When asked if we would recognize friends in Heaven, George MacDonald responded, “Shall we be greater fools in Paradise than we are here?”
Yet many people wonder whether we’ll know each other in Heaven. What lies behind that question is Christoplatonism and the false assumption that in Heaven we’ll be disembodied spirits who lose our identities and memories. How does someone recognize a spirit?
However, these assumptions are unbiblical. Christ’s disciples recognized him countless times after his resurrection. They recognized him on the shore as he cooked breakfast for them (John 21:1-14). They recognized him when he appeared to a skeptical Thomas (John 20:24-29). They recognized him when he appeared to five hundred people at once (1 Corinthians 15:6).
But what about Mary at the garden tomb or the two men on the road to Emmaus? They didn’t recognize Jesus. Some people have argued from this that Jesus was unrecognizable. But a closer look shows otherwise.
Jesus said to Mary in the garden, “‘Woman . . . why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him’ ” (John 20:15).
Distressed, teary-eyed Mary, knowing Jesus was dead, and not making eye contact with a stranger, naturally assumed he was the gardener. But as soon as Jesus said her name, she recognized him: “She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher)” (John 20:16).
Some commentators emphasize that the disciples on the Emmaus road didn’t recognize Jesus. But notice what the text says: “As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:15-16, emphasis added). God miraculously intervened to keep them from recognizing him. The implication is that apart from supernatural intervention, the men would have recognized Jesus, as they did later: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (Luke 24:31).
Another indication that we’ll recognize people in Heaven is Christ’s transfiguration. Christ’s disciples recognized the bodies of Moses and Elijah, even though the disciples couldn’t have known what the two men looked like (Luke 9:29-33). This may suggest that personality will emanate through a person’s body, so we’ll instantly recognize people we know of but haven’t previously met. If we can recognize those we’ve never seen, how much more will we recognize our family and friends?
Scripture gives no indication of a memory wipe causing us not to recognize family and friends. Paul anticipated being with the Thessalonians in Heaven, and it never occurred to him he wouldn’t know them. In fact, if we wouldn’t know our loved ones, the “comfort” of an afterlife reunion, taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18, would be no comfort at all. J. C. Ryle said of this passage, “There would be no point in these words of consolation if they did not imply the mutual recognition of saints. The hope with which he cheers wearied Christians is the hope of meeting their beloved friends again. . . . But in the moment that we who are saved shall meet our several friends in heaven, we shall at once know them, and they will at once know us.”
The continuity of our resurrection minds and bodies argues that we’ll have no trouble recognizing each other—in fact, we’ll have much less trouble. In Heaven we probably won’t fail to recognize an acquaintance in a crowd, or forget people’s names.
Missionary Amy Carmichael had strong convictions on this question:
Shall we know one another in Heaven? Shall we love and remember?
I do not think anyone need wonder about this or doubt for a single moment. We are never told we shall, because, I expect, it was not necessary to say anything about this which our own hearts tell us. We do not need words. For if we think for a minute, we know. Would you be yourself if you did not love and remember? . . . We are told that we shall be like our Lord Jesus. Surely this does not mean in holiness only, but in everything; and does not He know and love and remember? He would not be Himself if He did not, and we should not be ourselves if we did not.
Photo credit: pfiesta via sxc.hu