Heaven - fact and fiction?
Donald Cameron, Clovenfords, Scotland
Among nominal and efringef Christians there have always been misapprehensions about Heaven. Pictures abound of our departed: winged, clothed in nightdresses and seated upon clouds playing harps! Peter, who incidentally is as yet no more in his resurrection body than Mary or any other New Testament saint, is depicted as a sort of janitor with a nominal roll. Little wonder that so many cartoons and jokes abound.
We are talking here about Godfs dwelling place, in New Testament times sometimes described as the ethird heavenf, 2 Cor 12. 2, to distinguish it from the atmospheric and starry, which are the first and second heavens. What is really more worrying than ignorance elsewhere, is the vagueness about Heaven which exists among professing Christians who are generally eBible believingf. It is useful to know the source of confusion. Moreover, whether our ministry is in evangelism, teaching, sick visiting, care for the elderly or comforting the bereaved, it is important that we are clear what the Bible teaches on this matter.
The Bible teaches us about Heaven
In fact, the Bible teaches quite a lot about Heaven, even though there is much that we do not yet know about it. We have space here for only a fraction of the texts available, but we can unequivocally state the following:
œ Heaven is holy, Isa. 57. 15.
œ Heaven is the place from which the Lord Jesus came to earth and to which He returned at His ascension, Acts 1. 9-10.
œ Jesus called Heaven emy Fatherfs housef, where He, the churchfs Bridegroom, was soon to go to prepare a place for us, John 14. 2-3.
œ The Lord Jesus will remain in Heaven until the etime of restitution of all thingsf, Acts 3. 21.
œ He will ecatch upf or erapturef to Heaven the bodies of the edead in Christf and change the bodies of ewe who are alive and remainf at the same time, 1 Thess. 4. 15- 17.
œ For those believers who die in the meantime, Heaven, even before the resurrection, is efar betterf, Phil 1. 23, being eabsent from the body and present with the Lordf, 2 Cor. 5. 8.
œ Heaven is our undefiled inheritance, Col.1. 5; 1 Pet. 1. 4.
œ Our right to enter Heaven is blood-bought by Christ rather than earned, Eph. 2. 1- 5.
œ In Heaven we will receive or be denied rewards for our service on earth, Matt. 5. 12; 2 Cor. 5. 10.
œ When the Lord Jesus next leaves Heaven for earth it will be as the conquering eKing of kings and Lord of lordsf coming with His heavenly saints to set up His kingdom and erule with a rod of ironf, Rev. 19. 11-15.
œ Heaven is eternal and will remain after this earth and its starry and atmospheric heavens have passed away, 2 Cor. 5. 1; 2 Pet. 3. 10.
Old and New Testaments use symbolism
Both Old and New Testaments use symbolism and eas it weref explanations to tell us what those few persons privileged to be given a peep into Heaven have seen. Symbolism is not allegory but rather a way of describing things beyond mortal comprehension. eEye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spiritf, 1 Cor. 2. 9-10 quoting Isaiah chapter 64 verse 4. One day we will see and understand for ourselves but at present our understanding is clearly limited by our present state, see 2 Cor. 12. 4.
Today there is a failure to distinguish between Heaven and the millennial reign
But even those things which believers can know have been compromised by failure to distinguish between the future millennial earth and Heaven itself. These are emphatically not one and the same. In the 2nd century Church Fathers such as Papias and Polycarp, who had known John personally, recorded that the aged apostle, after he had received his Apocalypse or Unveiling, believed and taught a literal Millennium following Christfs return. This teaching, known as eChiliasmf remained the common view for several generations after Johnfs death. But there is a stubborn resistance today to accepting the simple sequence in Revelation chapters 19 and 20, in which we see that those who will have taken part in the first resurrection and will have returned in the Lordfs victorious train, will ebe priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand yearsf, on this earth, where there will still be mortal life, Rev. 20. 6.
If we believe, as surely we must, that Satan is to be defeated and bound for a thousand years in the totally secure way described in Revelation chapter 20 verses 1-3, we have no option but to believe that this is all future. This binding of Satan explains the promised blessings of the millennial prophecies. The myth that he is currently bound in these stated terms is naive in the extreme. This error is no obscure deviation of little relevance today. If we reject the Millennium as part of Godfs plans for this earth, which is due to pass away before the new creation described in Revelation chapters 21 and 22, we are left with no interval into which to slot the numerous faithful and quite detailed Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Amillennialists, please pause and think about this. Claims that the Old Testament kingdom prophecies have already been fulfilled imply that both major and minor prophets exaggerated grossly; seriously undermining the authority of their own scriptures. If such liberal interpretation is permissible here, why should other doctrines not be treated equally in the same way?
One error has led to many errors
This confusion has led to the assumption that a whole host of disparate passages are allegories of the same thing, which is of course the position one is compelled to adopt if one does not believe in a literal Millennium. Allegorization did not take off seriously until the 3rd Century AD with the rise of apostasy and infiltration of Greek philosophy. It was given a semblance of authority by Augustine. It is still prevalent in many circles and is frequently applied to prophecy.
ePicturesf of Heaven which are complementary to each other or even contrasting may be acceptable, but any which are contradictory are certainly not. What we believe about the Pre-Millennial or Post-Millennial timing of the Lordfs return is no trivial matter.
Two Millennial prophecies often used confusingly
Let us look at two millennial prophecies sometimes thought to describe Heaven. I did not arrange my motherfs recent funeral, but I was asked to read from Isaiah chapter 65. I explained to the congregation that, while this was one of my Motherfs favourite passages, it was not about Heaven but about Christfs future righteous reign upon earth. I could not see the rectorfs reaction! While, like Isaiah chapter 11, it foretells carnivores and domestic animals living in harmony and other lovely blessings, chapter 65 also includes the statement, eThere shall no more thence be an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursedf, v. 20.
Another of the many Kingdom passages which is yet to be fulfilled is Zechariah chapter 8 verses 1-8. eI will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; and Jerusalem shall be called a city of truth . . . there shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playingf, vv. 3- 5. Does either passage quoted conform to what we are told elsewhere about Heaven? The Lord Himself said, eIn the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriagef, Matt 22. 30, so why are there children and old folk in the Zechariah passage? Simply because it is on earth rather than Heaven. eFlesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruptionf, 1 Cor. 15. 50. Paul goes on to tell of our immortal bodies which will be received when the dead in Christ shall rise and living saints will be caught up. Believers in Heaven will be neither young nor old; they will simply be immortal and incorruptible. The Rapture will take us eternally beyond death. But even then the destruction of all death will still lie far ahead, awaiting the end of this world and its starry heavens. It will be the last enemy to be destroyed, 1 Cor. 15. 26. eThere shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed awayf, Rev 21. 4.
With only the Old Testament, some confusion might be acceptable
Now had we only the Old Testament, some confusion might be acceptable. Information about these matters was given progressively throughout scripture. When the canon of scripture was complete we had enough data to see us through the Church Age. We must concede that, from a casual reading of Isaiah chapter 65 verses 17-25, we might assume that the passage we quoted mentioning death at 100 years might be understood as stretching away into eternity.
In verse 17 we read, eBehold, I create new heavens and a new earth and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mindf. The next verse, however, starts with one of the momentous ebutsf of the Bible. Lest any should assume that God in announcing His future new creation was overlooking His outstanding promises for the old creation, the prophet goes on to tell how some of these promises will first be fulfilled. The details are of familiar earthly things which have to be restored when the Lord Jesus returns in power, eWhom the heaven must receive until the time of restitution (or restoration) of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of His holy prophetsf, Acts 3. 21.
Have a look at Zechariah chapter 14, so devastating for the Amillennialists. The eRestorationf, which is when ethe Lord shall be King over all the earthf, clearly follows His physical and literal return to the Mount of Olives, fulfilling the promise given at His ascension. That is neither Heaven nor the promised new creation.
Whilst our longing as saints of this dispensation is to see our Saviour face to face when He fulfils His promise to come again for us, John 14. 3, we would in no way deny His Fatherfs declared intention that He should reign in righteousness in the world where He was once crucified, Ps. 2. 2-12; 110. 1-2; Micah 4. 1-8, but that will not be Heaven!