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.

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.

Is Heaven For Real?

Let’s start with a very basic question. Do you think there is a Heaven? You hear that question asked every so often in books and movies and, I presume, it is asked quite often in real life. Even those who regularly attend church have their occasional doubts. Nothing brings this question into more focus than your own impending death. Is Heaven for real?

There are many sorry substitutes for a resounding “yes”. To believe in Heaven seems anti-intellectual for some. We fear that it may be myth or wishful thinking, so many are guarded. As a result, some will say that we live on in people’s memories or that Heaven is a state of mind we have while we are alive. Let me give you an example. I recently had the opportunity to go to Israel. In Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is on the traditional site where Jesus was both executed and buried.  I was standing in a chapel that is on the top of Golgatha where Jesus was crucified. Golgatha was not some huge mountain or even much of a hill. It was a rocky outcropping in a garden just outside the walls of Jerusalem, maybe 25 feet tall. The chapel was in three parts, each utilized by a different church body. I was in the middle chapel and in the chapel to my right, well within earshot was a Roman Catholic priest giving a sermon and celebrating Mass with his tour group. As I listened he said something like this, “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I would like to think it was something to do with this world. I believe we will live on in the memories of those who love us and our deeds will continue to have a lasting impact.” I was both stunned and repulsed. Here we are, mostly likely standing on the place where Jesus died to win us eternal life, and a member of the clergy was equating eternal live with being remembered. I was torn by incredulity, pity and anger. Luckily, the later did not win.

Let me assure all readers, that Jesus did live. There is plenty of evidence for that. Five hundred witnesses can also attest that He did actually die on a cross and rise again. The purpose of this whole process was not, for sure, so that you can live on in somebody’s memory. That is just sad, sad garbage. Heaven is neither imaginary nor is it wishful thinking to calm us as we face death. Heaven is a place that is perhaps more “real” than this universe.

Both the Bible and the testimony of many people who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) attest to the reality of Heaven. Jesus speaks frequently about ascending to or descending from Heaven. This type of language would be nonsense if Heaven were a mere state of mind. In John 14:6, he goes out of his way to affirm that Heaven is not only a place, but a place for us, when he says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms”.   Perhaps that would still seem like mythical, wishful thinking for some if it were not for frequent experiences of Heaven when people’s consciences are temporarily separated from their body (usually because of medical circumstances).

Since we all will die, we should all be terribly interested in what we can learn about eternal life and the places described by the Bible that exist outside of our world and beyond our lives. I would argue that, other than how to get to Heaven, this topic is one of the most relevant topics that there is. Still, there is an interesting abundance of people who don’t want to talk about life after death. I suspect that this is caused by a deep fear of death or a still festering grief over the loss of a loved one, or maybe it the desire to be God. Whatever the cause, this is the wrong approach.

Clear knowledge about Heaven and about how God has arranged that we get there can result in just the opposite. We can look to Heaven with great anticipation and excitement. We can be as certain about what happens after our death as we are certain that the sun will rise. That is an incredibly powerful position to be in. Death really has no sting in this case, and life itself is given new and fuller meaning.

Such certainty can and must rest on the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and confidence in the promise of God to forgive our sins and bring us home. As Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” On the flip side, confidence that rests on ignorance or wishful thinking is extremely dangerous.

A common and dangerous belief is the belief that all of us end up in Heaven. It makes us feel better. It is what we want. If we believe this uncritically, then we don’t even have to think about the topic. I want everybody to make it to Heaven as well, but it isn’t so. The Bible is clear about this and that reality is also backed by many NDEs (Near Death Experiences), where people experience Sheol. For this reason, we should all think about this critical topic of life after death.

Heaven is not the default destination of a human being. Jesus speaks of many heading to destruction in Matthew 7. Romans tells us that everybody falls short of the glory of God in chapter 3. Our default is to be damned, but Jesus’ death and resurrection is enough that anyone who is connected to Jesus through faith and baptism is not condemned and has eternal life (John 3). Eternal life has nothing to do with the quality of our behavior and whether we were good enough. Eternal life is completely the gift of God, and it is a very good thing this is so, for even a partial responsibility for gaining eternal life would put it out of our reach.

Having a wrong idea about who goes to Heaven and why is clearly the worst of the misconceptions about eternal life, but there are many more. Some of these misconceptions are likely to be held by you. Ask yourself from where they came.

 

Sheol in the Book of Job

The oldest book of the Old Testament is not the first one. It is the book of Job. When Job lived exactly is unclear. That he and friends knew about Sheol is abundantly clear, because they use the word many times.   In discourses like you find in Job or in the poetry that you find in Psalms, a certain degree of translational caution is in order. Some poetic license is used in these books. Also, in Job, several people speak who do not speak the truth. Consequently, determining the meaning of a word like Sheol or deriving doctrinal information about it using these books must be done with caution. The good news is that we can learn the meaning of Sheol from other places. While one might poetically refer to a non-existent place of the dead and call it Sheol, the reality of the place is established by its use in other books. So it is proper to understand Sheol as a place even in Job, Psalms and other poetic passages. You just have to double check what you glean from them.

Job first speaks of Sheol in 7:9

As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to (Sheol) does not return.

Job is despairing of his life, but is even more concerned at this point with his death. He knows that he will eventually go to Sheol and considers it to be a one-way trip. This is not to discount Job’s belief in his eventual salvation. Job does speak of the resurrection at the last day in Job 19:25-27:

I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God: I myself will see Him with my own eyes—I and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Job, a righteous man, speaks of Sheol and the resurrection of the body, but not of Heaven! It makes you wonder that if Job received knowledge of Sheol and the resurrection by revelation from God, why would God withhold information about Heaven?   Gaps like this leads the skeptic to conclude that Heaven is a theological innovation of a later time, but God has His reasons for rolling out information at appropriate times. He doesn’t need to share those reasons with us.

In Job 11:8, Job’s friend Zophar speaks of the mysteries of God. His statement is a metaphor comparing the scope of the mysterious nature of God to the height of the heavens and depth of Sheol. Often when the word heaven is plural it is referring to the universe. Sheol is repeatedly referred to as the lowest place, but does this comparison mean that it is part of this universe? Here the poetic nature of the reading would not justify such a conclusion. Nonetheless, if it were just a grave, a grave would not be considered very deep. Clearly Zophar is referring to something else.

Job 14:13 provides an interesting contrast to what Job said in 7:9. Earlier, he did not wish to die, but as his suffering continues he now begs to be hid in Sheol until God’s wrath is done.  So what is more desirable, to suffer in this world or be in Sheol? The question is pondered further in chapter 17:

If the only home I hope for is Sheol(grave), if I spread out my bed in the darkness, if I say to corruption, “You are my father” and to the worm, “My sister”, where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me? Will it go down to the gates of Sheol (death)? Will we descend together into the dust?

Truly this is a sad passage. Job grasps for any kind of hope, because suffering stifles hope. It is easy to see why translators might choose “the grave” and “death”, because Job speaks of corruption and the worm. That makes it sound like we are talking about the condition of the body. But Jesus speaks in the terms used in this passage as well. We’ll address these passages later, but for now lets note that Jesus wasn’t speaking about the fate of the earthly body.

Job seems to have a hard time deciding whether Sheol is a desirable or undesirable place. In Job 21:13, he gripes about the injustice that exists in life. He notes that wicked people sometime have a good life, and they go to Sheol peacefully. Since Job’s life is such a horrible trial, it is understandable that he is a bit jaded. To note, he doesn’t seem to see Sheol as a place of justice. In other words, it’s not a place where the evil people get what’s coming to them. To him it is just the common fate of us all. Jesus would paint a significantly different picture. So would Job’s friends. One of his “buddies”, Bildad, describes death and Sheol as a punishment for sin in 24:19. Whether ultimately saved or damned, Sheol exists because of sin.  Bildad is at least correct about this.

The Bible doesn’t paint death as a deliverance from what is undesirable about life. Death is the direct result of sin. It is punishment, and it’s a punishment that every human being has earned through sin. What lies on the other side of death is also the consequence of sin, at least in part. This is true of whether we are talking about Sheol for the righteous or for the unrighteous, or even for that matter in one way, if we are talking about Heaven.

Humans are properly a body and a soul (call it consciousness if you like). Having those two things segregated as they are by death is undesirable, even though one might argue that having soul and body together in a life like Job’s is worse.

Next Time:  There is more to say about Sheol, but lets take a break and look at some of what the Bible says about Heaven