The first book I wrote remains unpublished. I called it Shamayim, a Hebrew word for Heaven, or more properly ‘Heavens’.
It is the story of a man whom angels visited to disclose the history of the world from the very beginning. My aim was to make the bible come alive with action stories and flights of fancy and I read it to my two young children at their bedtimes, each chapter as it came off my printer. Today, I am writing something very different and what you will find in the paragraphs below are my more biblical answers to questions concerning Heaven.
The other day I received an email from a friend and past fellow local church member now living in the USA. He asked a number of questions under the heading of ‘What happens to us in Heaven’. He ended with, ‘So what will be different in Heaven and/or the New Earth that our characters, our personalities are so changed that I am still “me” but I no longer sin and we all live happily ever after?’ I responded as best I could, but as I was doing so I realised that I had not written about this before and that it would be a good subject for an article. Let’s start with briefly examining the biblical words that relate to the afterlife.
Biblical Words Relating to the Afterlife
Various Hebrew and Greek words describe the afterlife. It is all a little confusing, mainly because ancient Hebrew and Greek ideas of the afterlife differed and different words were used to describe similar concepts. For instance, ‘Sheol’, although meaning ‘death’ or ‘the grave’ stood for aspects of Hell. Similarly, words such as ‘paradise’ and ‘Abraham’s Bosom’ described aspects of Heaven.
Paradise (Luke 23:43 and 2 Corinthians 12:2-3),and Abraham’s Bosom (Luke 16:22) both describe the intermediate state we usually know as Heaven (1 Peter 1:4, 12; 3:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Philippians 3:20).
When born-again believers die physically, God transports them in spiritual form into the heavenly realm where he resides. After the Great Judgment God will discontinue Heaven and create instead a new Heaven and Earth that I refer to as HeavenEarth.
By the way, if you would like to read more about HeavenEarth, I have written many articles and books that include this topic. For instance, a series I wrote for this site which you can read by clicking HERE and then “next post” etc. I have also written an updated version of my book “The Book of Revelation: In the light of the Stars” which you can purchase in e-Book or paperback HERE.
Hades is the Old Testament word most often used to describe the pre-Jesus afterlife and it also occurs in such New Testament passages as Luke 10:15 and Revelation 1:18. Another word to describe Hell is Tartarus, as in 2 Peter 2:4. The word Hell describes both an interim and a final state in that it is used for both Hades and what John referred to in Revelation 20:13-14 as ‘The Lake of Fire’.
However, the passage in Revelation indicates that while Hell is intermediate, the Lake of Fire is the final destination of the dammed.
I have used the words redeemed and dammed to describe the two ultimate classes of humans.
As I see it, the distinction between the two is that the redeemed are those who have been spiritually regenerated (born again) by the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus, and the dammed are all others.
Theologians debate whether God will ultimately redeem ‘good’ people from among those who are not disciples of Jesus, young children, and so on, but I think the biblical evidence points to the opposite conclusion. My reasoning is that Jesus stated that “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He also said that only those born of the Spirit could enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:5). Hebrews 9:27 states that ‘man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment’ and so it stands to reason then that only those born again of the Spirit in this lifetime, in and through Jesus Christ, will enter Heaven.
Theologians also debate whether The Lake of Fire is a condition of conscious eternal punishment or simply annihilation.
Next, I will attempt a response to the question my friend posed: ‘‘So what will be different in Heaven and/or the New Earth that our characters, our personalities are so changed that I am still ‘me’ but I no longer sin and we all live happily ever after?”
How are we Made Fit for the Afterlife?
After we are spiritually regenerated by the miracle of re-birth, we start a process of transformation that slowly conforms us to be like Jesus. However, I know of no one who could claim that by the time physical death occurs they will be perfect. Whatever progress we make whilst on earth will contribute toward our reward and eternal utility, but it cannot transform us into a sinless state. How then can we ever enter into the sinless and perfect heavenly realm?
The answer must be that we can do nothing to achieve this for ourselves. Paul put it like this: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
To look at it from another perspective, those now in covenant with God, saved in and through Jesus Christ, experience a third miracle of life.
- The first was to be born into this world,
- The second was to have been born again into communion with God,
- And the third is the complete deliverance from all desire or inclination to sin. This third divine gift will not override our ability to exercise free will because when we see Jesus face to face and experience first-hand the wonder of Heaven, we will not want to choose any other state for ourselves.
John wrote that ‘now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2). He is writing about the second coming of Jesus, but the same must surely apply to those of us who get to see Jesus prior to this event. So, three points apply:
- That we are right now children of God,
- That God has not yet succinctly revealed what we will be like in heaven, but
- We shall be like Jesus.
Jude included the following words in his doxology: ‘To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy’ (Jude 24). This is KEY to understanding why/how sinful beings like us can be assured that we will be acceptable to God and safe from falling again into sin in the life after this one.
Another text along the same lines is Hebrews 7:25: ‘Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them’. So, we do not get ourselves or keep ourselves in a sinless state in the hereafter, but God does! Like other aspects of salvation, it is a work of divine grace and all we have to do is to accept it.
Another question sometimes asked is something like, ‘So OK as a born-again believer I will be in Heaven when I die, but what will I be like? I mean, will I have some sort of body?’
What Form Will we Have in the Afterlife?
Here is where the scriptures do not give us too many clues. When Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration, the three disciples saw him talking with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:1-8). This must mean that these Old Testament saints had form and characteristics sufficient for the disciples to recognise them. We can assume therefore that whatever form we have after death will be recognisable to others as ‘us’. Additionally, they spoke to Jesus in full sight of the disciples and so we can also assume that we will be able to communicate in Heaven.
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul wrote of the Great Resurrection and in doing so disclosed some key information about our spiritual form after death: ‘There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies’ (vs 40). He went on a few verses later to write, ‘It (referring to the physical earthly body) is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body’. Then in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 Paul wrote: ‘Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed , we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life’.
So we can gather from all this that after death we will have definite spiritual bodies, but we don’t have details about them.
Perhaps a more important question is one that has to do with rewards and activities in the afterlife.
What will we Have and Do in the Afterlife?
We know from many scriptures that we will worship God in Heaven and that there will be much joy and singing there (Hebrews 12:22-23 and Revelation 5:13). But will there be productive activity, learning, and positions of responsibility?
Paul writes concerning himself and others that ‘there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Timothy 4:8). What is this ‘crown of righteousness’? Perhaps a reward or appointed office, or maybe Paul is just using picturesque language to convey the idea that our reward and state is simply the fact that we will be with Jesus in Heaven. However, in 1 Corinthians 3:14 he writes of a conscientious church leader as one who will receive his reward and in 2 John 8 the apostle writes of obedient believers receiving a ‘full reward’. Jesus also spoke of those who are persecuted because of him receiving a great reward in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12). He said something similar in Matthew 16:27 and so we gather from this and other scriptures that there are rewards in Heaven, but just what they are is hard to imagine. Heaven is a non-material realm and so rewards cannot be riches or possessions, which in any event Jesus cautions against (Matthew 6:19-20). In a similar way, Jesus taught and modelled that in terms of office or position the ‘greater’ was the servant of all (John 13:12-17). However, in his parables, Jesus indicated that there would be levels of service and responsibility in Heaven (Matthew 25:21 and 19:28) so there are some forms of differentiation in the after-life.
A big idea implied in these and other texts is that rewards and responsibilities are not carrots to entice us to follow Jesus but simply glimpses into a future glorious reality.
In 1 Corinthians 2:9 Paul wrote that ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’. Just after making this statement, he wrote that God reveals these things to us Spirit to spirit, so I guess that instead of intellectualising these things we need to receive them spiritually and intuitively.
Concerning further learning in the afterlife, I am not at all sure, but I don’t think that intellectual study will have much if any part in Heaven. Jesus, Paul, and others made it clear that knowing the Lord is more important than knowing about him. Paul wrote: ‘I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better (Ephesians 1:17). Then there is that wonderful statement in 1 Corinthians 13:12 ‘Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known’. Many years ago, I sat with a group of theologians and one of them asked the question: ‘When you get to Heaven, what will you ask Jesus?’ One man spoke passionately about how he was going to ask Jesus to explain all the hard to understand bits of the bible. I think he was a little peeved when I asked him, “Why would you discuss scripture when you are standing in the presence of the Living Word who is its subject”
Heaven is a dimension beyond our earthly dimensions of space and time. We, three-dimensional beings cannot adequately conceive of the glory of what lies beyond the grave. Shamayim is a good name for Heaven because it is a word that sounds so wonderful on the tongue, but which is so unknown to us. However, what we do know is that Jesus is in Heaven and has prepared a place for us (John 14:2), a place of glory, joy, singing, meaningful activity, and deep satisfaction.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (Revelation 22:20-21)