It’s been brought to my attention more than once how the common vision of heaven is far from the picture we get from careful study of the Bible. The popular ideas of heaven have us floating on clouds like we imagine angels do (which also aren’t very biblical in many cases). Or if not this extreme, at least we think of heaven as an existence in some spiritual realm. What if I told you that followers of Jesus won’t spend eternity in heaven? Does that shock you? Do you know that this is what the Bible tells us?
I found it interesting how N.T. Wright points out that in America, we seem to be much more interested in debating the nature of hell than we are heaven. I think that’s because the gospel of evangelicalism is that Jesus saves us from hell. At times it can seem that heaven is merely the alternative to hell. Put another way, I believe it’s telling that we don’t use “heaven” as a means of persuading people to follow Jesus so much as we often try to scare the hell out of them. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus himself warned people of judgement, using this as a means to persuade people. Yet his teaching wasn’t unbalanced. However, to me it’s often seemed like we don’t really have something good to offer people, we’re merely trying to scare them away from the bad. But in the long run, fear is a poorer motivator than desire.
In order to try and inspire you a new vision of “heaven”, I want to share the following story with you. (This story involves death and “heaven”; those emotionally sensitive be forewarned.)
As I lay there, I knew that I was drawing my last breaths. My mind was blurred—or was it just my vision? Thoughts raced through my head; people, memories flashing by. It was as though my eyes were darting back and forth trying to capture all these visions. Thoughts swirling around in a frenetic whirlpool…
I felt like I had been in this state forever when I became conscious that something was changing. I sensed that I was coming into a presence and began to feel calm. It wasn’t like I was actually seeing with my eyes, yet I felt luminosity surrounding me. I was safe, at peace…
I again became conscious of a change happening. How long had it been? It felt like millennia had passed, yet it seemed to be only a moment. I opened my eyes (I have eyes? again!) and looked around. It was warm, yet not too warm, and there was a gentle breeze blowing. It was like the most perfect day imaginable on earth, yet somehow richer. I was standing on a luscious green lawn, the sky was blue with a few wispy white clouds hanging about. There were picturesque trees here and there and neatly groomed hedges by a large wall.
I heard birds singing and saw some flying through the sky. As I looked around, I noticed many animals. However there weren’t just cats, dogs, squirrels and other kinds of animals I would have expected to see. No, this place was more like a zoo with animals of all sorts! There were horses, a giraffe, hedgehogs, a cheetah, some zebras, and—were those buffalo?! Yet these animals didn’t seem to be wild. I saw other people here too, a number of whom appeared to be tending to the animals. The people were brilliantly dressed, wearing brightly colored clothing of all colors and designs from every culture and time.
I realized that I was near a giant open gate through which people were entering what I somehow just understood to be a glorious city. “This must be heaven,” I mused. (Actually, it would be better called the new earth and new Jerusalem, but why trifle with the details now?)
“Hello brother!” I turned to see a man whom I’d never met before standing next to me with a big smile. He had apparently just walked up in order to greet me. “Are you heading in?” he asked, no doubt referring to the city.
“Yes” I replied before I had even thought about it. The next thing I knew we were walking through the gate and down what was appeared to be a main road in the city. There were people everywhere, yet it didn’t seem crowded. Some were walking one direction or another, others were standing about talking.
The architecture was amazing, as if the world’s best architects from all times through history had designed the various structures. That said, though this was a city, it wasn’t just endless buildings crammed together. Rather it could be called a city of parks and gardens. Every building was surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds. And in between these were parks full of trees, fountains, ponds, paths, flowers and the like.
“Brother,” I found myself saying, “where are we?”
“We are in Bethel, and most welcome here—this is our home where we live.”
“What are these buildings?”
“All sorts of things. There are art galleries, libraries, theaters, lecture halls, recital halls, studios, laboratories, arenas, restaurants, shops, and more.”
“What?! Do people work?”
My friend chuckled. “Yes. You are surprised! But it’s not the work you are thinking of. We work for the joy of doing what we are good at. Artists paint and sculpt, academics study and debate, athletes compete in various contests, chefs practice their culinary arts, authors write, inventors dream up new things, administrators plan and organize, mechanics tinker around, improving how things work and keep them running.”
As we were walking along talking, the man reached up and took a piece of fruit which was growing from one of the trees that lined the boulevard. “Here you are brother,” he said as he handed the fruit to me. I looked at it for a moment but before I had even thought about it I instinctively began to eat. As I did so, I was filled with the most incredible feeling. I looked around and everything appeared even brighter and clearer than ever before. I myself felt as though I was more alive than ever, as though I had my whole life only been half awake.
“Where do we live? I haven’t seen anything looking like a house.”
“Here! As I said, this is our home. I can see you are confused. We don’t need sleep, so we don’t need ‘a place to rest our head’.”
“There is no possession here, therefore we don’t need a space specifically for us, to keep ‘our’ things separate from others.” He must have seen the gears still turning in my head, trying to make sense of all this, because he continued. “There is no scarcity; there is plenty for everyone. It’s as it is written, ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.’ All our needs are taken care of, so we are free to do what we are meant to do.”
A woman approached and greeted us. “Brothers, it’s so wonderful to see you!” We stood and began to converse. I had started to pick up on the fact that everyone here called each other “brother” or “sister”. We all have names—though new ones here—and the new names are untranslatable into the old world.
After a while, I considered that this ought to be an awkward situation: myself with two persons unknown to me. Yet they didn’t feel like strangers, but rather I had complete trust in them as though I had known them forever. After a while more, I figured we would probably finish conversing and continue on our way (though I had not thought about nor did I have any idea what our destination would be). However my companions seemed to be in no rush whatsoever. I started to pick up on what life in this city was about. We talked and talked as though there were no tomorrow. In fact, I realized that it seemed to be no later in the day than when we met what must have been hours before.
I could fill volumes just giving the short story on my experiences after this. So I’ll only mention that I saw more wondrous things, was filled with beauty and awe, attended the great banquet (which continues perpetually), and was reunited with family and friends from the “old world”, as well as meeting a countless number of people with whom I had no previous acquaintance.