Finally & Forever
According to an ABC News poll on heaven…
- 90% people in the U.S. say they believe in heaven
- 75% think they’ll go to heaven.
- 21% think that only Christians can go to heaven
- 60% think both Christians and non-Christians can get in
The belief in the afterlife has been a part of every culture in human history. Australian aborigines pictured heaven as a distant island beyond the western horizon. Ancient Mexican cultures believed that they went to the sun or the moon after death. In the pyramids of Egypt, the embalmed bodies had maps placed beside them as guides to the future world. The Romans believed that the righteous would picnic in the Elysian Fields, while their horses grazed nearby. Every civilization contemplates the afterlife because as the world’s wisest man King Solomon told us in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “God has set eternity within our hearts.”
For followers of Jesus Christ, heaven has especially been hard-wired into our hearts. The longing, the expectation, and the hope that the great Story of God will reach the final and forever conclusion, and the hope that the end of the story is actually the beginning of another story, the story of eternity. As followers of Jesus, we live with the hope of heaven. But there’s a question that we need to probe: Why do we live with the hope of heaven?
What makes heaven so heavenly? How does a future in heaven shape life in the now? This is the last message in The Story of God. And this is the end. But it’s also a new beginning. We are going to focus in on the last two chapters of the story in Revelation 21-22. We are going to walk through some of the passages in these last two chapters, and then we’ll come to some implications and conclusions as we answer our big question: why do we live with the hope of heaven?
The vision of heaven is given as the climax to the Revelation of Jesus Christ and the story of God to overwhelm and encourage Christ-followers with the hope that heaven is heavenly because God is there and the people of God are with Him finally, fully, and forever.
Revelation 20:11-15. Before we get to the grand vision of heaven that the Apostle John gives in chapter 21-22, we need to talk about the moment that leads up to eternity–the moment of final judgment. In this moment of judgment, which has eternal implications for the afterlife, before we talk about heaven, we need to talk about the other place: Hell.
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
In the final and great judgment of God, the unrepentant (those that chose to go their own way) are ultimately judged and banished away from God by their own choice. Those that persevered, worshiped, and followed God through the Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. They get to look forward to the coming glory of heaven.
v. 12 – all the living and the dead are judged according to their names being found or not found in the book of life. It says that they are judged according to their deeds. Once again, salvation and eternal destiny are not determined by works. The people don’t get in because they did a bunch of good stuff. But the deeds here are the irrefutable evidence of a person’s actual relationship with God. Salvation is always by faith, but faith is inevitably revealed by the works and deeds it produces. The point here, the “pastoral purpose” of this section is that you want your name written in the book of life because if it’s not, then you spend an eternity in hell.
Theological “excursion” (and explanation): Hell. Hell is a necessary implication to human freedom. God loves us in the sense that He doesn’t violate human significance, freedom, and dignity. The freedom of our will is part of what it means to be human, what it means to choose. God could force us to follow and worship Him, but in His love and grace, He doesn’t “force” us because we would no longer be us. We’d be “puppets.” Hell is an informed choice. Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into eternity.
4 Views on Hell
(For a more in-depth study on Hell see YouAskedForIt #5: What Happens in the End?)
Literal. The images of the burning lake of fire with the overpowering stench of sulfur predominate (Revelation 19:20), and those who take this view literally see hell as a lake of fire. The descriptions of hell in the gospels from the mouth of Jesus have this picture in mind. And the literalist believes that the suffering and ultimate separation from God is eternal (forever and ever – Revelation 20:10).
Metaphorical. Those that hold to a metaphorical view still see to hell as a place of frightful judgment and suffering, but they are not bound to take the imagery of fire literally. The flames of the fire are symbolic and metaphorical. But hell is still a real place of profound misery where the unrepentant rebels are banished from the presence of God. And once again, the metaphorical view sees hell as a place of eternal, conscious punishment and suffering.
Purgatorial. The Roman Catholic tradition teaches that part of hell is a place of purification after death. That it is a place to continue the work of purging and cleansing, and those who are fully cleansed get to leave and then go to heaven. Nowhere in the Scriptures (apart from apocryphal texts that Protestant churches don’t recognize as authoritative) do we see any reference to hell as a purgatorial place.
Annihilation (Conditional Immortality). The unrepentant, rebellious wicked will not endure an eternal hell. Annihilationist believe that there will be a hell, but their argument is more over the nature of hell. They will simply be extinguished. “Immortality” is conditional. Go to heaven and live forever. Go to hell and lights out forever.
I personally believe that the literal and metaphorical views are more acceptable. Both hold that “forever means forever,” apart from the literal specifics of the nature of hell, both views still contains the horrible reality of an eternal separation from God. The purgatorial view has no Scriptural grounds. The annihilation position doesn’t seem to deal with the nature of “forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). It sees that the extinguishing is forever, but the Scriptures seem to point to the reality that the experience of suffering eternal separation from God is forever. Whatever the case is, hell is an awful place. It’s the very real personification of the consequences of rejecting God and His way. And part of the horror of hell is to get us to repent and get on the right side of eternity in heaven.
So let’s take a look at the vision of heaven.
Revelation 21. We are given a window into the glory of a new creation and a new beginning, and most importantly, we see the heart of the One who restores and recreates all things. We see the promise and the beauty of heaven.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new ” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. “He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. (Revelation 21:1-7)
v. 1 – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…” This is the essence of reCreation. The word “new” (kainos in Greek) means something “fresh, new in contrast to something old.” What is old has become obsolete by what is new and superior in kind. “The first heaven and earth passed away.” “And there is no longer any sea.” The sea in the Bible is a place of chaos, and even a place of evil and death. That is why when we see pictures of the throne of God, the sea is like glass. There are no waves. All is calm. All is at peace and perfection. We don’t know definitively whether this earth is “destroyed” and recreated or fully restored to God’s original creational intent. The point is that we do finally come full circle in the story of God… from creation to re-creation.
v. 2 – “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down our of heaven from God.” Jerusalem (Zion) is metaphorically seen throughout the Bible as the dwelling place of God.
As John sees a vision of heaven, there are three key things that grab him and should grab us:
The Presence of God: v. 3 – “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.” The idea of “tabernacle” (literally, “the dwelling place”) is that God is among His people. In this picture of heaven, the dwelling of the God-head with redeemed humanity is forever, unending, a perfect face to face communion with God Himself.
The Promise of God: vv. 4-5 – when God is among His people, pain and brokenness is ultimately gone and it is replaced with promise and beauty. He will remove all the pain and the brokenness, and His promise is that “He is making all things new.” This hope of the future shapes the now. God has promised that He will rescue us from the clutches of sin and He will do something new in our lives.
The Power of God: v. 6 – It very important to see that the promise of God is grounded in His sovereign power (“the Alpha and the Omega”). He says, “It is done.” He is the One who has finally, fully, and forever brought the story to this grand and glorious conclusion and this great new beginning into eternity. In His infinite power, He is the God who creates and who re-creates.
Revelation 22. There’s one more part of this vision that is important.
Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
vv. 1-2 – Heaven is a place of pure, unending life as represented by the stream of living water (v. 1) and the tree of life (v. 2).
The water of life (living water) – the background is from Ezekiel 47 where the prophet Ezekiel sees a picture of water flowing from the temple of God, nourishing the trees of life that produce leaves and fruit of healing.
The tree of life – there is an image of either one tree of life or a grove of trees along the banks of the river of living water. The tree of life goes all the way back to Genesis 2:9 (we’ll talk more about that in a minute), and the image of the tree(s) of life is given to remind us that heaven is a place of life to the fullest–the way it’s supposed to be.
vv. 3-4 – The curse is finally and ultimately reversed, and the people of God have unhindered access to their God. There is no more pain, no more brokenness, no more sin and selfishness, no more shame. As a result the people of God have an intimate, unhindered access to the Creator God through serving and worshiping Him.
v. 5 – In Heaven, the glory of God (light) gives life and restores God’s original creational intent of humanity as “vice-regents” of creation.
The conclusion of the story is really a new beginning and it reveals to us and reminds us of the very first verse of the great story: “in the beginning God.” From beginning to end, this is the story of the God who creates and re-creates for His glory and for our good.
The question that I’ve been wrestling as I’ve pondered heaven is why is heaven heavenly? Why do we live with this hope of heaven? What is the importance of heaven in our understanding of God, the gospel, and the larger story of God? So here’s the “limited” finite conclusion that I’ve come to. By limited and finite, I mean that I’m a limited and finite human trying to understand and grasp the infinite glory of heaven. Heaven is finally, fully, and forever three things…
#1 Him. Bottom line… heaven is heavenly because Jesus Christ is there. John Piper in his God is the Gospel says this.
If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you every liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there? People who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God.
Heaven is heavenly not because there will be no more death, mourning, and pain. Heaven is heavenly not because we will be reunited with our loved ones who followed Jesus while they were here on earth. Heaven is heavenly not because we won’t struggle with life the way we have struggled here on earth. Heaven is heavenly because He is there. Pure and simple. God is the gospel. God is the good news. God is the reward.
We’ve got to readjust our view of heaven. The point of heaven is not a place–it’s a Person. Are there descriptions of the “physicality” of heaven? Yes. But the overwhelming picture of heaven is the very presence of God. It seems like when we long for heaven as a place (more than a person), we try to recreate some little slice of heaven here because we think we can somewhat recreate a place, the perfect home, the perfect vacation spot in Hawaii or whatever your version of little heaven is. But when heaven is viewed more as a Person than a place, not only are we reminded that the promise and beauty of heaven is the presence of God, but we also realize that we actually can taste a bit of heaven right now through the presence of Christ with us through the Holy Spirit. Heaven is foremost finally, fully, and forever Him!
#2 Healing. Now with the first point of “Him” being established, there are the gifts of heaven–final, full, and forever healing being one of the best gifts. The reality of living on this side of eternity is that we know things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be… from broken bodies, to broken hearts, to broken relationships. There is something within us that longs for the day when all of that brokenness is finally, fully, and forever healed. There are two aspects of healing that we’ll experience in heaven. (1) Individual, personal healing. We will experience that individual healing that we long for: physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological. No more pain, no more sorrow, no more death we are told in Revelation 21:3-4. And (2) Collective, corporate humanity will be healed. Part of the ravaging of sin is that human culture is collectively broken because of the amassing of sinful, selfish people. That individual selfishness is magnified when people get together in cultures and nations. And that is finally, fully, and forever healed and reversed in heaven. Revelation 22:2 mentions the “healing of the nations.” As individuals are finally, fully, and forever healed, human culture collectively and cooperatively is healed as all people, all tribes, all tongues, and all nations will finally, fully, and forever worship God. What a day of healing that will be.
#3 Hope. One last thing that heaven is finally, fully, and forever–hope. Hope of life with Jesus is finally, fully, and forever fulfilled. That fullness of life that we’ve begun to experience here with Christ will come to full fruition for eternity. The hope of the fullness of life in heaven for the future is to encourage us to keep pressing into Jesus in the now. That’s always what hope does. Eugene Peterson in his Living the Message tells us:
Hope is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion of fantasy to protect us from our boredom and our pain. It means a confident alert expectation that God will do what He said He will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let him do it in his way and in his time… The way we conceive the future sculpts the present, gives contour and tone to nearly every action and thought throughout the day. If our sense of future is weak, we live listlessly… so charge every moment of the present with hope.
So we live with hope today… and when we see Jesus face to face in heaven, that hope will be fulfilled… heaven is finally, fully, and forever hope fulfilled.