The 1998 movie What Dreams May Come portrays Heaven as beautiful but lonely, because a man’s wife isn’t there. Remarkably, someone else is entirely absent from the movie’s depiction of Heaven: God.
That movie’s viewpoint mirrors numerous contemporary approaches to Heaven which either leave God out or put him in a secondary role.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a best-selling novel by Mitch Albom, portrays a man who feels lonely and unimportant. He dies, goes to Heaven, and meets five people who tell him his life really mattered. He discovers forgiveness and acceptance, all without God and without Christ as the object of saving faith.
Five People portrays a Heaven that isn’t about God and our relationship with him, but only about human beings and our relationships with each other. A Heaven where humanity is the cosmic center, and God plays a supporting role. The Bible knows nothing of this pseudo-Heaven.
Numerous people claim to have gone to Heaven and seen loved ones and also Jesus, yet almost never do they react as the “beloved disciple,” the apostle John, did: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
Surely no one who had actually been in Heaven would neglect to mention what Scripture shows is its main focus. If you had spent an evening dining with a king, you wouldn’t just talk about the place settings! When John was shown Heaven and wrote about it, he recorded the details—but first and foremost, from beginning to end, he kept talking about Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb, with infinite gravitas and beauty.
Jesus promised his disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3). For Christians, to die is to “be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8, NKJV). The apostle Paul says, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians1:23). He could have said, “I desire to depart and be in Heaven,” but he didn’t—his mind was on being with Jesus.
Heaven without God would be like a honeymoon without a groom or a palace without a king. Teresa of Avila said, “Wherever God is, there is Heaven.” The corollary: Wherever God is not, there is Hell.
The presence of God is the essence of Heaven. John Milton put it, “Thy presence makes our Paradise, and where Thou art is Heaven.” Heaven will be a physical extension of God’s goodness.
Samuel Rutherford said, “O my Lord Jesus Christ, if I could be in heaven without thee, it would be a hell; and if I could be in hell, and have thee still, it would be a heaven to me, for thou art all the heaven I want.” To be with God—to know him, to see him—is the central, irreducible draw of Heaven.
The best part of Heaven on the New Earth will be enjoying God’s presence. He’ll actually dwell among us (Revelation 21:3-4). Just as the Holy of Holies contained the dazzling presence of God in ancient Israel, so will the New Jerusalem contain his presence. The New Earth’s greatest miracle will be our continual, unimpeded access to the God of everlasting splendor and perpetual delight.
What is the essence of eternal life? “That they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The best part of Heaven will be knowing and enjoying God.
Sam Storms writes, “We will constantly be more amazed with God, more in love with God, and thus ever more relishing his presence and our relationship with him. Our experience of God will never reach its consummation. …It will deepen and develop, intensify and amplify, unfold and increase, broaden and balloon.”
Because He is beautiful beyond measure, if we knew nothing more than that Heaven was God’s dwelling place, it would be more than enough to make us long to be there.
Of course we will enjoy all the secondary gifts God gives us, but they will be derivative of God Himself, and our happiness in them will be happiness in him. Jonathan Edwards said, “The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things…but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them.”
“They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:8-9). This passage portrays the joy that God’s creatures find in feasting on Heaven’s abundance, and drinking deeply of his delights. Notice that this river of delights flows from and is completely dependent on its source: God. He alone is the fountain of life, and without Him there could be neither life nor abundance and delights.
We may imagine we want a thousand different things, but God is the one we really long for. “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). God’s presence brings satisfaction; his absence brings thirst and longing.
Our longing for Heaven is a longing for God—a longing that involves not only our inner beings, but also our bodies. Being with God is the heart and soul of Heaven. Every other heavenly pleasure will derive from and be secondary to his presence.
All our explorations and adventures and projects in the eternal Heaven—and I believe there will be many—will pale in comparison to the wonder of being with God and entering into his happiness. Yet everything else we do will help us to know and worship God better.
God’s greatest gift to us is now, and always will be, nothing less than himself.
For more on eternity, browse Randy’s books on Heaven.