As a child I always thought heaven was extremely boring. You had wings, sure, and that was cool. But you had to wear what looked to me like white hospital gowns, and float on the clouds playing harps. Nothing much happened. It was like some kind of retirement home where you had to listen to new age music all the time. And it went on and on and on… I didn’t blame my non-Christian friends for not wanting to end up there.
It has been a long time since I was a child and I have long revised my ideas of heaven. However I realize that many of us still think of the afterlife as less substantial than this life, and less attractive.
I was chatting with a new widower recently. He knew that his wife was with the Lord and that they would meet again. He also knew that there would no longer be any marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:23-33). He said he was frustrated that when they do meet again, his wife would not treat him as her husband, since there was no longer marriage in heaven. He would just be one of the many heavenly inhabitants. Didn’t seem fair.
Of course my widower friend was in an acute phase of his grief. Still I tried to explain to him that whatever we will no longer have in heaven, for example marriage, would be replaced by something far superior. In this regard I recall C.S. Lewis’s response to those who asked him if there was going to be sex in heaven. He said:
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it. (C.S. Lewis, Miracles, New York: Collier Books, 1960, p.159-160.)
I was also posed this question: A nine-year old boy asked his mother, “Will you still be my mommy in heaven?” The nine-year old boy was looking for some reassurance. I am not sure how much theology he would understand. I am not sure if theology has any definitive answers. It appears to me that all human relationships in this life will be superseded by something better in the next. In the resurrected life, all our needs will be met directly by God (Revelation 22:5). This is hard to understand this side of heaven. And I still haven’t figured out how to explain this to a nine-year old.
Recently, Bishop N.T. Wright caused a stir when he said he didn’t believe in heaven. What he was doing, of course, was demolishing the popular concept of heaven as a place where you floated on the clouds in hospital gowns playing harps. In an interview with David Van Biema of TIME, he summarised the New Testament understanding of what happens when a believer dies:
In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, ‘Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.’ It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation. (TIME, Thursday, Feb 7, 2008, https://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html)
Wright’s summary is in line with passages like 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 where Paul says:
For we know that if our earthly house, a tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. And, in fact, we groan in this one, longing to put on our house from heaven, since, when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. Indeed, we who are in this tent groan, burdened as we are, because we do not want to be unclothed but clothed, so that mortality may be swallowed up by life. And the One who prepared us for this very thing is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. (HCSB)
It would appear that when we die, our present bodies are destroyed and our spirits, i.e. we, will be with God. At the end of time the Lord will usher in the new heavens and the new earth. At that time we will be clothed with our new, perfect, imperishable bodies. In this new creation we will be able to pursue what is most important to us — vocation and community — perfectly, no longer encumbered by a creation marred by sin and death (Romans 8:18-25). As Wright says:
In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it’s a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation.” (TIME, Thursday, Feb 7, 2008, https://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html)
The new creation is no retirement home. It will be a place where all that is good in this life will be taken up again, at a level that we cannot even begin to imagine.
This past Wednesday I celebrated my birthday. The next day, I received an email from my cousin in Toronto. His cancer appears to have spread. Everyday we are surrounded by reminders of our mortality. In a death denying world, Christians need to recover a robust understanding of what happens after death and God’s plan for the end of time. The best is yet to come. In Christ, the best is yet to come.