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Theology

Heaven Is Not What You Think It Is

I’m a 90s kid. That means I watched a lot of TV. And one scene from a cartoon (Looney Tunes maybe?) is forever etched in my mind.

I can’t remember the context of the episode but it’s a picture of heaven. It’s portrayed as an expanse filled with clouds. A chubby little baby in a diaper is an angel seated on a puffy cloud playing a harp.

Apparently this is paradise for all eternity.

This image shaped my theology of heaven more than anything when I was a kid. It made me not want to go to heaven. Ever. I’m going to be a fat, diapered baby sitting alone for all my days? No, thanks.

If we’re honest, most of us would think of heaven to be some version of this boring, awkward scene. Maybe not the diaper part. But an ethereal, vague, and serious place full of light fog.

This isn’t the picture painted by the Bible. Even the idea of heaven as a location “out there” that we “go to” is foreign to Jesus and his apostles.

In the end, Heaven comes down, as the New Jerusalem, the New Creation, the New Heavens and New Earth. It’s the place God lives and where his people live with him as they were meant to originally in the Garden. This time, without the possibility of rebellion.

The picture painted of heaven in the Scriptures has more continuity with this world than we might dare to think. Does it feel a tad bit unspiritual to consider “heaven” being like this earth? Remember, God made us for this world. It is our home. And it will be our home (see Romans 8:22-24).

This world simply isn’t the finished product yet. Neither are we.

In the the last two chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21-22, we see the finished product. And it’s glorious.

There’s no need for security at the city gates. The very best of human culture is ushered in and celebrated. There’s no off-season for harvesting crops. God and his people dwell together in sweet intimacy. They see each other face to face. There’s no more sun—God’s brilliance lights up the world. And his people will reign with him.

It’s the place where everyone looks out for everyone else. Where everyone is more concerned for their neighbor than themselves. Where there is always perfect joy and delight and laughter. Where there is no pain or tears or mess-ups or accidents or disease or disaster or devils or death.

It’s a world of love, because the God who is love is there and we will finally be with him in his presence.

In other words, “heaven” is the place and society “that we long for, [but] that we feel so far away” from, this side of Eden. It’s what this world was meant to be. And will be…someday.

It’s way better than what the cartoons told us. And it can’t come soon enough.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

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Life

Tasting Heaven in the Backyard

Our 20 month-old Titus, a brute of a boy, was churning his chunky legs up the grassy hill with a determined, yet jovial look on his face. He was on mission to find a Black and Decker toy drill. He is a boy’s boy. Tools, balls, trucks, tractors, dirt, collisions. He was in heaven.

We were hanging out with close friends of ours in their backyard. As we watched Titus, and the other five kids in the backyard, I said that I love seeing my children happy. Titus prowled the backyard for balls and rocks and drills. And he was happy. My daughters were rolling down the hill with old friends and swinging and sliding the evening away. And they were happy. And in that moment I found my happiness in theirs.

I told my wife and our friends that seeing my kids’ uninhibited, unadulterated happiness (you might use the word “joy,” and that’s a good word, too; I’m using them interchangeably here) reminds me of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Heaven, A World of Love.” At one point in the sermon, Edwards says that in heaven we will “all rejoice in [other people] being the most happy.” Edwards is saying that in heaven our happiness will be in the happiness of others. For example, in heaven, if someone has a greater amount of rewards than you, you will not be envious of them. You will enjoy their enjoyment of what God has given them. Can you imagine?! In other words, you’ll not just be happy for them, you will find your happiness in their happiness. This is true love. This is how God designed human relationships to work.

Yet this is very often not true in this life. In fact, it’s too easy to become crotchety and cynical when others are happy. I might be happy for them. “Oh, I’m so happy that you got the credit for your hard work.” This might actually be a prideful reflex masked with a token gesture. What’s really going on in my heart is that I wanted the credit!

With my children last night in the backyard, it was another story. I delighted in their delight. I am giggly, smiley happy when they giggle, smile, or express their happiness as they only know how. It’s not mainly because in those moments they aren’t screaming about a toy, whining about being hungry, or fighting over who gets to brush teeth first. It’s something deeper that God has embedded into the hearts of human beings, Christian or not. It’s a signal to us that we were made for another world, a world of love where we will actually, truly be happy because others are happy. It was a foretaste of heaven right in our friends’ backyard. It was a small, gracious gift meant to remind us there is much, much more to come.

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Life

Heaven, a World of Love

Jonathan Edwards is often referred to as one of the greatest minds America has ever produced. He was a theologian and philosopher, yes. But most of all, he was pastor. His writing and and speaking and ministry did not happen in a classroom or an ivory tower. His sermons prove this.

He is most famous for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards didn’t only preach on God’s anger. Far from it. He talked more about God’s glory, the beauty of Christ, and love. One of the better Edwards’ sermons I have read is “Heaven, a World of Love.”

What comes to mind when you think of heaven? Harps? Clouds? Singing? Standing around doing nothing for eternity?

Does love make the cut? Have you ever considered that heaven is a world of love?

That’s Edwards’s main point. Heaven is the perfect society we were made for and long for, even if we don’t know it. Edwards makes several profound statements about what heaven will be like and they shatter our (pop)cultural expectations

In heaven, love casts away fear:

“No inhabitants of that blessed world will ever be grieved with the thought that they are slighted by those that they love, or that their love is not fully and fondly returned.”

In heaven, love is perfectly enjoyed:

“Heaven itself, the place of habitation, is a garden of pleasures, a heavenly paradise, fitted in all respects for an abode of heavenly love; a place where they may have sweet society and perfect enjoyment of each other’s love.”

In heaven, love is pure and genuine:

“Every expression of love shall come from the bottom of the heart, and all that is professed shall be really and truly felt.”

In heaven, love means everyone’s satisfaction will be in the holiness of others:

“Those that are highest in glory, are those that are highest in holiness, and therefore are those that are most beloved by all the saints; for they most love those that are most holy, and so they will all rejoice in their being the most happy. And it will not be a grief to any of the saints to see those that are higher than themselves in holiness and likeness to God, more loved also than themselves, for all shall have as much love as they desire, and as great manifestations of love as they can bear; and so all shall be fully satisfied; and where there is perfect satisfaction, there can be no reason for envy.”

While I am not an expert on Edwards, I can’t help but wonder if he is not at his pastoral best in this sermon. Why? Because the sermon creates a longing in the soul of the hearer (or reader in our case!) for heaven. Edwards shows us that the dissatisfactions and longings we feel in this world are little reminders that we were made for another one. A world of divine love!

But we do not long for heaven simply because it’s great real estate (i.e. not hell), but because it’s the only place where we can experience perfect relationship with God and others. I’m not very old and I have suffered little compared to most people. Yet with each passing month and year, I’m finding myself longing for heaven more and more.

What about you?

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Theology

Heaven is for Real and I don’t need a 4-year old to tell me

Full disclosure before you read: I have not read or seen Heaven is for Real, and I probably will not in the future.

Today, the feature film Heaven is for Real hits theaters across the country and it will, no doubt, make a box-office splash. The film is based on the book of the same title—a book which is the #1 selling so-called “Christian” book of the past decade. Everyone, including Evangelicals, are going ga-ga over this movie. “Finally,” some think, “something’s gaining traction that shows heaven and God are real!”

No, it is not evidence. This is not good for the church or the culture.

Heaven is for Real (and books and movies like it) are not helpful. They are harmful and discourage people from trusting God’s word in Scripture. Now, hear me on this: I am not saying that these people know they are portraying a fanciful account as reality. They very well may have seen or experienced something. I can’t say one way or the other on that. But what I do know is that they have not died and been to (the real) heaven (or hell) and come back to tell about it.

How can I say this?! Isn’t their experience valid? Who could deny an experience? If Christians are going to uphold the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, then we must validate our experiences based on Scripture, not validate Scripture (or add to it) based on our experience. Scripture is an objective standard outside of me. Everything must be judged by it, not the other way around.

The question is then, does the Bible have anything to say about this? There’s not much, honestly, about near death experiences and trips to heaven, but what it does say is incredibly insightful. Let’s start with the Man who came from heaven.

Jesus said, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13). Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, describing what it means to be born again, and he uses an earthly illustration to describe a heavenly reality (i.e. the work of the Spirit in the new birth is like wind, which you can’t see or hear). But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. In saying, “No one has ascended into heaven…,” Jesus’ point is that while Nicodemus doesn’t comprehend heavenly things, Jesus does, because he has a unique qualification to speak on heaven. Theologian D.A. Carson comments, “Jesus insists that no-one has ascended to heaven in such a way as to return to talk about heavenly things…But Jesus can speak of heavenly things, not because he ascended to heaven from a home on earth and then descended to tell others of his experiences, but because heaven was his home in the first place” (The Gospel According to John, 200-201). Jesus has authority to talk about heaven. We do not.

There’s another place where Jesus speaks to this issue. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, he says that the testimony of people who have come back from the dead is useless. In the parable, the rich man begged Abraham to send the deceased Lazarus to his family’s house, for he reasoned, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30). But Abraham responded, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (v. 31). This is an secondary point in Jesus’ parable, but it’s still a point: if someone neglects the testimony of the prophets in Scripture, then the testimony of a dead man is pointless.

In the rest of the Bible, there are only four men who were given glimpses of heaven: two prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and two apostles, Paul and John. Here’s a glance at what they saw and heard:

  • Isaiah sees the Lord on his throne, hears a voice that shook “the foundations of the thresholds” (Is. 1:4), and his conclusion is, “Woe is me! For I am lost!” (Is. 6:1-7). (John later notes in his Gospel that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory; see John 12:41).
  • Ezekiel sees a vision of heaven (Ezek. 1:1), and sees “awe-inspiring crystal” (1:22) and fire and brightness all around (1:27), and he hears the terrible “sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army” (1:24). He concludes, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28b).
  • Paul is given a glimpse of heaven in a vision and he uses massive space to tell of it—three verses (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Hesitating to boast of his experience, he writes in third person: “And he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (12:4). Paul later says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (Notice that Paul was given a messenger of Satan for humility, not a book and movie deal.)
  • John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) and upon seeing Jesus he “fell at his feet as though dead” (1:17). In chapters 4-6, John sees a vision of Jesus on the throne, and all he sees and hears is glorious singing to the One who lives forever and ever (4:8-11; 5:9-14). John’s vision is radically centered on Christ, the Lamb who was slain and is now “worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:5-6, 12).

There is extreme consistency in these accounts, and several similar themes arise. Let me mention four main themes. First, each of these men saw visions of heaven. They did not have near death experiences in which they went to heaven and were brought back to earth. (Sidebar: One could argue that for God to actually take someone to heaven (as in a near death experience) and then send them back to earth would be quite a cruel thing.) Second, these men labor to describe what they saw—Ezekiel and John reach to the boundaries of their vocabulary to paint the scene; Isaiah and Paul labor in that they are nearly left speechless (Paul, as I mentioned, is essentially told not to say anything about what he saw). Third, each of them express a sober and appropriate sense of awe, fear, and unworthiness because of the vision. Fourth, they are all fixated on God’s glory, holiness, or majesty—not family members, beautiful landscapes, or other incidentals. As John points out at the end of the Bible story, Jesus and his glory is the main focus. Heaven is, to be sure, Christocentric. If it weren’t, then it would not be heaven.

Books and films about near death experiences and trips to heaven are nothing like these visions. In fact, as one author noted, the books themselves do not even agree with each other on the details of heaven. These type of stories fail to draw people into adoring the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Instead, they draw people into conjecture, speculation, and exalting subjective experience and away from trusting the Scriptures. If you want to know if heaven is for real, then put down the popular book you picked up at the bookstore and read what God has written in his word. Heaven is real, and it is glorious—much more glorious than any so-called near death experience makes it out to be.

In the next few days, I hope to write a follow-up post about how the Bible describes heaven and, more importantly, how we can know if we are going there.

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Theology

Monday Miscellanies: Happiness in Heaven

A guest post by Jonathan Edwards

95. Happiness in Heaven

When the body enjoys the perfections of health and strength, the motion of the animal spirits are not only brisk and free, but also harmonious; there is a regular proportion in the motion from all parts of the body, that begets delight in the soul and makes the body feel pleasantly all over—God has so excellently contrived the nerves and parts of the human body. But few men since the fall, especially since the flood, have health to so great a perfection as to have much of this harmonious motion. When it is enjoyed, one whose nature is not very much vitiated and depraved is very much assisted thereby in every exercise of body or mind; and it fits one for the contemplation of more exalted and spiritual excellencies and harmonies, as music does.

But we need not doubt, but this harmony will be in its perfection in the bodies of the saints after the resurrection; and that, as every part of the bodies of the wicked shall be excruciated with intolerable pain, so every part of the saints’ refined bodies shall be as full of pleasure as they can hold; and that this will not take the mind off from, but prompt and help it in spiritual delights, to which even the delight of their spiritual bodies shall be but a shadow.