Are you really excited about heaven? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what it will be like?
My ears perk up every time someone mentions heaven. I’m naturally fascinated, for some reason, to know people’s thoughts about the only place Jesus refers to as “Paradise.” I’m usually disappointed, however, when people talk about heaven. My thoughts are usually something like, “Really, that’s what you think about heaven?” I don’t think I’m being self-righteous, but I do think we have not sufficiently pondered this place.
Here are some common comments I hear: “Floating around on a cloud sounds boring.” “Why would I want to go to a place where I don’t remember my past life?” “Why would I want to be at a place forever away from the spouse and kids I love?” Perhaps some future blog posts can tackle those questions.
And then there’s the other thought: “How can heaven be heaven when people you love are in hell?” Won’t everyone in heaven have survivor’s guilt?
How can heaven really be a joy-filled paradise? How heartless, it would seem, for me to enjoy heaven if people I love dearly are being continually tormented in hell. What do we do with these thoughts?
Here are some possible options to this question:
Option #1: Heaven is not Heaven
Is it possible heaven is over-hyped? Sure, it’ll be amazing to see Jesus. Satan will be conquered, sin will be no more, we will have an endless time for…for…thinking about those precious people suffering. How can I be in heaven when they are there in agony?
I would never dream of going on a vacation, having the time of my life, and all the while knowing a very close loved one is endlessly tortured with pain. It would seem heartless. How can I enjoy heaven? Maybe, therefore, heaven is not really heaven.
Here’s one way to process this option:
In Philippians 1:22-23 the apostle Paul says, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
If heaven was a bummer, you would think Paul would want stay on earth as long as possible. He could still make a difference while living on earth. Paul even says it would be “fruitful labor” if he stayed.
Paul was having a successful time leading people to Jesus. Why stop that? For Paul, however, it was far better, not a little better, but far better for him to depart and be in heaven. He reiterated this again in 2 Corinthians 5:8 saying, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
It would seem heaven may really be heaven. Perhaps, there’s another option.
Option #2: Hell is not Hell
One reason Paul may have been so excited to go to heaven is because Hell is not really Hell. There are generally two ways people process this option.
God sends people to hell. They did not trust in Jesus as their Savior. Thus, they end up in the place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). In his final act of either mercy or judgment, He annihilates them. They cease to exist.
Heaven could still be heaven, because the people you love have been put out of their misery. Yes, you were bummed to hear of their annihilation, but you take comfort in the cessation of their misery.
Another way for Hell to not be Hell is for all people to make it to heaven. Once again, the lake of fire is prepared for the devil and his angels. In the final act of God’s mercy, the utter triumph of Jesus’ crucifixion applies to all human beings. Those who became believers on earth may receive greater rewards in heaven, but all people make it to heaven. Hell is therefore not hell.
Here’s one way to process these two options:
Matthew 25:31-46 talks about the end of the world. Jesus is letting us know what’s going to happen (His resume is pretty good…He can speak with authority on the subject). In verse 32, all human beings are gathered. It says, “He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” All people are assembled. Will some be annihilated? Will all be shown to heaven?
Jesus says in verse 46, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The reality of eternal punishment for a human being is placed on the same level as the reality of eternal life. In the same sentence eternal punishment and eternal life are communicated as realities.
It is very difficult from these words of Jesus to conceive of eternal life for humans, while denying the reality of eternal punishment for other humans.
Option #2 is something for which we all seem to hope, but it seems intellectually dishonest to embrace the view. Let’s look at another option.
Option #3: We Don’t Remember
How can heaven be heaven when people we love are in hell? Maybe we don’t remember our earthly lives in heaven. The glories of heaven coupled with the passing of time may severely dilute our memories.
I had a pretty good childhood. I grew up in a farm community in central Iowa. The scenery is beautiful and the people are generally fantastic. That said, how well do I remember life in Iowa when I was 9 years old?
Who was my school teacher when I was 9 years old? As I look up and squint my eyes trying to force my brain to bring back that memory, I can’t. The memory is gone. Someone who played a large role in my 9-year old life is no longer a part of my conscious existence. My memories from just 25 years ago are not that good. My memories are fuzzy.
8,427 years from now will I remember the people I love today? Perhaps the memory of those people drifted so far back that I no longer think of them, thus allowing heaven to be heaven.
Here are some ways I process Option #3:
First, our memories are not all equal. My memories from being 9 years old are not that good largely due to my physiological immaturity at the time. As an adult, my memory is much better. I am continually amazed at the rich memories my wife and I have of something that happened 3 years ago while my kids have no memory of that time or place.
Second, memories tend to deepen joy. Knowledge of tougher times provides a backdrop for soul-satisfying experiences. The father with memories of many layoffs is thrilled with a stable job. The job would not provide the same level of joy, if his memories were gone.
Observation of our reality confirms the importance of memory. One of the most dreadful human diseases is Alzheimer’s. Will God give all of us Alzheimer’s in heaven? If so, is an Alzheimer’s ward, heaven? No.
Finally, throughout the Bible God seems to be very interested in our memories. He spends a good deal of time making sure we don’t forget events like: the Flood (cue the rainbow); the Exodus (Passover); the time of Esther (Purim); and the Cross (Communion) to name a few.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus point to the realization of our memories. Although the rich man was in hell, he still remembered having brothers who did not know Jesus. Our memories seem to be intact in heaven.
So how can it still be heaven?
Option #4: We Remember and It’s Heaven
Here we are, at the end of this post. In some ways I’ve backed into this position by dismissing the previous three. I have sincerely considered the previous three options. In this fourth option we do remember loved ones, hell is hell, and heaven is heaven.
How can this be? I think there are a few ways to get there.
First, I believe the Bible to be God’s revelation of reality to humankind. I can’t see any of the three previous views being able to exist in light of the Bible’s revelation. The Bible upholds the importance of memory, the reality of eternal punishment, and the reality of eternal life.
Second, observation of life shows this fourth option to be a possibility. I’ll never forget the first time, many years ago, when I saw the New Tribes Mission video, Ee-Taow. It’s the well-recorded story of the Mouk people of New Guinea hearing the good news of Jesus for the first time (https://vimeo.com/9329683).
NTM produced a follow-up video called Ee-Taow:The Next Chapter (https://vimeo.com/9333908) chronicling the growth of the Gospel as the Mouk people became missionaries to other tribes. At around the 27:24 mark in the video the people break out in total celebration for all God has done for them. But then they stop abruptly. During this totally unscripted scene, all of them begin weeping spontaneously. They weep for those they loved who have died without responding to eternal life found through Jesus. As a tribe, they are in the very position we are talking about.
They have experienced a sort of heaven on earth by finally being set free from their sins. But, they are now weeping. What will happen next? With the cameras continuing to roll, we find out around 28:10 in the video. They resume their rejoicing. They find a deeper joy. Fully aware of everything that has happened, they are able to rejoice at the graciousness of God. They humbly, yet confidently, worship their Savior with joyful hearts.
Third, I think my future response to these options has already been made by me, recorded by another, and preserved for all of us. What in the world does that sentence mean?
I believe the events of Revelation 19 are still to occur in the future. When I make such a statement, I am describing a supernatural phenomenon. I believe in a supernatural God, however, so this is legal reasoning.
In some way God allowed John to preview events which had not yet come to pass. When John is observing the events which will be recorded and labeled as Revelation 19, he is witnessing future extraordinary events. Why is this important? Because I think I am directly quoted in the Bible! Furthermore, I think YOU, if Jesus is your Savior, are quoted verbatim in the Bible. You make an appearance in Revelation 19:1-3. Here’s what you say:
“After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven,
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for his judgments are true and just;
for he has judged the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth with her immorality,
and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
Once more they cried out,
“Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.”
The apostle John has recorded your response. All humans have been judged. Some to eternal punishment, others to eternal life. We have witnessed it all. Your response, my response, they are the same as we all shout, “…for his judgments are true and just.”
Then an angel leaves us with a final thought as a new age for humanity commences. In Revelation 19:9 he says, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” No one is self-righteous at the wedding feast of the Lamb. We are all there because of the grace of God. Therefore, no one can boast.
Although it is better for us to be there, it is good for us, now, to be here. We are still able to proclaim the greatness of Jesus to those who have not responded. We are still able to have a fruitful ministry imploring others to be reconciled to God through Christ (2 Cor. 5:20-21).