Is It Perfect?

Many people resort to describing Heaven with one word, perfect.  Is it?  What does that word even mean?  Without a doubt the things that can make life here miserable will not be a part of Heaven by the time we get there.  But there is at least one section of the Bible that indicates that Heaven was at one time far less than perfect.

Revelation 12:7-10:

Now war arose in Heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in Heaven saying, “Now the salvation and power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down.

This is a very different idea of Heaven then what most people think about. Heaven can’t have war, can it? But it seems that Heaven had rebellion problems just as the earth does. Satan, the source of all rebellion against God, is seen prowling around Heaven up until the time of Christ. Jesus speaks of seeing Satan fall from Heaven like lightening.   Jesus’ victory seems to be soon after a military type assault carried out by Gods’ angels against Satan and his cohort.

We can see Satan’s Old Testament access to God’s throne room in the picture of Heaven found in Job. The account gives no physical details of the place but speaks of the relationships between the “sons of God”, which includes Satan, and God himself. Satan is a tolerated and yet rebellious figure in this story, but his expulsion seems to be prevented at the time. The reasons for Satan’s continued presence in Heaven throughout the Old Testament are uncertain, but the reason probably rests in rules whose existence we can infer through biblical phrases like “it is written” and “this must happen”.

In a similar fashion we can see Satan’s antagonistic presence in Heaven in Zechariah 3. Here Satan is accusing the high priest, Joshua, of some wrongdoing. Satan is strongly rebuked by God and Joshua’s sins are forgiven.

Another Heavenly squabble is told of in Jude. This time it is the archangel Michael disputing with Satan over Moses body. No details of this dispute are found in Scripture, but a story about this event is found in the apocryphal book, the Assumption of Moses. Jesus’ words in John 3:13 would preclude anyone being “assumed into Heaven”, but apparently there is some truth in this reported dispute.

What do the stories in Job, Zechariah, Jude, and Revelation teach us about Heaven? For one, it was not as peaceful and perfect as we assume. That may no longer true, but the rebellion against God didn’t get its start on earth—it started in Heaven. Perhaps this may explain why God is intent on a new heaven and earth, as opposed to forever in Heaven.

But I Don’t Like Cloudy Weather

Google Heaven and go to Images.  What do you see?  A lot of clouds.  Is Heaven a shiny city on clouds?  If so, that isn’t very exciting.  The description of Heaven as cloudy is a misunderstanding of the Biblical text.  The Bible speaks of Jesus coming on the “clouds of heaven”.  This is a reference to our atmosphere and that Jesus will return to Earth from above.  Heaven, the throne room of God, does not have a cloudy floor like a bad heavy metal concert.

Physical descriptions of Heaven are very few.  You have from Revelation 4:  “Before the throne seven lamps were blazing.  These are the seven spirits of God.  Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.”  This “sea” may correlate with what the Elders of Israel saw when they went to meet God.  From Exodus 24:9f, “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.  Under his feet was something like pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.”

The point is don’t get mislead by cultural representations of Heaven that feature mostly clouds.  If you want some picture focus in on the word, “paradise”.

What meaning is loaded into this term? The term is only used two other times in the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about his vision of heaven by saying that he was caught up into paradise—clearly a reference to Heaven. Revelation 2:7 speaks of the tree of life as being in the paradise of God. In this case it may be referring to the New Earth, but why not also Heaven?

The word itself comes from the Persian language and refers to a pleasure garden. That is why it is often used outside of the Bible to refer to the Garden of Eden. The few descriptions we have of Heaven are devoid of plants and geographical features. Because of this we are prone to fill in the blanks with clouds. If you have a drab and unexciting mental image of Heaven, then you have overlooked the word “paradise”. Keep in mind the Biblical descriptions of Heaven only give a cursory description of God’s throne room. They do not suggest that Heaven is only God’s throne room, nor do they do justice to the glory of this throne room. Some things words will just fail to adequately describe.

 

The Throne Room of God

I would like start this section with a passage about Heaven that is frequently overlooked. It is John 3:13:

No one has ascended into Heaven except he who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man.

This is a “wow” statement when you think about it. Jesus is unequivocally saying that nobody has been to Heaven to that point. That means that the two Old Testament visions of Heaven that seem like the person travels to Heaven (Isa. 6, Dan. 7) were just that—visions. They were not field trips. Even though the Bible says that a fiery chariot took Elijah into Heaven. It does not mean that Elijah went to the throne room of God, it just means that the chariot took him up. The word “heavens” can be used to refer to outer space, so it is important to watch your context. This verse also means all those Old Testament people who have been considered “righteous” still had not yet received their righteousness from Christ and gone to Heaven. The punishment for their sins had only been suspended for the time being (see Romans 3:25b). They awaited Christ’s victory in a pleasant portion of Sheol.

Why hadn’t anybody ascended to Heaven up to the time Jesus made that statement? We are sinners and do not deserve to be there. Perhaps we could not even survive being there in our condition. Only atonement for sin can change that situation and when this was spoken Jesus had still not atoned for the sins of the world.

This raises an interesting question about Isaiah’s experience. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah experiences a vision of Heaven and he also experiences his unworthiness. He says, “Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of (hosts.)” I’m sure Isaiah doesn’t know what exactly has happened to him. He doesn’t know if he is actually in Heaven or still in the temple and seeing Heaven. We would call it an out-of-body experience, but it would appear from Jesus’ statement above that he wasn’t as “out-of-body” as he perhaps felt.

Isaiah saw the throne room of God, but only as a vision. Even though only a vision, Isaiah was struck by his unworthiness to be there. “Woe to me” he said, “For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among people of unclean lips.” Heaven isn’t heavenly for those who are unworthy to be there. The holiness of God is stressful for Isaiah in a vision, and possibly lethal for him in person. Still, God gave Isaiah this vision for a purpose. God had a mission to give him and the means to carry it out.

In his vision, Isaiah sees several bizarre creatures in the throne room of God. He calls them, “burning ones”, or Seraphim. The seraphim respond to Isaiah’s unworthiness in this way:

Then one of seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

I have always found this fascinating. Why didn’t Isaiah get burned? Why do coals on the altar atone for him? There is no answer given, so we can’t conclusively say. Perhaps the reason is that Isaiah wasn’t really there, so no burn. The altar that this refers to is the one copied in the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were made. The Bible is clear that animal sacrifices do not really atone for sin at all. However, they were prophetic, as Isaiah’s experience was prophetic, of a sacrifice that will really atone; and that sacrifice was Jesus.

With the sacrifice of Christ completed, can mankind enter into Heaven and into the presence of God? It would appear so. The first invitation happens on the cross. Jesus says to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Some have interpreted Jesus’ words as saying that the thief will join Jesus in the good neighborhood of Sheol. The reasoning is simple, that is where Jesus is going next and we are not aware of a trip to Heaven until His ascension. But Jesus didn’t exactly leave us His travel itinerary. I would add to the evidence for Jesus going to Heaven on that day, Ephesians 4:8:

When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.

I don’t think the ascension referenced here is the one the disciples observed for two reasons. First, Jesus is leading the Old Testament redeemed, here referred to as “captives”, somewhere, presumably Heaven. Next, the gifts referred to is the forgiveness of sins, which would have begun immediately after Jesus had finished His task of atonement. As such, Jesus could have gone to Heaven the very day He was crucified.

Next time:  More from the throne room of God

Heaven Is My Home, or Is It?

Another common misconception about eternal life is that Heaven is our final destination. Most people believe the Bible says that if you are saved you go to Heaven forever, and if you are damned you go to Hell forever, but the Bible is very clear on this subject, a New Earth is our ultimate goal. Heaven is an intermediary destination.

Here are some relevant passages on the topic:

2 Peter 3:13

But according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Revelation 21:1-4

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The idea of being in Heaven forever didn’t come from the Bible. It first seeped into Christian thinking from Greek pagan religion. The Greeks believed that this world and our bodies were evil and the goal was to be released from our bodies. Similar ideas can be found in Hinduism and Buddhism. You can understand from where such thinking came. Our bodies and this world are not as God had created them. We get sick and die. We have all sorts of natural inclinations toward evil. This is because we have been altered by sin and live under the curse of God. It is not because the material universe is inherently corrupt or undesirable, but it can sure seem like it at times. In fact, God’s goal is to restore it original glory rather than abandon His creation.

In more recent times, Enlightenment era theologians had a tendency to conflate scripture that referred to Heaven with those that spoke of the New Earth. As a result, there are many beloved hymns from that era that speak of Heaven as our permanent home. Finding the words “the new Earth” in a hymn is rather unusual. Why this is so probably has something to do with the idea of the resurrection of the dead. Reanimating long-decayed remains seems like a physical impossibility. True people of science would never believe this to be literal. A heavenly goal is not challengeable by the laws of nature, so it seems more believable; but the laws of nature don’t restrict God.

Seminary and Sunday School also can shoulder some of the blame for our not hearing about the New Earth. In systematic theology classes that are jammed packed with topic matter, our eternal destiny tends to be left to the end of the line and was probably not always covered. If pastors were not thorough in their studies of scripture, they could easily overlook or dismiss the temporary nature of both Heaven and Sheol. As noted earlier, Sheol is usually mistranslated in most Bibles, therefore many pastors may not understand it at all. Then there is the training most lay people have had. I’ll admit the true plan of God for eternity is a little complicated. Try explaining it to Sunday School kids or, for that matter, Sunday School teachers. How much easier is it to present the “Heaven forever” model.

The Heaven Forever model does create some dissonance with the “resurrection of the body” that is proclaimed, often weekly, in the Creeds. That is one reason we have the ancient creeds. It is so we don’t lose important parts of the truth to false oversimplifications. If we are in Heaven, why would we need our earthly bodies resurrected? Of course, the answer is because we’re not in Heaven forever, still people readily ignore this contradiction.

Heaven is the destination of the redeemed between death and Judgment Day.  What we will experience in Heaven is not well explained in Scripture, but there are several descriptions of God’s throne room which are quite detailed.  They will be the topic matter for the next few publications.