Several times during the past year I've been asked, in one context or another, to speak on Hell. But never on Heaven. Yet the Bible is far more interested in the latter than it is in the former and speaks of it far more frequently and far more clearly. The reason for this is simple: the focus of scripture is on the people of God and the glory of redemption, not on the lost.
Teaching on heaven is found throughout the scriptures, particularly the New Testament. It can be organised around two questions: Where is it? and, What goes on there?
Where is it?
The first is deceptively simple: where is it? The Bible's answer is in personalistic rather than geographical terms.
For example, heaven is where all of God's people are gathered together. This point is made particularly clearly in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. The very purpose of the Advent is to re-unite those who are still living when the Lord comes and those who have fallen asleep:
A few short years of evil past,
We reach the happy shore,
Where death-divided friends at last
Shall meet, to part no more.
The longing for such a reunion carries obvious dangers. It can lead all too easily to our feelings focusing on our beloved dead rather than on the risen Lord. But the longing is a natural one, and the Bible never rebukes it. Death is unnatural, and the pain of bereavement horrendous. We wrap ourselves around another human being, often with fierce emotional intensity; and then death tears us apart. There is, as C S Lewis says, no earthly comfort. But for those who are one in Christ as well there is the comfort that one day we shall be with the Lord together. Only those who have avoided love and its inevitable pain will dismiss such a comfort as sentimental.
It is superficial, too, to conclude that in this final state those who have been close to us on earth will no longer matter. Certainly our love will be stripped of all that is erotic, or at least of all that is carnal. But it will still be love enhanced, not love diminished. They will be more lovely and more lovable than ever before; and we, by God's grace, shall be more loving. Christ will not grudge such love for a moment. Our divisions here grieve Him. Our harmony and affection there will thrill Him because He has no greater joy than to see His children love one another. "How lovingly do thousands live together in heaven, who lived in divisions and quarrels on earth," wrote Richard Baxter; "those whom one house could not hold, nor one church, no, nor one kingdom neither; yet one heaven, and one God, may hold. This rejoiceth me, that my old friends, who now look strangely at me, will joyfully triumph with me in our common rest."
Again, heaven is where Jesus is. This was His own prayer: "that where I am there they may be also" (John 17:24). But this quickly breaks into a series of almost unmanageable concepts.
It means, for one thing, that we will be where we can behold His glory (John 17:24). Here, we either don't see (1 Peter 1:8) or see through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). There, we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). We shall see His transfigured humanity. We shall see the glory of God in His face (2 Corinthians 4:6). We shall see how much the Father loves Him (John 17:24). All the creativity of God has gone into the glorification of His Son. His body is the Omega-point of divine artistry; His beauty, power, eminence and blessedness a reflection of the Father's appreciation of His obedience. His cross expressed His boundless love for God; His glory reflects God's boundless love for Him. In heaven we shall see it and feast on it, unable to take our eyes off it. Our Quest will end not with a question mark, but with Jesus; and our whole being will rest in Him with glad adoration.
But Jesus also wants us to stand exactly in His own relationship with God: "where I am". That relationship is expressed in the great load-bearing prepositions of John's Gospel. In John 17:5, for example, the preposition is beside. In John 1:1, the preposition is towards. In John 17:21 it is in. What a magnificent picture results! One day we shall be beside God: creatures and sinners, and yet before the Throne! We shall be towards God: not simply located near Him, inertly and passively, but relating to Him actively and dynamically. Our love will go out towards Him, and His return to us. We shall live face to face. We shall live for Him and He for us.
But even more: we shall live in Him. It was this preposition that led the Greek Fathers of the early church to formulate their doctrine of enperichoresis. The persons of the godhead exist in and around each other. They encircle each other. They live wrapped up in each other, distinct, yet one; penetrating each other in a union of incomprehensible intimacy and yet remaining so distinct as to be beside and towards. We shall never be God, or gods. But we shall be gathered up into the life of the Eternal. The life of God is already in our souls, and our souls in the life of God. But here the participation is partial, limited by the weakness of our own faith. But ultimately it will be carried to the highest conceivable (and even inconceivable) level of perfection. Remaining fully ourselves, we shall be in God, encircled by His love, secure in His embrace and sharing in the blessedness and peace which lie at His very heart.
Of course it stretches our credulity! But there is something even more stupendous: "The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them" (John 17:22). Not only to see His glory; not only to be in it; but to have it — to share it fully. And what glory: "the glory I had with thee before the world was made" (John 17:5)! His exalted humanity shares to the utmost of its capacity in the glory of His eternal deity. His soul is suffused with the blessedness of God. His body reflects His majesty. His whole person shares in His sovereignty. And He shares that — all that — with us! Does He then glorify us with the glory He Himself had with the Father before the world was made? That certainly is what He says. And what can it mean but that He imparts His image, shares His sonship, shares His inheritance, shares His blessedness and shares His throne? He shares His own special relationship with the Father. Does that not mean that in our faces, as in His, men will see the glory of God? And does any of this, mind-blowing though it is, go beyond those incredible words of St Peter's: "You have become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4)?
Heaven, then, is where the saints are and where Jesus is. But it is also home. "My Father's house," Jesus called it (John 14:2), and that's why it's home: because that is where our Father is and that is where our Brother is and that is where more and more of those we once knew and loved now live. God forgive us that we don't long for it more! What a grief it must be to God that so few of His children want to go home! Here we are, in enemy territory, amid the sufferings of the present time, beset by sin and seeing our Father's name dishonoured all around us. And yet we want to stay! Why, when the alternative is to see Jesus? He longed to return to the Father. Saint Paul was the same, longing to depart and to be with Christ, which, as far as He was concerned, was far better. That surely is the healthy Christian attitude: willing to stay, for the sake of the work still to be done, but longing to get home.
Here in the body pent
Absent from home I roam,
Yet nightly pitch my moving tent
A day's march nearer home.
It is just here that we see the contrast between the natural man's view of death and the view of the Christian:
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And let there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.
Tennyson, Crossing the Bar.
To the unbeliever, dying means launching out into the deep, into the great unknown, a terrifying, uncharted ocean of darkness and uncertainty. To faith, the prospect is entirely different. In the words of the great Negro Spiritual, the chariot is coming "for to carry me home". This was exactly how the psalmist saw it: "Then they were glad because they had quiet, arid he brought them to their desired haven" (Psalm 107:30).
Matthew Henry put it memorably: "He whose head is in heaven need not fear to put his feet into the grave."
What Goes on There?
So much for the question, Where? But what goes on there?
This again divides into several separate issues.
First, the activity of the Father: "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Revelation 7:17). This is one of the instances where the Bible speaks of God in terms more maternal than paternal, representing Him as comforting His traumatised children and saying, "It's over now!" There is a strong suggestion, too, of meticulous solicitude. He wipes away every tear: every last one. The truth is not merely that pain and sorrow are put forever behind us but that God Himself comes so close. We feel His touch upon our souls.
Secondly, the activity of the Son, our Saviour: "the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters" (Revelation 7:17). There are many remarkable things here, but probably the most remarkable is the idea of the Lamb feeding us. The verb is from the Greek word for a shepherd. In fact this is how the RSV, quite rightly, translates it: "The Lamb will be their Shepherd". This expresses with unforgettable vividness one of the great themes of the New Testament, the compassion and fellow-feeling of Christ. This Shepherd is Himself a lamb. He has taken our nature. He has shared our experiences. He has tasted our sorrow and pain. Even in the midst of the throne He bears the marks of a lamb that's been slaughtered (Revelation 5:6). He still recalls His days of weakness and near-despair.
The words also remind us that even in heaven we shall need shepherding. We shall never be independent, nor shall we ever achieve that degree of self-sufficiency whereby we shall be able to provide for ourselves without the ministry of Christ. To be in heaven means to be eternally under His pastoral care. It also means constant onward spiritual development. Of course, once in heaven we shall be perfect. But the child Jesus, too, was perfect, yet He grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man (Luke 2:52). The child had a much deeper understanding than the infant; the adult had a much more mature relationship with God than the child; and the exalted Christ now has a depth of insight impossible for the Christ of the cross.
There will never come a point at which our finite minds know the whole truth about God. Neither will there come a point when God will deny us all further progress. Life eternal is to keep on getting to know God (John 17:3). This is not a merely academic or intellectual exercise; far less is it the pursuit of some fixed body of knowledge which we can hope to master and in which we can rest satisfied. It is a dynamic personal relationship; a great, growing friendship; a voyage of discovery which began in the very first moment of faith and will continue so long as we and God exist. "If anything is certain it is this," wrote Joseph Addison Alexander, "that they who escape perdition shall still continue to ascend without cessation, rising higher, growing better, and becoming more and more like God throughout eternity." Never will God be fully and finally known. Never will every last depth of His being be disclosed. In that new heaven and new earth every day will bring fresh discoveries of the infinitely-faceted character of the Almighty as He points us to the glory of His Son and the wonders of His new creation, evoking moment by moment the response, "Oh the depth!"
"And shall lead them to the fountains of the waters of life". Here in this world He leads us to the river: there he leads us to the source. Where? "the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Revelation 22:1). Not that we should think too lightly of the privileges we enjoy in this life. As the twenty-third psalm reminds us, there have been many days when we have lacked nothing. We have enjoyed green pastures and relaxed beside still waters. But there were days, too, when we were surrounded by enemies; and even days in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Yet that valley is no cul-de-sac. The One who led us into it will lead us out of it and take us to the great source of life, in the midst of the throne.
Of course, John's "midst of the throne" is pure poetry. But what poetry: the flock grazing eternally, under the loving eye of the Shepherd, at the heart of the sovereignty of God! It is no easy thing to put flesh on this. We certainly have no guarantee that we are nearer the truth when we reduce it to theological propositions. Heaven means standing close to the majesty of God. But that is always the majesty of love; which means that the believer's privilege is to stand eternally where it all began. No doubt He will gaze and gaze upon it. But He is not taken to the fountain merely to look. He is taken to drink. We will quite literally enjoy God. In a sense we already enjoy His love here. But in the present life it comes through the filter of providence, mixed with adversity and sorrow, and distorted by the currents of demonic and human hatreds which still affect our lives. There it comes unmixed and undiluted. We meet (and know) God simply in His benefits, His every act assuring us of His love and our every experience redolent of His goodness. Living towards God, and occupying the same position as the Son, all around us is Love.
What is it for us?
It is worship. The New Jerusalem, according to John's vision, is a perfect cube: "its length and breadth and height are equal" (Revelation 21:16). This is clearly an allusion to the Inner Sanctuary (the "Holy of Holies") in Solomon's Temple (20 cubits each way, 1 Kings 6:20). In heaven there is no Temple (Revelation 21:22) because it is all temple. It is one great Holy of Holies, pervaded by the presence of God, full of the insignia of His majesty and the tokens of His love. Our worship is a response to that: not something exacted or extorted but "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." The vision before us — the majesty of God unveiled in the glorified humanity of Christ — forbids silence. It evokes, irresistibly, wonder, love and praise; and these find expression not only in the voices of individuals but in the great symphony of the redeemed. They have come from north and south and east and west. They include white and black, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, the weak and the powerful, introverts and extroverts. Each sings his own song. And yet it is no cacophony, but a great harmony, a symphony of grace, awe-inspiring in volume and yet euphonious and melodious as the harp (Revelation 14:1-3): the response of humanity to the wonderful works of God.
Worship, then. But work, too, although the teaching here amounts only to hints. The final state of the believer is not going to be a purely spiritual one. He will have a resurrection body, which, by definition, will be physical; and he will live in a physical universe. Inevitably therefore there will be physical, as well spiritual and intellectual, activity.
This will probably involve God re-affirming for redeemed man the mandate to subdue and dominate his environment (Genesis 1:28). Hebrews 2:5-9 clearly assumes that these responsibilities have been transferred to Christ. As the Last Adam, He takes over where the First Adam failed so miserably. The world to come will be subject to Him (Hebrews 2:8f.); and, in Him, to His people. It may seem strange to apply to the new creation the idea of "subduing" it. But the word was originally used while Adam was still in Paradise; and if the Garden of Eden required to be kept and tilled there is no reason to think that the new creation will be any different. Paradise was no mere seminary. It offered scope for art, science and technology, as well as for theology. The same will doubtless be true of the world to come. Not only the Creator but the Creation, too, will be an object of wonder to the redeemed. It will challenge their intellects, fire their imaginations and stimulate their industry. The scenario is a thrilling one: brilliant minds in powerful bodies in a transformed universe.
But rest, too. Maybe rest above all. Here, responsibilities, pain and temptation. Here, harassment by the demonic, persecution by the world, disappointment in friends. Here, relentless, remorseless pressure, requiring us to live at the limit of our resources and at the very edge of endurance. But there, rest: "the battle's o'er, the victory won". The toil is behind us and the danger past. No more the burden of unfinished work or the frustration of in-built limitations. No sin to mortify. No self to crucify. No pain to face. No enemy to fear.
But it's not all negative. It's more than rest from. It means sharing in the blessedness of God so that in the very depth of our being there is contentment and joy and fulfilment. There is total shalom: a sense of sheer wellbeing. Every need is met. Every longing is fulfilled. Every goal is achieved. Every sense is satisfied. We see Him. We are with Him. He holds us and hugs us and whispers, "This is forever."