When I was a kid, my aunt told me that everyone who dies becomes an angel, is given wings and lives in a perfect place called heaven. Secular society has built up this idealistic fantasy of a place that’s floating in the clouds somewhere, where all “good” people go and spend forever in paradise.
People generally make heaven out to be whatever they think is ideal—whether that is where they get to be with late family members, see their deceased pets again, eat their favorite food, or do all of their favorite things, forever. This may sound good on the surface, but I have always been skeptical about where this idea came from, and whether it’s realistic at all. A part of me felt like society was cheapening the word “heaven”, and I wanted to know how to build it back up to its true meaning.
When I started to read the Bible for myself to understand heaven, I had to let go of pre-conceived ideas and simply read the Bible for what it is. As a result, a very different image of heaven emerged.
Heaven is about God’s glory
God’s glory is a difficult concept to understand. His glory is the magnificence of his presence, and it’s what makes heaven heavenly. I think it’s a tough concept to grasp because most of us, if we’ve experienced it at all, have only experienced tiny glimpses of God’s glory. Here on earth, we can see evidence of God’s magnificence in the creation he made and miracles like the rising and setting of the sun, child birth, or the love shared in a family. Imagine that the truly good and glorious things we see now are sort of like a footprint of his true glory – they’re evidence of what God is like, they give us an idea of his ability, size and power…but experiencing the “footprints” of God’s glory is nothing like experiencing it face to face.
The Bible shares many examples of people reacting to visions of God’s glory. When the Lord came down in a cloud to meet with Moses, he bowed down and worshipped (Exodus 34:8). In Ezekiel’s vision, he couldn’t help but falling on his face before God’s glory, unable to speak (Ezekiel 2:28, 3:23). When Isaiah saw the glory of God on His throne in a vision, his response was to cry out “Woe to me! . . . I am ruined!” (Isaiah 6:5). Seeing God’s glory – even in a vision – forced Isaiah to see himself and all of mankind for what they were without Christ’s cleansing sacrifice, which was so, so unworthy of being anywhere near God’s perfect glory.
You see, it is more than just God’s magnificence that compels us to worship in this way. In the presence of God’s perfect goodness and divinity, we are faced with the reality of our sinful nature and that our rightful stance before God is trembling in unworthiness.
No man or woman has ever seen the full radiance of God’s glory in the flesh and lived. Our sin stands in the way. When Moses was so bold to ask that he should see God’s glory, God only granted him the view of His back, thus preserving his life (Exodus 33). Even with this very slight exposure, Moses’ face continued to shine so brightly that once down the mountain, Aaron and the Israelites were afraid to come near him. Moses ended up wearing a veil to cover his glowing face (Exodus 34:29-33).
These Biblical accounts of man’s humbling responses to God’s glory should help us in realizing that, as sinful people, we have no right to be in the presence of God’s perfect glory. Our sin is too great of a separation. Yet what makes it so amazing for Christians, is that when we get to the other side of eternity—purified by Christ’s sacrifice—we will be able to stand in the full glory of God’s presence and live. And when we fall face down before Him, it will not be because we are so wrecked by the conviction of our sin, but because we are gripped by worshipful awe of God’s supreme beauty and the atonement he worked out so that we could come before him, forever cleansed from sin.
After reading through these biblical accounts of encountering God, I wasn’t able to mentally shift back to the idea of heaven described by my aunt and society without feeling the immensity of how much it misses the mark. It pales in comparison.
Society’s idea of heaven is limited to what we know as good in this life (family, friends, activities we enjoy). This portrayal of heaven is man-centered. But I know the reality of being in God’s presence is beyond imagination, as I cannot fathom what it will be like to see God’s face and stand before him. This is why the concept of “heaven” that is so popular today, is not where a Christian’s hope rests. A Christian’s hope rests in the promise that someday will be able to be in God’s presence.
The new heaven and earth is a restored heaven and earth
In the Old Testament, heaven is where God is (Psalms 33:13). Passages like Philippians 1:21–23 and Luke 23:43 in the New Testament suggest that it is a place where people who die are able to be with Christ. At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, heaven is mentioned again. But this time, we’re promised something even more spectacular.
God’s glorious dwelling won’t be limited to heaven! He promises to make both heaven and earth new! God’s glory will be so illuminating that there will be no need for the sun (Revelation 21:23). Satan and all sin will be forever vanquished (Revelation 22:3), leaving the world free of death, mourning, crying and pain (Revelation 21:4). Unlike the Israelites who caught glimpses of God’s glory and still fell into deep sin, all of God’s creation will spend eternity declaring glory be to God, as they are finally and completely freed from the hold of sin. Everything will finally be the way it was meant to be, and God will dwell and live among His people not only in spirit, but in full (Revelation 21:3).
In the refreshed, restored world, we too are restored. Romans 1 tells of the horrific exchange mankind made when we despised the glory of God and worshipped instead the glory of created things. But in God’s mercy, Christ’s great exchange—our sin for His righteousness—welcomes us into God’s redemptive work for His glory. We are destined to be God’s children, co-heirs with Christ, enabled by the Spirit to walk faithfully with Him (Romans 8). As we keep our eyes on His goodness, we will be transformed into His likeness with ever increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). There will be a glorious harmony in our relationships with the earth, our neighbor, God and with ourselves. The beauty in God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth is complete restoration of what he has already created!
The kingdom of heaven is now!
Even though complete restoration is something that will only come when the current heaven and earth give way to the restoration that God will bring, Jesus also makes it clear that the kingdom of God is now.
In Luke 17:20–21, He tells the Pharisees and his disciples that the kingdom of heaven is in their very midst. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus prays, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). I think the kingdom of heaven has started already. Right now, God is saving His people from sin, brokenness and captivity, as He brings them to know Him. He’s already active in the work of redemption and we see it by how He is redeeming His people!
God’s redeeming power brings people into relationship with Him. This glimpse of the great restoration to come motivates me to be active now. When I see the darkness of the world, I am no longer destined to discouragement. I can actively call on the Lord to do restorative work in my life and the lives of my loved ones now. And if the restoration doesn’t come now, I can rest in the assurance that it will come in full once we live with God in the new heaven and new earth.
Also, this broken, hard world is the only chance we have to be used by God to bring more people into the promise of the new heaven and new earth. I feel the urgency to share the Good News with all of the lost people around me. How great is the hope I have in Christ and in God’s promises, and how great is my desire for other broken people to know the same!
As we move forward from the Easter season, we celebrate that Jesus rose from the grave and overcame death. It is because of this sacrifice and victory that Christians are able to have hope. We have hope for ultimate restoration in the new heaven and new earth, and we have hope for the restorative work that God has started to bring people to him even now. May this truth motivate you to be bold witnesses for Christ today. He will make and is making all things new!