– by William Boekenstein –
Most of our thoughts about the future—even the near future—are punctuated by question marks. When we think about eternity our questions multiply. For those who treasure Christ’s promise to prepare a place for believers to dwell with him (John 14:2–3), one of the biggest questions is “what is heaven like”? Even the form of the question implies that we can only think about heaven by analogy. It is like a wedding feast (Rev. 19:9), a many-roomed house (John 14:2), a city (Heb. 11:10, 16) with gates of pearls and streets of gold (Rev. 21:21), a country whose hills flow with sweet wine (Amos 9:13). To convey his vision of heaven, similes were John’s go-to figure of speech: page-for-page, the word like occurs four times more often in Revelation than in the rest of Scripture. Still, God tells us enough about heaven to make us eager for it.
Heaven Is a Real, Physical Place
The biblical descriptions of heaven are heavily metaphorical. This does not, however, argue for heaven’s unreality but for its surpassing grandeur. That the biblical writers could illustrate heaven with earthly analogies suggests that the Promised Land is not as unfamiliar as we think. When the Israelites yearned for that “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17), they anticipated something more real than that metaphor suggests. They certainly did not imagine a land with milky, sticky rivers, a bizarre ancient-Near-Eastern version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. They anticipated a land of bounty, “the most glorious of all lands” (Ezek. 20:6 ESV), and they were not disappointed with what they found (Num. 13:27).
Eternal life will perfectly answer the best longings of God’s embodied children. In the new heavens and new earth, “they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21), they will eat and drink at Christ’s table (Luke 22:17, 29–30; Matt. 8:11). Animals will populate the age to come, though one will no longer prey on another (v. 25). When God made the first heaven and earth, they were undeniably physical and very good (Gen. 1:31). Any vision of an intangible eternity ill-suited to fully-embodied humans radically underestimates the vision of Scripture.
Heaven Is a Reversal of the Pain of the Curse
The Bible frequently describes heaven as a place from which everything negative is banished: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). No one in heaven will hunger or thirst (Rev. 7:16) or fear (21:8). Even things we now find tiresome, like work (Gen. 3:17–19), will become a great delight. If you could imagine without limits and build without frustration or disappointment, if your body never ached and your plans never failed, would not work be enjoyable? When God finishes reversing the curse (Rev. 22:3) he will restore everything that was lost; the former troubles be forgotten for God’s children (Isa. 65:16).
Heaven Is a Realization of Fellowship with God
Saint Augustine wrote that we who are but “a particle of [God’s] creation” long, more than anything, to know God and be known by Him. Believers gain great comfort now from their status as children of God, but our present relationship with our Father is strained by the misunderstanding of his purposes and disobedience of his will (1 Cor. 13:12). John sees it this way: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). Heaven, as one of our young daughters once suggested, is the place where God fulfills his promises, and the essence of his promise is perfect friendship.