So ends the old Christmas carol “Away in a manger” – “And fit us for heaven to live with You there.” But what is heaven like? Is it floating about on a cloud playing a harp? As I often said, it would need to be a pretty substantial cloud to take my weight! Is it some spooky place where “spirits” float about? Is it one eternal church service (all that singing!)? No. But what is it like? We don’t know the details but here are some things we do know, although they may be difficult to imagine fully.
The Bible speaks of God creating a new heavens and a new earth with all the imperfections of the old one removed. It pictures heaven coming down to earth. So I believe heaven will be on earth, within the transformed physical universe. But it will be a world without wrongdoing, violence, division, poverty, injustice and hatred. It will be a world without suffering, pain and death. It will be an unspoilt world in all its God-intended beauty: a world of peace, unity and positive relationships.
Christians believe in the resurrection of the body, not just the immortality of the soul. Somehow it will be related to the body we had in this present world. We shall be recognisable. But all the results of human sin: disease, pain, ageing will be absent.
We can get some idea of what our new bodies will be like by reading about Jesus’ body after he was raised from the dead. His disciples could touch his hands and they were just as real and substantial as they were before his death. He could make breakfast for his disciples and eat it with them. He was no ghost! However, he could appear and disappear at will at whatever location he chose. And he could move through solid objects. I believe our new bodies will be like that and have the same powers, which, by the way, could afford protection from any natural turmoil such as earthquakes, floods etc, if they still happen. The stuff of science fiction? No, I believe this is real. Maybe the very existence of positive science fiction is an indication that deep down we humans have a yearning for eternity and for heaven. The Bible says that God has “set eternity in the human heart.”
The New Testament also teaches that all the “riches of the nations” will be present in heaven. I think this includes all the art, music and culture and good human achievements which will be present to enrich life in heaven. I also don’t think that the fulfilment of human beings in heaven (what the Bible calls eternal life) means that we shall be without positive challenges and sit around in perennial boredom! I think there will be exciting and satisfying things to achieve.
More wonderful than all this is that we shall see Jesus and be able to communicate directly with him. We shall live in the glory of God. It is difficult to imagine what this means although the Bible describes it poetically as a wonderful light which replaces sunlight.
I have kept using the future tense because this is something which will happen in the future. But where are our loved ones who have died trusting in Christ? As far as we can understand from the New Testament, they are currently in a blissful disembodied state in the visible presence of Christ, awaiting the resurrection of the body.
On the negative side, the New Testament says: “Nothing impure will ever enter [heaven], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in [Jesus’] book of life.” Because Jesus died for us, all the sins we commit in this life can be forgiven if we repent of them. But to be sure of heaven we need to be sure that (so to speak) our names are written in the Book of Life.
How can we be sure of this? By turning to Christ as Saviour and submitting to him as Lord. Then we shall know and experience that he is the way (to heaven), the truth and the life. We could use the prayer in “Away in a manger” – “Be near me, Lord Jesus: I ask You to stay, close by me forever and love me, I pray.”
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction