Searching for Heaven
“Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away.
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away.”
– Albert Brumley
Does I’ll Fly Away give us an accurate picture of Heaven? I’ve always loved that song. It’s easy to play on guitar and a lot of fun to sing with a group. But how does it fare theologically? Does Scripture really paint a picture of us all ‘flying away’ to some ethereal ‘celestial shore’? When Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you”, was he talking about a realm where we’d float around as disembodied spirits?
If I judged things based on the average Christian funeral, I’d have to assume that when we die, we immediately go to our final destination: Heaven, the Domain of God. But is this what Scripture teaches? Is it what Jesus and his followers believed?
It may surprise you to hear this but I don’t think so. Jesus didn’t talk about living forever as disembodied, floating spirits. Scripture doesn’t teach a ‘celestial shore’. The Bible’s teaching on eternal life is much more substantive than that.
It’s more substantive both in the sense that it’s a more robust teaching – and in the sense that our eternal state will have substance to it. In other words, we aren’t going to be ghosts.
Going to the Greek or Christian Heaven?
Many modern Christians have more in common with Plato than Jesus, when it comes to Heaven. Like Plato, they view their souls as imprisoned in their bodies and they look forward to being ‘released’. They long for the day that they can finally ‘fly away’ into the heavenlies, unencumbered by flesh and bone. In the Timaeus, Plato writes that at death, the soul,”obtaining a natural release, flies away with joy”.
This isn’t the Biblical hope for eternal life.
But if this isn’t our hope, then what is? If we aren’t looking forward to our souls being released from these bodies, what are we looking forward to?
Old Testament Hope
The Old Testament says relatively little about the afterlife. There are some verses scattered here and there about Sheol (the abode of the dead) but for the most part, it’s fairly silent on what happens when we die. There are, however, a couple of exceptions. Probably the best known is found at the end of Daniel. There, we read:
“And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” – Daniel 12:1a-3
Notice: Daniel does not describe an ethereal heaven. He doesn’t talk about ‘flying away.’ For Daniel, eternal life is a result of resurrection.
And though the rest of the Old Testament doesn’t have much to say about eternal life (resurrection or otherwise), the New Testament clearly carries this idea forward.
New Testament Hope
Martha and Lazarus
Think about Martha’s words to Jesus after Lazarus has died. He tells her, “Your brother will rise again.” And what’s her response? “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” This was the common view in Jesus’ day. It’s the same view Daniel paints: final resurrection followed by rewards for the righteous and eternal separation from God for the wicked.
And if you’ll keep reading, you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t correct her. He doesn’t say, “Martha, Lazarus is already in Heaven. Forget about this talk of resurrection!” Instead, he simply shows her that he is the source of resurrection. He doesn’t deny its fact. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).
And this isn’t the only New Testament passage that points to resurrection.
The Sadducees Non-Hope
Matthew records a debate Jesus had with the Sadducees over the resurrection. And it’s noted that they “say there is no resurrection” (Matthew 22:23). In other words, if Matthew had the idea that Heaven was our final destination, he could have said that they “say there is no afterlife” or that they “say we don’t go to heaven.” But he didn’t. He specifies that the issue at hand was bodily resurrection.
And even Jesus talks about what will happen “in the resurrection” (see Matthew 22:30-31; John 5:29).
Paul and the Greek Philosophers
Recall, for a moment, that the idea of an immortal soul that needs to break free from the body is a Greek idea. That fit Plato’s philosophy to a tee. And yet, when Paul preaches at Athens, it is the very issue of resurrection that turns off so many of the Greek philosophers. Listen to how Luke records this encounter, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this'” (Acts 17:32). These philosophers wouldn’t have sneered at the idea of an immortal soul being released from a physical body into Heaven. It was bodily resurrection that seemed absurd to them.
On this issue, a lot of evangelicals would have felt right at home with the Greek philosophers at Mars’ Hill.
Jesus, the First Fruits?
But it isn’t just the Gospels and Acts that point to resurrection as our final state. Paul (and the other New Testament authors) explicitly links what happened in Christ to what will happen in us.
Paul calls Jesus “the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Later, in Colossians, he says that Jesus is the “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). And if that wasn’t clear enough, John repeats this title in the Revelation: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead” (Revelation 1:5). If Jesus is the “first fruits” and the “firstborn from the dead” then wouldn’t it make sense to look at what Jesus experienced as a pattern for what we’ll go through?
And if we take Jesus as our pattern, then what does eternal life look like? Many people will be surprised to realize that it looks an awful lot like a physical existence.
The Resurrection of Jesus the Christ
For one thing, Jesus’ body was missing (see Luke 24:3; Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:6; John 20:12). And it still bore the physical marks of crucifixion (see John 20:20; John 20:27). In fact, Jesus was so physical that the two disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was just your average out-of-towner (see Luke 24:18). And not only did Jesus appear to his disciples, talk with them, and still bear the marks of crucifixion, he ate with them (see Luke 24:41-43; John 21:9-15). And if none of that convinces you, then consider what Jesus himself said to the gathered disciples, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).
It doesn’t get much more plain than that. In the resurrection, Jesus had flesh and bones. He wasn’t a ghost or a spirit or an apparition. Neither did he just ‘appear’ to be with them.
And if Jesus was flesh and blood – and if he’s the firstborn from the dead – then doesn’t that imply that we too will be physical?
But if we are going to be physical, then what about Heaven? Mustn’t it be physical too?
How can physical beings live on a non-physical, spiritual plane?
*Spoiler Alert* They can’t.
Bringing Heaven to Earth?
So does this means that Heaven is a place on earth? It might be more accurate to say that our understanding of Heaven (as our final destination where we spend our days with God and his people for eternity) is actually what Scripture describes as the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Throughout the Bible, the phrase “heaven and earth” is used to refer to the entire physical creation. Think about Genesis 1:1 for a moment: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Or consider any number of the following verses: Genesis 14:19, Exodus 20:11, Deuteronomy 4:26, Joshua 2:11, Ezra 5:11, etc. “Heaven and earth” is a shorthand way of saying “all of creation” or “the entire cosmos”. It includes everything from the depths of the deepest ocean to the farthest reaches of space.
The Impact of Sin on Creation
But Scripture tells us that all is not right with the world (or the rest of creation). After sin made its first appearance, God pronounced a curse that affected the very ground (Genesis 3:16).
Creation itself was bent by man’s rebellion.
Paul describes the state of the universe by telling the Romans that “the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:19-23).
The “whole creation” is groaning. And so, Jesus didn’t just come to save souls. He came to make heaven and earth new. And that’s exactly the way it’s described in several other passages.
Isaiah on the New Creation
In the last two chapters of his book, Isaiah writes about God creating a “new heavens and a new earth”. This is worth reading in its fullness.
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;
For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing
And her people for gladness.
I will also rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in My people;
And there will no longer be heard in her
The voice of weeping and the sound of crying.
No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
Or an old man who does not live out his days;
For the youth will die at the age of one hundred
And the bone who does not reach the age of one hundred
Will be thought accursed.
They will build houses and inhabit them, they will also plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They will not build and another inhabit, They will not plant and another eat;
For as the lifetime of a tree, so will be the days of My people,
And My chosen ones will wear out the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
Or bear children for calamity;
For they are the offspring of those blessed by the LORD,
And their descendants with them.” – Isaiah 65:17-23
“For just as the new heavens and the new earth
Which I make will endure before Me,” declares the LORD,
“So your offspring and your name will endure.
And it shall be from new moon to new moon
And from sabbath to sabbath,
All mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the LORD.
“Then they will go forth and look
On the corpses of the men
Who have transgressed against Me.
For their worm will not die
And their fire will not be quenched;
And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.” – Isaiah 66:22-24
Some have taken these passages to be referring to a millennial kingdom. But if we read in Revelation, we find language that’s very similar to this – and the theme of a “new heavens and a new earth” – but Revelation places it after the thousand years (which, might I add, isn’t referring to a literal thousand years. But that’s a post for a different day). After reading this, you may be wondering, “If Isaiah is talking about Heaven, then why does he say that “the youth will die at the age of one hundred”? We won’t die in heaven, will we?
No. We won’t. Revelation makes that clear. As we read this text (and as we read the Revelation), we need to remember that much prophecy is symbolic. It often uses literary language to communicate a point. How can we possibly wrap our minds around eternity? Is there any way that we, as finite creatures, can possibly imagine the glory of the New Heavens and New Earth? No. There isn’t. So, Isaiah uses language that we can understand to communicate a reality we can’t.
I can’t fathom an eternal existence. But I can wrap my head around the idea of a person still being “youthful” at 100. This is what Isaiah is doing here. He isn’t giving us a detailed picture of eternity. He’s painting an impressionistic picture of something we can only barely imagine.
The New Testament on New Creation
But Isaiah isn’t the only one who talks about a “new heavens and a new earth.” After telling his readers that this current world will “pass away”, Peter writes that “according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). Again, Peter doesn’t expect for creation to be destroyed and for us to pass into a purely spiritual state. He envisions an embodied future in a new heavens and a new earth.
Finally, John sees something very similar in his Revelation. In the penultimate chapter, he writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea” (Revelation 21:1). He goes on to describe a world where “the tabernacle of God is among men” and says that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Then, God himself delivers the best news of all, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
A Better Hope
God is making all things new. He isn’t whisking us away to a paradise in the sky. He’s recreating creation from the ground up. He’s setting those things that went wrong, right. The curse is coming undone.
It’s not an accident that Revelation 22 ends the same way Genesis begins: with God dwelling among his people, a life-giving river flowing, and the tree of life at the center of it all.
I would say that Eden has been restored but it’s even better than that. God will finally remake creation into what he intended her to be.
And so will we be.
I other words, we aren’t going to ‘fly away’ to live in the clouds. We’re going to be raised from the dead – resurrected – to rule with God for eternity in the New Heavens and the New Earth (Revelation 1:6).
But Where Are the Dead Now?
This may leave some of you with a fairly important question: What happens to those who have already died? Aren’t they in Heaven?
I’ll be honest here. I don’t know all of the details. But here is what I do know. Paul said that “to be absent from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Likewise, he told the Philippians that he desired to “depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). Finally, Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
These verses make one thing crystal clear: when we die, we enter God’s presence.
But we shouldn’t get too comfortable as disembodied souls because when the day of the Lord comes, “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
In other words, our hope isn’t a wispy-spirit hope.
It’s resurrection hope.
Don’t settle for anything less.
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