Imagine you’ve just folded a mountain of clean laundry (you’ve done this before, yes?) and the entire assembly of neatly arranged items – jeans in one pile, t-shirts stacked in perfect folds, socks sorted and tucked into pairs – was dumped into a massive heap, everything helter skelter.
That’s how it felt when I read the truth about heaven. Not that I mind knowing just what God has in store for us. This is critical information, and it’s far more important than ever getting the laundry arranged right.
But when you’ve been doing something one way for so long, doesn’t it stop you in your tracks and leave you bewildered as to what your next move should be? I mean, you’ve always done the laundry that way.
Perhaps many of us have done our laundry—and our thinking on heaven—in a less methodical, organized fashion. We don’t give it much thought. It is what it is. Laundry: Washed, slapped together, tucked away, done.
Heaven: Be good, die without regrets, enter heaven, end of story.
Not exactly. Turns out there is a step missing in there (not to mention a whole lot of other variable tidbits, but this short post is about heaven, so we’ll focus on that for now). Right where you die, in fact.
What do you mean—don’t tell me I’m not going to spend eternity with God?
I would never tell anyone that, since that’s between you and God. I do want to tell you something singular and profound about where you’re going. And if it contradicts what you’ve bought into previously, then join the club.
The good news is you can spend hours reading about it and thoroughly acquainting yourself with all the historical research and theology that N.T. Wright shares in his book Surprised By Hope. He won’t disappoint you.
So what is heaven?
In the very beginning of his book, he wrote something that justified my obsession with eternity (and the resulting obsession with collecting and making angel wings). On page six, in the introduction, Wright says (bolded type is my own):
Nor is this a matter of simply sorting out what to believe about someone who has died or about one’s own probable postmortem destiny, important though both of those are. It’s a matter of thinking straight about God and his purposes for the cosmos and about what God is doing right now, already, as part of those purposes. From Plato to Hegel and beyond, some of the greatest philosophers declared that what you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else—and, indeed, that it provides one of the reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all.
Sweet elixir though this was, I did grow a bit frantic. Concerned as I am about eternity and how it all works, I needed to know. What really happens when you die?
So I began to flip pages. Only when I found the crux of the matter could I then relax and really concentrate on reading.
Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.
But that’s not the mind-jolting half of it. What this means is “we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.”
The key point to note is “not ransomed souls…to a disembodied heaven.” We won’t be in heaven as pure spirits; we are meant to fulfill the main theme, the pièce de résistance, of the New Testament. What happened to Jesus on the first Easter is to happen to all of us. All who join Him will enter heaven with our new, transformed, resurrected bodies, just as Jesus revealed to us with His own resurrected body when he died and rose again.
Wright explains all this at length, basing much of it not only on scripture but on Jewish beliefs at the time and early Christian beliefs.
I know what you’re thinking. What happens in between the time you die and the time the new heaven and earth is made into God’s kingdom “coming on earth as it is in heaven?”
Wright admits little is known about that based on scripture, but again, based on the evidence to hand (including his studies of the ancient world), early Christians spoke of heaven as “a postmortem stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body.”
And that when Paul says he desires “to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Phil. 1:23) he is thinking of this blissful, intermediary stage between death and the bodily resurrection. The Christian departed are all in the same state of “restful happiness,” where your body is asleep (meaning it’s dead) while the real you continues on.
Until the final destiny of bodily resurrection occurs, the dead are “held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day.”
There’s more on how we aren’t angels, but made equal to angels, and the dubious waiting period we call Purgatory. (Oh, man, I need to revisit that notion in a big way.) The truth about what is heaven is that it’s life after life after death.
And here’s the very best part: what this all means right now. What do we do with our knowing of the ultimate space, time and matter—for it’s the whole cosmos that will be transformed, not just our bodies—as being renewed and taken up into God’s greater purposes?
It’s important to know that what you do now in the Lord is not in vain.
You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world… what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there. I have no idea what precisely this will mean in practice. I am offering a signpost , not offering a photograph of what we will find once we get to where the signpost is pointing.
The joy beckons. What will you make of your travels in this earthly plane? Will you promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate? Will you allow yourself to encounter the Holy Spirit? Will you find God through His angels?
Will you be able to say, in your life after life after death, above all things, I have loved? For now we see through a glass, darkly, yet daily we are surprised by hope. The hope of heaven as we meet our destiny through love right now.
For there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).
I will go where He goes. Want to come?
“God Is Here” – Revealing Jesus, by Darlene Zschech