Some weeks ago I made a pastoral call on an elderly believer, one firm in her faith though she suffers a great deal of physical pain. She told me about the pre-death experience of a Christian acquaintance of hers. We both rejoiced that just prior to his death he reported that he saw heaven opened and was allowed to see some of heaven’s glory. Such experiences bolster our Christian faith in the hope of heaven.
Scholars help us by writing what is called a “history of heaven.” They discuss how the concept of heaven has been understood in the writings of the church or in the literature of Western culture. We are also helped by discussions of heaven from a philosophical point of view.
But what, exactly, is the biblical message about heaven? Heaven, of course, is central to the gospel in a way that hell is not. The Bible rightly speaks of the hope of heaven. There is no hope in hell.
The Difference Heaven Makes
If something makes no difference, why write about it? But heaven does make a difference. The Bible describes it in more than one way. For example, we read of heaven as “rest” or “Sabbath rest” for the people of God (Heb. 4:1-11). For weary pilgrims that expectation makes a real difference.
But “hope” is a more pervasive description of the difference heaven makes. The psalmist speaks frequently of hope and several times encourages his disquieted and disturbed soul to “hope in God” (see Ps. 42, 43). At least once the psalmist ties hope to the future well-being of his body: “my body will dwell secure” (Ps. 16:9).
What the Old Testament hints at, the New Testament teaches clearly. Jesus, the high priest and guarantee of the new covenant, has introduced “a better hope” (Heb. 7:19). Hope is related to the future. Paul tells us that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to “the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18-25). The whole creation groans “in hope,” and we believers also groan inwardly as we “wait eagerly” for our adoption as sons and daughters, namely, the redemption of our bodies. Paul explains: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what [they] already ha[ve]? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
Our future is already reserved for us in heaven, where Christ is. Paul tells the Colossians that their faith and love “spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:3-5). Later he describes heaven as “the things above” and further defines it as the place “where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). Peter says that we have been born again “into a living hope” through Christ’s resurrection and initiated into an inheritance that is “kept in heaven for us,” “ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5).
So, then, we believers in Christ patiently and confidently live in the present. We live in hope because of what Christ has done.
On the other hand, those separated from Christ and God’s promises in him “are without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Hopelessness is a terrible condition. Insightful New Testament scholars have pointed out that hopelessness can take either of two forms: presumption or despair. The former drives people to think that since God is not in the picture, it’s up to them to do everything. It breeds a spirit of “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” What a terrible burden. But equally terrible is despair. Since God is not in the picture, we think, then we can do nothing to change things. We may as well give up.
But believers know that God is in the picture through Jesus Christ. Therefore we can live in hope, confidence, and trust. Yes, the hope of heaven makes a big difference.
Heaven and the History of Redemption
The Old Testament sets the stage by describing “heaven” or “the heavens” in two ways. On the one hand, “heaven” indicates the expanse above that we can see (usually translated as “sky” in the NIV, see Gen. 1:1-20). On the other hand, “heaven” is also in a special way the abode of God. In Deuteronomy 26:15 the people of Israel are encouraged to ask the Lord, “Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel.” God, of course, is also present in and through his creation. But heaven is God’s special abode in which God’s glory and love are even more transparent than on earth. Heaven is also the abode of the angelic host (Isa. 6, 1 Kings 22:19).
The Old Testament has little to say about whether old-covenant believers had assurance of entering heaven upon death, though we see hints of that in Psalms 23 and 48. David confesses in Psalm 16:11, “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
With the coming of the promised Messiah, a new stage in the history of redemption arrived, affecting both earth and heaven. This new stage involves our earthly existence because God in his Son has entered our time: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only [Son], who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
It is equally true that through his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus brought our humanity into heaven itself. Hebrews proclaims Jesus our heavenly high priest: “Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens [ascended into heaven], Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly the faith we profess” (4:14). He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood (9:12). Therefore “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain” (10:19-20).
Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension created a change in the systems and relationships in heaven. Three things are worthy of note (for a similar development, see Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview by Peter Toon; Nashville: Nelson, 1986, 56-58). First, Jesus is seated at God’s right hand. Psalm 110:1 has been fulfilled: “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” This verse is the Old Testament text most frequently quoted or alluded to in the New Testament; it appears some 16 times. Jesus, our Lord, sits at the right hand of God, the place of honor and authority (1 Cor. 15:25).
Second, as the one seated at God’s right hand, Jesus also intercedes for us (Rom. 8:34, Heb. 7:23-25). And third, because of Christ’s victorious death, resurrection, and ascension, the hostile, evil powers have been defeated and cast from heaven: “For [our] accuser . . . who accuses [us] before our God day and night, has been hurled down” (Rev. 12:10; see also Col. 2:15 and 1 Pet. 3:19-22).
The new order in heaven will remain in effect throughout the messianic age in which we live. At the end of this age, a new chapter will be ushered in. 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 gives us a glimpse of the resurrection of believers; the final destruction of all hostile powers, including death; and Christ’s handing over his kingdom to the Father. And, of course, there will be a “new heaven and a new earth,” as announced by Isaiah (65:17, 66:22) and further described by Peter and John (2 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:1-4).
Living the Heavenly Life
Believers don’t have to wait for heaven to live the heavenly life. Jesus proclaimed the gospel of “the kingdom of heaven.” We are already by God’s grace citizens of that heavenly kingdom. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17, NRSV). He tells the Colossians that believers are to set our minds on things above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand, because we have been raised together with Christ and our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-4).
In Ephesians 2:6 Paul states that God has “seated us with [Christ] in the heavenly realms.” The heavenly is to determine how we live on earth.
The New Testament also has much to say about our involvement in the new heavens and the new earth:
- We will be given a spiritual and glorified body like that of Christ in his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:17-21).
- We will be judged and acquitted through Jesus before God (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
- Since the old order of things will have passed away, we will live in the light of Christ and enjoy his provision for us in the new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:1-22:5).
Our Comfort in Death
As we await the new heavens and earth, what happens to Christians when they die? “They have gone to heaven,” we say. They are “with Jesus.” Surprisingly, the New Testament has little to say about this subject. But it says enough to support those comforting truths.
While on the cross Jesus told the penitent thief, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). In this text “paradise” means “heaven” (see also 2 Cor. 12:3-4 and Rev. 2:7).
The penitent thief asked Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” probably expecting to be remembered in the distant future. But Jesus promised him even more than he asked—he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day. If one may use a parable to teach something beyond the main point of comparison, then Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) also teaches that Lazarus, when he died, went to a place of blessedness, namely, “Abraham’s side.”
Paul writes, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. . . . I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil. 1:21-23). The Greek grammar suggests that he means that when he dies he will be “with Christ.”
Similarly Paul describes this present life as being “at home in the body” and “away from the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6). Although the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 is disputed, it is most likely that Paul is referring in verses 6-8 to what happens at death. He states his confident preference “to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (v. 8).
At death believers are “with Christ,” that is, “at home with the Lord.” We would like to know more, but that is enough. Scripture has given us all we need to bolster our faith in the hope of heaven.
Warnings Concerning Hell
Scripture’s warnings concerning hell and eternal punishment are too numerous to list. They occur in the teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels and throughout the other writings of the New Testament. Let this saying of Jesus remind us of all those warnings: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28; see also Luke 12:4-5).
This warning is addressed to the disciples of Jesus. We are to fear (reverence) God, who is able to destroy, if God were pleased to do so, not only the body but also the soul in hell. The text gives support to those scholars who insist that hell should never be an independent topic but presented only as a part of the full and universal preaching of the gospel.
To warn people to avoid hell means that hell is or can be a reality. But warnings concerning hell are meant to be seen and heeded as part of the call to faith and obedience to the gospel.