You are considered a leading authority on the subject of Heaven. How did you become interested in doing an in-depth study of this often-misunderstood place?
I grew up in a non-Christian home. As a boy I had a passionate interest in astronomy. I would be out in the cold night searching the moon and planets and stars and galaxies—the physical heavens—with my telescope. My heart was stirred, and I wondered what the universe was all about. I remember being in junior high and looking at the great galaxy of Andromeda, over two million light years away, and crying, wondering what was behind it all, and who I really was.
In high school I heard the gospel for the first time and came to Christ, then led my mother to Christ. Years later, as a young pastor, my mom was dying, and every day I would read to her the last two chapters of Revelation. My heart was taken captive by God’s promise of a new heavens and New Earth—a new material universe—without death, suffering and curse. I began to look forward to seeing again in the new world my mother and my friends who had died. That was nearly twenty-five years ago, and I have contemplated and studied Heaven ever since.
You speak about Heaven around the country. What do you find is the biggest misconception people have about Heaven?
They imagine that we will remain disembodied spirits in the afterlife and that Heaven won’t be a tangible, earthly place. They mistake the intermediate heaven, where we go when we die, for the eternal Heaven, where we’ll live with Christ as resurrected beings on a resurrected Earth, as part of a resurrected culture. Our unbiblical assumption that Heaven won’t be a real, tangible, earthly place blinds us to what Scripture actually says.
Rarely do we hear descriptions that capture what the Bible portrays as a New Earth, with animals and trees and rivers and mountains, and eating and drinking, buildings and walls, with a great city where resurrected people come in and out of the gates, engaged in meaningful relationships and productive activity. Our ideas of Heaven are based more on Platonism and Eastern Mysticism, rather than Christianity, which is centered in the anticipation of God’s ultimate redemptive purpose—resurrected people living on a resurrected earth with the resurrected Jesus.
What is the most frequent question you get asked about Heaven?
There are dozens of questions I’m repeatedly asked, but here are the top five:
Will we still be ourselves, with our memories of this life?
Will we know our loved ones and have ongoing relationships with them?
What will we do, and won’t Heaven be boring?
Will we have bodies and eat and drink and travel and explore and play—in other words, will we live truly human lives?
Will there be animals—and is it possible that the pets we’ve loved will be there?
I answer each of these questions and many others in my Heaven book. (The Table of Contents makes it easy to find where to look for those answers.) Readers will be surprised to see that there are some very clear biblical indications about some of the things most people think we can’t know about Heaven.
Newsweek did a survey awhile back in which 76 percent of Americans said they believe in Heaven. What kind of Heaven do you think the majority of people believe in?
They think of a peaceful passive place, somewhere up in the clouds, where there’s nothing to do but float around. Their notion of Heaven isn’t a real place, but sort of an endless out-of-body experience. (In utter contrast to the Christian doctrines of the resurrection and the New Earth.) They think Heaven is good in that it’s free from pain and suffering, but they think of it as largely boring, certainly not intriguing and endlessly enthralling, as the Bible makes clear it will be.
When they think of being with God, this makes them uneasy. Many people don’t realize that God is the ultimate source of all joys, and that all secondary joys—including our physical pleasures and the fun of human relationships—are derived from Him. Of course, if a person doesn’t really know Jesus as their Savior, they “don’t get it” when it comes to the joy that’s found in his lordship and friendship, and the excitement surrounded with living forever with the most loving and utterly fascinating person in the universe.
Many of today’s bestsellers, including Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Alice Seabold’s The Lovely Bones paint their own versions of Heaven. Why do you think our culture is so fascinated with Heaven?
Scripture says that God has set eternity in human hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Every culture and religion believes in an afterlife because God has built that innate sense into us. We know we were made for something more than a life where pleasures and joys are mixed with suffering and death. Something in us is nostalgic for Eden and longs for the New Earth.
Mitch Albom’s bestselling novel 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. It sounds good, but the book fails to present Jesus Christ as the object of saving faith. Instead, it portrays a Heaven that isn’t about God, but about us. A Heaven that’s not about God’s glory, but our healing; not about God’s unfathomable grace to undeserving sinners, but our goodness and self-importance. Man is the cosmic center; God merely plays a supporting role. This sort of Heaven, of which the Bible knows nothing, is an imaginary place of therapeutic self-preoccupation rather than preoccupation with the person of Christ.
Scripture shows that we are made for a person and a place. Jesus is the person. Heaven is the place. We’ll never be satisfied with any person less than Jesus, and any place less than Heaven.
How should we live today, in light of our knowledge of Heaven?
We’re told that we are aliens and strangers in this world, and should be longing for a better country (Hebrews 11:13-16). However, that better country isn’t up in the clouds—it’s down on the New Earth.
Scripture says, “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). Yet very few Christians I’ve spoken with really are looking forward to the New Earth God promises us. We have denied ourselves and our children a major doctrine of Scripture, spoken of repeatedly in the Old Testament prophets. We have somehow overlooked the promise of Romans 8 that Christ’s redemption extends not merely to human souls, but to the whole creation that groans for redemption, having fallen on our coattails, and waiting to rise in our resurrection. Revelation 21-22 promises God will come down from Heaven and dwell with us on the New Earth, which will have nations and rulers and cultures and dwelling places, where people will do exactly what God commanded the first man and woman to do on a perfect earth—rule it to God’s glory.
The next verse says, “So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this [the new universe], make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him” (2 Peter 3:14). Anticipating a coming world in which all right choices will be rewarded by God inevitably changes the way I live today.
Once I grasp what the New Earth means, I can’t help but look forward to it, and this creates a fundamental paradigm shift. For instance, I can look at the beauty of a waterfall, forest, flowers, rivers, animals and people and manmade wonders and not say “But I shouldn’t love these things, because this world is not my home.” No, I should say, “God has revealed himself to me in these things. While the world as it now is—under sin and curse—is not my home, the New Earth filled with beauties such as these—no longer under sin and curse—will be my home forever! I will not be reunited with disembodied loved ones floating in clouds, I will walk the earth again—or for the first time with those who died young or were handicapped—with those I’ve loved who know Jesus.” This will bring an indescribable hope and joy and vitality to our lives.