When I mention Heaven, what do you think of?
I’ve found that almost no two people will answer that question the same way. Descriptions of Heaven in the Bible are available, but don’t give a full picture. Those in Revelation in particular come across as not just feeling translated from a different language, but from a different race entirely. (Which, if you think about it, they are — since they attempt to describe a spiritual realm to us physical folk.) It’s an open question of how literally we should take the details of jeweled foundations, gold streets and trees that produce different fruits each month … though I have no doubt that an infinite and omnipotent God could produce these wonders and more if He was so inclined.
But most Christians, I’ve discovered, aren’t really fixated on the architectural and landscaping marvels of what will be their eternal home. No, other aspects have more appeal — and they’re usually intensely personal.
Steve Brown, the Bible teacher/professor/author/talk-show host, relates a description of Heaven given by the five-year-old daughter of one of his seminary students. She said that heaven will be a place “where you will never throw up … never have to brush your teeth … never get sick … live in a beautiful castle … see lots of pretty flowers … and no one will ever take your toys away.” That pretty much sums up the Platonic ideal of life for a kindergarten girl, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s a little shallow, but for crying out loud, she’s only five! It’s certainly better than the concept of Heaven given by Justine Bateman’s character in an episode of Family Ties — “the stores open at 10 a.m., and never close.” (A prospect that some people I know would revel in.)
But to some extent, all of our desires for Heaven have some degree of wish fulfillment. The late folksinger Rich Mullins (one of my heroes), in a song called “The Maker of Noses,” thought of it as a place where there will be no more war or starvation or discrimination, where “justice reigns and truth finally wins/its hard-fought war against fear and doubt”. Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel and a recovering alcoholic, has said he looks forward to drinking new wine with Jesus in His kingdom. Several singers of my acquaintance wax rhapsodic about worshipping God forever and ever, without stop. My wife (aka the Supermodel) has CMT, a disease that includes the progressive degeneration of the nerves in her legs; she has stated point-blank she plans to dance on those streets of gold in her new, imperishable (and optimally functioning) body.
And me? I’m longing for the day when God’s purifying of me will be finished, and I won’t ever sin again. (To a perfectionist, baby, THAT is Heaven!)
I’ve read Scripture and I believe my hope is legitimate. John the Apostle stated that “what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when He [Jesus] appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). Being like Jesus means, among other things, having no fallen nature, no propensity to sin. And Paul said of believers “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). So while it’s not done yet — not by a long shot! — it’s going to get done. I feel I’m on pretty solid theological ground here.
But then, so was Rich, and Brennan, and the Supermodel, and my singing friends. All of the things they mentioned are stated or implied in the Bible. It’s just that some aspects of what we’ve read have greater appeal to us than others, usually due to the deficiencies we see most glaringly in our fallen world (and our fallen selves). We all feel incomplete, disconnected, insufficient, not what we should be. Paul stated in Romans 8:23-25 that “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” I don’t know about patiently, but we’re certainly waiting for it. (Except Rich; he’s already there. The lucky duck …)
And yet — as Rich has no doubt discovered, and the rest of us will in time — it’s going to be so much more than anything we hope for. Scripture alludes to it in several ways, but also leaves the impression that there’s no way of truly describing it to us. It’s just too far beyond what the finite language of finite beings can handle. All we know for sure is that it won’t be like what we have now, that “the former things [will] have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Whatever we imagine now, trapped in these cages of time and space and imperfection, will I suspect be like a child’s drawing compared to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, multiplied by infinity. Because a God that spoke the universe into existence in a millisecond has reportedly been preparing Heaven for His people for about two thousand of our years. Don’t you think that would be something worth looking forward to?
And as John further said, “everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3). Which is good news for this perfectionist, lemme tell ya. But not as good, I expect, as the fulfillment of that hope will be …