The Joy of Imagining Heaven

When Marco Polo returned to Italy from the court of Kublai Khan, he described a world his audience had never seen—one that could not be understood without the eyes of imagination. Not that China was an imaginary realm, but it was very different from Italy. Yet as two locations on planet Earth inhabited by human beings, they had much in common. The reference points of Italy allowed a basis for understanding China, and the differences could be spelled out from there.

The writers of Scripture present Heaven in many ways, including as a garden, a city, and a kingdom. Because gardens, cities, and kingdoms are familiar to us, they afford us a bridge to understanding Heaven. Scripture makes it clear that Jesus is preparing a place for us, and God’s Kingdom will come to Earth, and a physical resurrection awaits us; there is no reason to spiritualize or allegorize all earthly descriptions of Heaven. Indeed, some of them may be simple, factual statements. Too often we’ve been taught that Heaven is a non-physical realm, so we fail to take seriously what Scripture tells us about Heaven as a familiar, physical, tangible place.

The Importance of Using Our Imagination

We cannot anticipate or desire what we cannot imagine. That’s why, I believe, God has given us glimpses of Heaven in the Bible—to fire up our imagination and kindle a desire for Heaven in our hearts. And that’s why Satan will always discourage our imagination—or misdirect it to ethereal notions that violate Scripture. As long as the resurrected universe remains either undesirable or unimaginable, he succeeds in sabotaging our love for Heaven.

If God didn’t want us to imagine what Heaven will be like, He wouldn’t have told us as much about it as He has.

Alister McGrath writes, “To speak of ‘imagining heaven’ does not imply or entail that heaven is a fictional notion, constructed by deliberately disregarding the harsher realities of the everyday world....We are able to inhabit the mental images we create, and thence anticipate the delight of finally entering the greater reality to which they correspond.”

I believe we should fuel our imagination with Scripture, allowing it to step through the doors that Scripture opens. As a young Christian, and even as a young pastor, I viewed Heaven in the same stereotypical ways I now reject. It was only through years of study, meditation, and research that I came to the view of Heaven I now embrace.

Picturing Heaven

You don’t need to look up at the clouds; you simply need to look around you and imagine what this world would be like without sin and death and suffering and corruption.

So look out a window. Take a walk. Talk with your friend. Use your God-given skills to paint or draw or build a shed or write a book. But imagine it—all of it—in its original condition. The happy dog with the wagging tail, not the snarling beast, beaten and starved. The flowers unwilted, the grass undying, the blue sky without pollution. People smiling and joyful, not angry, depressed, and empty. If you’re not in a particularly beautiful place, close your eyes and envision the most beautiful place you’ve ever been—complete with palm trees, raging rivers, jagged mountains, waterfalls, or snow drifts.

Think of friends or family members who loved Jesus and are with Him now. Picture them with you, walking together in this place. All of you have powerful bodies, stronger than those of an Olympic decathlete. You are laughing, playing, talking, and reminiscing. You reach up to a tree to pick an apple or orange. You take a bite. It’s so sweet that it’s startling. You’ve never tasted anything so good. Now you see someone coming toward you. It’s Jesus, with a big smile on His face. You fall to your knees in worship. He pulls you up and embraces you.

I have a biblical basis for all of these scenarios, and many more. After examining what Scripture says, I hope that next time you hear someone say, “We can’t begin to imagine what Heaven will be like,” you’ll be able to tell them, “I can.”

If “No Eye Has Seen,” How Can We Know?

After reading a few dozen books about Heaven, I came to instinctively cringe whenever I saw 1 Corinthians 2:9-10:

However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” —the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.

It’s a wonderful verse; it’s just that it’s nearly always misused. 1 Corinthians 2:9 isn’t talking about Heaven. In its context, it refers to the salvation-related hidden wisdom of God. Some would argue that God’s hidden wisdom broadly includes wisdom about Heaven, but even if the verse did refer to Heaven, it says the opposite of what it is typically cited to prove, because verse 10 indicates that God has revealed these hidden truths through His Spirit. This means that God has explained to us what Heaven is like. Not exhaustively, but accurately.

Other verses are likewise pulled out to derail discussions about Heaven. For example, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Heaven is regarded as a “secret thing.” But the rest of the verse—again, rarely quoted—completes the thought: “But the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” And it’s critically important that we study and understand them. That is precisely why God revealed them to us!

Another “silencer” is 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. Paul says that fourteen years earlier he was “caught up to paradise,” where he “heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” Some people use this verse to say we should not discuss what Heaven will be like. But all it says is that God didn’t permit Paul to talk about his visit to Heaven. In contrast, God commanded the apostle John to talk about his prolonged visit to Heaven, which he did in detail in the book of Revelation. Likewise, Isaiah and Ezekiel wrote about what they saw in Heaven.

If God didn’t intend for us to understand what He’s shared about Heaven, why would He bother telling us about it? (When was the last time you wrote someone a letter using words you didn’t expect them to comprehend?)

We’re Commanded to Think about Heaven

“Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). This is a direct command! And to make sure we don’t miss the importance of a Heaven-centered life, the next verse says, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

To long for Christ is to long for Heaven, for that is where we will be with Him. The Greek word translated “set your hearts on” is zeteo, which the Gospel writer used to describe how “the Son of Man came to seek . . . what was lost” (Luke 19:10, emphasis added). It’s also used for how a shepherd looks for his lost sheep (Matthew 18:12), a woman searches for a lost coin (Luke 15:8), and a merchant searches for a fine pearl (Matthew 13:45). It is a diligent, active, single-minded investigation. So we can understand Paul’s admonition in Colossians 3:1 as follows: “Diligently, actively, single-mindedly pursue the things above”—in a word, Heaven.

The verb zeteo is in the present tense, suggesting an ongoing process. “Keep seeking Heaven.” Don’t just have a conversation, read a book, or listen to a sermon and feel as if you’ve fulfilled the command. Since you’ll spend the next lifetime living in Heaven, why not spend this lifetime seeking Heaven, so you can eagerly anticipate and prepare for it?

Fueling Our Imagination

We must begin by reasoning from God’s revealed truth. But that reasoning will call upon us to use our Scripture-enhanced imagination. As a nonfiction writer and Bible teacher, I begin by seeing what Scripture actually says. As a novelist, I take that revelation and add to it the vital ingredient of imagination.

If you’re a Christian suffering with great pains and losses, Jesus says, “Be of good cheer” (John 16:33, NKJV). The new house is nearly ready for you. Moving day is coming. The dark winter is about to be magically transformed into spring. One day soon you will be home—for the first time. Until then, I encourage you to meditate on the Bible’s truths about Heaven. May your imagination soar and your heart rejoice.

Picturing Heaven, 40 Hope-filled devotions and coloring pages, and The Promise of the New Earth are both excellent resources for engaging your imagination about Heaven. This article is adapted from Randy’s book Heaven.

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries