Journeys to heaven and back are not the exclusive domain of cults and the New Age movement. Christian television is fairly crawling with people who recount fantastic stories of heavenly excursions they have made. For example, Richard Eby, who is a frequent guest on the worldwide Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) says he has visited both heaven and hell. Each time he tells his story, it seems, he embellishes it with more extrabiblical details.
Eby wrote a book about his heavenly experience titled Caught Up into Paradise. 1 He says he fell two stories off a balcony and landed on his head. He says he was taken to heaven, where he had a translucent body and the ability to float around at will. He has returned to TBN again and again to reveal more details about heaven.
Eby claims that during a TBN-sponsored tour of the Holy Land in 1977, he paid a visit to hell as well. While the tour group was seeing Lazarus’s tomb in Bethany, Eby says, the lights suddenly went dark, and he realized Jesus was standing right next to him. He writes, “I heard the same wonderful Voice that had spoken to me from the cloud in my hospital room five years before: ‘My son; I showed you heaven, now I show you hell. You must know about them both.’” 2
Eby’s tour of hell lasted only two minutes, but he says that was plenty long enough. According to him, hell is no pit of fire; it is cold and dank, “The kind [of cold] that sickens and chills every cell just enough to ache but not get numb. There was no way ever to get warm, not in that dank pit! And the smell! Horrid, nasty, stale, fetid, rotten, evil … mixed together and concentrated,” Eby says. “Somehow I knew instantly that these were the odors of my Pit-mates. Stinking, crawling, demons seen mentally delighting in making me wretched.” 3 And so Eby returned from Lazarus’s tomb and from the realm of the dead with a story that is surely more fantastic than any Lazarus himself ever told about the afterlife! In recent years, Eby’s vivid descriptions of hell have been recounted as frequently on TBN as his vision of heaven.
A few years ago I wrote a book on the charismatic movement in which I examined the claims of several charismatic visionaries who claim to have seen heaven (or hell) firsthand and lived to tell the tale. One of these was Roberts Liardon, who says he made visits to heaven at least three times—all before he was even twelve years old. He is now a charismatic pastor in wide demand at conferences, where he recounts details of his multiple visits to heaven.
Liardon claims the most important detail he learned on his journey is that heaven contains warehouses full of body parts that are just there for people on earth to claim by faith. You need a new set of eyes? According to Roberts Liardon, if you had enough faith you could get some from the heavenly storehouses, which, incidentally, he says, are a mere “500 to 600 yards from the Throne Room of God.” He claims Jesus personally showed him these warehouses. The scene he paints is surreal:
We walked into the first [warehouse]. As Jesus shut the front door behind us, I looked around the interior in shock!
On one side of the building were arms, fingers, and other exterior parts of the body. Legs hung from the wall, but the scene looked natural, not weird. On the other side of the building were shelves filled with neat little packages of eyes: green ones, brown ones, blue ones, etc.
This building contained all the parts of the human body that people on earth need, but they haven’t realized these blessings are waiting for them in heaven.… And they’re for saints and sinners alike. 4
According to Liardon, Jesus told him, “These are the unclaimed blessings. This building should not be full. It should be emptied every single day. You should come in here with faith and get the needed parts for you and the people you’ll come in contact with that day.” 5
Roberts Liardon’s heaven exists to serve earthly purposes. Although Liardon’s message is ostensibly about heaven, his focus is always, unwaveringly earthward. Liardon says there is a stadium in heaven where celestial inhabitants go to watch what is happening on earth. He says Jesus’ whole purpose for taking him there in the first place was to commission him for an earthly ministry. Liardon’s tour through heaven included such mundane pleasures as a playful splash-fight he claims he had with Jesus in the river of life. 6
Liardon even says that one of his trips to heaven interrupted an episode of Laverne & Shirley he was watching. After the heavenly tour, he was returned to his living room. Then, Liardon says, Jesus “got up, walked back out through the door, the TV clicked back on, and I resumed watching Laverne & Shirley.” 7
All this paints heaven in rather stark earth-tones. It implies that heaven is really subordinate to earth after all. Far from obeying the biblical command to set our affections on things above, this sort of teaching suggests that heaven itself is preoccupied with earthly realities, and that heaven’s highest values are actually earthly goods.
Liardon’s accounts of his heavenly visions therefore amount to anti-heaven absurdities. Such a fanciful perspective on heaven is every bit as worldly as the grossest kind of materialism.
Despite the prevalence of heavenly visions like Betty Eadie’s and Roberts Liardon’s, however, surely materialism is by far the most widespread cause of wrong thinking about heaven these days. As damaging as these mystical visions of heaven may be to people who are duped by them, far more people are swept up in the worldliness and materialism of our generation and lose sight of heaven that way.
Let’s be honest, too: materialism is not a problem for pagans only. A look at America’s evangelical subculture reveals that materialism is alive and well among Bible-believing Christians. We now have modern megachurch complexes that include high-tech entertainment and special-effects facilities, health spas, fitness centers, bowling alleys, and even food courts. Dispensing material comforts to the flock has become more important for some churches than pursuing the prize of the heavenly calling. Little wonder if the people in the pews miss the point that materialism is sin.
We live in an era of immediate gratification. No generation prior to this has ever had access to so many means of fulfilling fleshly desires in a here-and-now fashion. For example, we have credit cards that allow us to own what we can’t afford, go where we wouldn’t be able to go, and do what would otherwise be impossible for us to do. Only later do we have to begin paying. The prevalence of uncontrolled credit-card debt is symptomatic of an attitude that says, “I want what I want when I want it!” The mindset of our age is against postponed pleasures of any kind. We prefer instant gratification, and we all too willingly sacrifice the future on the altar of the immediate.
Again, Christians are not exempt from this tendency. Rather than setting their affections on things above, many tend to become attached to the things of this earth. It’s all too easy to become absorbed in temporal things and neglect what is eternal. Many spend their energy consuming and accumulating things that may promise gratification for now. But ultimately these things—along with any pleasure they bring—will perish. That’s why we’re commanded to accumulate our treasures in heaven, where they can never be destroyed or pass away. But having lost sight of the “sweet by and by,” too many Christians busy themselves with the harried here and now.
Worse, certain high-profile media ministries, preaching a prosperity gospel, give multitudes the disastrous impression that this is what Christianity is all about. They promise people that Jesus wants them healthy, wealthy, and successful. Such teaching is extremely popular because it caters to the spirit of the age—and the desire to have everything in this life, right now. Roberts Liardon is part of this movement, and this very health-wealth-and-prosperity mentality is what has molded his warped view of “heaven.”
Because the church doesn’t really have heaven on its mind, it tends to be self-indulgent, self-centered, weak, and materialistic. Our present comforts consume too much of our thoughts, and if we’re not careful, we inevitably end up inventing wrong fantasies about heaven—or thinking very little of heaven at all.
The main part of this book will be in-depth study of the biblical description of heaven, angels, and the afterlife. It is my hope and prayer that as we examine carefully what Scripture teaches about the spiritual realm, both you and I will be motivated to “seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).
In reality, everything that is truly precious to us as Christians is in heaven.
The Father is there, and that’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name” (Matt. 6:9). Jesus Himself is at the Father’s right hand. Hebrews 9:24 says, “Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” So our Savior is also in heaven, where He intercedes on our behalf (Heb. 7:25).
Many brothers and sisters in Christ are there, too. Hebrews 12:23 says that in turning to God we have come “to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.” Our departed loved ones in the faith are there. Every Old and New Testament believer who has died is now in heaven.
Our names are recorded there. In Luke 10:20 Christ tells His disciples, who were casting out demons, “Rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.” And by saying that our names are written in heaven, Christ assures us that we have a title deed to property there. This is our inheritance. First Peter 1:4 says we are begotten in Christ “to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.”
“Our citizenship is in heaven,” according to Philippians 3:20 (nasb). In other words, heaven is where we belong. We’re just “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Our goals therefore should not include the accumulation of possessions here. Our real wealth—our eternal reward—is in heaven (Matt. 5:12). In Matthew 6:19–21 Jesus says that the only treasure we will possess throughout eternity is there.
In other words, everything we should love everlastingly, everything we rightly value, everything of any eternal worth is in heaven.
So self-indulgence and materialism in the church has a particularly destructive spiritual bent. It undermines everything the church should stand for. It tears Christians away from their heavenly moorings. And it makes them worldly.
The term worldliness almost sounds outdated, doesn’t it? Many people think it sounds petty, legalistic, and unnecessarily old-fashioned. Our grandparents heard sermons against “the sin of worldliness.” We think we’re too sophisticated to concern ourselves with such trivia. But the real problem is that we are not sufficiently concerned with heavenly values, so we don’t appreciate how wickedly sinful it is to hold on to earthly ones.
And that is the essence of worldliness: it involves love for earthly things, esteem for earthly values, and preoccupation with earthly cares. Scripture plainly labels it sin—and sin of the worst stripe. It is a spiritual form of adultery that sets one against God Himself: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4).
I have actually heard Christians say they don’t want to go to heaven until they’ve enjoyed all that the world can deliver. When all earthly pursuits are exhausted, or when age and sickness hamper their enjoyment, then they believe they’ll be ready for heaven. “Please God, don’t take me to heaven yet,” they pray. “I haven’t even been to Hawaii!”
But if you live your life without cultivating a love for heavenly things, you will never be fit for heaven. First John 2 says, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.… The world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (vv. 15, 17).
Some people who claim to know Christ actually love the world so much that frankly there may be good reason to wonder if they can possibly be citizens of heaven. As one of the old spirituals says, “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t goin’ there.”
Sadly, though, it is also true that everyone going to heaven isn’t talking about it. “My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:10). The hope of heaven should fill us with a joy of anticipation that loosens our hearts from this transitory world.
It may sound paradoxical to say this, but heaven should be at the center of the Christian worldview. The term worldview has gained great popularity over the past hundred years or so. It describes a moral, philosophical, and spiritual framework through which we interpret the world and everything around us. Everyone has a worldview (whether consciously or not).
A proper Christian worldview is uniquely focused heavenward. Though some would deride this as “escapism,” it is, after all, the very thing Scripture commands: “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:2). The apostle Paul penned that command, and his approach to life was anything but escapist.
In fact, Paul is a wonderful example of the proper biblical perspective between heaven and earth. He faced overwhelming persecution on earth and never lost sight of heaven. In 2 Corinthians 4:8–10 he says, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.” Then in verses 16–17 he adds, “We faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” Elsewhere he told the church at Rome, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Paul was saying exactly what Peter told the scattered and persecuted believers he wrote to: we endure the sufferings of this world for the sake of the glory of heaven (1 Peter 1:3–7). Whatever we suffer in this life cannot be compared with the glory of the life to come.
In other words, we don’t seek to escape this life by dreaming of heaven. But we do find we can endure this life because of the certainty of heaven. Heaven is eternal. Earth is temporal. Those who fix all their affections on the fleeting things of this world are the real escapists, because they are vainly attempting to avoid facing eternity—by hiding in the fleeting shadows of things that are only transient.
The irony is that all the things we can see and touch in this world are less substantive and less permanent than the eternal things of heaven—which we can grasp only by faith. The apostle Paul wrote, “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 4:18–5:1).
It always amazes me when I encounter someone living as if this life is an unending reality. Nothing is more obvious than the transitory nature of human life. The fact that this earthly tabernacle—the human body—is “dissolving” becomes obvious at an all-too-early age. This tent is being torn down. “Indeed in this house we groan” (2 Cor. 5:2, nasb). Moreover, “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:22). Nothing in this world is permanent. And that should be obvious to anyone who contemplates the nature of things.
There are many who mistakenly conclude that the brevity of life is a good justification for unbridled hedonism. After all, if there’s nothing to life but what we can see and experience in the here and now, why not make the most of personal pleasure? A famous brewery used to advertise its beer by emphasizing the brevity of life: “You only go around once, so grab for all the gusto you can.” In a similar vein, a shoe company now advertises, “Life is short. Play hard.” How different that is from Jesus’ advice to use this earthly life as an opportunity to lay up treasure in heaven!
But if this earthly life were the sum total of human existence, then our existence would be a tragic affair indeed. Remember the Peggy Lee song that was popular in the 1960s, “Is That All There Is?”
Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friend,
Then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze
And have a ball,
If that’s all there is.
As Christians we naturally lament the sense of futility and despair expressed in that song. But let’s also acknowledge that the worldview the song expresses is the only logical alternative to Christianity. If our existence is the product of nothing and will lead to nothing, then all of life itself is really nothing. Or (as one skeptic expressed it), we are just protoplasm waiting to become manure. If that is the case, then there’s really no good reason we should not simply eat, drink, and be merry while we wait to die.
But Scripture tells us that is the worldview of a fool (Luke 12:19–20). How much better to have the eternal perspective! I read somewhere an account of John Quincy Adams, who when asked late in life how he was doing replied, “John Quincy Adams is well, sir, very well. The house in which he has been living is dilapidated and old, and he has received word from its maker that he must vacate soon. But John Quincy Adams is well, sir, very well.”
Paul says that when the earthly tabernacle of our body is gone, we will receive a new building from God, eternal in the heavens. To complete 2 Corinthians 5:2, which I quoted in part above, “in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven” (nasb, emphasis added). Romans 8:23 says that in heaven even our failing bodies will be redeemed. Our groaning will be ended when we are finally clothed with a heavenly body.
That alone would be good reason to fix all our hopes and affections on heaven, wouldn’t it? My dear friend Joni Eareckson Tada knows this as well as anyone. Her earthly body was paralyzed from the shoulders down when she dived into shallow water as a teenager. As long as I’ve known her, she has had her heart set on heaven. It shows in her conversation, her songs, her radio messages, and her artwork. Often it seems as if talking with her draws one to the very edge of heaven where we can see in. Joni explains this in her recent book on the subject:
I still can hardly believe it. I, with shriveled, bent fingers, atrophied muscles, gnarled knees, and no feeling from the shoulders down, will one day have a new body, light, bright, and clothed in righteousness—powerful and dazzling.…
It’s easy for me to “be joyful in hope,” as it says in Romans 12:12, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past twenty-odd years. My assurance of heaven is so alive that I’ve been making dates with friends to do all sorts of fun things once we get our new bodies.… I don’t take these appointments lightly. I’m convinced these things will really happen. 8
Whether or not the apostle Paul made appointments with people as he looked ahead to heaven, Scripture does not say. But clearly he had that very same kind of vivid expectation as he waited for heaven. Look again at these first few verses of 2 Corinthians 5:
We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.
     —vv. 1–4
In this body we groan because we are burdened by sin, sickness, sorrow, and death. Yet we don’t want to be unclothed. In other words, we have no ambition to become disembodied spirits. That’s not what we’re yearning for. We want both our spirits and our bodies to enter the presence of God. And that is God’s plan, too.
Some people have the notion that heaven is wholly ethereal, spiritual, and unreal. They envision it as a wispy existence in a dreamlike spiritual dimension. That is not the biblical conception of heaven. In heaven we will have real bodies—changed, glorified, made like Christ’s resurrection body (Phil. 3:21)—real, eternal bodies, just as His was real (cf. John 20:27). And when I get my glorified knees I already have an appointment to go jogging with Joni Tada.
Paul says, “He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge” (2 Cor. 5:5, nasb). The Greek word translated “pledge” is arrabon, the same word Paul used in Ephesians 1:14, also referring to the Holy Spirit. In modern Greek a form of arrabon refers to an engagement ring. In New Testament times it referred to a down payment or first installment—earnest money. So, the Holy Spirit is a token of God’s pledge to us that even our bodies will be made new and imperishable in the glory of heaven.
Paul goes on to apply this truth in very practical terms: “Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (vv. 6–8). This world held no fascination for Paul. He longed for the world to come.
Do you find it difficult to say honestly that those verses express the deepest desires of your heart? There is a tendency for most of us to hold tightly to this world because it is all that we know. It is familiar to us. All our dearest relationships are built here. We too easily think of it as home. So we become captive to this life. But when Paul says he is willing to be “present” with the Lord, he employs the Greek word endemeō, which literally means “to be at home.” We are most truly “at home” only when we are finally with the Lord. Paul understood this. And the knowledge that he belonged in heaven was the very thing that helped him endure the struggles of this life.
We too should long to be clothed with our heavenly form. We should look forward to being absent from the body and present with the Lord. We should become more preoccupied with the glories of eternity than we are with the afflictions of today.
The King James Version of the Bible employs the word heaven 582 times in 550 different verses. The Hebrew word usually translated “heaven,” shamayim, is a plural noun form that literally means “the heights.” The Greek word translated “heaven” is ouranos (the same word that inspired the name of the planet Uranus). It refers to that which is raised up or lofty. Both shamayim and ouranos are used variously in Scripture to refer to three different places. (This explains why in 2 Corinthians 12:2 Paul refers to being caught up into “the third heaven.”)
There is, first of all, the atmospheric heaven. This is the sky, or the troposphere—the region of breathable atmosphere that blankets the earth. For example, Genesis 7:11–12 says, “The windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.” There the word “heaven” refers to the blanket of atmosphere around the world, which is where the hydrological cycle occurs. Psalm 147:8 says that God “covereth the heaven with clouds.” That is the first heaven.
The planetary heaven, the second “heaven,” is where the stars, the moon, and the planets are. Scripture uses the very same word for heaven to describe this region. For example, Genesis 1 says,
And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.
     —vv. 14–17
The third heaven, the one Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 12, is the heaven where God dwells with His holy angels and those saints who have died. The other two heavens will pass away (2 Peter 3:10); this heaven is eternal.
Someone inevitably asks, If God is omnipresent, how can Scripture say heaven is His habitation? After all, how can an omnipresent Being be said to dwell anywhere? Solomon, when dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem, prayed, “Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” (1 Kings 8:27).
It is certainly true that “the heaven and heaven of heavens” cannot contain God. He is omnipresent. There is no realm to which His presence does not reach. The psalmist, exalting God’s omnipresence, said, “If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Ps. 139:8).
So to say that God dwells in heaven is not to say that He is contained there. But it is uniquely His home, His center of operations, His command post. It is the place where His throne resides. And it is where the most perfect worship of Him occurs. It is in that sense that we say heaven is His dwelling-place.
This concept of heaven as the dwelling-place of God runs throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, for example, Isaiah 57:15 says, “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place.” So God specifically declares that He has a real dwelling-place. Isaiah 63:15 identifies that place: “Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory.” Psalm 33:13–14 says, “The Lord looketh from heaven; he beholdeth all the sons of men. From the place of his habitation he looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth.”
The same idea of heaven as God’s dwelling-place is stressed throughout the New Testament. In fact, it is a running theme in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). He cautioned those who were prone to make oaths that they should not swear by heaven, “for it is God’s throne” (v. 34). And He instructs His hearers to love their enemies, “[so] that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (v. 45). Matthew 6:1 says, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” He instructs His disciples to pray this way: “Our Father which art in heaven … ” (v. 9). Nearing the end of the Sermon, He says, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (7:11). And, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (v. 21).
This same phrase echoes again and again in both the preaching and the private ministry of Jesus. Matthew 10:32–33 says, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 12:50 says, “Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). He compared believers to little children and warned people against causing offense to them: “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10). He added, “It is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish” (v. 14). And, “if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven” (v. 19). He constantly referred to God as “my heavenly Father” (emphasis added throughout).
The concept of heaven as God’s dwelling-place is also implicit in the New Testament teaching about the deity of Christ. He is described as “the bread of God … which cometh down from heaven” (John 6:33). Christ’s own claim of deity is implicit in this statement: “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” He says of Himself, “I am the bread which came down from heaven” (v. 41). Numerous times in John 6 alone he makes this same claim (cf. vv. 50–51, 58). These claims were correctly understood by Jesus’ hearers as straightforward assertions that He is God.
In fact, heaven is so closely identified with God in the Jewish conception that it actually became a euphemism for God Himself. Heaven was substituted for the name of God by people fearful of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Particularly during the Intertestamental Period (the 400 years between the events of the Old Testament and those of the New), the Jewish people developed an almost superstitious fear of using God’s name. They believed the covenant name of God (Yahweh or Jehovah) was too holy to pass through human lips. So they began substituting other terms in place of God’s name, and “heaven” became a common substitute. By New Testament times that practice was so ingrained that the Jewish people understood most references to heaven as references to God Himself.
Instead of swearing by God’s name, for example, they would swear by heaven. And since “heaven” was merely a substitute reference to God Himself, Jesus pointed out that swearing by heaven was a de facto violation of the commandment not to take His name in vain. Thus in Matthew 23:22 He says, “He that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.” The word heaven stood for God Himself.
Such usage is common in the New Testament. Luke refers to “the Kingdom of God.” But Matthew, writing to a predominantly Jewish readership, calls it “the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Luke 8:10; Matt. 13:11). We see another example of the use of heaven as a euphemism for God in Luke 15:18, for example, where the prodigal son, rehearsing what he would say to his father, says, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” He meant, of course, that he had sinned against God.
Although heaven is often used this way in place of God’s name, we must not conclude that Scripture intends to equate heaven with God Himself. The terms are not synonyms. God transcends heaven. Heaven, in the end, is a place—the place where God dwells, the place where the elect will dwell with Him for all eternity, the heaven of heavens, the third heaven.
This is not to suggest that heaven is limited by the normal boundaries of time and space. We have seen that Scripture teaches clearly that heaven is a real place that can be seen and touched and inhabited by beings with material bodies. We affirm that truth unequivocally.
But Scripture also reveals heaven as a realm not confined to an area delimited by height, width, and breadth. Heaven seems to span all those dimensions—and more. In Christ’s message to the Philadelphian church, for example, He speaks of the eternal realm as “new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God” (Rev. 3:12). In the closing chapters of Scripture, the apostle John speaks of “that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:10). The New Heaven and New Earth are seen blending together in a great kingdom that incorporates both realms. The paradise of eternity is thus revealed as a magnificent kingdom where both heaven and earth unite in a glory that surpasses the limits of the human imagination and the boundaries of earthly dimensions.
So heaven is not confined to one locality marked off by boundaries that can been seen or measured. It transcends the confines of time-space dimensions. Perhaps that is part of what Scripture means when it states that God inhabits eternity (Isa. 57:15). His dwelling-place—heaven—is not subject to the normal limitations of finite dimensions. We don’t need to speculate about how this can be; it is sufficient to note that this is how Scripture describes heaven. It is a real place where people with physical bodies will dwell in God’s presence for all eternity; and it is also a realm that surpasses our finite concept of what a “place” is.
There’s another important sense in which heaven transcends normal time-space dimensions. According to Scripture, a mystery form of the kingdom of God—incorporating all the elements of heaven itself—is the spiritual sphere in which all true Christians live even now. The kingdom of heaven invades and begins to govern the life of every believer in Christ. Spiritually, the Christian becomes a part of heaven with full rights of citizenship here and now in this life.
That’s exactly what Paul was saying when he wrote, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20, nasb). There’s a positional sense in which we who believe are already living in the kingdom of God.
In Ephesians 1:3 the apostle Paul says that God “hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (emphasis added). Ephesians 2:5–6 likewise says, “Even when we were dead in sins, [God] hath quickened us together with Christ … and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Note that in both passages, the verbs are past tense. Paul is speaking of an already-accomplished reality. We aren’t yet in heaven bodily. But positionally we are seated with Christ in the heavenlies. Because of our spiritual union with Him, we have already entered into the heavenly realm. We already possess eternal life, and the spiritual riches of heaven are ours in Jesus Christ.
Christ Himself preached that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17). Yet He said to those who demanded to know when the visible kingdom would come, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20–21).
Think about this: Heaven is where holiness, fellowship with God, joy, peace, love, and all other virtues are realized in utter perfection. But we experience all those things—at least partially—even now. The Holy Spirit is producing in us the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23, nasb). Again, those are the same traits that characterize heaven. Moreover, we have the life of God in us and the rule of God over us. We know joy, peace, love, goodness, and blessing. We have become part of a new family, a new kind of community. We have left the kingdom of darkness for the kingdom of light. We are no longer under the dominion of Satan but the dominion of God in Christ. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” We are new creations. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “The kingdom of God is within you.”
Christ was not denying the reality of a literal, visible, earthly kingdom. Too many prophecies in both the Old and New Testaments affirm that such a kingdom will one day exist. Nor was He suggesting that heaven is not a real place. He was simply teaching that heaven transcends all time-space limitations. He was focusing the Pharisees’ attention on the important aspects of the heavenly kingdom that are available right here and now. Immediate entrance to the kingdom of heaven is the very thing the gospel message offers. That’s why it is so often called “the gospel of the kingdom” (cf. Matt. 24:14).
When Jesus preached, He called people to enter the Kingdom (Luke 13:24). Sometimes He urged people to be saved (John 5:34). And other times He spoke of inheriting eternal life (Mark 10:30). All three expressions come together in the account of the rich young ruler. He asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). When the young man turned away without believing, Jesus said, “With what difficulty shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” (v. 24). And the disciples, shocked at what transpired, asked, “Who then can be saved?” (v. 26). All three expressions point to the reality that occurs at conversion. When a person trusts Christ, that person is saved, inherits eternal life, and enters into the kingdom of God. Believers come under God’s rule, not physically in heaven, but positionally in the heavenlies.
So while we do not yet live physically in heaven, we do have our spiritual citizenship in the heavenly realm. Therefore we should be preoccupied with heavenly things.
That is the whole point of this book. If my purpose were merely to dispel earthly myths about heaven, I could fill an entire book with biblical rebuttals of visions like Betty Eadie’s and Richard Eby’s and Roberts Liardon’s—and a host of other similar claims. It is certainly crucial that we recognize the dangers of the gnostic approach to heaven and turn away from it.
But we dare not stop there. We must also seek to understand the biblical concept of heaven. We are commanded to contemplate heaven, to pursue it the way Abraham sought the city of God, to fix our affections there.
This means earnestly purging worldliness from our hearts. It means learning to wean ourselves from the preoccupations of this life. It means looking ahead to eternity and living in the expectation of a sure and certain hope. It means looking away from the mundane and temporal, and fixing our eyes steadfastly on Him who is the glory of heaven.
Those who live with this heavenly perspective discover abundant life as God intended it here on earth. Ironically, those who pursue earthly comforts are really the most uncomfortable people on earth. As Puritan Richard Baxter wrote,
A heavenly mind is a joyful mind; this is the nearest and truest way to live a life of comfort, and without this you must needs be uncomfortable. Can a man be at a fire and not be warm; or in the sunshine and not have light? Can your heart be in heaven, and not have comfort? [On the other hand,] what could make such frozen, uncomfortable Christians but living so far as they do from heaven?… O Christian get above. Believe it, that region is warmer than this below. 9
Baxter went on to write,
There is no man so highly honoureth God, as he who hath his conversation in heaven; and without this we deeply dishonour him. Is it not a disgrace to the father, when the children do feed on husks, and are clothed in rags, and accompany with none but beggars? Is it not so to our Father, when we who call ourselves his children, shall feed on earth, and the garb of our souls be but like that of the naked world, and when our hearts shall make this clay and dust their more familiar and frequent company, who should always stand in our Father’s presence, and be taken up in his own attendance? Sure, it beseems not the spouse of Christ to live among his scullions and slaves, when they may have daily admittance into his presence-chamber; he holds forth the sceptre, if they will but enter. 10
Unfamiliarity with heaven makes a dull and worldly Christian. God has graciously bid us sample the delights of the world to come, and it is only a rebellious and perverse mindset that keeps us mired in the mundane and worldly. God has given us a down-payment on heaven. He has transferred our citizenship there. We “are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). We therefore cannot ignore heaven’s glory as if it had no significance. In Baxter’s words, “There is nothing else that is worth setting our hearts on.” 11
I know few truths in Scripture that are more liberating to the soul than this: “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20, nasb). That is where our hearts should be. The cares of this world are nothing but a snare and a deadly pit. Jesus characterized “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things” as that which “choke[s] the word, [so] it becometh unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). Similarly, the apostle John writes, “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:16).
“But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). We can fix our hearts on the eternal glory of heaven, not on the things of this world, which inevitably come to nought anyway (1 John 2:17). We are members of a new family, having become the children of God (John 1:12). Galatians 4:26 says that the “Jerusalem which is above” is our mother. We have a new citizenship (Phil. 3:20), new affections (Col. 3:1), and a new storehouse where we are to deposit our treasures (Matt. 6:19–20).
And best of all, we can live in the glow of heaven’s glory here and now, with our hearts already in heaven. This is to say that the Christian life is meant to be like heaven on earth. Believers regularly taste the sweetness of the same heaven to which someday we will go to dwell forever. Praising and loving God with all your being, adoring and obeying Christ, pursuing holiness, cherishing fellowship with other saints—those are the elements of heavenly life we can begin to taste in this world. Those same pursuits and privileges will occupy us forever, but we can begin to practice them even now.
 1 1. Richard Eby, Caught Up into Paradise (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.).
 2 2. Ibid., 228–29.
 3 3. Ibid., 230.
 4 4. Roberts Liardon, I Saw Heaven (Tulsa, Okla.: Harrison House, 1983), 6.
 5 5. Ibid., 19.
 6 6. Ibid., 16–22.
 7 7. Ibid., p. 26.
 8 8. Joni Eareckson Tada, Heaven (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 53–55.
 9 9. Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, abridged by John T. Wilkinson (London: Epworth, 1962), 110.
 10 10. Ibid., 118.
 11 11. Ibid., 121.
MacArthur, J. (1996). The glory of heaven : The truth about heaven, angels, and eternal life (43). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.