found it in Christ. Now they see God (Mt. 5.8). Human, and erstwhile sinners, yet they threaten heaven with no defilement. They are as righteous as Christ and a spotless as the Lamb. They are pure as God is pure.

And they are, finally, a multitude too great to number. Burns caricatured grace, `sending ane to heaven and ten to hell, a' for thy glory'. On the contrary, where sin was abundant grace was even more abundant (Rom.5:20). How many stars are there in the sky? How many grains of sand are there on the shore? Not half as many as the number saved by grace. And the whole of mankind is represented: every language, every nation, every culture, every type of personality and every level of wealth and ability.

The gospel excludes none. Let none exclude herself. Heaven, in traditional Scottish terminology, is for `sinners of mankind lost'. It's for the vilest sinner and for the chief of sinners. It's for the man or woman with the lowest self-esteem in the world. It's for the greatest hypocrite and the worst Christ-hater who ever lived.

There is work to do. Go! Gather God's elect. We're not looking for one in a million or even one in a thousand. We're looking for a multitude too great to number.

 


Heaven. Professor Donald Macleod. The Free Church of Scotland