What we should really think about heaven

There’s an older country song that says “Everybody wants to go to heaven, beats the other place there ain’t no doubt, everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now.”

Perhaps that’s a bit of an over-generalization, but I’ve been amazed how many people, even believers, have just a vague notion of heaven. While we agree that there will be no pain and suffering, there doesn’t seem to be much consensus surrounding what we’ll actually do for eternity.

As a child, the ephemeral harp-strumming saints, wearing white robes and chilling on clouds, that were the pop culture portrayals of eternity didn’t interest me much. I was concerned that I would be completely bored in eternity, if that was really what it was like! When I got older, and heard verses declaring that we would spend eternity praising God, I thought that heaven would be a never-ending church service (not a pleasant thought to a fidgety 10-year-old). I basically just tried not to think about it.

But a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that if heaven is created to be a place of eternal joy by the One who designed and spoke our natures into being, how could it fail to be perfect for us? So I realized that the ideas we see about heaven as a rather dull place where we have nothing much to do but sing and strum harps can’t be right. But those images are so pervasive — where do they come from?

We know that heaven will greatly surpass whatever we could imagine. As 1 Corinthians 2:9 says,

What no eye has seen, no ear has heard,
and no human heart has conceived —
God has prepared these things for those who love him.

So it’s safe to say that Renaissance paintings and corny scenes in classic movies aren’t hitting the nail on the head. But if we know that God loves us, understands us fully, and is infinitely powerful, where would we get the idea that heaven will be dull, or for that matter, that an entire life on earth could compare in value to a minute in heaven?

As Randy Alcorn wrote in his acclaimed book Heaven,

Satan need not convince us that Heaven doesn’t exist. He need only convince us that Heaven is a place of boring, unearthly existence. If we believe that lie, we’ll be robbed of our joy and anticipation, we’ll set our minds on this life and not the next, and we won’t be motivated to share our faith. Why should we share the “good news” that people can spend eternity in a boring, ghostly place that even we’re not looking forward to?

There also seems to me to be a major lack of education on this topic in the church. While I certainly haven’t followed every sermon at every church in this country, I can honestly say that I do not remember the last time I heard a sermon that dwelled exclusively on what heaven will be like, rather than what to do in this life to get there. I’ve never had the opportunity to be part of a small group series or conference on heaven — as a culture, we seem much more focused on the here and now, our lives on earth, than our eternal futures.

Needless to say, we have to be focused on what we can do today, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be preparing our minds and hearts for tomorrow. I think the prevailing idea is that once we’ve made it to heaven, and toil and striving are over with, everything will just be smooth sailing, so there’s no need to worry about exactly what will happen in advance. While I suppose that in one sense that is true, we stand to benefit greatly on earth from studying about and attuning our hearts and minds to heaven.

If we come to the realization that heaven is absolutely worth looking forward to, that everything we’ve suffered on earth won’t matter at all the instant we enter heaven, it’s so much easier to brush off the small and large tribulations on earth as the minutiae that they are.

For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

It’s like battling traffic on the way to an amazing vacation — it’s frustrating and nerve-wracking to drive in dangerous or super heavy traffic conditions, but knowing that you’re going somewhere where you’ll be incredibly happy and stress-free makes it easy to get through the drive, and even enjoy it with who you’re with. This earthly life is the frustrating, exhausting car trip, and heaven is the vacation. The difference is that the heavenly vacation never ends.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21)

If we live our earthly lives in light of the fact that we will spend eternity in heaven, our priorities begin to shift. Personally, since I’ve been dedicating some time to studying heaven and forming my opinion about what it will be like, I’ve been able to cope with stress more effectively and be more calm and graceful. In fact, despite the fact that I’m getting married in 5 days (!), am preparing for my husband to ship out in a month, and am having the most challenging work weeks of my entire life, I’m feeling pretty calm, because I know all the stress and hustle is just temporary.

So we know that heaven will be amazing, and that we’ll be happy beyond our wildest dreams. But the Bible doesn’t really share any specifics about our day-to-day life in heaven, right? We just kind of have to wait and see what happens? Wrong! While there’s no guidebook to heaven in the appendix to our study Bibles, there’s actually quite a bit of specific information sprinkled throughout God’s word. Beyond that, we can make some fairly safe inferences based on what we know about God, human nature, and his design for us.

In my next post in this series, I’ll dive into what we know about heaven, and what we can infer beyond that with a reasonable degree of confidence.

Until then!

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