I am struck by the compulsion we have to speak words of kindness and impact and grief and consolation about those who have left this world. Where does this deep-seated sense of attachment come from?
It comes from God. He is the Father of this family we enjoy. We rightly sense that our relationship with them has not been terminated, only interrupted, and we know that some day each of us will be taken from this world, in one moment separated from some we love and in the same moment reunited with others we love, and above all with our Lord.
In AD 710, the Venerable Bede, a church historian, wrote these words about Heaven:
“A great multitude of dear ones is there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now of their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, long that we may come to their right and embrace them, to that joy which will be common to us and to them, to that pleasure expected by our fellow servants as well as ourselves, to that full and perpetual felicity....If it be a pleasure to go to them, let us eagerly and covetously hasten on our way, that we may soon be with them, and soon be with Christ.”
In light of the strong attachment we feel to our sisters and brothers who will greet us there some day, I’m cutting and pasting below from my book Heaven (chapter 34, “Will We Desire Relationships with Anyone Except God?”) on the subject of the longing for reunion we have for those who’ve gone before us. Perhaps it will meet a need for a few. It is so right to anticipate reunion and gatherings; it is to celebrate the very promises of God. “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples” (Isaiah 25:6). Many other feasts are spoken of—dinners with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, etc. We will meet and eat and talk and celebrate together. And sometimes God will prepare the meals himself—how good will that be? It’s entirely biblical to look forward to sitting next to a friend and renewing acquaintance, or in some cases meeting a friend for the first time.
Peter says “we are looking forward to a new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). May we look forward to it every day, every hour.
(from Heaven by Randy Alcorn, chapter 34: “Will We Desire Relationships with Anyone Except God?”)
In Heaven, Will We Want Anyone besides Christ?
Christ is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last” (Revelation 22:13). He alone is sufficient to meet all our needs.
Yet, God has designed us for relationship not only with himself but also with others of our kind. After God created the world, he stepped back to look at his work and pronounced it “very good.” However, before his creation was complete, he said that one thing—and only one—was not good. “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). God planned for Adam, and all mankind, to need human companionship. In other words, God made people to need and desire others besides himself.
To some people, this sounds like heresy. After all, Asaph prays, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). This verse is sometimes used to prove that we should desire nothing but God, that it is wrong to desire “earthly things,” including human relationships. But God made us to desire earthly things such as food, water, shelter, warmth, work, play, rest, human friendship, and much more. That won’t change in Heaven.
People have told me we shouldn’t long for Heaven, only for God. If that were true, God would condemn rather than commend his people who “were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). King David saw no contradiction between seeking God, the person, and seeking Heaven, the place. The two were inseparable: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4, ESV). Notice that David says he seeks “one thing”—to be in God’s magnificent place and to be with God’s magnificent person.
As I said in chapter 17, we must understand that God is the source of all joy—all other joys are secondary and derivative. They come from him, find their meaning in him, and cannot be divorced from him. Likewise, while Christ is our primary treasure, he encourages us to store up other treasures in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21).
Christ is Heaven’s center of gravity, but we don’t diminish his importance by enjoying natural wonders, angels, or people. On the contrary, we’ll exalt him and draw closer to him as we enjoy all he created.
Will We Need Only God in Heaven?
Like the desert monks who withdrew into the desert to live apart from human companionship, some people still insist, “I need only God.” But as spiritual as it sounds, this perspective is another form of Christoplatonism. Consider again the implications of the fact that God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Think of it—God was with Adam in the Garden, yet God said that wasn’t good enough. God designed us to need each other. What we gain from each other is more of God because we’re created in his image and are a conduit for his self-revelation.
Eden was the forerunner of the New Earth. Since meaningful human companionship turned God’s assessment of “not good” into a declaration of “very good” on the first Earth, we shouldn’t expect him to change his mind on the New Earth. Yet many people minimize human relationships in Heaven. Protestant reformer John Calvin said, “To be in Paradise and live with God is not to speak to each other and be heard by each other, but is only to enjoy God, to feel his good will, and rest in him.”
To Calvin’s credit, he longed for the joy to be found in God. But he imagined a false dichotomy between the joys of relating to God and relating to God’s children. To take pleasure in another image-bearer doesn’t offend God; it pleases him. To enjoy a conversation with a brother or sister does not require making that person an idol or competitor with God. God was supremely pleased that Adam and Eve enjoyed each other’s company in Paradise. God is our father, and fathers delight in their children’s close relationships.
Some people falsely assume that when we give attention to people, it automatically distracts us from God. But even now, in a fallen world, people can turn my attention toward God. Was Jesus distracted from God by spending time with people on Earth? Certainly not. In Heaven, no person will distract us from God. We will never experience any conflict between worshiping God himself and enjoying God’s people.
Deep and satisfying human relationships will be among God’s greatest gifts. Jonathan Edwards saw no conflict between anticipating our relationships with God and our loved ones:
Every Christian friend that goes before us from this world is a ransomed spirit waiting to welcome us in heaven. There will be the infant of days that we have lost below, through grace to be found above. There the Christian father, and mother, and wife, and child, and friend, with whom we shall renew the holy fellowship of the saints, which was interrupted by death here, but shall be commenced again in the upper sanctuary, and then shall never end. There we shall have companionship with the patriarchs and fathers and saints of the Old and New Testaments, and those of whom the world was not worthy....And there, above all, we shall enjoy and dwell with God the Father, whom we have loved with all our hearts on earth; and with Jesus Christ, our beloved Savior, who has always been to us the chief among ten thousands, and altogether lovely; and with the Holy Spirit, our Sanctifier, and Guide, and Comforter; and shall be filled with all the fullness of the Godhead forever!
Jesus affirmed that the greatest commandment was to love God, but that the second, inseparable from the first, was to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). He never considered these commands as incompatible. Neither should we. He saw the second flowing directly from the first. One of the highest ways we love God is by loving people. Jesus rebuked the religious leaders because they imagined they could love God without loving people (Luke 10:27-37). The spiritual-sounding “I will love only God and no one else” is not only unspiritual; it’s impossible. For if we don’t love people, who are created in God’s image, we can’t love God.
What Did Paul Say about Reunion in Heaven?
Paul says to his friends in Thessalonica, “We loved you so much” and “You had become so dear to us,” then speaks of his “intense longing” to be with them (1 Thessalonians 2:8, 17). In fact, Paul anticipates his ongoing relationship with the Thessalonians as part of his heavenly reward: “What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
Isn’t this emphatic proof that it’s appropriate for us to deeply love people and look forward to being with them in Heaven? Paul sees no contradiction in referring to both Christ and his friends as his hope and joy and crown in Heaven.
Paul then asks, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” (3:9). The joy he takes in his friends doesn’t compete with his joy in God—it’s part of it. Paul thanks God for his friends. Whenever we’re moved to thank God for people, we’re experiencing exactly what he intended.
Paul also says to the Thessalonians, “You long to see us, just as we also long to see you....How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again” (3:6, 9-10). Paul finds joy in God’s presence because of other Christians. He anticipates the day “when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (3:13). He looks forward to being with Jesus and his people.
Paul tells the Thessalonians that we’ll be reunited with believing family and friends in Heaven: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope....God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him....We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them....And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words” (4:13-14, 17-18). Our source of comfort isn’t only that we’ll be with the Lord in Heaven but also that we’ll be with each other.
Puritan Richard Baxter longed for that comfort: “I know that Christ is all in all; and that it is the presence of God that makes Heaven to be heaven. But yet it much sweetens the thoughts of that place to me that there are there such a multitude of my most dear and precious friends in Christ.”
In Philippians 1 Paul speaks with unapologetic affection to his brothers in Christ, describing himself as longing for them. Note that he clearly sees no incompatibility between his Christ-centered desire to be with Jesus (1:21) and his Christ-centered love for others:
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-6)
Paul’s delight in his brethren reminds us that the first and second greatest commands are inseparable: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart...love your neighbor as yourself.” (And if your neighbor, how much more your family, which derives its identity from none other but God himself?).
As if anticipating that someone might object by saying “But God is the only one we should find joy in and long for,” Paul goes on in the following verses to say this:
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:7-8)
Note the source of Paul’s deep longing and affection for his brothers and sisters: Christ Jesus himself. While it is possible to put people over God, and this is idolatry, it is also possible, while putting God over people, to find in people a wonderful expression of God himself, so great that it is completely appropriate for us to have them in our hearts, to find joy in them, to long to be with them.