The Citizens of Heaven

We have a sketchy picture of what Heaven is like.  We have an even more cryptic description of who or what will be there.

As you read through the Old Testament it is never revealed that humans had any hope of being citizens of Heaven.  There are a few visions of Heaven, but nothing more.  Old Testament believers understood that they were heading first to Sheol (preferably a good part of it) and that their ultimate hope was their resurrection from the dead and a New Earth.

I don’t believe that this means that Heaven wasn’t in the plans for humans or that the idea of going to Heaven was a “development of theology” or borrowed from other cultures at a later time.  Our place in Heaven had to be secured before it was promised.  Satan held some leverage over us.  Our species were rebellious sinners just like he was and like a significant minority of angels.  As long as humans were “under the Law”, we were stuck.

Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s Law as a human and His sacrifice of Himself to reconcile creation to God caused some major reorganization.  Satan and his minions lost their legal leverage and being inferior in power to God were cast out (Revelation 12:7-10). Humans were lead in a victorious procession in.  (Ephesians 4:7)  So for now, Heaven is the destiny of redeemed humanity until Judgment Day and a New Earth.

Who else will we find in Heaven?  Angels are one form of resident.  It is said of angels that they are “spirits”.  What does that mean exactly?  I think it means that they are properly citizens of Heaven’s dimensional space and not properly a part of this universe.  They can take on a form here or not, but it is not necessarily their form.  So what does an angel in Heaven look like?  We don’t know.  How many are there?  Beyond saying that there are many, we don’t know.  What are their abilities?  We can say that they are intelligent beings and that in some ways have higher capabilities than we presently have.  The name by which we know them, “angels”, speaks more to their function as “messengers” than as a proper name of their species.  I would expect them to be human-like in many ways.

Angels should be distinguished from Cherubim/Seraphim.  Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 described these beings as “living ones”(cherubim) or “burning ones” (seraphim).  They are described as intelligent and powerful beings who surround the throne of God.  Their physical description may be more symbolic than actual.  The description includes multiple faces, four to six wings, and covered with eyes–a rather frightening appearance.  Satan is described as being a disowned, guardian cherub (Ezekiel 28), beautiful, part of the council of God, and blameless until wickedness was found in him.

The only other citizens of Heaven that are described in the Bible (that doesn’t mean that their aren’t others) are a mysterious group of 24 elders. Who are these beings?  What are they?  They could be humans.  They do not appear in the only other descent description of God’s throne room in Daniel 7.  They are described in Revelation 4.  Since Revelation is full of symbolism, this could be a group symbolic of a greater portion of humanity.  Or not.  It is intriguing to think about how the picture given in Revelation 4 (a New Testament if not future picture) relates to references to a divine council found throughout the Old Testament.  More about this in my next blog.

Is Heaven Somehow Incomplete?

Many people have a biblically naive understanding of the afterlife.  That is one of the motivations for this blog.  It is typical to believe that immediately at death you go to Heaven if you were “good” and Hell is you were “bad”.  Heaven is commonly viewed as “perfect”.  Whatever “perfect” is.  That belief is folk religion, and biblically wrong in so many ways.

Most importantly, you are not destined for Heaven or Hell based on whether you are good or bad.  To God’s standard we are all bad–all tarnished by sin.  We are saved based on whether we have forgiveness or not, and the only way to have forgiveness is to have Jesus’ sacrifice of himself apply to us personally.  Jesus died for all, but God has to also be able to connect us to Christ through faith and baptism.

Popular conceptions of Heaven and Hell are a bit muddled as well.  The Bible makes you aware that there is an intermediate state, which is essentially the time between your death and Judgment Day.  Post Judgment Day the destination of God’s people is a “New Heaven and Earth”  with resurrected physical bodies.  The post-Judgment Day destination of the unforgiven is described as:  a lake of fire, Gehenna (which evokes a picture of a burning garbage dump), and a condition of being forsaken by God.  God won’t hang around to torment you.  Rather, God will permanently forget you.  That place and condition is what I prefer to call “Hell”

So where is Heaven in all of this?  It is the current dwelling place of God and the angels.  It will persist until Judgment Day when Heaven itself will be modified.  It is the immediate destination of those who die (I don’t buy the “soul sleep” paradigm and address that in a later blog), but there are some things incomplete about Heaven and our experience of it.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience of Heaven will leave our experience of life so far in dust.  We will see God, be without sinful nature, have no exposure to Satan, possess a heavenly body and no longer experience the discomforts of the curse.  It is hard to even imagine how good all that will feel compared to current life, so it is even harder to imagine what will be lacking.  While we consciously experience Heaven, our earthly bodies will still be in some state of decay or ash, and our earthly bodies are a part of what makes us.  The final release from the consequences of sin will happen at the resurrection.

For that matter, it would seem that the same is true for Heaven, the place.  Heaven has not been perfect.  Heaven hosted Satan’s rebellion and the corruption of a large minority of angels.  Heaven has experienced war.  God isn’t just going to make a New Earth.  He is going to make a New Heaven.

If you search the internet on the topic of Heaven, you will get a wide variety of interpretations, including mine.  You will encounter quite a few who suggest that we never will see Heaven, rather we are destined only for the resurrection and the New Earth.  They are right in saying that this was the Jewish, Old Testament expectation.  They might also state that the idea of our souls inhabiting Heaven forever is a Greek idea.  I agree in part.  The folk Christian idea is heavily influenced by the Greeks.  The Bible shares God’s revelation, which is the only reliable source on this topic.  It does speak of Heaven, even a Heaven we can inhabit, but it is a temporary dwelling with something even better to follow.

Life That Is Truly Life

I have no experience beyond what we all experience as being alive:  I am self-aware, my body carries out its functions, I experience a range of sensations and emotions and so forth.  It is not all good, but it certainly isn’t all that bad either.  At present, given the choice, I would choose to remain alive.  But it doesn’t take too much imagination to image something better, and what if there are experiences that I can’t even imagine because I have no frame of reference?

Paul, who had an out of body experience, throws out an intriguing phrase in 1 Timothy 6:

As for the rich in the present age, charge them not to be haughty,, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasures for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of life that is truly life.

What does God have in store for those that He saves?  Can there be a life so good that it would seem ridiculous to call our current experience “life”?  Imagine life free of pain, illness, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, boredom.  Imagine interacting with God face-to-face.  Imagine an existence with rich relationships with everyone: no conflicts, biases, loneliness or alienation.  These are just things readily imaginable.

There also can be breathtaking beauty.  Even in this world, you can see the creative genius of God and it is gorgeous.  Look into deep space and you can see God’s creative outlets, there for us to see from afar.  What beauty will surround us in Heaven and the New Earth?

The Timothy text speaks of “treasures”.  If you understand Scripture at all, you understand that we don’t deserve or earn a place with God.  We are sinners.  We deserve exile.  But the death of Jesus gives us a place with God.  It is a gift.  It is grace.  No further treasure beyond admittance should be expected, but the Bible frequently speaks of treasure and reward for faithful stewardship of what God gives us.  What could this treasure be?  Whatever it is, Jesus makes it clear that it is worth any sacrifice or suffering experienced here.

As we get closer to the end of our life on Earth, few of us are as forward thinking as we should be.  Because of our limited experience we long for the past and prefer to stay here, even if we are in pain.  The Words of the Bible try to turn us around to think about a future that is truly life.  Even the experiences of those who have had out of body experiences of Heaven affirm that the sights, sounds and feelings they had far outstrip the experiences of this life.

In length, in quality, in richness of experience, there is more.  There is life that is “truly life”, and Jesus makes it possible.

Check out my other blog, “Giving Christ”, which has many more articles about the role of Jesus and the power of God’s plan, the Gospel.Giving Christ

Salted with Fire

You only need to burn yourself once to know that you don’t want it to happen again.  This familiar experience is used by Jesus to describe the experience of those who are cast into Sheol (Hebrew)/Hades (Greek), which is the place of the unforgiven dead prior to Judgment Day; and also to describe part of the experience of Gehenna (Greek), which is the place of the damned after Judgment Day.  He says,

And if anyone causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone around his neck.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands go into hell (Gehenna), where the fire never goes out.  And if your foot causes you to sin cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell (Gehenna).  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell(Gehenna) where

their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”

Jesus is making a point about the seriousness of sin and damnation.  Unfortunately, maiming yourself will not keep you from sin, but you get the idea.  We all need a solution for our sinfulness.  Jesus is that solution.  He is the difference between being in Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth versus Sheol and Gehenna.

The passage continues,

Everyone will be salted with fire.

Is that everyone is Gehenna, or everyone everywhere?  I find most study bible explanations of this unsatisfactory.  It is a bit cryptic because Jesus goes from describing something negative to describing something positive, which in this case is salt as a metaphor for godliness.  The godly will not cause one another to sin, but will encourage each other to righteous living.  But what does it mean to be salted by fire?

Some want to make the word “fire” in this sentence into another metaphor, that for persecution or trial.  I think that this use of fire correlates with what John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:11:

He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And also what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14:

If any man builds on this foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.  It will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.  If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through flames.

Jesus will put all through a Judgment Day trial by fire.  Those who are connected to Jesus will be saved.  Those who are connected to Jesus and have built on the foundation of Jesus in a worthy, Holy Spirit driven, fashion will be rewarded.  Those who have squandered their lifetime but remain in Jesus will be saved but without reward.

Through all the confusing metaphorical and literal language, the message is this.  You can’t save yourself.  If you could, it would be worth any cost.  But you are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  You can build on the foundation of Jesus in a worthwhile way, however.  You can live salty.  Righteous living will have its reward and that is worth it as well.

 

Suicide and Eternal Judgment

Loss of purpose, chronic pain, no hope, distorted thinking, escape, punishing somebody else, the list is lengthy.  They are the reasons why somebody can be willing to take their own life.  It happens far too much.

It is hard to truly say that you can empathize unless you have been there yourself.  The point of contemplating suicide is a lonely and desperate position.  Usually it is done with a focus on what is wrong with the world.  It doesn’t consider seriously enough what lies beyond death.

Why isn’t taking our own life our prerogative?  It is our pain.  It is our body.

Suicide leaves pain and guilt in its wake.  It is a sin against others.  As humans we are uniquely important to God and His work in the world.   Suicide does not trust God to work even through bad circumstances.  Suicide does not imagine the God-given purposes that will be left undone.  Suicide is therefore sin.

Is it an automatically damning sin?  Proponents of this view misunderstand the nature of grace.  When we are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, the sins of our whole life are covered by the death of Jesus.  While we are commanded to confess our sins and offered ongoing forgiveness of sins, this doesn’t mean that grace is parceled out to us.  It is not necessary that the last thing we do is receive forgiveness.   Being sinners, it is highly likely that the last thing we do is sin, even if the sin is not suicide.  So suicide isn’t necessarily damning because it is the last thing you do.

Suicide may speak poorly of your connection to God.  A suicidal person may have rejected God, grace, or have fallen away, but we are not in position to judge that.  A saved person destined for Heaven could commit suicide, but at a cost.  Salvation depends on Jesus alone.  We are saved by grace.  God still does judge our deeds or the lack of them.  This is part of the Judgment Day experience.  Suicide will cost you at least part of your reward. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 speaks of this:

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw–each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Is it ever worth escaping current miserable conditions if it means abandoning part of what God has prepared for us to do and passing on a part of an eternal reward?  We do well to understand what our lives mean to God.  What is our purpose.  If we are alive, we still have a purpose.  Ask God to help you to identify it, if you are unsure.  Painful situations are often ripe opportunities to do the work of God.  Others don’t have to love you.  God loves you.  The best advice is to become outward rather than inward focused.  Your value is assured by a connection to Jesus.  Make every moment of life worthy of your eternal calling.

 

Living with an Eternal Perspective

I suspect that most people think about their future.  How far out do you think?  I am 56 years old right now.  Sometimes I think about what it will be like when I am 70 something.  My dreams are far more glorious than the reality, I am sure.  Do you ever think farther out?  I am not talking about your 80’s or 90’s.  I am talking a 1000 years out.  You don’t, do you.  Without experience, death creates this impenetrable wall.  For many people’s thoughts, our existence ends.

The Bible flatly denies that this is true.  We have an eternal existence, because we are made that way.  It will be with God or without Him.  Because God loves us and wants us, He has provided the way for our eternal existence to be eternal “life”.  An existence of joy, comfort, abundance, love, fun, relationships and knowing God.  Do you ever try to imagine it?

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18:

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Eyes are for seeing, obviously.  How does one set your eyes on what is unseen?  What Paul is talking about is becoming so certain of the promises of eternal life given in the Bible that we can look forward to our own death as just a milestone and not the end of us.  We can dream about future that is real, exciting, mysterious but comforting.  Such confidence comes with time spent reading the Bible.  It comes with prayer and experience serving God.  It is empowering.

Most people have to deal with their obvious aging by living in denial.  They imagine that they will be healthier and that their physical and mental limits will expand.  This is not realistic in the long-term.  We will become more aged and limited until we die.  That is a fact.  Science may modestly delay the process, but it won’t save us from the inevitable.  Jesus has already saved us from the inevitable.  Jesus makes our death nothing more than the small part of a mandatory sentence for sin, and in effect transforms death into a glorious transition–one you can count on.

Fixing your eyes on what is unseen is not wishful thinking.  It is taking God at His word, understanding our eternal nature, and planning for a glorious eternity that is not that far off.  It does not involve forsaking the here and now.  In fact, having eternal security gives meaning to what we doing now.  We are saved by our connection to Jesus, but our actions today are doing the work of God and are rewardable in Heaven and the New Earth.

Fixing our eyes on what is unseen also gives you power to handle the difficulties of this life.  Every problem is temporary.  Every problem is an opportunity.  God can use anything for an ultimate good.  There is no need to be discouraged, because you can see beyond the current situation.

Fixing your eyes on the unseen is one of the reasons I write this blog.  It is hard to imagine what we have never seen.  So we must rely on the little bit of information that we have been given, and try to create a mental picture.  Our picture may be somewhat inaccurate and our imagination not up to the task, but that will only make our actual arrival in Heaven more breathtaking.

So look to the future–the deep future.  In Christ, you actually have one.

The Immediate Judgment

When we sin, God knows.  You can’t slip things by Him.  Because we don’t see God, we sort of forget that He sees.  It is similar to what happens to us in a hotel.  We get into an empty hallway and we feel all alone even though possibly every room is full.  So we talk loudly as if no one is there to hear.  But everyone hears us.

God knows our sin, but for those who are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism God sees Jesus, and we live as forgiven for as long as faith remains.  In a way, we have been judged as righteous from the moment God connected us to Jesus

For as long as we live, forgiveness through Jesus is possible for anyone whom God can bring to faith.  Their fate has not been sealed.  You can’t plan on it, but even on a death bed it is possible for somebody to be saved and avoid the permanent judgment of God.

Is death the line in the sand, the point of no return?  Or is Judgment Day when eternal fates are sealed?

The Bible clearly indicates that some kind of judgment accompanies death.  With our death, we either enter Heaven because we are forgiven and therefore righteous or we enter Sheol (see my other blog entries about Sheol), because we are sinners without a Savior. Is that the final judgment?

Hebrews 9:27-28 is often evoked on this topic:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

The understanding of most is that the judgment accompanying death is immediate and final, but what is the function of Judgment Day in that scenario?  Is it merely a technicality?  The passage is making the point that Jesus doesn’t die multiple times for sin.  To bolster the point, the writer appeals to the fact that we don’t reincarnate.  Hebrews 9 doesn’t technically answer our question.  1 Peter 4:6 may speak to our question better.  I’m quoting New King James here because NIV is a lousy translation of this passage.

For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

The uncomfortable yet literal understanding of this passage is that the Gospel was preached to dead people with the end goal of having them live or, in other words, be saved.  The context of this passage is Jesus’ descent into Hell (Sheol) mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19.  If we are to understand this passage as the Gospel was preached to living people who have subsequently died, then the second half of the sentence doesn’t make much sense and you are not literally translating the original text.  You are adding (now) dead, which is what the NIV does.

Could it be that Judgment Day is the line in the sand, the point of no return?  We are given marching orders to spread the Gospel to the living.  It is of urgent importance that people hear about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise of salvation through that event while they live.  I cannot go to Sheol to preach to the dead.  But did Christ do that?   Does He still do that?  The ancient church, particularly in the East believed that He did.  I hope so, too.