The popular notion of the Sweet By and By is often one of clouds and pain-free bliss and not much else except for the occasional angel floating by with a harp. If one’s idea of eternity is a happy pill, such an image might be appealing.
Author Randy Alcorn, in his bestselling book “Heaven,” illustrates contemporary Christianity’s failure to teach on eternal life with any usefulness by quoting a pastor who admitted: “I can’t stand the thought of that endless tedium. To float around in the clouds with nothing to do but strum a harp ? it’s all so terribly boring. Heaven doesn’t sound much better than Hell. I’d rather be annihilated than spend eternity in a place like that.”
More than one music leader has suggested, based on Bible passages that speak of music, that a believer’s eternity will be a never-ending sing-along around Heaven’s proverbial piano.
Most people enjoy good music and everyone wants bliss, but are these accurate depictions?
TRONG>HEAVEN: WHAT IS IT?
Revelation 21:1-8 describes a renewed creation at the end of time this way:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
“Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: ‘Look! God’s dwelling is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will exist no longer; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.’
“Then the One seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I am making everything new.’ He also said, ‘Write, because these words are faithful and true.’ And He said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give to the thirsty from the spring of living water as a gift.
The victor will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son. But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars?their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death (HCSB).'”
Wayne Grudem, a research professor of Bible and theology at Phoenix Seminary, writes in his popular “Systematic Theology” textbook: “When referring to this place, Christians often talk about living with God ‘in heaven’ forever. But in fact the biblical teaching is richer than that: it tells us that there will be new heavens and a new earth?an entirely renewed creation?and we will live with God there.”
Grudem emphasizes that Heaven is a physical place, not just a state of being, contrary to some other commentators whom Grudem alleges are hesitant to emphasize the physicality of the believer’s eternal destination.
Grudem notes that Heaven refers to two distinct places: the abode of believers who die in the present world and immediately join with God in a place that Scripture calls Heaven, and the New Earth that will include all the redeemed of all the ages after God completes his saving work.
“In fact, heaven may be defined as follows: Heaven is the place where God most fully makes known his presence to bless,” Grudem writes.
David P. Nelson, professor of theology and academic vice president at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said: “Unlike the notion of some that we will float around in the age to come as disembodied beings, the Scriptures are clear about the sheer ‘bodilyness’ of eternal life. Paul goes to great lengths in 1 Corinthians 15 to explain this point. And this has significant implications for the manner in which we use our bodies in this life?we were bought with a price, so we must glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20), we must present out bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord (Romans 12:1).”
“We’re handicapped when it comes to Heaven,” said John Meador, pastor of First Baptist Church of Euless, who was preparing to preach on the topic as this story was being written. “We don’t know what it is like! Islam has a ‘heaven’ with each martyr being nurtured by 72 virgins. The Hindu heaven is ‘Nirvana’ or endless peace and rest. Mormons say heaven is a place of marriage and family activity.
But for Christians, well, we get the angel-on-a-cloud-with-a-harp thing. Or even worse for some?24 hours a day, seven days a week in a glorified church service. No wonder we hold off as long as we can. God, however, reveals tangible and vivid details of what we will experience, explore and enjoy in Heaven. It defies comparison with anything you’ve ever known, and it is revealed in living detail in the Word.”
So what will the perfected bodies on the New Earth be like?
Wayne Martindale, in his 2005 book “Beyond the Shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on Heaven & Hell,” supposes: “We find the best clue available in Jesus’ resurrected body. On the one hand, Jesus appears suddenly in a room with locked doors and ultimately floats into Heaven. On the other, Jesus takes pains to calm this fear for his followers: He eats fish, breaks bread, and converses in audible language that uses ‘normal’ bodily functions. He was recognized by his disciples as the Jesus who had been with them over miles of dusty road. He was so substantial that he had to admonish Mary Magdalene to let go. Thomas was invited to touch his wounds. The resurrection body of Jesus, like the new body he promises to bestow on us, has amazing capabilities. It is not an issue of giving up the things about our present bodies we know and love and that God in Christ created good. It is more like getting a new model with expanded capabilities that we will assuredly like.”
But before God creates the New Earth, the souls of believers who die “go immediately into the presence of God with rejoicing” and will be reunited with their resurrected bodies when Christ returns, as noted in 1 Thessalonians 4:14.
Some theologians have called the place of believers prior to the redemption of creation the “intermediate Heaven” or the “intermediate state,” though Alcorn emphasizes that Heaven in its intermediate state will change.
“The present Heaven is a temporary lodging, a waiting place until the return of Christ and our bodily resurrection,” Alcorn writes. “The eternal Heaven, the New Earth, is our true home, the place where we will live forever with our Lord and each other. The great redemptive promises of God will find their fulfillment on the New Earth, not in the intermediate Heaven.”
TRONG>A REGENERATED CREATION
Sermons that explicitly describe Heaven are rare. Books are rare too, with Alcorn’s book and a handful of others the exceptions. “Heaven” borrows from other Christian authors and theologians and years of Alcorn’s own research to formulate a picture of Heaven where believers retain their unique personalities, and unblemished by sin with regenerated bodies in their purest form, they engage their talents in his service. Alcorn quotes several Christian thinkers who believe the redeemed are destined to have 20- or 30-something bodies and minds?whatever the optimum age is.
In short, Alcorn joins many other Christian writers who have proposed that believers will enjoy a re-created Earth that recovers what was lost in Eden and then some, with the New Earth continuing on in advancements made in the present Earth through the labor of believers.
That includes eating real food, resting, working at jobs?perhaps continuing on in pursuits we love or learning new ones?and fellowship with old friends and new ones in a physical world with real trees, flowers, and structures. In short, the best world one could imagine.
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