There was a time, not too long ago, that my perspective of eternity, and especially heaven, more closely resembled a Tom and Jerry cartoon episode than one molded by a faithful interpretation of the Bible. What? You don’t see the connection between Tom and Jerry and heaven?
As I recall from my distant childhood, there are several occasions where Tom (the cat) loses one of his nine lives. Typically, Tom’s demise was usually followed by his soul (portrayed as an almost transparent, phantom cat) drifting upward until he received his cloud, his wings, and a golden harp.
Now, I’ve never been the sharpest tack in the box, but I know the difference between real life and fantasy. Even as a child, I knew that Tom and his cloud in heaven were only make-believe.
The problem was that no one ever gave me a truly biblical image of what eternity held in store, and in the absence of this truth, I subconsciously manufactured my own image, which truthfully looked more like a fairy tale than real life.
What Will We Do for All Eternity?
How many times have you asked or been asked, “What will we do for eternity in heaven?” And the answer, which comes immediately to most of our minds is, “We will worship!” Because worship, to most of us, is understood within the framework of what happens every Sunday morning.
Many have now developed this idea that, for all of eternity, we will stand around the throne of God and sing hymns (or praise songs depending on your preference) right before someone gets up to preach — for all of eternity! I love Jesus and I love worship, but if this is all that heaven will be, some might argue that this is a better description of hell than heaven.
Twenty years into my walk with the Lord and after a lifetime of hearing about heaven, I had to get honest with myself. Though heaven had some preferable qualities, my shallow understanding of the world to come did little to excite me or stir any longing in me to go there. As I said, from the options before me, heaven was the better choice, but any thought of heaven left me wishing for some other reality and hope.
And then one day, I began to see just how intricately my joy and desires were woven into this world. I don’t use “world” negatively as something that should be renounced or discarded. I’m referring to the world and the world’s system which God created and said, “It is very good” (Genesis 1:31).
When most of us think about heaven, we think in terms of another world other than this one, and we see no connection between the two. My struggle with this mindset is that it is fueled by the fact that I love this world and I don’t want to leave to go to a world that has been portrayed, whether intentionally or not, as an ethereal existence away from the things I love most about this world.
I love the beauty of this world, including loving relationships, my wife’s embrace, the laughter of my children, the taste of delicious food, springtime (with no allergies), the salt air, mountain breezes, the smell of jasmine, coffee, college football, tulips, satisfying and fruitful labor, and a billion other things that time prevents me from listing. This is my world, and leaving it is not something I do lightly.
Beyond Our Imaginations
If you have ever harbored such secret thoughts and felt as though you were less spiritual or odd because you simply could not look forward to a world beyond belief and imagination, I have good news for you. The physical world which God fashioned with his own hands is the world to which we belong and the one his elect will enjoy and rule for all of eternity.
When sin entered his good world, God did not abandon it, rather, he set out to redeem it and restore it, not merely to its original condition but to a state infinitely greater than even the original.
This is the purpose for which Christ died. For too long we have understood the scope of Christ’s redemption only in terms of his sacrifice for sinners. And though I exult in his atonement for the sins of his people, his death and resurrection reached far beyond man into the entire created realm.
This is the idea of the great song we sing each Christmas, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
Is Heaven Going to be a Renewal of this Earth?
It's an interesting question how much Heaven is going to be like this world. As you get into being a Christian, you realize there are a couple of questions that are fascinating, where you know this answer is wrong and that answer's wrong, and the right answer's somewhere in the middle. One example of this would be the Old and the New Testaments. How do they relate together? Well, if you say, "There's no relation, there's no continuity," well, that's obviously not right. But if you say, "The Old Testament and the New Testament are just alike, nothing has changed," well that's not right. So there's some dramatic change that's gone on, and yet there's some continuity that's crucial that goes through, and we can debate about exactly what those things are.
Just like that, the question of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like compared to this Heavens in this Earth. If you say, "There's no relation," well that's clearly not right. What do you do with Revelation where the kings of the earth are bringing some cool stuff into the city, or them, or what does that mean? On the other hand, if you say, "Hey, it's just the same thing perfected," well then what do you do about 2 Peter 3, it's reserved for fire? I mean, it seems like this whole thing and once profound's going to be destroyed, just like our bodies are going to be destroyed and then raised to new life. I think the resurrection body of Christ is the closest answer we have to this. There was clear continuity with his pre-resurrection body, but also clear newness is that I think we only begin to understand.
If you've ever read Edwin Abbott's Flatland, this might help. He was a master of Trinity College and a mathematician in Cambridge in the 1870s, 80s, 90s, I think, he wrote this a little fiction piece called Flatland in which he imagines a two-dimensional world that a sphere comes through and how it appears in a two-dimensional way. It's just a point and then it grows out and they don't have any categories for it, they can't understand it, it's breaking all kinds of rules. But what it is, you realize it's a sphere having passed through a plane and I think what God has done in the word, he has expressed truth to us. And yet we can't be surprised that the truth he's talking about is something greater than we can well understand. So every word in here is true, but that doesn't mean I can answer all the questions about the new heaven and the new earth and how much it's like and unlike this one.
Calvin said, "God speaks to us like a nurse to a child with a lisp like to a baby in order to help them understand." Sort of baby talk. I think this is accurate, but in some profound sense, it has to be baby talk compared to the reality of what we'll experience in resurrected bodies in the new heavens and the new earth. so there are tons of things. I don't know about that, but I know it's going to be great and it's going to be great because God is there and I will be forgiven in Christ and reconciled to him and I'm looking forward to it.
So I think our work in this world because that's usually what people are interested in when they ask this question, our work in this world is valuable to God. Everything we do is valuable to God, whether it's peeling a potato, or building a cathedral, or raising your children well, or preaching a sermon that's accurate, or sharing the gospel with somebody. All of that, if it's done, as Paul says, to the Lord, for the Lord, with him in mind, desiring to serve him, all of it is valuable to him and all of that has eternal significance.
A New Heaven and a New Earth in the Bible
Jesus shared this same reality with Nicodemus in their famous nocturnal conversation when he said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. . .” (John 3:16). Though Jesus is contextually speaking of his love for all nations, not merely Israel, the word world (kosmon) infers that his love and sacrifice are not limited to mankind, but extend into all of the created order.
Genesis portrays, for us, a picture of a good world, in which the spiritual and physical realms complement and complete each other. Don’t overlook the fact that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The word “heavens” doesn’t simply speak of the space and atmosphere over the earth, but rather speaks of God’s space.
Before sin’s entrance into our world, the physical and spiritual realms existed in harmony and there was no separation. This is demonstrated by God “walking in the cool of the day” with Adam and Eve and also in how the serpent spoke to Eve with seemingly no alarm on her part at all.
It seems that this conversation between humans and non-humans was not unusual at all. But this all changed in one bite. Man, and his disobedience, had ruptured God’s good world in a way that mere mortals could never repair. The Apostle Paul would capture the weight of this tragic condition in Romans when he said,
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the adoption as sons. . . (Romans 8:23).
All of God’s good creation, both man and the created order, is affected by sin’s curse as Paul clearly points out. Therefore, why should we believe that God would purpose to restore only man, while relinquishing the physical realm for which we were made to destruction?
Peter signals to us that this is not the case when he writes of our “living hope through the resurrection” (1 Peter 1:3). My hope can be “living hope” when it is anchored to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There will come a day when God will do for all of creation what he did for Jesus on that first Easter morning.
Redeemed saints are not destined to live eternally in an ethereal realm floating around with no purpose. Rather, we are guaranteed that the Maker will transform his world into the glorious place that it was intended to be when he first planted Adam in the garden.
When the last day finally comes, we will not fly away to him, but Christ will return to us as indicated in Revelation 21 when John observes,
“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, the 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’” (Revelation 21:1-3).
What Does This Mean?
The new world to come is far more glorious than the one we presently know. However, there are great continuities between this one and the one we long for. It will be a world that we recognize and one in which all the things that we love will be present but no longer marred and twisted by sin.
We will work for all eternity but not for the love of or need for money but for the joy of work. And it is likely that our present gifts, abilities, and personalities will follow us to the other side only without the marks and motives of sin.
Can you imagine the sports, the arts, the music that no human ear has ever heard, the construction, the technologies, the research, the teachings which will be possible in the new world without the power or presence of sin?
And best of all, Christ will be at the center of it all. This is a world I can get excited about and for good reason. It is the one I was intended to occupy from the very beginning. And so, it will be.
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Dr. Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, lives in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer for organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Erskine Theological Seminary. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in India, Romania, Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee. You can find other works by Kirby at www.rickkirby.org.