What Happens When You Die? Heaven Knows
What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Life in Heaven
When I was a kid, I had a strange concept of Heaven. There I believed everyone would somehow become all-knowing — like God. And, being like God, they would be able to watch my life from my point of view. Maybe after playing back the tape of Cody Miles: The Movie, they would understand me and the way I was.
Notions like that were usually conjured in moments of self-crisis.
It seems petty now. Those insignificant and now almost forgotten episodes fighting over so-and-so seemed so paramount as a kid. My world ended after a fight — especially with my mom — and my face would sometimes bury itself into a pillow for hours. It’s funny now because I can’t recall a single example. Still, I remember how insurmountable the pain would feel. In those moments, I would comfort myself. In Heaven they would understand. When they played back the tape, they would say to themselves, “Oh, I was mistaken. If only I had known while I was still alive. I was wrong to have thought that way about Cody.”
Of course, my prepubescent view of Heaven relied on me being the director of my story. Any indiscretions of the protagonist would be edited from the script — kind of like a Hilary / private email server scenario. I mean, if I was ever intentionally malicious, well, at least I wasn’t Hitler, am I right?
If I’ve mastered any skill in life, I’ve definitely become an expert in ignoring the inconvenient truths in my beliefs.
My fictitious ideas about Heaven remained with me even after converting to Christianity at 16. More than that, it compounded with other modern Christian myths about Heaven — like guardian angels and Don Piper’s near death experience. It wasn’t until I peeled back my assumptions as an adult that I realized I really had a folk theology. My understanding of Heaven was rooted in a variety of disparate channels and Christmas TV specials had done more to inform my view of Glory over the years than the Bible ever did.
The truth is, there isn’t much to be said about Heaven — not from the Bible’s perspective, anyway. And, that’s kind of unsettling. One of the largest promises of the Christian faith is life after death. Yet, the Bible is largely silent on the nature of Heaven. Even more unsettling, the more I wrestle with it, the more I realize how little I actually believe about Heaven.
When You Give a Mouse a Cookie…
When you hear preachers and televangelists teach on the nature of Heaven, nine times out of ten they’re quoting from the book of Revelation. That should scare you.
The super religious will tell you that, in Heaven, there is a city the shape of a giant cube, with walls made of jasper and streets made of gold. It’s the New Jerusalem, which comes down from outer space and covers half the United States after the second coming of Jesus (That is, after we leave Nicolas Cage and Kirk Cameron behind). And, since they’re quoting from the book of Revelation, this must be honest-to-goodness truth, right?
The problem is, taking a passage literally in Revelation is kind of like giving a mouse a cookie.
If you take the golden city literally (Rev 21:21), you’re going to also have to take the godzilla-like beast coming out of the ocean literally (Rev 13:1). And if you take that godzilla-like beast literally, you’re going to also have to take the woman, drunk with the blood of martyrs, riding around on a seven-headed monster literally (Rev 17), etc. etc.
Would you be comfortable believing that? Unfortunately, I know some people who are and I wish I could be ok with such a prima facie interpretation. For the rest of us, however, we are right to be skeptical. Not only does a literal reading ignore Revelation’s genre as apocalyptic literature, but it also ignores the books first-century context.
Maybe Revelation isn’t supposed to be read like a science fiction. Maybe it should be read like a historical book — like you would read literally anything else.
What if John, the writer of Revelation, was writing primarily to encourage persecuted Christians under the Romans in the first century? What if he used language from familiar Jewish prophecies to remind them of God’s faithfulness and point to something greater? I submit to you that John wrote those golden city of Heaven verses, Revelation 21–22, based on the prophecies in Ezekiel 40–48 — the prophecies that gave hope to enslaved Israel under Babylon.
This may be a little technical, but consider the similarities:
- Both passages describe 12 gates surrounding the presence of God with three gates on each wall (cf. Ezekiel 48:30–35, Revelation 21:13)
- Both Ezekiel and John are made to measure the walls with a reed (cf. Ezekiel 40:3, Revelation 21:15)
- Both passages contain the throne of God (cf. Ezekiel 43:7, Revelation 22:3)
- Both passages contain a river of life (cf. Ezekiel 47:1–7, Revelation 22:1)
- Both passages contain a tree by the river that bears fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing (cf. Ezekiel 47:12, Revelation 22:2)
And that only scratches the surface between these two passages. That’s beside the point though. The similarities are only meant to help us recognize the connection between the two passages. The real meaningfulness of John’s words is found in the contrasts.
The first and most obvious contrast is the object being described. Ezekiel is talking about rebuilding the Temple — the most sacred place to his Jewish audience. He describes the Temple as being surrounded by a wall that separates the holy from the common. In Revelation, however, John is referring to a city. There is no temple in it because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). In other words, Ezekiel prophesies about returning to the Jewish world order, which had its freedoms but limited access to God. John, on the other hand, is describing a city in which God dwells with his people. In this new world order, there is both freedom and unlimited access to God.
Likewise, the east gates of the Temple in Ezekiel’s prophecy are closed, but the gates of the city in Revelation are always open. The reason? The city gates “bring into it the glory and honor of the nations” (Rev 21:26). And, while Ezekiel’s prince was the only one allowed to eat in the presence of God, John says that all are welcome to come and eat (Rev 3:20).
How should we interpret this? I imagine John is saying that, while the old world order was restricted primarily to Israelites, this new world order is available freely to anyone.
John prophesied about a better world order, one that centered around the lordship of Jesus and his New Covenant. It is a world order that eliminates the written code of hebraic law and removes the barriers between God and his people. The message for his contemporary audience was, God is going to win in the end; don’t give up hope.
This way of thinking shouldn’t sound strange to us. More than half of the verses in Revelation are either direct quotes or allusions to passages in the Old Testament. Consider Gog and Magog who first appear in Ezekiel 38–39 and return for a cameo in Revelation 20:8. The writer of Revelation is kind of like a hip hop producer that samples songs from old archives. Like Kanye West reinterpreting Marvin Gaye’s Distant Lover in his song, Spaceship, John the Revelator gives new meaning to familiar Jewish prophecy in Revelation. We shouldn’t view this as an incorrect interpretation, John understood his Bible like his contemporaries did.
To be fair, however, I’m not sure it matters whether or not the streets in Heaven are made of gold. My point here is, there’s no reason to believe there are even going to be streets. John is not writing to inform you about the infrastructure of Heaven or how big your house in it will be; he’s writing to encourage first-century believers that they will be victorious over their persecutors. The nature of life after death is absent from the text.
The Silence is Deafening
When you survey the Bible, it becomes clear that life after death is hardly the main topic of discussion. In fact, I’d suggest the idea of citizenship in Heaven is purely a New Testament concept and ancient Israelites had no inclination of going there.
While reading the psalter, for example, it soon becomes clear that Heaven is indeed God’s dwelling place. Psalm 11:4 reads, “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in Heaven…”
But, Israel was not concerned with membership there in the afterlife. Their prayers for salvation were not focused on the spiritual. They prayed for material abundance — good health, abundant wealth and offspring — and their concerns centered on their position among the nations, their proximity to the promised land and re-joining the Houses of Israel. You might say they resolved to believe that the Temple was as close as they’d ever get to Heaven.
We even see this internal struggle about mortality in the Old Testament. In Ecclesiastes, the author writes, “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (Eccles. 3:19–21)
You might say that the writer of Ecclesiastes had no knowledge of Jesus, and you’d be right. But, to put a point on it, Jesus says in a conversation with Nicodemus, “No one has ever gone into Heaven except the one who came from Heaven — the Son of Man” (John 3:13). If ancient Israel had any intention of going to Heaven following death, they would have been sorely disappointed — at least according to Jesus.
In the New Testament, there are some strange passages about Heaven that tend to be ignored by most evangelicals.
You don’t hear too many sermons on 2 Corinthians 12, for example. There Paul talks about a man who was caught up into a third Heaven. It’s a strange verse because, although Paul seems certain it happened, he’s not particularly certain how it happened. He says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
I don’t mean to oversimplify this very difficult and nuanced subject. Understandably, your eschatological views will impact your understanding of Heaven significantly. But, a third Heaven? I’m willing to bet that doesn’t fit in very well with most contemporary theological frameworks.
My point is, if you think you know what Heaven will be like, you know more than Paul — or anyone in the Old Testament for that matter.
No Bodies in Heaven
The Bible’s silence on the nature of Heaven is kind of like the cliffhanger at the end of Stranger Things (Replace with Dexter or Breaking Bad if you live under a rock). It leaves me so unsatisfied and with so many unanswered questions. What kind of body will we have? Will we have a body? If we have bodies, do we move? Where would we go? What would we do? Would we need to eat, sleep, shave or defecate? What about sex?
But, if I were forced to boil it all down, the only thing I know for certain is that Heaven is where God dwells. I believe in it, despite the overwhelming lack of information. I don’t know where it is, if it is a place, or what it’s like, but I still find myself agreeing with the apostle Paul when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:23).
Whatever Heaven is, it’s a promise of more.
Still, it’s challenging to believe in something that requires so much faith. Trusting in the promise of Heaven without knowing the nature of it is kind of like trusting in the promises of Donald Trump — vague, lofty and unshakably resilient. Even so, maybe there is something to be said about having faith in uncertainty. It seems to be how God operates, anyway. As Peter Enns would say, “Faith isn’t about how sure you can be, but what you do when you’re not.”
So, I’m trusting God on this one. Heaven may be a mystery, but it’s a mystery I’m looking forward to figuring out.
In the end, I’m not so sure my childhood beliefs about Heaven are really all that unique. The Bible’s silence has given each of us an opportunity to imagine what Heaven might be like. Perhaps God is testing us. Come on, He says, I challenge you to imagine a place as big and as perfect as you can — I’ll beat it.
“… in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).