Thankfully the Bible isn’t silent about this subject. Things will be different, for sure. Paul says, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. …For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will know fully, just as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 9-10, 12). Thus it appears when I die I’ll figuratively step out of a fog into the brightest morning I can possibly imagine. The best mirrors in Paul’s day were polished and buffed brass so one was better off gazing into a pond’s surface. Still, neither reflected one’s true image very accurately. Heaven’s truly beyond words but obviously it’ll be a case of night instantly turning to day. Our entire perception of reality will change. Dallas Willard wrote, “When we pass through what we call death, we do not lose the world. Indeed, we see it for the first time as it really is.” What we consider normal is in fact a gross distortion of what God intended to be normal. When Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), He was referring to all of us. Our vision’s severely limited because of the curse brought upon mankind by Adam & Eve’s sin.
So what’s Paul getting at with the “fully known” stuff? Well, evidently many spiritual entities (“a great cloud of witnesses”, we’re told) know all about us as individuals. Hebrews 12:22-24 hints at who they are: “But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.” That’s a very impressive list of persons who see everything as it really is; who know at this moment what all God’s adopted children will one day know. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul intimates God blessed him with a brief glimpse of heaven; that he was allowed to stand in the visible presence of those beings whereupon he gathered they fully knew him. God blessed Paul with an insight into the next world so we could find comfort in what he dutifully reported. For one thing, we have no secrets. “…No creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:13). In other words, the transparency we all should strive for will be ours in heaven. We won’t drift around in some kind of hazy dreamlike state, either. We’ll be more “awake” than ever before. We’ll be anything but asleep. What we will be is mind-blowing to ponder. Jesus said of souls in heaven, “In fact, they can no longer die, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).
According to Jesus those who belong to God have nothing whatsoever to fear about death. He taught, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Christ also said “I tell you the solemn truth, if anyone obeys my teaching, he will never see death” (John 8:51). And, as He informed the distraught Martha before calling forth the deceased Lazarus out of his tomb, “…I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). (I suspect Jesus wept that day because He knew Lazarus’ loved ones would eventually have to suffer through the painful grieving process all over again down the line.) Our Savior’s attitude towards His own death tells us much, too. While He certainly didn’t relish the ghastly torture He’d be forced to endure beforehand, He viewed finally taking His last earth-bound breath as a liberating event. He told His disciples on the day of His arrest, “Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I am” (John 14:27-29). Those aren’t the words of a man who’s petrified of death!
Don’t forget that in the midst of slowly suffocating and bleeding to death our Lord still had the grace to tell one of the thieves dying next to Him, “…I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Now, do you know any human being who’d take the time to tell a convicted criminal a bald-faced lie while writhing in excruciating agony? I don’t. What Christ told that thief is something all believers can take to the bank. Paradise is our destination! The truth of the matter is the New Testament teaches us repeatedly that, in the grand scheme of things, all Christians will be much better off when they’re dead! Paul wrote, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21) and “…I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…” (Philippians 1:23). Please don’t misunderstand what Paul’s saying. He’s not advocating suicide or intentionally putting oneself in harm’s way. He explained in a letter to his associate that Jesus “…has broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel! For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher. Because of this, in fact, I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, because I know the one in whom my faith is set and I am convinced that he is able to protect what has been entrusted to me until that day” (2 Timothy 1:10-12). As royal ambassadors of our Lord and heralds of the Good News our continued existence on this planet has a purpose. We’re important. Ducking out early of our own accord isn’t an option. We’re to leave when God says it’s our time to go home.
Back to the question I posed initially: “What awaits us in heaven?” It’s definitely worth asking. As I’ve aged it’s become blatantly obvious that, little by little, my body’s wearing out. I used to be able to work outside right through a Texas summer. Now just being in the heat for an hour saps all my energy. I know in time parts of my body will let me down. However, I won’t have to lug those deteriorating limbs and organs into heaven. Willard wrote, “When we pass through the stage normally called ‘death,’ we’ll not lose anything but the limitations and powers that specifically correspond to our present mastery over our body, and to our availability and vulnerability to and through it We’ll no longer be able to act and be acted upon by means of it.” What will remain intact is our personality, our non-material core identity. Plus we’ll retain our knowledge of (and relationships with) other souls who’ve been a part of our earthly life. Will I miss family members and friends who never accepted Christ? Will I be devastated if my two grown, unsaved children don’t join me? My heart says I will. God says otherwise. In heaven “He will wipe away every tear from their [my] eyes, and death will not exist anymore – or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist” (Revelation 21:4). Therefore I must trust God will grant me a level of understanding I can’t fathom at this juncture. I have more faith in my Heavenly Father than I do in my emotions. As Abraham said to God, “Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25). God did what was right back then and He’ll always do what’s right. Therefore I’m content to leave the whole issue up to Him.
When I’m asked how a merciful God could allow a single soul to languish forever in oblivion my answer is heaven would be hellish for those who never desired to go there in the first place. In other words, it’s not God’s fault they won’t be with Him in paradise. Those who aren’t saved don’t think they need saving. The Holy Word tells us“…He [God] does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But many folks abhor the very idea of being under anybody, even God Almighty. Because they possess the autonomy of free will, God lets them exercise it without Him interfering. Love can’t work coercively, only persuasively. Forced love is a contradiction in terms. If a person despised God before death they’ll most likely hate Him even more afterwards but they’ll be where they chose to be. As C.S. Lewis opined, “The door of hell is locked on the inside.”
As usual, we can learn from Jesus. In all His post-resurrection appearances He had a body and it was not only publicly observable but interacted with physical realities. His body was significantly different from before, though, because it wasn’t restricted by time or space. Walls and doors were no barriers to Christ because His was now a spiritual body. Paul wrote, “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). Jesus proved that in God’s universe matter is subservient to mind/spirit. I believe one of the many reasons He lingered on earth after He strolled out of His tomb was to give us a preview of what awaits us on the other side of death. Christians should derive great comfort from that. This truly is not where we belong. “But our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20-21). In heaven we’ll have bodies impervious to illness or injury. We’ll be able to run like gazelles and never grow tired. No aches. No pains. Nothing to hold us back. Now, that’s what I call “Good News!”
Our Lord modeled for us the “new and improved” body we’ll have in the next life. And we’ll have lots of things to do. Laziness will be a thing of the past because we’ll be preoccupied with learning due to there being so much to learn. The transformation that began when the Holy Spirit came to dwell within us when we got saved will continue in God’s kingdom. We’ll be in the very presence of our Savior and our goal will be to become more and more like Him in every respect. While aging down here is a matter of losing abilities, up there it’ll be a matter of constantly accumulating them. We’ll never cease to grow in knowledge, wisdom and holiness. Some fear they’ll be confused, discombobulated or even scared when they inhale their first breath of heavenly air. But their anxiety is unfounded. Nothing in Scripture indicates we’ll have any cause to be frightened or unsettled. We won’t be left in the dark. As Willard wrote, “You wouldn’t do that, if you could help it, to anyone you loved. And neither will God.” When the beggar Lazarus died Jesus said he “…was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” (Luke 16:22). Thus we can expect the same gentle, reassuring treatment. The many “near-death experiences” that’ve been documented imply our personal identity will continue on sans interruption. Those who rejected Christ will continue on, too, but they’ll do so without the God they denied. The Lord will let them have it “their way.” They’ll be their own God at last. Yet too late they’ll become cognizant of just how woefully impotent they actually are.
Eventually those who belong to Him will be enabled to efficiently and righteously reign with Christ. Any worries about there not being enough room for us is foolishness. Astronomers estimate there are ten thousand million galaxies in our section of the universe alone with each harboring billions of planets. Perhaps we’ll be charged with overseeing/observing some of them. As Jesus’ parable of the talents reveals, once we’ve demonstrated we can be trusted to take care of a few valuable things we’ll be entrusted with taking care of many valuable things. Now, I can’t imagine I’m anywhere near capable of being placed in charge of what goes on in a small village, much less an entire planet! I suspect I’ll first need to gather tons of education and practical experience under my belt before that day arrives. Yet I must remind myself of the awesome, glorious environment I’ll be living in while I learn. The greatest joys I’ve known in my life usually happen when I’m being creative. In heaven I’ll eternally be an apprentice of the ultimate Creator! Because of what the Bible tells me about Christ, I can surmise with surety that He and I will create amazing, incredible things together. And I’ll never be abandoned to fend for myself. The greatest advisor/counselor of all will be close at hand. The last thing our Savior told us before He ascended to the right hand of the Father was, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He’s with me now. He’ll be with me then, too.
What we should all look forward to experiencing in God’s kingdom is perfect peace. Peace of any sort on terra firma is rare and fleeting, indeed, so the promise of existing in a place where there’s no strife, no anger, no hostility and no heartbreaking tragedies to disrupt our serenity is an immensely encouraging one. J.I. Packer wrote, “Christians inherit in fact the destiny which fairy tales envisage in fancy: we (yes, you and I, the silly saved sinners) live, and live happily, and by God’s endless mercy will live happily ever after.” But nothing beats what our Lord had to say concerning this intriguing subject: “Those who overcome will be welcomed to sit with me on my throne, as I too overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. Those capable of hearing should listen to what the Spirit is saying to my people” (Revelation 3:21-22). All adopted children of God should not only listen to but believe His words. For it’s in the hope His words provide that our comfort and contentment lie.