The following is the text of a sermon I preached on July 15, 2007, at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. For the contemporary worship service we’re doing a series called “You Asked For It,” where the pastors are taking turns preaching on topics the congregation expressed a special interest in. “Heaven” was my assignment. The primary text was Revelation 21:1-5.
The idea of Heaven is fascinating. It’s actually one of the few universal human fascinations. Pretty much everybody thinks about heaven. Even if it’s your own made-up, private version of “heaven,” you think about it. C.S. Lewis once described heaven as that remote music we’re born remembering. I think that captures it really well. The whole human race has a kind of deep memory of paradise lost, a faint but powerful awareness that there must be a better, different world that we were designed for.
Barbara Walters did a two-hour TV documentary on different views about heaven a couple years ago, and it showed that people of all sorts of religions have views about “heaven” that are all over the map. And there is some confusion in the church about heaven, too. So, this morning we want to look at some of the most significant things the Bible says about the future life of those who are in Christ, so we can cultivate a “godly imagination” about heaven.
The topic of “heaven” for this morning actually follows well on the heels of last week’s sermon on “spiritual warfare.” Last week you heard about the cosmic battle between the Kingdom of God and all the powers of darkness. And we learned that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, has already won the decisive victory for the Kingdom of God. But we also saw that it will not be until Jesus comes to earth a second time, his Second Coming, that God’s Kingdom will be fully realized here on earth. It is when Jesus returns that the kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our God, and Jesus will renew all things and establish the new heaven and new earth. And that, really, is the “heaven” that we look forward to. Our eternal home is the “new creation” or “new heaven and new earth” that Jesus will establish when he returns.
So I want to walk through the “future life” this morning in three steps.
First, I want to look at the “new heaven and new earth,” and we’re going to read from Revelation 21 as a starting point. We’ll see that the whole creation will be renewed, and all those who are in Christ will be gathered to live with him in this new world forever. What will it be like? We’ll spend most of our time this morning on this subject.
Second, I want to consider what happens to believers who die in Christ before he returns to establish the New Heaven and Earth. We’ll talk about the so-called “intermediate state” between our body’s death and its resurrection at Christ’s return.
And finally I’ll close with a few remarks about how our meditation on the future life should impact the way we view life in the present.
New Heaven and New Earth
As we prepare to read from Revelation 21, recall that the Bible opens in Genesis with the creation of the heavens and the earth. And this first creation, the one we live in now, was at first like paradise for human beings, but it has suffered the consequences of human sin and rebellion, and the story of the Bible is really the story of how God is restoring all that has been lost. And so the Bible closes with the ultimate future restoration, the creation of the new heaven and new earth. First, there was “paradise lost.” And when Jesus returns, we have the promise of “paradise restored.”
So let’s turn to see that in Revelation chapter 21. John, the author of Revelation, had a vision from God about this new creation. Here’s part of what he saw.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God 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 every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." (Rev. 21:1-5)
So many themes from the Bible are brought together in this one vision, and it continues on through chapter 22. But let me just mention two main themes of this vision for now.
1) All of Creation will be restored to perfection: By renewing all things in a new heaven and a new earth, God will reverse the curse on the land that came as a result of human sin in Genesis 3. Ever since humans were cast out of paradise and creation was turned against them because of their sin, it was clear that the drama of redemption would involve a restoration to the Land and a life in harmony with creation.
This redemption of all creation in a New Heaven and New Earth is foreshadowed throughout Scripture, especially in the idea of the “Promised Land” in the Old Testament. God’s people would be gathered together to enjoy creation’s blessings in the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Of course we know ultimately Israel was cast out of the Promised Land, too, because of their sin. And their restoration from Exile was never complete but remained the hope of God’s people for the future. This hope for restoration to the Land will be fulfilled when Jesus returns and establishes a new land, the New Heaven and New Earth, and his people will live there forever.
The major point here is that just as the whole creation suffered the consequences of human sin, the whole creation will be redeemed along with us. The resurrection of Jesus is the decisive victory of God over death and destruction and it demonstrates that physical matter can be made incorruptible. That’s what the future life will be like. The Apostle Paul elaborates on this theme in Romans 8:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-27)
So, the first thing that we need to see is that the next world, our eternal home in the New Heaven and New Earth is a physical, restored world, and it will never fall into sin again because it rests on the resurrection of Jesus. Now, I realize there’s a long tradition in the church of thinking about eternity as floating off in space as disembodied spirits! And some of our hymns picture life in eternity like that, too. But the Bible doesn’t. The Bible tells of a cosmic redemption, a restoration of all creation. God is not going to destroy the world and save us from it. Rather, God is going to renew the world, and give us new bodies to live there on this new earth, the promised land fulfilled.
Friends, beware of any view of the “end times” that promotes the idea that this world and all aspects of our culture are simply “going to hell in a handbasket.” The promise of Jesus is different. He doesn’t say “I am destroying all things!” He says “I am making all things new!”
So that’s the first the point: creation will be renewed when Jesus returns.
2) God’s presence will be restored to his people. In the new creation, God’s presence will be restored to his people. The portrait of life in the Garden of Eden that we’re given in Genesis pictures “the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Before we turned against God and were thrown out of the Garden, humans experienced the peace of God’s intimate presence. And a major theme in the Bible is the restoration of God’s presence with his people.
In the Old Testament, in the Promised Land of Canaan God told the Israelites to build the Temple, as a place where God would be present with them in a special way. His presence was veiled, of course, and only the High Priest could enter the “Holy of Holies.”
In the New Testament the restoration of God’s presence with us takes a leap forward, because Jesus replaces the Temple. Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” The presence of God is enfleshed for us in the person of Jesus Christ. But Jesus was only with us on earth for a short period of time, and now we know him in the presence of his Spirit with us. But when Jesus comes again, God’s full presence with us will be restored forever. As we read in verse 3: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God 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.’”
Now, in the Bible, the word “heaven” usually means “God’s dwelling place.” Put simply, heaven is the place where God dwells. In Revelation 21, God’s dwelling is now with us on earth. In other words, heaven and earth will no longer be separated. They are brought together forever. That’s why when we think of the “heaven” that will be our eternal home, we should think of the restored creation, the New Heaven and New Earth.
So what will the next world be like? It will be like this world cleansed and perfected. And so it will both be like this world and very different from this world. The struggle with sin, both our own personal struggles and the whole creation’s frustration, will reach its end. All the uncleanness of the world will be judged and will come to an end, and the old order will pass away. There will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain,” as in v. 4. God’s people will be gathered to enjoy life with him forever in the Promised Land of the new heaven and new earth. So heaven will be this world cleansed and perfected.
Now, having just skimmed the surface, let me take up some of the specific questions you all asked about the future life. Here are four questions I was given.
Will there be animals in heaven?
If you’re an animal lover, I have good news. We can give a confident thumbs up on this one. In Isaiah’s vision of the New Heaven and Earth, for instance, he says: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox” (65:25. In other words, in the next world harmony will be restored to the animal kingdom.
And what about your pets? I have no idea. The Bible doesn’t say anything about that. But given the prominence of animals in prophecies about the New Heaven and Earth, there will be plenty of animals for us to take care of there.
Now, on a different note, my wife wants to know if roaches will make it to the new earth, too, and I assured her that they were a product of sin and so would be cast into the lake of fire and destroyed forever.
Are there different levels in heaven?
The short answer is “no,” the Bible does not tell us there are different levels in the next world. The passage that has caused some confusion is in 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul says: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.” What does the “third heaven” mean?
Well, in the ancient world sometimes the universe was described in terms of three levels of heaven. The first level is the earth’s atmosphere, where we see clouds and birds and so on. The second is further up in space, where the stars are. And the third level of heaven refers to the place where God dwells. In other words, by “third heaven” Paul just means that this man, and it was probably Paul himself, had a vision where he was caught up into God’s dwelling place, that is, to what we normally call “heaven.” So there’s no indication that there will be different “levels” in heaven.
Will we know our spouses in Heaven?
The Bible describes the next world as great fellowship with all of those who are in Christ. In fact, it appears to be more like “one big family,” than a collection of “nuclear families.” So a married couple who dies in Christ will know each other in the next world. But Jesus seems to say that the institution of marriage is a blessing for this world, not something carried into the next world.
One time when the Sadducees were trying to stump Jesus they asked him about a woman who had been married seven times in this world, since her husbands kept dying and she kept getting remarried. They said: who will she be married to at the resurrection? Jesus answered: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Mt. 22:30). Now, if there’s no marriage in heaven, I know what you are thinking: “No sex in heaven?!” Yes, that seems to be the case. But don’t worry. It will be even better. So meditate on that.
Will we work in heaven?
Yes, work will be wonderful in the next world. In the present fallen world, because of sin, work is often plagued by all kinds of burdensome factors. But part of the order of the next world will be that work will no longer be toilsome, but we will be free to work in harmony with creation and in harmony with each other.
In Revelation 22 it is said that the saints in heaven we will “reign” with Christ “forever and ever.” That is, we will be restored to our original vocation as God’s vice-regents, his “images” or representatives in the world. We will re-present the reign of God. The imagery in the Bible includes our ruling cities with justice, and cultivating all the various aspects of human culture to glorify and honor God in the new heaven and earth. (Actually, as new creations in Christ, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing now as part of God’s renewal of all things.)
So there’s a brief, composite picture of the future life. We will live in perfect fellowship with God and with other believers in a renewed world that we can cultivate to God’s glory, free of sin and decay and sadness and full of righteousness, life and joy. That’s the awesome hope we have in Jesus Christ!
Dying in Christ Before He Returns
Now I want to spend a few moments talking about the eternal security of those who die in Christ before the resurrection, before Christ returns to establish the new heaven and earth. Where are our loved ones who have died in Christ and where would we go if we die in Christ before he returns? The Bible doesn’t talk as much about this as it does about the New Creation, but it says enough to give us wonderful assurance.
First and foremost, if you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then the Holy Spirit has united you to Christ and that union is unbreakable. The Bible says that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” (Romans 8:29). Throughout the New Testament, it is clear that “eternal life” begins now when we trust in Christ, and it will never end. And so, in short, when a believer dies before Christ’s return, he will be in the presence of God. Now, as we have said, “heaven” in the Bible is the place where God is, so, we can say that if you die in Christ before he returns, your soul goes to be with Jesus “in heaven.” You may recall that Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And in 2 Corinthians 5 the Apostle Paul speaks of being “away from the body, and at home with the Lord.” So if you are a believer, you can face death with the utmost assurance and confidence, because your soul is safe in the sovereign hands of Jesus.
The mistake we don’t want to make, though, is to picture our ultimate destiny as disembodied souls. When the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians that he would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord, he also says that ultimately we do not desire to be found “naked,” that is apart from our bodies, but to be clothed with our “heavenly dwelling,” that is our resurrected bodies. And in Revelation chapter 6 we have John’s vision of the souls of martyred saints before the throne of God who call out in a loud voice: "‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they was completed.”
So, in summary, this “intermediate” existence between death and resurrection will be paradise compared to this life, but we will still be longing for the final vindication of God over all of his enemies, when Jesus returns and sets up his Kingdom on the new earth. When heaven and earth come together in the New Heaven and New Earth, so too will our souls come together with our resurrected bodies. Only then will we be complete, in our “final state” in glory, to reign with Christ in the restored creation forever and ever.
The New Heaven and Earth in the Present Life
Now, finally, in closing, let me state the obvious about the present life: living by faith in Jesus Christ and clinging to the promise that God will complete his work in us and renew the whole cosmos, should be absolutely central to how we view life in the present world.
On the one hand, it reminds us that the new earth is our true heavenly home. We know that the music we’re born remembering and longing to hear again is a symphony we’ll hear with clarity only in the world to come.
If we really believe this, we won’t demand the satisfaction from this world that God has told us we will experience only in the next world. When Jesus says “the meek shall inherit the earth,” he does mean the new earth. And so I think meditation on the future life can help us to loosen our grip on the present life, and cultivate a cross-bearing witness to Jesus. To give but one example, one that I try to tell myself everyday, I will be free to love my spouse and my children when I am not demanding that they meet my own ultimate need to be satisfied. If we demand of our loved ones now what only God will provide for us in the new earth, we put an eternal pressure on them that they can never bear. So resting in the promise of the new heaven and earth frees us to love. The present order of this world is not our heavenly home.
While hope for the new heaven and earth helps us loosen our grip on the present order of things, when we believe that Jesus will one day renew all things we can also deeply appreciate this world and care for it. If we get sidetracked into the idea that the world is simply headed for destruction instead of for renewal, we treat the earth poorly and it becomes awkward to enjoy God’s blessings in this world. (Doesn’t it seem strange to appreciate and enjoy blessings that God will just ultimately destroy?) But when we look for the world’s renewal, it will be normal to celebrate every foretaste of the coming Kingdom and give thanks to God for it.
At the end of Revelation 21 we learn that the “glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into the eternal kingdom of the new earth. In other words, the best of human culture will be perfected and carried into eternity. As believers in Christ who are empowered by his Spirit, we can contribute to the eternal Kingdom even now. We should engage the world and our culture with confidence that God may use us to begin the work of renewal that will endure forever. And as we proclaim the Gospel and promote beauty, justice and goodness in this world, we pull back the veil and let people catch a glimpse of the coming reign of Jesus Christ on the Earth. That is our mission in this life – to let the reign of Jesus be visible in us as individuals and as his body, the church. May he give us the grace to take it up with joyful urgency!