In his book The Timeless Way of Building, renowned architect Christopher Alexander unwittingly depicts an architectural vision of heaven on earth. He writes, “Almost everybody feels at peace with nature: listening to the ocean waves against the shore, by a still lake, in a field of grass, on a windblown heath. One day, when we have learned the timeless way again, we shall feel the same about our towns, and we shall feel as much at peace in them as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow.”
Alexander’s prophetic vision of urban shalom is compelling, a dream we’re all made for. Had the Old Testament prophet Isaiah read Alexander’s thesis, I’m sure he would have smiled in agreement and then whispered, “But there's more!”
Describing God’s vision of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17), Isaiah saw much more than simply spatial and aesthetic harmony and the good feelings those places evoke. He envisioned a definition of peace that went beyond bricks and mortar—a shining, multicultural city filled with commerce, wealth, and prosperity; governed in perfection; overflowing with justice.
Isaiah’s vision of heaven differed from Christopher Alexander’s in that it filled a perfect city with a perfect society—a perfect society grounded in a perfect, renewed relationship with God:
Pay close attention now: I’m creating new heavens and a new earth. All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain are things of the past, to be forgotten. Look ahead with joy. Anticipate what I’m creating: . . . They’ll build houses and move in. They’ll plant fields and eat what they grow. No more building a house that some outsider takes over, no more planting fields that some enemy confiscates, for my people will be as long-lived as trees, my chosen ones will have satisfaction in their work. They won’t work and have nothing come of it, … For they themselves are plantings blessed by God (65:17-23, The Message).
A Real Place
Build houses? Plant fields? Eat? Find satisfaction in their work? What a wonderfully earthy vision of heaven—a real place!
In his vision of heaven in the book of Revelation, the apostle John describes a huge city coming down from heaven to earth (21:1-3). Fourteen hundred miles long by fourteen hundred miles wide and fourteen hundred miles high. Talk about urban density! Picture Tolkien’s great White City, Minas Tirith. By contrast, Manhattan is only 13 miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide, and not nearly as high.
John goes on to describe this holy city in very material terms: walls 200 feet thick, plus foundations, gates, streets, a river, and trees. A place where God’s people “will serve him” (Rev. 22:3), a place filled with real people doing real things. “The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it” (21:24-26).
All That’s Good
In his book When the Kings Come Marching In, Richard Mouw makes the case that the splendor we’ll bring into that city will include all that is good, true, beautiful, and right of the cultures and cultural products humanity has created. All that we’ve done in obedience to God’s good call to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth will continue in a renewed and perfected form in heaven forever.
We’ll come together to watch New World Cup soccer—humanity gathered from every tongue and tribe celebrating the flag-draped glory of the nations. We’ll communally enter into the joy of competition, the delight of play, the euphoria of victory. Together we’ll stand in awe of God’s miraculous physiological gift of new human bodies.
On that new earth, universities will continue to flourish and grow, exploring and unpacking the nature of the universe, making new social science discoveries, coming up with new economic theories and ideas, reading and comprehending more and more of the cosmos so that we’ll all have more and more with which to love and know God.
Businesses will continue to develop and bring new products to market. Better and better technologies will continue to aid human flourishing.
Artists will continue to do their thing, creating beauty and aesthetically pointing us to the truth. Heaven’s great city will be filled with the fruit of their labor and, beyond the sacred page of each of their created works, we’ll see his face—God’s face. “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4).
In heaven we will wear the name of God perfectly and our image-bearing will be complete. We will be God’s people, and God will dwell among us. I believe we’ll know him in and through all things, everywhere, all the time, forever. We’ll experience and love God as we build our houses, plant our fields, design our products, and stewardly tend and fill his new earth—our new earth!
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). There’s no need for a temple; all is holy and God is adored everywhere, through everything.
On that new earth, I’m pretty sure we’ll finally get the idea of rest right as well. The old problem of balance between work and the rest of life will be resolved. We’ll know when a good day’s work is done, and we’ll trust God enough to truly let go when it’s time to rest. Because we’ll live in perfect communion with God, we’ll see times of rest for what they’ve always been meant to be: opportunities to behold God, to love and commune with him, to thank, worship, and bring glory to God from a place of just being. On that new earth, we’ll know God’s grace so well that those times of rest will be just as crucial as times of service and work.
We’ll know and experience God perfectly when we sit by a still lake, when we stand in a field of grass or walk on a windblown heath. Our prayer will be so intimate and real that a few hours may not be enough. No longer will we feel the desire or the pressure to rush off to the next thing.
In heaven we’ll be at peace. At home.
The thought of what that new world might be like fills me with awe and trembling. I imagine that every communal interaction will come with a sense of translucence. As I experience the love of another—helping me, encouraging me, making me laugh, teaching me—I’ll be able to see right through that person to the God who is help, encouragement, laughter, and wisdom. And as I do the same for others—support them, play games with them, listen to them—I’ll have a clear sense of the God of all support, play, and listening doing all of these good actions through me. I’ll be co-loving with Christ, co-listening through him—and all of these interactions will be saturated with triune communal love.
I imagine scientists engaging in their hypothesizing with a greater faith than they’ve ever known. Believing that what they think might be true about some physical reality could be true. Believing that what they’ll eventually discover will reveal yet another facet of the empirical mind of their creator God.
I can see them in their labs, falling on their knees in worship as they gain huge new insights into the nature of the ever-expanding cosmos. I imagine them feeling the euphoria of the curtain being pulled back as their minds move in sync with the world-ordering mind of Christ, as they see for the first time something Jesus has seen for eternity. And I’m guessing that after a billion years of doing research, they’ll still be discovering new things about how God’s universe works.
I know God will be King of this new earth, but I’m wondering if he might also appoint some to a few sub-kingly roles to govern and lead that eternal community. Perhaps some will end up being city councilors, justly governing in a bottom-up, humble, honest, selfless, Christ-like way. Every leader will be empowered by wisdom and grace from the throne. And I imagine those heavenly leaders feeling the same “just right” feeling God must feel throughout his eternal rule every time they shape a just policy, an equitable program, or a fair and democratic law. As they govern rightly, they’ll experience the good-governing heart of God.
On that new earth, our relationship with the natural world will be as it should be: all of us knowing God anew in a restored and reclaimed relationship with our ecosystem. The glory of creation will inspire the best environmental technologies and behaviors. The heavenly city will have a perfect balance of green space and human structures. We’ll be active, using our new bodies in the way they’re meant to be used. With legs like 10-year-olds, we’ll cycle everywhere. With eyes like children, we’ll see the newness of all things every day. Every one of us will be filled with awe at the leaves that are for the healing of the nations, and we’ll swim in that crystal clear river that flows from the throne of God. Innocent. Free. Pure in heart. Seeing God.
I’m sure there will be a heavenly choir there as well, our voices bringing glory to God. But I think the birds are going to play a big part in that eternal chorus too, along with investment bankers, retailers, and marketers as they keep the eternal city’s economy humming. So will street sweepers, hair stylists, farmers, and manufacturers, and all that’s good and beautiful in fashion, film, and music. Heaven’s choir will be made up of countless diverse voices—more than we could ever imagine.
One day all good things will be perfected in the new heaven on earth. Heaven will be the reality we now live, but no longer tainted by sin. Imagine an unparalleled diversity of people, loves, gifts, passions, and cultural products all working as one—all of creation flawlessly and fully bearing the image of God.
In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul speaks of all things being made through and for Christ (Col. 1:16). I’ve spent the past few years pondering the deep significance of the through part of that phrase. What an architect! What a scientist! What an artist!
Lately I’ve wondered about the for part. I’m beginning to think that it’s going to take a universe full of created matter, beings, and cultural products, all made new, to fully image and bear the power and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. In order to fully capture, reflect, and bring homage to our King, I believe that God’s new heaven and earth will need to go on forever.
One day we’ll know for sure. Until then, I’m convinced we’re meant to experience heavenly foretastes of that eternal city through the work, play, love, and life God has given us right now.
“[God] has made everything beautiful in its time,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes. “He has also set eternity in the human heart” (3:11). I love the connection between beauty and eternity. All that is right in our jobs, our relationships, our play, and our rest is going to be right forever. Imagine that!
- Do you agree with Van Sloten and Mouw that heaven is a real place filled with real people doing real things? Why or why not?
- Van Sloten says that Isaiah’s vision of heaven depicts a perfect society grounded in a perfect, renewed relationship with God. He also says that we’re meant to experience heavenly foretastes of that eternal city right now. Describe an experience that you’ve had in life that reminded you of that vision. What did this experience mean to you?
- What description of living in a perfect relationship with God is most compelling to you?
- What relationship in your life most awaits transformation? Is it a relationship with a person, with time, with your vocation, with the natural world?
- What is the connection between beauty and eternity?
- Imagine wearing God’s name on your forehead. What would be your response to this gift?