What is the essence of heaven?...[It is the] beatific vision, love, and enjoyment of the triune God. For the three divine persons have an infinitely perfect vision and love and enjoyment of the divine essence and of one another. And in this infinite knowing, loving and enjoying lies the very life of the triune God, the very essence of their endless and infinite happiness. If the blessed are to be endlessly and supremely happy, then, they must share in the very life of the triune God, in the divine life that makes them endlessly and infinitely happy. — E. J. Fortman
Have you ever—in prayer or corporate worship or during a walk on the beach—for a few moments experienced the very presence of God? It’s a tantalizing encounter, yet for most of us it tends to disappear quickly in the distractions of life. What will it be like to behold God’s face and never be distracted by lesser things? What will it be like when every lesser thing unfailingly points us back to God?
Today, many Christians have come to depreciate or ignore the beatific vision, supposing that beholding God would be of mere passing interest, becoming monotonous over time. But those who know God know that he is anything but boring. Seeing God will be dynamic, not static. It will mean exploring new beauties, unfolding new mysteries—forever. We’ll explore God’s being, an experience delightful beyond comprehension. The sense of wide-eyed wonder we see among Heaven’s inhabitants in Revelation 4-5 suggests an ever-deepening appreciation of God’s greatness. That isn’t all there is to Heaven, but if it were, it would be more than enough.
The bestselling book The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom, is one of many examples of the modern distortion of “Heaven” in which God plays a minor role or no role at all. (Another example is the Robin Williams movie, “What Dreams May Come.”) But a Heaven without God is a contradiction in terms. It is the presence of God that defines Heaven, and infuses it with wonder and joy. Without God, there is no Heaven, but only Hell.
While some people have failed to focus on God as the central joy of Heaven, others have minimized Heaven, stating that we should long for God, but not for Heaven. They suggest it is unspiritual to look forward to the secondary joys Heaven will offer us. This too is wrong, as we’ll see.
In Heaven, we’ll be at home with the God we love and who loves us wholeheartedly. Lovers don’t bore each other. People who love God could never be bored in his presence. Remember, the members of the triune Godhead exist in eternal relationship with each other. To see God is to participate in the infinite delight of their communion. And all else God blesses us with, both in the intermediate Heaven and on the New Earth, will draw us closer to the God we love, who is the center of gravity of the entire universe.
Most people know that we’ll worship God in Heaven. But they don’t grasp how thrilling that will be. Multitudes of God’s people—of every nation, tribe, people, and language—will gather to sing praise to God for his greatness, wisdom, power, grace, and mighty work of redemption (Revelation 5:13-14). Overwhelmed by his magnificence, we will fall on our faces in unrestrained happiness and say, “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” (Revelation 7:9-12).
People of the world are always striving to celebrate—they just lack ultimate reasons to celebrate (and therefore find lesser reasons). As Christians, we have those reasons—our relationship with Jesus and the promise of Heaven. “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:3). Does this excite you? If it doesn’t, you’re not thinking correctly.
Will we always be engaged in worship? Yes and no. If we have a narrow view of worship, the answer is no. But if we have a broad view of worship, the answer is yes. As Cornelius Venema explains, worship in Heaven will be all-encompassing: “No legitimate activity of life—whether in marriage, family, business, play, friendship, education, politics, etc.—escapes the claims of Christ’s kingship. ...Certainly those who live and reign with Christ forever will find the diversity and complexity of their worship of God not less, but richer, in the life to come. Every legitimate activity of new creaturely life will be included within the life of worship of God’s people.”
Will we always be on our faces at Christ’s feet, worshiping him? No, because Scripture says we’ll be doing many other things—living in dwelling places, eating and drinking, reigning with Christ, and working for him. Scripture depicts people standing, walking, traveling in and out of the city, and gathering at feasts. When doing these things, we won’t be on our faces before Christ. Nevertheless, all that we do will be an act of worship. We’ll enjoy full and unbroken fellowship with Christ. At times this will crescendo into greater heights of praise as we assemble with the multitudes who are also worshiping him.
Worship involves more than singing and prayer. I often worship God while reading a book, riding a bike, or taking a walk. I’m worshiping him now as I write. Yet too often I’m distracted and fail to acknowledge God along the way. In Heaven, God will always be first in my thinking. Even now, we’re told, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). That God expects us to do many other things, such as work, rest, and be with our families, shows that we must be able to be joyful, pray, and give thanks while doing other things.
Have you ever spent a day or several hours when you sensed the presence of God as you hiked, worked, gardened, drove, read, or did the dishes? Those are foretastes of Heaven—not because we are doing nothing but worshiping, but because we are worshiping God as we do everything else.
Once we see God as he really is, no one will need to beg, threaten, or shame us into praising him. We will overflow in gratitude and praise! We are created to worship God. There’s no higher pleasure. At times we’ll lose ourselves in praise, doing nothing but worshiping him. At other times we’ll worship him when we build a cabinet, paint a picture, cook a meal, talk with an old friend, take a walk, or throw a ball.
Some subjects become less interesting over time. Others become more fascinating. Nothing is more fascinating than God. The deeper we probe into his being, the more we want to know. One song puts it this way: “As eternity unfolds, the thrill of knowing Him will grow.”
We’ll never lose our fascination for God as we get to know him better. The thrill of knowing him will never subside. The desire to know him better will motivate everything we do. To imagine that worshiping God could be boring is to impose on Heaven our bad experiences of so-called worship. Satan is determined to make church boring, and when it is, we assume Heaven will be also. But church can be exciting, and worship exhilarating. That’s what it will be in Heaven. We will see God and understand why the angels and other living creatures delight to worship him.
Have you known people who couldn’t be boring if they tried? Some people are just fascinating. It seems I could listen to them forever. But not really. Eventually, I’d feel as if I’d gotten enough. But we can never get enough of God. There’s no end to what he knows, no end to what he can do, no end to who he is. He is mesmerizing to the depths of his being, and those depths will never be exhausted. No wonder those in Heaven always redirect their eyes to him—they don’t want to miss anything.
At times throughout the day, as I work in my office, I find myself on my knees thanking God for his goodness. When I eat a meal with my wife, talk with a friend, or take our dog for a walk, I worship God for his goodness. The world is full of praise-prompters—the New Earth will overflow with them. I’ve found great joy in moments where I’ve been lost in worship—many of them during church services—but they’re too fleeting. If you’ve ever had a taste of true worship, you crave more of it, never less.
“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-20). The music we make isn’t congregational singing. It’s in our hearts and in our daily lives. Has someone ever done something for you that makes you so grateful that you just can’t stop saying thank you? This is how we should feel about God.
The holiness of God that overwhelmed Isaiah will be utterly engrossing to hearts made holy. J. C. Ryle writes, “Without holiness on earth, we shall never be prepared to enjoy heaven. Heaven is a holy place, the Lord of heaven is a holy being, the angels are holy creatures. Holiness is written on everything in heaven....How shall we ever be at home and happy in heaven if we die unholy?”
In Heaven, worshiping God won’t be restricted to a time posted on a sign, telling us when to start and stop. It will permeate our lives, energize our bodies, and fuel our imaginations.
Jonathan Edwards said of people in Heaven, “As they increase in the knowledge of God and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency; and the more they see of his excellency...the more will they love him; and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness...will they have in him.”
We must distinguish the biblical promise of seeing God from the beliefs of Buddhism, Hinduism, or New Age mysticism, in which individuality is obliterated or assimilated into Nirvana. Though God will be absorbing, we will not be absorbed by him. Though we may feel lost in God’s immensity, we will not lose our identity when we see him. Instead, we will find it. “Whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
“The people of God will not be absorbed into or partake in an immediate way of the being of God,” writes Cornelius Venema. “God’s people will see him without any of the sinful limitations of the present. No sin-induced stupor, no failure of hearing, no blindness of vision will obscure the beauty of God from their knowledge.”
We will not know God exhaustively, but we will know him accurately. We will no longer twist and distort the truth about God.
Some have portrayed the beatific vision as a pursuit in which every person seeks God individually. It is characteristic of our Western cultural independence that we think of Heaven in highly individualized ways. But God also views us corporately, as Christ’s bride, as part of a great eternal community in which we’ll love our Lord together and undertake cooperative pursuits for his glory. We will always be individuals, but Heaven will not be a place of individualism.
We aren’t individual brides of Christ; we are collectively the bride of Christ. Christ is not a polygamist. He will be married to one bride, not millions. We belong to each other and need each other. We should guard not only our own purity, but each other’s. We are our brother’s keeper.
The fact that countless professing Christians are not part of a local church testifies to our over-individualized spirituality. Scripture teaches that we need each other and should not withdraw from each other’s fellowship, instruction, or accountability. It’s unbiblical to imagine that we can successfully seek God on our own (Hebrews 10:25). Because we will be part of a community of saints that constitutes the bride of Christ for eternity, and because we will worship and serve him together, to prepare properly for Heaven we must be part of a church now.
A man said to a few of us at a gathering, “I find myself longing for Heaven.” After he left, someone said to me, “Shouldn’t he be longing for God, not Heaven?” This may sound spiritual, but is it? Scripture speaks positively of “longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). Indeed, the next verse tells us of those people who long for Heaven, “therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God because he has prepared a city for them.”
I don’t know the man’s heart, but his statement was biblically warranted and commendable. The right kind of longing for Heaven is a longing for God, and longing for God is longing for Heaven. If we understand what Heaven is (God’s dwelling place) and who God is, we will see no conflict between the two. A woman who longs to be reunited with her husband could well say, “I just want to go home.”
I’m often asked the following question in various ways: “Why talk about Heaven when we can just talk about Jesus?” The answer is that the two go together. We were made for a person (Christ) and a place (Heaven). There is no rivalry between Christ and Heaven.
Any bride in love with her husband wants to be with him more than anything. But if he goes away to build a beautiful place for her, won’t she get excited about it? Won’t she think and talk about that place? Of course. Moreover, he wants her to! If he tells her, “I’m going to prepare a place for you,” he’s implying, “I want you to look forward to it.” Her love and longing for the place he’s preparing—where she will live with him—is inseparable from her love and longing for her husband.
Some erroneously assume that the wonders, beauties, adventures, and marvelous relationships of Heaven must somehow be in competition with the one who has created them. God has no fear that we’ll get too excited about Heaven. After all, the wonders of Heaven aren’t our idea, they’re his. There’s no dichotomy between anticipating the joys of Heaven and finding our joy in Christ. It’s all part of the same package. The wonders of the new heavens and New Earth will be a primary means by which God reveals himself and his love to us.
Picture Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve says to Adam, “Isn’t this place magnificent? The sun feels wonderful on my face, the blue sky’s gorgeous. These animals are a delight. Try the mango—it’s delicious!”
Can you imagine Adam responding, “Your focus is all wrong, Eve. You shouldn’t think about beauty, refreshment, and mouthwatering fruit. All you should think about is God.”
Adam would never say that, because in thinking about these things, Eve would be thinking about God. Likewise, our enjoyment of what God has provided us should be inseparable from worshiping, glorifying, and appreciating him. God is honored by our thankfulness, gratitude, and enjoyment of him.
I’ve heard it said that “God, not Heaven, is our inheritance.” Well, God is our inheritance (Psalm 16:6), but so is Heaven (1 Peter 1:3-4). God and Heaven—the person and the place—are so closely connected that they’re sometimes referred to interchangeably. The Prodigal Son confessed, “I have sinned against heaven” (Luke 15:18, 21). John the Baptist said, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). Why didn’t he say God instead of Heaven? Because God has made himself that closely identified with Heaven. It’s his place. And that’s his idea, not ours. He could have offered us his person without his place. But he didn’t.
So, thinking about Heaven shouldn’t be viewed as an obstacle to knowing God but as a means of knowing Him. The infinite God reveals himself to us in tangible, finite expressions. Next to the incarnate Christ, Heaven will tell us more about God than anything else. Some people have told me, “I just want to be with Jesus—I don’t care if Heaven’s a shack.” Well, Jesus cares. He wants us to anticipate Heaven and enjoy the magnificence of it, not to say, “I don’t care about it” or “I’d be just as happy in a shack.” When you go to visit your parents in the house you grew up in, it’s no insult to tell them “I love this place.” It’s a compliment. They’ll delight in it, not resent it.
We must understand that all secondary joys, including all the secondary joys of our current life and our lives to come in Heaven, are derivative in nature. They cannot be separated from God. Flowers are beautiful for one reason—God is beautiful. Rainbows are stunning because God is stunning. Puppies are delightful because God is delightful. Sports are fun because God is fun. Study is rewarding because God is rewarding. Work is fulfilling because God is fulfilling.
Ironically, some people who are the most determined to avoid the sacrilege of putting things before God miss a thousand daily opportunities to thank him, praise him, and draw near to him, because they imagine they shouldn’t enjoy the very things he made to help us know him and love him.
God is a lavish giver. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). The God who gave us his Son delights to graciously give us “all things.” These “all things” are in addition to Christ, but they are never instead of him—they come, Scripture tells us, “along with him.” If we didn’t have Christ, we would have nothing. But because we have Christ, we have everything. Hence, we can enjoy the people and things God has made, and in the process enjoy the God who designed and provided them for his pleasure and ours.
God welcomes prayers of thanksgiving for meals, warm fires, games, books, relationships, and every other good thing. When we fail to acknowledge God as the source of all good things, we fail to give him the recognition and glory he deserves. We separate joy from God, which is like trying to separate heat from fire or wetness from rain.
Every thought of Heaven should move our hearts toward God, just as every thought of God will move our hearts toward Heaven. That’s why Paul could tell us to set our hearts “above” in Heaven, where Christ is, not just “set your hearts on God” (Colossians 3:1-2). To do one is to do the other.
If we think unworthy thoughts of Heaven, we think unworthy thoughts of God. That’s why the conventional caricatures of Heaven do a terrible disservice to God and adversely affect our relationship with him. If we come to love Heaven more—the Heaven God portrays in Scripture—we will inevitably love God more. If Heaven fills our hearts and minds, God will fill our hearts and minds.
The next time you’re tempted to think that God doesn’t want you to long for Heaven’s joys, remember that He commends his people who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one,” and because they long for Heaven “therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God because he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16-17).
Those who love God should think more often of Heaven, not less.