What do you think heaven will be like?
There are lots of ways people answer this question. If people believe in a life after death – and it’s important to acknowledge that an increasing number of people in our society think that there is nothing after we die – then our picture of what that life looks like can vary a lot from person to person.
When I was growing up in the church, the picture I had of heaven was a kingdom in the sky where we would be living in clouds, singing old hymns with a pipe organ in a vast heavenly choir. To be honest, as a teenager it didn’t sound like the kind of eternity I was hoping for. In fact, if heaven was singing old hymns for ever, I wasn’t actually sure I wanted to be a part of it.
Thankfully, Revelation 21:1-6 gives us a very different picture of heaven to what I had as a teenager. It tells us that in eternity ‘there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain’ (v4) because the brokenness of life in this world will be gone for ever. This is an eternity that we can all look forward to, as pain and suffering of every kind is eradicated once and for all.
What can be challenging for those of us who have grown up with the ‘heaven in the clouds’ picture of eternity is where John tells us we will spend the afterlife. Instead of being taken up to God’s kingdom in the sky, John says quite the opposite. He doesn’t see people going up into heaven. John sees heaven come down to earth.
In Revelation 21:2, John writes ‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven’ (NLT). He then goes on to tell us,
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.’ (v3 NLT)
John locates our eternity on earth, not in the clouds. I understand that the Bible gives the impression of heaven being ‘up there’ in passages such as Jesus’ ascension (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9) and when Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica about Jesus’ return on the last day (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17). I don’t believe that these writers contradict each other because sometimes the Bible describes the same truth from different points of view. John’s perspective, as he relates his vision of eternity to us, is that God’s kingdom will descend to earth and God will establish his eternal reign, restoring the world to the way God intended it from the beginning.
In the next two chapters of Revelation, John gives us a fuller picture of what eternity will be like. If you’re interested in his vision of heaven, please read Revelation chapters 21 and 22 and let me know if there’s anything in there you would like to discuss or aren’t sure about. For now, though, I just want to focus on the idea that heaven comes down to us and what that means for us as followers of Jesus as we live a life of faith.
For some Christians who have held to a ‘kingdom in the sky’ picture of eternity, the world doesn’t matter. They can see it as a broken and evil place which God will eventually destroy. This idea of the material world being corrupt and sinful has lead people to wrongly think that we don’t need to take care of the world and we can do nothing as we wait for God to take us somewhere better. So over the course of history, some ‘Christians’ have sat around, waiting for heaven to arrive, letting the world get worse and worse.
If, however, we take the message of John’s revelation seriously that God is making all things new (v5), then we need to start looking at the world around us through different eyes. If God’s plan of salvation includes restoring all of creation to its original condition, then we have a part of play in God’s plan. Jesus announced God’s coming kingdom at the start of his public ministry (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). Jesus’ miracles were evidence that God’s coming kingdom was breaking into the world through Jesus to make things right again. Every time we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, we ask that God’s kingdom would come to us and our world (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2). The coming of God’s kingdom isn’t just something that will happen at the end of time, which is the way some people read Revelation. God’s kingdom comes to us in Jesus now. He is the presence of the living God among us (Matthew 1:22,23) who makes his home with us (both John 1:14 and Revelation 21:3 use the same word when talking about God ‘tabernacling’ or dwelling with us).
While we wait for Jesus to return to establish his eternal kingdom, the heavenly city of the new Jerusalem, we have an important role to play in God’s mission to restore the world to its original condition. God’s kingdom of heaven is coming into the world right now, and one of the ways it does that is through us, the body of Christ. God is calling us to participate with him in making all things new as we live like citizens of this kingdom. In Revelation, John gives us a picture of our eternal future. As we wait for its fulfilment, God calls us to live like this is where we have our home, this is where we belong, and this is what we have to look forward to. Our job as the people of God is not to sit around, waiting for him to take us to heaven. Instead, God saves us and calls us to be citizens of the new Jerusalem, God’s presence in the world, making all things new, just like God intended life to be in Genesis 1.
How can you be part of God’s work in the world this week through what you say and do? How can you work with God in bringing his heavenly city into your homes, where you work, your schools and universities, your sporting or social groups, or wherever God might lead you? As people whose home is the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, we are part of its coming when we live now like we will live in eternity, trusting in God’s goodness and grace to us in Jesus and loving others in the same way he loves us. When we live in faith and love, we are part of God’s coming kingdom and we share in its coming reality now and for ever.
More to think about:
- What do you think heaven will be like? Spend some time reflecting on or discussing your thoughts. If you are more artistic, you might like to draw or paint what you imagine heaven to be like…
- What surprises you about what John sees in Revelation 21:1-6? What doesn’t seem to make sense?
- What is similar to what you imagine heaven to be like? What is different?
- What is you reaction to the picture of eternity being spent on a restored earth which God has made new where life will be what he intended from the beginning? What do you like about that picture? What doesn’t sit comfortably with you?
- If this is how we can view eternity, how might it change the way you see the world around you? Is it worth restoring? Share your thoughts on why you think that…
- If we will spend eternity in a world which God has restored to its original condition, how might you be able to work with God in making ‘all things new’… in your home & family? in your paid or unpaid work? in your relationships? in your church? in the wider community? in other ways…?