EARTHLY IDEA ABOUT
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
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.’”
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.
SAKE—OR FOR EARTH’S?
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
“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.
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.
WORLD IS NOT MY HOME
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
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,
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.
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.
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
the same word Paul used in Ephesians 1:14, also referring to the Holy
Spirit. In modern Greek a form of
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
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
shamayim, is a
plural noun form that literally means “the heights.” The Greek word
translated “heaven” is
(the same word that inspired the name of the
planet Uranus). It refers to that which is raised up or lofty. Both
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
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.
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.
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.
REALM OF GOD’S KINGDOM
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
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.
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.
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.”
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. Richard Eby,
Caught Up into Paradise
(Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.).
4. Roberts Liardon,
I Saw Heaven
(Tulsa, Okla.: Harrison House, 1983), 6.
8. Joni Eareckson Tada,
Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 53–55.
9. Richard Baxter,
The Saints’ Everlasting Rest,
abridged by John T. Wilkinson (London: Epworth, 1962), 110.
MacArthur, J. (1996). The glory of
heaven : The truth about heaven, angels, and eternal life (43).
Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.