What is the distinction between the intermediate (present) Heaven and the eternal Heaven (the New Earth)?
When a Christian dies, he or she enters into what theologians call the intermediate state, a transitional period between our past lives on Earth and our future resurrection to life on the New Earth. Usually when we refer to “Heaven,” we mean the place that Christians go when they die. When we tell our children “Grandma’s now in Heaven,” we’re referring to the intermediate Heaven.
By definition, an intermediate state or location is temporary. Life in the Heaven we go to when we die, where we’ll dwell prior to our bodily resurrection, is “better by far” than living here on Earth under the Curse, away from the direct presence of God (Philippians 1:23). Still, the intermediate Heaven is not our final destination. Though it will be a wonderful place, the intermediate Heaven is not the place we are made for. It’s not the place God promises to refashion for us to live in forever.
God’s children are destined for life as resurrected beings on a resurrected Earth. We must not lose sight of our true destination. If we do, we’ll be confused and disoriented in our thinking about where, and in what form, we will spend eternity.
Will we live in Heaven forever? The answer to the question depends on what we mean by Heaven. Will we be with the Lord forever? Absolutely. Since Heaven is where God dwells, we’ll always be in Heaven. But will we always be with God in exactly the same place that Heaven is now? No. In the intermediate Heaven, we’ll be in Christ’s presence, and we’ll be joyful, but we’ll be looking forward to our bodily resurrection and permanent relocation to the New Earth.
It bears repeating because it is so commonly misunderstood: When we die, believers in Christ will not go to the Heaven where we’ll live forever. Instead, we’ll go to an intermediate Heaven. In the intermediate Heaven, we’ll await the time of Christ’s return to the earth, our bodily resurrection, the final judgment, and the creation of the new heavens and New Earth. If we fail to grasp this truth, we will fail to understand the biblical doctrine of Heaven. Everything hinges on the resurrection. God does not abandon our bodies, nor does he abandon the earth itself.
It may seem strange to say that the Heaven we go to at death isn’t eternal, yet it’s true. “Christians often talk about living with God ‘in heaven’ forever,” Grudem writes. “But in fact the biblical teaching is richer than that: it tells us that there will be new heavens and a new earth—an entirely renewed creation—and we will live with God there....There will also be a new kind of unification of heaven and earth....There will be a joining of heaven and earth in this new creation.”
Let me suggest an imperfect analogy to illustrate the difference between the intermediate Heaven and the eternal Heaven. Suppose you lived in a homeless shelter in Miami. One day you inherit a beautiful house, fully furnished, on a gorgeous hillside overlooking Santa Barbara, California. With the home comes a wonderful job doing something you’ve always wanted to do. Not only that, but you’ll also be near close family members who moved from Miami many years ago.
On your flight to Santa Barbara, you’ll change planes in Dallas, where you’ll spend an afternoon. Some other family members, whom you haven’t seen in years, will meet you at the Dallas airport and board the plane with you to Santa Barbara. You look forward to seeing them.
Now, when the Miami ticket agent asks you, “Where are you headed?” would you say “Dallas”? No. You would say Santa Barbara, because that’s your final destination. If you mentioned Dallas at all, you would only say, “I’m going to Santa Barbara by way of Dallas.”
When you talk to your friends in Miami about where you’re going to live, would you focus on Dallas? No. You might not even mention Dallas, even though you will be a Dallas-dweller for several hours. Even if you spent a week in Dallas, it wouldn’t be your focus. Dallas is just a stop along the way. Your true destination—your new permanent home—is Santa Barbara.
Similarly, the Heaven we will go to when we die, the intermediate Heaven, is a temporary dwelling place, a stop along the way to our final destination: the New Earth.
(Granted, the Dallas analogy breaks down big time, since being with Jesus and reunited with loved ones in the intermediate Heaven will be immeasurably more wonderful, to say the least, than a lay-over in Dallas! But hopefully you get the point.)
Another analogy is more precise but difficult to imagine, because for most of us it’s outside our experience. Imagine leaving the homeless shelter in Miami and flying to the intermediate location, Dallas, and then turning around and going back home to your place of origin, which has been completely renovated—a New Miami. In this New Miami, you would no longer live in a homeless shelter, but in a beautiful house in a glorious pollution-free, crime-free, sin-free city. So you would end up living not in a new home, but a radically improved version of your old home.
This is what the Bible promises us—we will live with Christ and each other forever, not in the intermediate Heaven, but on the New Earth, where God—Father, Son (eternally incarnate) and Holy Spirit—will be at home with his people.
Of course, God will no more be confined to the New Earth than He is now confined to the intermediate Heaven. God is everywhere present. But his special dwelling, what he regards as his home (and ours) will be on the New Earth, where He will dwell with His people.
Revelation 21:1-3 is explicit on this point: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth....I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God....And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘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 21:1-3).
Heaven, God’s central dwelling place, will one day be with his resurrected people, on the New Earth.
For more information on the subject of Heaven, see Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven.