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.