There has recently been a great deal of hype stirred up by those claiming to have had out-of-body experiences of heaven. Bookstore shelves are filling up with them, and all of the media outlets are reporting on them.
I don’t want to speculate on the claims made by the kid who met Jesus or the agnostic neurosurgeon who has confessed to having experienced another dimension of reality. Maybe they did experience these things for real, or maybe neurons were simply misfiring in their brain. I’ll let you decide.
It’s not that I’m entirely skeptical of these subjective claims. I believe in heaven as a present reality. I also believe that the apostle John experienced something of this heaven, as he records in Revelation 4-5. So, I do believe in that realm the Scripture calls heaven—God’s space.
What concerns me is that many Christians have made more of these contemporary claims than they ought. We’ve allowed folk religion to shape enough of our theology as it is. And this infatuation with heaven says we have a ways to go in understanding the Gospel and the biblical future God has planned for heaven and earth.
Is heaven is for real? Well, of course it is. It doesn’t appear that the NT church had any doubts about it. They clearly believed in the present reality of heaven, but they were far more interested in something greater.
What fascinated the early church—driving the entire Gospel mission—was the biblical hope that God would bring heaven to earth. The Messiah was to be the one to make this happen, at least to initiate it and complete it. The Kingdom of God is all about this marriage of heaven and earth.
It’s God’s idea of new creation.
“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” Isaiah 65:17
The creation of a “new heavens and a new earth” is a transformation of the former things. It is a world transfigured like unto the physical body of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 17:1-9). Think about it.
The resurrected body of Christ was of its own kind. There is continuity with the old body and there is discontinuity as well (Lk. 24: 13-35, 36-49; Jn. 20:1-18, 24-31; 21:1-14). The resurrected body of Christ is heaven intersecting with earth. Therefore, the resurrected Jesus is proof of what God plans to do with the spiritual and physical dimensions of reality.
In Rev. 21-22 we do not see believers flying off to a disembodied spiritual existence on the other side of the cosmos. No, we see heaven coming to earth. We see heaven, God’s realm, breaking through and fully consummating with the physical realm we call earth.
We must rid ourselves of this mantra that speaks of going to heaven when we die, as if we will have come to the end of our journey.
Heaven is indeed where the Lord is presently, but it is not our final home (Ps. 14:2; 20:6; 33:13; Ecc. 5:2; Is. 66:1; Dan. 2:44; 7:27; Rev. 11:15).
If anything, heaven is only a temporal dwelling for those awaiting the resurrection of the dead. Jesus said there are “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house (Jn 14:2). The Greek word for “dwelling places” used here, monai, has regularly been used to refer to a temporary stop on an extended journey. Don’t merge this verse with Rev 21.
Even when Christ was on the cross, he told the thief on his left that “today” he would be with him in “paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This too doesn’t speak of a final destination, but of a temporal garden of rest.
All of the saints, past and present, still await the return of the King and the establishment of heaven on earth (Heb. 11:13-16; Rev. 6:10-11).
God’s desire has always been to complete his good work in the created world upon which every human being has ever lived.
For the Jew, there was a firm belief that God would restore creation and fulfill his covenant with his people. The Lord of heaven and earth would finally merge the two into one unified reality.
This resurrected world is called the “New Jerusalem” and the “Holy City” (Rev. 21:2). This newly remade world is our final destination. It is the Kingdom of God fully realized. In Revelation 21:5, Christ says:
“Behold, I am making all things new!”
And it is Christ that has the authority to say such things, for he was the first to be resurrected and be clothed with the imperishable.
Our hope is in a future resurrected existence in the “new heavens and earth.” The finished work of Christ is not fully realized until God makes his home on this earth. This should be our great obsession.
It is on this earth that Jesus prayed, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Heaven is indeed coming to earth. Jesus has called for its renewal and resurrection!
“Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 19
Give some serious thought to N.T. Wright’s description of this future reality.
Does your language about the future reflect this biblical hope? How do you think the pop-culture confusion on this theological issue impacts the way in which we live out the Kingdom on the earth?
D.D. Flowers, 2012.