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Rethinking Heaven

What I am about to say I would not have said several years ago. Actually, what I am about to say may be something that most in the world, and especially Christians, will find hard to hear. I need to say it though, not because it is something new or the latest spiritual fad, but because I believe it is truth. As Christians we always need to be challenging our faith. We must never settle for faith that has not been tested or has not gone through the fires of discernment. Parents who raise their children up in the Lord realize that it is critical for children to have a faith which is their own. The only way to have ownership of our faith is to test everything to scripture. Many false ideas have worked their way into the lives of Christians and the church because we have not been dutiful in checking the scriptures to see if what we believe is true.

So what is this great truth that many have overlooked that I find hard to say? It is this: Heaven is not the ultimate hope of Christians. The belief that heaven is the ultimate goal of believers is not Biblical. Now I am certain that some are ready to write me off at this point. But I ask you to hang in there with me. Heaven is important and it has its place, a place we will discuss later in this book. I realize that this is not a very popular statement. It goes against the very grain of everything we have been taught to believe. Just a few years ago I would have scoffed at the idea that heaven was not the goal of Christianity. Yet, the more and more I study scripture I realize that I have had a misunderstanding of heaven. Much of my understanding of heaven, and even the afterlife, has been built around popular teaching and not on the Bible. My hope for this little article is that you will gain a Biblical understanding of the ultimate hope for believers in Christ and see how heaven fits into this hope. My only request is that you will be like the Berean Christians in Acts 17:11 who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” The key is not to take my word, or even the word of popular Christians of our day. The key is to examine the scriptures to see if what is being taught is true.

Purpose of Heaven

It is the place where God dwells

The scriptures teach us that God dwells in heaven. It is His home. Jesus, when He was teaching on the mountainside, told his disciples that when they pray they are to pray to God who is in heaven (Matthew 6:9). Throughout the gospel letters this phrase, “who is in heaven,” is repeated often when the name of God is used. Psalm 115:3 tells us God is in the heavens, while in 1 Kings 8:49 we learn God’s dwelling place is heaven. Although many people think of heaven as a place which is far off, the Bible paints a different picture. Heaven is not a place which is up or even down but it is in a different dimension. Heaven is a spiritual world which is not visible to the human flesh or eye, but is very near to the physical world. Yuri Gagrin was the first Russian astronaut in space. He is credited with saying when he went into outer space that he did not see God. For some, there was a belief that God was somewhere beyond our earth. But heaven is not something within our creation. This does not make it unreal. Heaven is very real. It is the place where God resides

It is the place where Jesus reigns

There is a false belief that when Jesus left this earth to return one day, He simply went away and let earth do its own thing. Some believe that Jesus is simply in heaven now, readying our home that we will one day have in the future. Certainly Jesus may be preparing our future destiny, but we can be certain that Jesus did not leave the earth and no longer has any say. Just the opposite is true. In the Old Testament, the prophets proclaimed that one day the Messiah would come to rule the world. He would also do other things, like bring forgiveness of sins and heal the nations, but the prophets were clear that the Messiah would be an earthly king. In Matthew 28:18 Jesus proclaims that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” What Jesus was saying to His disciples was that He was now ruling as King, both in heaven and on earth. He was the rightful King that the prophets had told about in the Old Testament.

In Acts 1:9-11 we learn that Jesus goes to heaven. The purpose of going to heaven was multifaceted but one of the main reasons was so that Jesus could begin his rule. His victory on the cross was that He was able to defeat the worldly powers and authorities. They no longer ruled the world. They certainly would have fleeting power but their dominion as supreme ruler had been defeated. From heaven, with the help of the Holy Spirit, Jesus would begin to rule the hearts of mankind. Heaven became the headquarters, or operation room, for this new rule on earth. Just as Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States and all decisions about our country are made from this city, so heaven is the place where all the decisions are made by King Jesus.

It is the place where Christians await the final resurrection

While Jesus was hanging on the cross, two thieves were beside Him (Luke 23:40-43). One of the thieves began to mock Jesus about his Messiahship. But the second thief took pity on Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into His kingdom. Jesus responded to him that on this day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Many people believe that what Jesus was telling this man was that today he would spend eternity in heaven. But this was not what He was saying. Certainly this man was going to heaven, but he was not going to spend eternity there. The word paradise in its original meaning meant a place like a park where one would receive refreshing. Jews of Jesus’ day believed that paradise was a place that souls went to until the final resurrection of the dead. It was not meant to be a permanent dwelling, but a rest stop until one got to their final destination.

It would be correct to say that anyone who dies in Christ is now in heaven. Paul says in Philippians 1:23 that he was torn between staying and helping the church and dying to be with Jesus. To be with Jesus would to be in heaven. But it is clear that Paul did not believe that the final state of mankind was to go to heaven and remain there for eternity. To believe this, would be to ignore all of Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 15 about the resurrection of the dead. Paul believed that a day was coming when Jesus would resurrect all people who died on earth. Heaven simply was the place where believers waited until the final resurrection took place. The resurrection was the hope of all Christians

The Hope of Christians was the Resurrection of the Dead

The hope of the early church was not that they would one day die and go to heaven and their spirit would spend eternity there. But the hope of the early church was that one day they would resurrect from the dead to live in a new body and on a renewed earth. In Acts 24, the apostle Paul was on trial. In verse 16 he shares the hope of Christianity. He says Christians will one day resurrect from the dead. He goes on to say, in verse 21, that he knows that he is on trial because of the teaching and belief that one day people will resurrect. The hope of being resurrected with a new body was not a new teaching. Jewish believers before the time of Christ believed that one day God would resurrect them back to life. Ezekiel 37 was a scripture that many Jews turned to for this belief in resurrection. In this passage the prophet Ezekiel saw a valley of dry dead bones. In it, he witnessed them coming to life and receiving flesh. In John 11, Lazarus, a friend of Jesus’, dies. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, is crying over his death. Jesus says he will live again. Martha believes that Jesus is referring to the ancient Jewish belief in a resurrection that will happen on the final day of history. Jesus responds that He is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in Him will never die. In other words, Jesus is confirming that there is a resurrection and that whoever believes in Him will be resurrected. They will live forever.

The forever that Jesus promises is not living in a spirit body but in a new, heavenly body. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells us the hope for Christians is that they will receive a new body in the Resurrection. This new body will be like the body that Jesus had when he resurrected from the grave. In verse 20 of this chapter, Paul says that Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of those who have died. First fruits means that there is more fruit to come. Paul is excited to share that just as Jesus was resurrected and received a new body, all those who died in Christ will receive a new body as well. This was the hope of Christians.

Paul’s belief in the Resurrection of the dead came from Jesus’ words and teaching. Here are a couple passages where Jesus speaks about Resurrection.

John 5:28-29

“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”

Luke 20:34-36

“Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.  But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage,  and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.’”

This was the hope of the early Church. This is our hope as well. We will one day resurrect from the dead. We will one day receive a new body. But where will we live? The answer is that we have been made for a new heaven and a new earth.

We were Made for a New Heaven and New Earth

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth so says the writer of Genesis. Right away we are introduced to Adam and Eve and the God who created it all. We learn that God spends six days creating the world and everything in it. On the seventh day God rested. Now we know that this rest does not mean that God got tired and so He took a break. Many Bible scholars believe that this rest was a picture of God now inhabiting his new creation. Heaven and earth were like a temple where the Holy God would reside and interact with his creation. The main responsibility given to mankind was that they would co-rule the world with God’s help and direction. The only major thing for them to remember was they needed to trust God and not themselves. Adam and Eve chose not to trust God and simply believed that they knew best. As a result sin entered into the world and brought death. Three major things were affected by this sin and death. First, it hindered the relationship man had with God. Secondly, it hindered the relationship mankind had with one another. And finally, it hindered the relationship mankind had with the earth. What started out as a great project, ended in despair. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, signifying the splitting of God and mankind dwelling together. God, in his faithfulness, would not leave mankind and the earth in this state forever. God had a plan that would restore the broken relationship mankind had with Him, the relationship mankind had with one another, and the relationship mankind had with the earth. So what was God’s plan?

The plan which God would use to restore what went wrong in the garden would take place through the family of Abraham. In Genesis 12:1-3, we learn that God is going to bless the whole world through this special family and its descendants. Abraham would become a great nation. God would bless all that blessed him and curse all that cursed him. All nations would be blessed through this family. In Genesis 13:14-17 we learn that the descendants would inherit the land forever. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God carries out this theme that He is going to restore what went wrong in the garden. We know that Jesus who was a descendant of Abraham (Matthew 1:1) was the one who would bless the whole world. It would be through Jesus that all the promises to Abraham would be fulfilled. The relationship between God and man would be fixed through the cross, as well as the relationship man had with one another. The one promise that many overlook was that God was going to take care of the land. God promised that the descendants of Abraham would live on it forever.

God never went back on this promise that his people would one day inherit the land forever, even though through the years God’s people were unfaithful to Him. The Psalmist writes that God’s righteous people would dwell in the land forever. (Psalm 37:29) God repeated this promise to Isaiah in Isaiah 60:21 and Isaiah 61:7. In Proverbs 10:30, we learn that the righteous will never be removed from the land but that the wicked would not be in it forever. So how would God keep His promise that He would restore the land and that His people would live on it forever? God gave us a huge clue in Isaiah 65:17. God plans to make a new heaven and new earth. This promise is one which is rooted in the idea that God will restore this broken world by making it new. It will not be some far off new place that He will make new, but He will restore this fallen world. Paul tells us that in Romans 8:22 that the world is eagerly waiting to be restored and renewed. This will be done when God’s children receive their new glorified bodies.

Maybe one of the hardest and yet amazing books in the Bible is the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation was originally written to be an encouragement to Christians who were going through very rough times. The exciting part of the book is in Revelation 21 and 22. These two chapters complete the promise of inheriting the land forever made to Abraham’s descendants. In it Jesus returns. But He is not alone. He is bringing heaven to earth. Heaven and earth collide making a new heaven and earth. God completely restores the world. What is lost in the garden is now regained. A new city is built (the New Jerusalem). This new city is our new home. It is a place where we will live forever. We will not be floating around on clouds but we will begin the original project God started with in the garden. We will be part of reigning in this new creation. God will be with us. This will happen when Jesus returns. When He returns, the dead in Christ will rise first and those living on earth will be changed over. The earth will be restored and we will live forever. This is our hope. The Prophets and Jesus were pointing to this. It is an exciting future. It is our destiny.

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