What’s heaven like? That’s an interesting question that has occupied many of us from time to time.
Cleaning up some paperwork last week I came across an old letter from my mother from 1990. Mum always had a great sense of humour. She shares a joke: “Do you know how you can double your money? Fold it!” But there is also a lengthy section in which she shares her thoughts about heaven.
In the retirement village in which they lived my Dad had led a Bible Study group. Mum reports that they had just finished studying the book of Revelation. She says, “This book explains quite a bit about heaven.” But after mentioning some of the things that she had found interesting on that point she adds, “But after we studied it, we didn’t know much more about heaven.”
I had the same feeling last Thursday morning. At Glenvale Christian School we’ve spent the last three years following a program that takes the students through the whole Bible in three years. Okay… we did skip Song of Songs! Last Thursday morning for devotions I helped the teachers prepare for the final lesson that will focus this week on the last three chapters of the Book of Revelation. There’s some wonderful things mentioned about “heaven” in those chapters and yet… at the end of it all we’re really not all that much wiser. The fact is that the Bible is remarkably restrained when it talks about the hereafter.
One of the mistakes we often make is to confuse heaven (the place where our spirits go when we die) with the restored creation at the end of time. We need to distinguish between those two things. That’s a lesson I’ve learnt especially from my discussion with Jehovah’s Witnesses when they’ve come knocking on the door. My usual approach, in talking to members of the cults when they visit, is to test their assurance of salvation. So I routinely ask them, “Are you absolutely sure that if you were to die tonight God would welcome you into heaven?” However the Jehovah’s Witnesses often sidestep that question by saying, “Heaven isn’t all that important for us. The issue is being part of God’s wonderfully restored creation and the privilege of living on the new earth.”
The reality is that evangelical Christians often allow thoughts of heaven to overshadow the wonder of God’s renewed cosmos that will be ushered in when Jesus comes.
It’s true that John’s visions in the Book of Revelation have a lot do with heaven. John sees the Lord Jesus in all His glory and the writer struggles to put into words the splendour of the risen and ascended Christ. Later a door is opened for him into heaven (4:1) and he sees around the throne of the Lamb, elders and living creatures. He also sees a great multitude that no one can number, gathered around the throne of Christ (7:9). There is no doubt that what John saw is awesome and spectacular.
However, the problem is that much of what John tells us is in symbolic language. What do the elders and the living creatures represent? In her letter my mother made a telling comment, “I wish I could see heaven from God’s point of view, which is impossible, but still I tried and realised it must be ‘hard’ for God to tell us about heaven in an earthly language.” Precisely! The glory, beauty and splendour of heaven can’t be fully explained in human language.
In some ways I compare it to a tourist brochure. In 1997, while on long-service leave we spent a few days in the Swiss Alps. We had seen some lovely brochures about Switzerland so we decided to stay for a few days in Interlaken. But we found that the tourist brochures just didn’t do justice to the splendour and majesty of the Swiss Alps. This is even more true of heaven. When our faith turns to sight we are going to find it far more glorious than we ever imagined.