I’m not sentimental —
This skin and bones is a rental,
And no one makes it out alive. – Jon Foreman of Switchfoot
How can we set our hearts on Heaven when we have an impoverished theology of Heaven? How can we expect our children to be excited about Heaven – or to stay excited about it when they grow up? Why do we talk so little about Heaven? And why is the little we have to say so vague and lifeless?
Most of us have experienced the excitement of planning or anticipating a big event. Maybe it’s a vacation we’ve been looking forward to, the birth of a baby, or the wedding of a child. As the big event gets closer, we can’t help but think and talk about it. We ask questions – What’s it going to be like? What do I need to have or bring with me? Who else will be there? We proceed to make the necessary preparations, such as gathering information or obtaining whatever materials or supplies we may need for this imminent event.
Death is the one certain imminent event that we all face. Randy Alcorn begins his book Heaven by talking about death, because let’s face it, that’s the way most of us will likely arrive there. Man is obsessed with trying to improve and extend life, to find a “fountain of youth,” something that will put off the inevitable. But the reality is that life is fleeting, “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Ps. 103:15-16). As Jon Foreman sings in his song “Terminal”:
The doctor says I’m dying
I die a little every day
But he’s got no prescription that could
Take my death away.
The doctor says it don’t look so good —
We are the living souls,
With terminal hearts, terminal parts
Flickering like candles, shimmering like candles.
We’re fatally flawed.
In spite of this fact, many people try not to think seriously about death and face it unprepared. Regarding this, Randy Alcorn says, “The wise consider what awaits us on the other side of this life that ends so quickly…They will go to a reliable source to investigate what’s on the other side.” (Let me just insert here that neither Alcorn nor I consider as reliable resources the many books written by people who claim to have died and had a glimpse of heaven before being brought back to life, for several reasons. For more on that subject, see the links listed following my commentary on Heaven is For Real.)
Randy Alcorn suggests a few reasons as to why it is that we don’t think about Heaven. One is that Satan has conveyed false ideas and pictures of Heaven that don’t appeal to us, thereby robbing us of our joy and anticipation of it. A second reason is that we are influenced by the philosophy of naturalism, which causes us to think that if we can’t see or feel something, if it can’t be scientifically explained, then it isn’t real. Alcorn observes, “As long as the resurrected universe remains either undesirable or unimaginable, Satan succeeds in sabotaging our love for Heaven.”
A third possible reason that people don’t think about Heaven very much is because they take it for granted. According to a 2003 Barna Research group poll, “An overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe that there is life after death and that heaven and hell exist.” And if you were to take a poll of Americans if they believe they’re going to Heaven, the majority would say yes. Now, picturing Heaven is tricky because it’s described in a number of ways in the Bible. It’s referred to or pictured as a garden, paradise, a kingdom, a city of gold, a “better country.” But it is a real, physical place, so these descriptions are not necessarily just metaphorical. Hell, likewise, is a very real place, and everyone will spend eternity in one of these two places. But contrary to popular belief, while there are many paths to Hell, there is only one path to Heaven (John 14:6). Jesus explained that “the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). Heaven is not our default destination, and Alcorn doesn’t want to assume that the reader is already a Christian headed for Heaven. With that in mind, at the beginning of his book Alcorn gives the basic gospel message that all men are sinners deserving of hell, and that none can be saved and enter Heaven without the redemption purchased by Christ. I’m not a fan of his gospel presentation here, which essentially communicates the idea that Jesus died as a substitute for everyone and it’s just up to the individual to make the decision to accept His death and forgiveness. He conveys the idea that God really wants everyone to go to Heaven and has done everything in His power to make it possible, so now it’s just up to you to respond. I don’t believe this is doctrinally accurate, but I appreciate the fact that Alcorn challenges people not just to assume they’re automatically going to Heaven, if they haven’t called on the name of Christ in faith and repentance.
The Intermediate State, or Present Heaven
As Alcorn delves into the topic of Heaven, he makes the important and helpful distinction between the intermediate state – Paradise, or Present Heaven – and the Heaven of the eternal state, referred to as the New Heavens and the New Earth in Revelation 21. The present Heaven is a temporary waiting place for believers who have died, like a layover when enroute on a trip. The Bible teaches that after physical death, the spirit remains conscious and goes to be with the Lord (Luke 23:43, 2 Cor. 5:8, Phil. 1:21-23), while the body “sleeps” until the return of Christ. What form we have until that time is not clear, but at the final resurrection the spirit will be joined to its resurrected, glorified body, like the glorified body Christ had after his resurrection. Just as the resurrected Christ was not a ghost (Luke 24:39) , neither will we exist as disembodied spirits for eternity. We will inhabit a newly resurrected and redeemed physical Earth in our “new and improved,” redeemed and perfect physical bodies.
Alcorn shares his beliefs regarding what life is like for those who have gone before us and are currently in the temporary Heaven. He makes a case, based on passages such as Luke 15:7, 16:23-26 and Rev. 6:9-11, for the idea that these saints are aware of and interested in the activities taking place on Earth, that they pray for and may even experience sorrow over, the things that they witness occurring here. (Note that Rev. 21:4 speaks of the future, eternal state in which there will be no sorrow or pain.) Alcorn draws the conclusion that because the angels are aware and involved in earth’s activities that the saints in Heaven are as well, but this is pure speculation and cannot be proven from Scripture.
The Eternal State, or the New Heavens and New Earth
While I am not in total agreement with some of Alcorn’s ideas on what the present Heaven is like and what the saints are currently experiencing there, I found the chapters on the New Heavens and the New Earth extremely helpful and biblically-founded. Alcorn explains that God is in the business of restoring, redeeming, resurrecting and renewing. He created Earth as a place for man to inhabit (Is. 45:18), and He has not abandoned His original once-perfect creation. If He did, Satan will have won. God could’ve started all over after Adam and Eve sinned, but He didn’t. Instead, He had a plan to redeem and restore His creation, in its entirety. Christ came to redeem not only mankind, but all of creation, and to restore it to its original perfect state. (see Col. 1:20, Rom. 8:19-23) Just as the fall of man affected the earth negatively, so the redemption of man will affect it positively, reversing the effects of sin and the curse. I found this to make total sense, and it’s exciting to think about! 2 Peter states that “the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:10-13). Just like the flood of Noah’s day was sent to judge the wicked and destroyed the earth but didn’t totally annihilate it, so the fire of the final judgment will destroy and lay bare the earth so as to cleanse and purge it, not eliminating it altogether. The earth will be made new just as the believer is made to be a new creature and will receive a new glorified body at the final resurrection.
Have you ever wondered if Heaven is going to be a strange, foreign place that will take some getting used to? Is it going to be totally different than the world we are familiar with? Why is Heaven often referred to as our “home”? Alcorn says that Heaven will feel like home because it will feel familiar, we will be comfortable there, like we fit in and belong, and we’ll be surrounded by our loved ones. I used to think that there might not be food or sleep or pets or books in Heaven simply because I didn’t think there will be a need or purpose for them. But many of the things that we love while living on this earth are things that God gave us to enjoy – animals, food, snow, music, literature and art, flowers and trees, sports, games, even work – these are good gifts from Him that will be even better when perfected! Would God take these things from us? Alcorn says, “What we love about this life are the things that resonate with the life we were made for. The things we love are not merely the best this life has to offer – they are previews of the greater life to come.”
After discussing the concepts of the intermediate state (present Heaven) and the New Earth, Alcorn spends a good chunk of the book talking about what it may be like in Heaven. For example, he reminds us that the Scriptures refer to believers as joint-heirs with Christ. The world was made by and for him; it is his inheritance and his kingdom that will have no end and that he will rule over forever (Zech. 9:9-10, Rev. 11:15, Dan. 7:13-14, 21-22, 27). Alcorn explains:
The world as it was, and the world as it will be, is exceedingly good. The world as it is now, inhabited by humanity as we are now, is twisted. But this is a temporary condition, with an eternal remedy: Christ’s redemptive work…God is still God over the universe, still sovereign over Earth and over Satan. But the devil is the usurper who has tried to steal Earth’s throne from man, God’s delegated king of the earth. In his time, God will take back the throne, as the God-man Jesus Christ, at last restoring and raising Earth.
New covenant Christians, not just Israel, are heirs of the promises made to Abraham – and these promises center on possessing the land…After our bodily resurrection, we will receive a physical inheritance. The New Earth is the ultimate Promised Land, the eternal Holy Land in which all God’s people will dwell.
The Scriptures also say that we who are believers redeemed by Christ will rule and reign with Him and be given fitting responsibilities and roles of leadership. (See Dan. 7:27; Luke 16:10, 19:17, 22:29-30; Rom. 8:16-17, 21; 2 Tim. 2:12; I Cor. 6:2-3.) We often think of work, duties, and responsibility as burdensome or punishment. Having that mindset, we think we want to be rewarded for our service with an eternal vacation, so to speak. But Alcorn points out that in the New Earth, work , service, and responsibility will be a reward and a privilege; we see in Scripture when a servant is faithful the master rewards him with MORE work or responsibility, not less (Matt. 25:23). So we can sort of consider our life here on earth as God’s “apprenticeship program” or bootcamp in which He is molding, training and preparing us for our eternal roles and purpose in Heaven.
The second half of the book Alcorn spends answering a variety of questions about Heaven/the New Earth, like:
- What will we be like? Will we continue to learn, grow, explore, create?
- What will we do there? Will we have jobs, personal homes, etc?
- What will our relationships be like?
- Will there be food, animals, sports, entertainment, technology, etc?
Again, on some of these topics the Bible does not provide details, so one can only speculate when trying to answer some of these questions.
Why Think About Heaven Now?
“Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless” (2 Pet. 3:14).
Can a person be too heavenly-minded? I don’t believe so. Hebrews 11 tells us of those who longed for their heavenly home, that God was not ashamed to be called their God. Here are a few ways you will be affected and benefit by thinking more about Heaven:
- Having more correct thoughts about Heaven will direct our thoughts more toward God.
- Thinking more about Heaven should cause us to want to be prepared to enter it. It will give us the desire to be more holy.
- The more excited we are about Heaven, the more we will want others to go there to, stirring us up to evangelize the lost.
- We will consider spending more time and energy on things that will last and have eternal value.
- When we really understand what the New Earth holds in store for us, i will give more meaning to the good things in this life that we enjoy, knowing that they will be even better in the life to come.
- Thinking about Heaven will provide comfort in times of pain and suffering, as we realize it is only temporary and a day will come when such suffering will be no more.
In the Introduction to his book, it’s clear to me that the Randy Alcorn wrote it with an attitude of humility and a desire to be as biblically accurate as possible. He admits that while he was diligent in his study, use of resources, and testing of his views from scripture, some error may be found in his book, and he is open to correction. I feel that in some places, Alcorn takes what Scripture states or implies, then draws conclusions, and further conclusions and speculation from there. This book should be read with an open mind as the reader sets aside any preconceived ideas. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with imagining or speculating what Heaven will be like, as long as our ideas don’t contradict what is revealed in Scripture.
The more we learn about and try to mentally envision Heaven, the more our anticipation of going there will grow. I admit that I’m not completely convinced about some of Alcorn’s views, but at the same time I don’t believe any of what he suggests can be proven from Scripture to be wrong or can be considered heretical. Alcorn comments at the end of his book:
We need to stop acting as if Heaven were a myth, an impossible dream, a relentlessly dull meeting, or an unimportant distraction from real life. We need to see Heaven for what it is: the realm we’re made for. If we do, we’ll embrace it wit contagious joy, excitement, and anticipation.
Alcorn’s book Heaven has given me much to think about and has helped me to understand better what I can and should be looking forward to and given me many reasons for doing so with excitement.
What about you? Do you think often of Heaven? Are you getting homesick for it yet?
Related Articles & other recommended books about Heaven
- Eternal Perspectives Ministry – Randy Alcorn’s website (www.epm.org)
- Review of Alcorn’s book Safely Home (imallbooked.com)
- Why Stories of trips to Heaven do not line up with the Bible (www.solasisters.com)
- The Glory of Heaven by John MacArthur (www.amazon.com)
- Heaven: Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada (www.amazon.com)