Editors' note: This series explores key doctrines of the Christian faith and their practical ramifications for everyday life. Earlier in this series:
D. A. Carson on Christ's intercession
Sam Storms on Christ's second coming
Robert Peterson on adoption
Greg Allison on divine omniscience
Fred Sanders on the Trinity
Next month thousands of pastors and other Christians will gather in Orlando for our National Conference, Coming Home: New Heaven & New Earth. The Gospel Coalition president D. A. Carson says, "We don't treasure heaven much because we don't have a right understanding of what the Bible actually says about heaven."
To learn more about heaven, in preparation for our conference theme, I corresponded with Randy Alcorn, founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries (EPM) and author of more than 40 books, including the best-selling book Heaven. Alcorn will be delivering a workshop at the National Conference on the topic "Continuity & Discontinuity: How Similar or Different Might Life on the New Earth Be To Our Present Lives?" Register now to reserve your spot.
What difference is heaven supposed to make in our lives now? Why do you think many Christians don't look forward to heaven any more? What are some of the biggest misconceptions about heaven?
Christians faced with death often feel they're leaving the party before it's over, going home early. They're disappointed, thinking of all the people and things they'll miss when they leave.
But for God's children the real party awaits—think of the Father making merry and celebrating with a feast for the prodigal son who's come home (Luke 15). The celebration is already underway at our true home, where we've not yet lived—and that's precisely where death will take us. As others will welcome us to heaven's party, so we'll one day welcome those who arrive later.
God commands us in his Word to set our minds in heaven where Christ is (Col. 3:1). We focus on an actual place where the eternally incarnate, resurrected Christ lives. We're commanded to be "looking forward to the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells" (2 Pet. 3:13)—the resurrected cosmos, our future and eternal home.
Paul says, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18). If we don't understand this future glory of heaven that awaits us, we won't see our present sufferings shrink in comparison to its greatness.
What God made us to desire is exactly what he promises to those who follow Jesus Christ: a resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected earth. Our desires correspond precisely to God's plans. It's not that we want something, so we engage in wishful thinking. It's the opposite—we want real human lives as real embodied people because God has wired us that way, and has always planned for it.
Will heaven ever be boring?
We will be more likely to think of heaven as boring if we think of it as a disembodied state. But the ultimate heaven where we'll live forever is defined by resurrection, and resurrection is by definition embodied. Jesus spoke of the coming "renewal of all things" (Matt. 19:27-28). Peter preached of "the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets" (Acts 3:21). For resurrected people in a renewed universe, boredom will be unthinkable.
Our belief that heaven will be boring betrays a heresy—that God himself is boring. There's no greater nonsense. Our desire for pleasure and the experience of joy come directly from God's hand. He made our taste buds, adrenaline, and the nerve endings that convey pleasure to our brains. Likewise, our imaginations and capacity for joy were made by the God whom some imagine is boring. Are we so arrogant as to imagine that human beings came up with the idea of having fun?
"Won't it be boring to be good all the time?" This assumes sin is exciting and righteousness is boring, which is one of the Devil's most strategic lies. Sin doesn't bring fulfillment, it robs us of it. When there's beauty, when we see God as he truly is—an endless reservoir of fascination—boredom becomes impossible.
God delegates rule of his creation to us, and we'll reign with him over his new creation. We'll have things to do, places to go, people to see. Heaven is guaranteed to be a thrilling adventure because Jesus is a thrilling person—the source of all great adventures, including those awaiting us in the new universe.
Will we eat and drink in heaven?
Words describing eating, meals, and food appear more than a thousand times in Scripture, with the English translation "feast" occurring 187 times. Feasting involves celebration and fun; it's profoundly relational. Great conversation, storytelling, relationship-building, and laughter happen during mealtimes. Feasts, including Passover, were spiritual gatherings that drew attention to God, his greatness, and his redemption.
People who love each other love eating together. Jesus said to his disciples, "I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom" (Luke 22:29-30). He promised, "Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 8:11). The finest foods and drinks, according to Isaiah 25:6, will be prepared for us by God himself.
Jesus knew his words would be attractive to all who heard them. How can it be trivial or unspiritual to anticipate such things? Don't you think he wants us to look forward to eating at his table?
In my book Heaven I coined the term Christoplatonism. It's reflected by a Christian man in our church, who told me after I preached on the resurrected life, "This idea of having bodies and eating food and being in an earthly place . . . it just sounds so unspiritual." If we believe that bodies and the earth and material things are unspiritual, then we'll inevitably reject biblical revelation about our bodily resurrection or the physical characteristics of the new earth. But the idea that physicality is inherently unspiritual is not biblical. As C. S. Lewis said of God, "He likes matter. He invented it."
What will relationships in heaven be like?
Scripture tells us we will all be living with the same person (Jesus), in the same place (heaven), with God's people (the church). Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:18 that we are to "comfort one another with these words," in reference to our being together with the Lord forever. So clearly we will be spending eternity with our loved ones in Jesus.
Christ said that there won't be human marriage in heaven (Matt. 22:30).Yet there will be marriage in heaven, one marriage, between Christ and his bride—and his people will all be part of it (Eph. 5:31-32). Nanci and I won't be married to each other but will be part of the same marriage to Jesus.
I have every reason to believe that in heaven, I will be closer to my wife and kids and grandkids than ever. It won't be the end of our relationships, but they'll be taken to a new level. 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.
Will we be capable of sinning in heaven?
Christ promises on the new earth, "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:4). Since "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), the promise of no more death is a promise of no more sin. Those who will never die can never sin, since sinners always die. Sin causes mourning, crying, and pain. If those will never occur again, then sin can't.
We'll have true freedom in heaven, a righteous freedom that never sins. Since Adam and Eve sinned, despite living in a perfect place, as did Satan, many people wonder if we'll sin someday in heaven. The Bible says that God cannot sin. It would be against his nature. Once we're with him, it'll be against our nature too. We won't want to sin any more than Jesus does.
Jesus said, "The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. . . . Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13:41-43). What will be weeded out? Everything that causes sin and all who do evil.
Sin will have absolutely no appeal to us. It will be literally unthinkable. The memory of evil and suffering in this life will serve as an eternal reminder of sin's horrors and emptiness. Sin? Been there, done that; seen how ugly and disastrous it was!
Paul Helm writes, "The freedom of heaven, then, is the freedom from sin; not that the believer just happens to be free from sin, but that he is so constituted or reconstituted that he cannot sin. He doesn't want to sin, and he does not want to want to sin."
How might you use the doctrine of heaven when sharing the gospel with someone?
Heaven is a terrific evangelistic subject when we portray it as the Bible does. Satan has vested interests in our misconceptions regarding heaven. When he depicts it as a dull, drab, tedious, boring place where nobody would want to go, all motivation for evangelism is removed.
Why would we want our friends to spend eternity in an eternally dull place? And why would they want to go there? Nobody wants to be a ghost when he dies—people will no sooner develop a taste for a disembodied life than for broken glass.
On the other hand, when Christians understand heaven is an exciting physical place on a redeemed world with redeemed people in redeemed relationships without sin and death, where there is music, art, science, sports, literature, and culture, it's a great source of encouragement and motivation. "They all lived happily ever after" is not merely a fairy tale. It's the blood-bought promise of God for all who trust in the gospel.
The new earth is where there'll be no more pain and sorrow and God will wipe away the tears from every eye (Rev. 21:4). That's the perfect promise to share with unbelievers. We should unapologetically tell them that the happiness they long for, the reconciliation to the God from whom happiness flows, is found in Jesus alone—this is what makes the gospel "good news of great joy"!
Gavin Ortlund is an editor at The Gospel Coalition, associate pastor at Sierra Madre Congregational Church, and PhD candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary in historical theology. He and his wife Esther live in Sierra Madre, California, with their son and daughter. Gavin blogs regularly at Soliloquium. You can follow him on Twitter.