WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT HEAVEN?
Rediscovering Divine Hope
In this article, we look at the connection between heaven, hope and the coming of Jesus, and why this is so important to the Kingdom of God.
[Summary opens in a pop-up lightbox]
So, What’s the Big Deal?
You may be surprised by the title of this article, What’s the big deal about heaven?
Perhaps for you, heaven is an extremely big deal and rightly so. However, talk to many believers and you’ll see that heaven is increasingly less en vogue these days. And there is a good chance that even if you do think heaven’s a big deal, you may well have a bits-and-pieces view of it. The truth is most people have a mishmash of ideas concerning heaven rather than a thorough Biblical overview.
For example, if I pointed out that our eternal destination is not actually heaven but earth—a new earth that is—well, I may get tarred-and-feathered. You may still question me after this article, but I ask you to prayerfully read this with a heart determined to search the Scriptures instead of falling back on tightly held assumptions you may have picked up along the way.
Perhaps you’re on the other side of this issue. For you, the concept of heaven is meh, and seems far less important than, say, “Maximizing Life” or “Seizing the Day”. To many, heaven is at best boring … and at worst, utterly irrelevant.
If you nodded your head at the title of this article—heaven-talk makes you yawn—my aim is to also reawaken something that you may have lost and help you to rediscover the big deal about heaven. To you, I gently shout: “Wake up and shake off the whatever!”
Before we dive into what the Bible reveals about heaven, consider this analogy…
Don’t Connect the Dots
You’re no doubt familiar with the children’s puzzle connect the dots?
Drawing lines to connect a sequence of numbered dots reveals the outline of an object. In complicated puzzles, the object remains a mystery until a large majority of the dots are connected.
Think of what the Bible reveals about heaven (and the coming age ushered in through Jesus’ return) as a connect-the-dots puzzle.
Except, in this case, the point is to not connect the dots!
God doesn’t reveal an airtight systematic view of the afterlife. Instead, He offers hints and teasers of what’s to come after death—or for the sake of this analogy, “dots”.
The point of the dots that God reveals is to stir our imagination. To stoke our hope and inspire our vision. To get us to wonder and marvel.
Inspired by the raw, mystical idea of the hereafter (and the age to come), we operate from an eternity perspective. Thus, in transcending our worldly limitations, we’re better equipped to fulfil our purpose in the here and now.
However, when we join these dots, we end up reducing the glory and mystery of it into rigid formulas and dull, speculative theories that distract us from our Kingdom purpose and destiny. What ought to inspire us to hope-fuelled action in this present age becomes a form of escapism instead.
So, when reading Bible passages about heaven or about the coming of Jesus (the two ideas are linked, as we’ll see in a moment), resist the temptation to join the dots.
Rather, sit with the unjoined dots. Breathe. Ponder. Allow them to stir your imagination. Let them fan your hopes.
Wonder. Marvel and rejoice.
Then, inspired by hope, transcend the mundane and shed all small, limited thinking.
Dream of a better world.
Now, live in such a way as to make the dream a reality. Cooperate with God in His Kingdom plan for this earth. Now. Today.
That’s it. That’s the take-home value of the revelation of heaven.
You could stop reading.
Or you could explore this topic further, as we probe it more specifically.
However, as we unpack what the Bible says about heaven, and its connection to the return of Jesus, let’s remind ourselves regularly that we’re largely imagining; our goal is to allow the dots (God’s hints and teasers) to awaken our imagination.
At every step, avoid joining the dots. This will keep us connected to Him and help us avoid jumping to escapist conclusions that disconnect us from our Kingdom purpose.
Three Heavens, Not Just One?
The Bible refers to three heavens, not one.
The first way in which the Bible uses the word heaven refers to the abode of God.
Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Paul referred to it as the “third heaven” and used “Paradise” as a synonym for it (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4). Jesus Himself used the word “Paradise” when assuring the man, on the cross next to Him, of his post-mortem security (Luke 23:43).
The second way the Bible uses the word heaven is to refer to the natural universe surrounding the earth.
God “created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The psalmists often used the word heaven in this sense, describing the created world. For example, David wrote: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained” (Psalm 8:3).
The third reference is to the “heavenly places”—the spiritual realm—in which our primary warfare against demonic powers takes place (Ephesians 2:6; 3:10; 6:12). The outcome of this warfare affects our natural world. It seems that in the coming age ushered in by Jesus’ return, the third heaven will eclipse this second heaven.
In a nutshell then, we presently live on this earth in the first heaven or natural world. As the redeemed, we contend for God’s Kingdom to advance in the second heaven or spiritual realm which directly affects the first heaven. Our victory is assured to the degree that we manifest God’s Presence and contend for His will, as He enables and empowers us from His abode in the third heaven.
Admittedly, this is a mouthful of nutshells, but the point is clear. God intends His Presence to become manifest in every realm as His rule is established over the entire created world.
Although diagrams have their limitations, they do help us grasp concepts. Think of the three heavens like this:
The dashed lines around the first and second heaven are meant to show their interrelation to one another and their dependence on the third heaven.
God’s Original Plan, An ‘Open Heaven’
In God’s original purpose for creation, we can imagine an ‘open heaven’ between God in heaven and humanity on earth; that is, there was no second heaven. Adam and Eve enjoyed undisturbed fellowship with God even though their God-given mandate was to steward the created world on His behalf. It appears that Adam and Eve experienced the awesome presence of God in all His glorious, heavenly splendour without restriction or interruption (Genesis 2:1-25 c. 3:8, 9).
After the fall, the Scriptures reveal that God’s people only enjoyed partial glimpses of His unfiltered glory—such as when God peeled back the curtain of the third heaven for Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-4) and John (Revelation 4:1, 2)—but it was surely humanity’s standard experience before the fall.
Diagrammatically, we might visualise an ‘open heaven’ (note: no second heaven) as follows…
The Fall from Glory
Let’s now imagine the effects of Adam and Eve’s fall from glory in the language of the three heavens.
When Adam and Eve forfeited their God-given authority, it closed the ‘open heaven’ between God in the third heaven and His creation on earth, the first heaven. The resulting second heaven—the spiritual realm, or to use Paul’s phrase, the “heavenly places”—became a conflict zone determining whether humanity would or would not enjoy the Presence of God from the third heaven.
It’s worth pointing out that our victory in this warfare is captured in the idea of Christlikeness: conforming individually and collectively to the nature and work of Christ (Romans 13:12, 14; Ephesians 6:10-17; 2 Corinthians 10:1-5). We don’t win this war merely through prayer formulas, spiritual jargon or religious zeal. We enforce Christ’s victory through His nature manifest in and through our lives, our communities and our ministries.
God’s Restored Plan: This Present Age
Jesus’ victory, in His first coming, reclaimed humanity’s authority and ushered in the present age.
In this age, the redeemed have unhindered access to the Father’s Presence now—even though we do so amid struggle and conflict. We’re also restored in our Kingdom role as stewards of the created world. Our role in this present age is to establish the Kingdom of God through love and service, aligning the created world to the Father’s will.
It’s worth noting that our faithfulness and fruitfulness in this present age is linked to the return of Jesus. In Peter’s words, we are to not just “look for [but to] hasten the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). Jesus is not returning for a defeated people seeking escape; He’s returning for a prevailing ekklesia, a victorious people who are getting the job done (Matthew 16:18, 19 c. Matthew 24:45-51).
God’s Eternal Plan: The Age to Come
In the age to come, ushered in through Jesus’ return, humanity will once again enjoy a restored ‘open heaven’ as the third heaven overshadows the first heaven. And on this new earth, the redeemed dwell and reign (Revelation 21, 22) complete with resurrected bodies (1 Corinthians 15).
The New Testament doesn’t use the phrase, “the return of Christ”. Instead, it uses the term “coming”, a Greek word (parousia) which referred to the official coming or arrival of a king. The arrival (parousia) of royalty included a celebration of his sovereign rule and ushered in a brand-new era.
As we said in A Hopeful Eschatology, the Parousia of Christ then refers to the arrival of the King whose return is celebrated and whose coming consummates the present age, ushering in the “age to come”—the age inaugurated in Christ’s Parousia. We’ll use the phrase the Parousia age interchangeably with the phrase the age to come in this article.
This, along with all the other imagery—a new heaven and a new earth, resurrected bodies and so on—resonates loudly with divine hope. Its design is to arouse our spirits and stir our imaginations.
God’s original plan is fully realised in the age to come. As stewards of a new earth, we can only imagine with great excitement what life in the Parousia age involves.
We could view this diagrammatically as follows:
In the final diagram above, we see the connection between the Parousia of Jesus and heaven: Jesus’ return restores an ‘open heaven’. God’s original plan is His eternal plan.
These two big ideas, the Parousia and heaven, are connected in the Biblical word hope.
Hope: Jesus’ Parousia and Heaven
Simply stated, Biblical hope assures us that this world is not all there is. There’s more to just clocking through 70 to 80 years on this earth. To put a finer point on it, this present age isn’t the final age. There’s nothing more despairing and void of hope than the notion: we live, we die, the end.
While most connect hope to the idea of heaven, it’s more accurate to state that Biblical hope is centred on the return of Jesus.
For every one message on Biblical hope we hear today, we probably hear a hundred on faith. And when we consider the topic of faith, few passages are more quoted than Hebrews, Chapter 11. The writer begins this wonderful chapter, often called “The Hall of Faith,” with these words:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
(Hebrews 11:1, italics added)
The link between faith and hope is obvious, but the context of this statement is often overlooked.
The author of this letter was encouraging his Jewish audience to persevere through the enormous struggles they faced. They were the most marginalised, oppressed people on the planet: ostracised by the Roman Empire for being Jewish and persecuted by everyone, including their fellow Jews, for following Christ. On the verge of throwing in the proverbial towel, the writer reminds them of their destiny in Christ and urges them to continue firmly in their faith. He appeals to divine hope: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for.” But what were they to hope for?
Wonderful thing this thing called context. The opening word “Now” reminds us to connect this thought to the previous one, recorded in the preceding chapter:
Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: ‘For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for…”
(Hebrews 10:35-39; 11:1, italics added)
What were they in danger of losing hope in?
The promise of His coming!
To walk in victorious faith, they were to recapture their hope of His Parousia … and to live every day in the light of “that Day”. The author of this remarkable letter then highlights the many heroes of the faith—both those who experienced incredible victories and those who suffered gruesome setbacks—coming to a mind-blowing conclusion:
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”
(Hebrews 11:39, 40)
What was he talking about?
The Old Testament believers, who he details in this Hall of Faith, lived by faith—in victory and struggle—because they set their hope on the Messiah who was to come.
We are now to live by faith—in victory and struggle—because we set our hope on His second coming!
Yes, our salvation and victory are assured because the Messiah has come, but we are now to live by faith in this present age with the divine hope of His return motivating every fibre of our being. In Peter’s words, we are to live dynamic lives of holiness and godliness “looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11,12). Not just “looking for” but also “hastening” His return; cooperating with Him in such a way as to actually bring it to pass!
We can endure hardship, persevere through struggle and make sacrifices in this present age for God and His Kingdom’s advance because we live in hope, an earnest expectation of His return.
Biblical hope is centred on the coming of Christ.
We encourage you to read A Hopeful Eschatology if you haven’t done so already.
So, how does heaven fit into the picture?
There are at least two ways to imagine how heaven fits into the Parousia.
However, let’s state the obvious.
When we die, we immediately face our Maker.
And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.″
There is no purgatory or cycle of reincarnation. When we die on this earth, we are ushered into an immediate audience with God. This is true for the believer and the unbeliever.
While the fate of the unbeliever is beyond the scope of this article, what happens to the believer at death?
As believers, we can rejoice knowing that “to be absent from the body [is] to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). At death, the believer stands assured at the “judgment seat of Christ” immediately welcomed into God’s Presence through the completed work of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8, 10). Jesus assured the man on the cross next to Him, saying: “today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The man surely expected that in dying, he would be ushered into God’s Presence—redeemed, of course, through Jesus’ atonement.
Although we can only speculate about what this experience will be like, the word “Paradise” certainly captures it. Again, while the Bible is brief on the details, it reveals enough to get our imagination soaring.
Paul, having been allowed to peek into the third heaven, seemed prohibited from sharing what he saw (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Or was it that he could not explain in human words the incredible glory he witnessed?
Interestingly, he used the terms “third heaven” and “Paradise” interchangeably when speaking of his experience:
…caught up to the third heaven … caught up into Paradise…”
(2 Corinthians 12:2, 4)
The idea of Paradise is linked to God’s original creation (Genesis 1, 2) and the vision of the Parousia age (Revelation 21, 22)—the bookends of the Bible. This may imply that the experience Paul alluded to in this passage was not so much about encountering heaven as much as it was about understanding the age to come. In fact, the Greek word Paul uses, “caught up”, stems from the same root word used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “caught up together”—the phrase from which we derive the concept of the rapture of the church. Regardless of how one views the Rapture, and there are several ways to do so, it refers to Jesus’ coming and the beginning of the Parousia age. All this is to say that Paul may well have experienced the Parousia age in his encounter. This is borne out further by the fact that Paul’s interest, as evidenced through his writings, is far more focused on the ‘open heaven’ vision of the coming age than heaven itself.
Paul was not alone in his emphasis on the Parousia.
When the apostle John considered our future state, he explained: “it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but when He is revealed, we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2). Notice, he also links our future state to the Parousia.
That said, there are at least two equally valid ways to imagine what happens to the believer who dies before Christ’s return.
Imagining #1: Heavenly Bliss Awaiting the Parousia
The first view proposes that at death, the believer is received into the third heaven, God’s abode, as a bodiless spirit to enjoy the delights of glory divine.
This is the view held by most people. However, those who hold this view often forget that, even in this case, this experience in heaven is only for a limited period, brief in the light of God’s unfolding plan for the ages. Why?
When Jesus returns, those who have already died will return with Him to consummate His Kingdom on earth.
Paul comforted the Thessalonians confused about these matters:
I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep (the believers who have died) … For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14, emphasis added)
If we take Paul’s words literally, we can conclude that those who die before Jesus’ second coming will return with Him from the third heaven, participating in the glorious consummation of the Kingdom with those still alive on the earth (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17). This grand finale concludes the present age and ushers in the Parousia age on a restored earth. In other words, our final destination is a new earth, enjoying an ‘open heaven’, not in heaven per se.
In this first viewpoint, heaven is then a temporary place of divine delight where those who die before Christ’s return await the coming age. And there is every reason to assume that this wait is but a moment in light of the unrestrained delight of communion with God and the freedom enjoyed from natural linear time restrictions (1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Peter 3:8).
Imagining #2: Stepping into the Parousia
The second view proposes that in dying, the believer steps into, or “awakens” in, the Parousia moment. Thus, in the moment of death, the believer steps into the climactic return of Christ, a transposing dynamic that transcends time as we know it. (That is, since we’re not bound by earth’s timeline between our death and the Parousia, there’s no reason or need to wait for a future event in linear earth time.)
In this view, Paul’s words are read metaphorically not literally. The implication of this viewpoint, based on Paul’s metaphor that the dead “sleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13,14) and the “dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), is that heaven, as we usually view it, is not the destination at any point. It’s not even a temporary stop off. At death, the redeemed “awake” in the Parousia of Christ and step into the age to come—in which the third heaven eclipses God’s redeemed creation in a restored ‘open heaven’.
Paul explained to the Corinthians that at Christ’s return:
Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
(1 Corinthians 15:51, 52, italics added)
It can be argued that this is more consistent with the New Testament eschatological narrative, especially when connecting the “third heaven” to “Paradise” (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4) and the fact that Revelation’s picture of an open-heaven marriage between God and His creation powerfully foreshadows the restoration of Eden’s Paradise (Revelation 21:1-27; 22:1-5).
This also has exciting implications for how we live now.
If, in dying, I immediately face my Maker to give an account for my life and in so doing, step into the Parousia age, this eschatological hope presses immense meaning into the years I’ve been given in this age. In other words, even if Jesus does not return during my lifetime; at the end of my life, in passing, I encounter His Parousia. In a sense then, Jesus does return at the end of my life (even if it’s more accurate to say that my death transposes me into His Parousia).
Thus, the goal isn’t to go to heaven but to cooperate with God’s mind-boggling Kingdom purpose to restore heaven on earth. And to do so knowing our efforts hasten the consummation of an ‘open heaven’ on earth in the Parousia age.
That all said, both viewpoints are valid and even though the former is better known, the latter is more consistent with a Hebrew worldview. The Greek notion that human beings can exist as bodiless spirits is a thought foreign to the Hebrew mind.
Made for Earth
Either way, the premise behind both viewpoints is that heaven, as we traditionally think of it, is not our final destination.
God created humanity to live and rule on this earth, and He intends glorified humanity to live and rule on the new earth.
While we are created in the image of God, we are also created with a body to fulfil our mandate on earth. This is not just a statement of the obvious, but it highlights the telling distinction between human beings and angels. Made in God’s image and likeness, the pinnacle of His creation, we are uniquely made to steward the created world.
What’s more, to fulfil this mandate on a restored earth, we’ll need resurrected bodies (1 Corinthians 15:35-58). It’s becoming increasingly common to scoff at this as a fanciful notion; however, it not only again underscores our uniqueness in creation, but it also makes rational sense. It’s completely in keeping with the nature of God to create a body suited to the realities of its environment. All created things are made to thrive in their “world”. A fish has a body of scales suited for swimming; a bird has a body of feathers built for flight.
We are made for earth. Both in this age and in the Parousia age. And in the age to come, we’ll need an upgrade, a restored body to fulfil our mandate on a restored earth. (Again, the specifics and details are brief. Speculation—joining those dots—only leads to fantasy and invention which misses the point.)
The question to ask those who, for some reason, think heaven is our final destination is, why would we need resurrected bodies if Jesus takes us to heaven forever?
To me, it seems more than obvious that He is not.
Rather, His original plan is His eternal plan! The imagery of John’s glimpse of this new earth amid an open heaven takes us directly back to the scene of creation. John described a restored ‘open heaven’ between God and His people:
Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.”
John even caught a glimpse of “the tree of life” (Revelation 22:1,2) à la Garden of Eden. Thus, just as God originally intended with Adam and Eve, He and the redeemed will enjoy undisturbed fellowship with one another even as we get on with our God-given mandate to rule the earth. The visionary declaration that God’s people “shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10) is gloriously fulfilled:
And they shall reign forever and ever.”
A Question? What About…?
What about Jesus’ words, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys” (Matthew 6:20)? Is He not teaching us that our post-mortem dwelling place is in the third heaven?
After speaking about giving (Matthew 6:1-4), prayer (vv. 5-15) and fasting (vv. 16-18), Jesus taught about living free of materialism (vv. 19-23), free of greed (v. 24) and free of worry (vv. 25-34), as we pursue the Kingdom of God (v. 33). Throughout this passage, He addressed the motives of our heart, making it clear that we are to give, pray, fast and live to bless our Father … who is in heaven.
While the verse in question specifically talks about living free of materialism (v. 20), the context is on our relationship with the Father and how this relationship informs our actions today. In other words, Jesus used the metaphoric language of “treasure” and “moth and rust” to teach us to invest in our relationship with God and His advancing Kingdom, not to cash in on some afterlife policy. And it certainly has nothing to do with hoarding literal treasure in a literal mansion in the sky.
Paul used similar language in his first letter to Timothy and connected the phrase “lay up treasure” directly to the Parousia age.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.″
(1 Timothy 6:17-19 NIV, italics added)
Being “rich in good deeds”—giving, praying and serving with pure motives—advances the Kingdom and is viewed as an investment in the Parousia age.
Similarly, the apostolic writers imparted a hope-informed mindset, urging their readers to view this life as a time of preparation for the age to come. For example, when Paul reminded the church at Philippi that their “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), he did not mean the third heaven would be their eternal dwelling place.
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”
(Philippians 3:20, 21, italics added)
Rather, Paul encouraged these believers to think beyond the challenges and limitations of the present, explaining that our allegiance is not attached to things of this world (Philippians 3:19). In the same breath, he stressed that we “eagerly wait for the Saviour” to return and even referred to the resurrected bodies we’ll receive in the coming age.
Again, the reference to heaven is linked directly to the hope we have in Jesus’ Parousia.
Wings, Clouds, Harps and Infinity?
So where did the idea of lounging on clouds, playing harps, endlessness and even sprouting wings come from?
- Firstly, whenever the metaphoric curtain of heaven is peeled back (Isaiah 6:1-4, for instance), we catch a glimpse of angels worshipping at God’s Throne replete with wings and clouds.
- Secondly, the imagery in John’s Revelation goes further and pictures redeemed humanity participating in this heavenly worship (Revelation 4:1-11). In fact, Revelation 5:8 is probably the source for the inclusion of harps in our archetypical pictures of heaven.
- Thirdly, despite that the English word “eternity” (meaning “time without end”) does not appear in the Bible, our translations continue to use the word in translating the Hebrew word (olam) and Greek word (aionios), which both refer to defined periods of time (that have an end). So, for instance, the phrase translated “forever and ever”, which actually means from “age to age” or “age into age” in the Bible (and figuratively speaks of a prolonged age), has taken on a utopic literal meaning of its own.
- Finally, in dodging a trick question posed by the Sadducees concerning marriage and the age to come, Jesus likened us to “angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:23-33).
Based on the above, it’s not difficult to then jump to the conclusion that our future state is something like an around-the-clock, non-stop worship service or doing whatever angels do … forever and ever and ever.
However, let’s look at all four points in turn.
- Firstly, we are not angels; we are not bodiless spirits. At the risk of repeating myself, we are made for the earth. While an angelic being is made without a natural body to serve God’s will from the heavenly realm, our created bodies are a telling distinction between human beings and angels.
- Secondly, John’s imagery of the twenty-four elders worshipping God serves to convey allegorically God’s ultimate victory and humanity’s acknowledgment of His glory. It doesn’t speak literally or even specifically to our future state or post-mortem activity.
- Thirdly, as we outline in great detail in What Does Aionios Mean?, the Hebrew and Greek words that are unfortunately translated by our English word “eternal” refer instead to a duration of time, short or long, defined by its subject. The words refer to the quality of time, not the quantity. For instance, “eternal life” (Greek: aionios zoe) literally means “age life” and refers to the quality of life experienced in a specified age. How long that age exists is beside the point (and are dots we’re tempted to connect when trying to force our expansive imaginings into a linear timeline).
- Finally, the Sadducees attempted to strengthen their place in the religious hierarchy of the day by catching Jesus out (Matthew 22:23-33). They proposed a hypothetical scenario where a woman married seven brothers; after each one died, of course. They then asked the barbed question: “Last of all the woman died also, whose wife of the seven will she be?” (vv. 27, 28). Why would this strengthen the Sadducees’ position?
The Sadducees were a sect within Judaism who only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament as sacred, and therefore saw nothing within them to support the doctrine of the afterlife. They didn’t believe in the resurrection. They believed that you live, you die … full stop! No wonder the Sadducees were a little sad-you-see. What a tragic worldview! By devising this hypothetical scenario, they intended to make a fool of Jesus and draw public attention to their theological intelligence. Jesus, of course, was not amused.
He answered their question with two responses. First, he called them deceived— the literal meaning of “you are mistaken” (v. 29)—and made a simple yet pointed statement (v. 30). Second, He wisely quoted from Exodus (vv. 31, 32), which they did consider sacred, asking this rhetorical question that brilliantly undermined their theological standpoint and exposed their foolishness:
But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
His comments were not lost on the watching crowds who “were astonished at His teaching” (v. 33) and, in fact, Matthew records that word got around that Jesus “had silenced the Sadducees” (v. 34).
The details of this context make it clear that Jesus didn’t have much patience with the error of the Sadducees. He saw it as a direct enemy of the truth. Of course, their teaching that there was no afterlife was in complete contradiction to His message of hope. Thus, it is important to note that His response to them was a blatant rebuke rather than a teaching on heaven or the age to come. It’s therefore probably wise to tread lightly with the conclusions we draw.
Let’s then zero in on Jesus’ pointed statement to the Sadducees.
In answer to their question, “whose wife of the seven will she be?” (v. 28), Jesus said: “You are mistaken … For in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (v. 29, 30). He didn’t even give their hypothetical scenario a second look; rather, He rebuked their error, in essence saying: “There is a resurrection; there is an afterlife … full stop.”
His statement, “in the resurrection they neither marry … but are like angels of God in heaven”, seems to answer the question directly. Since angels don’t have a gender per se, in the afterlife, marriage and procreation may no longer be the high-water mark of closeness we know in this age. Instead, we may enjoy a new connectedness in relationships that transcends the constraints of relationships now possible in this present age. Case closed?
Perhaps not. If, as it appears, Jesus’ aim was simply to address the issue of death in this age, and not actually fuss with life in the age to come, then we can’t be so conclusive.
For instance, if in Jesus’ Parousia, God’s original plan is restored, then in the same way as Adam and Eve were commissioned to take dominion and populate the earth, will we not perhaps enjoy these same responsibilities and privileges as we take dominion on the new earth?
Certainly, the Sadducees’ question had an earth-bound, looking-back view and, besides the stinging rebuke, Jesus seemed content only to provoke a looking-forward perspective. He did not develop here or anywhere else a comprehensive, mapped-out manual addressing the FAQs on the afterlife.
The point is, we don’t have dogmatic answers to questions about the coming age. I, for one, think it’s important and helpful (and healthy) to harness an open-minded, forward-looking perspective to this kind of question. I don’t think God intended to be clinical concerning these issues.
As already stated, He is deliberately unclear … yes, clear enough to stoke our hopes into flame but not enough for us to package the divine glories of the Parousia age into finite rigid boxes and trite formulas.
God-given Delights in this Age
With all this talk about the age to come, you may think I’m advocating a glum disdain for the beauty and delights of this present age. Not so! Few things have misrepresented a godly life more than its association with dull faces and tedious religion. Like a painless pregnancy or a safe nuclear bomb, a negative, gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms.
God has created us with five natural senses for at least one reason: to enjoy the overwhelming delights He has created in this present age. To be elated at the sight of the setting sun is a gift from God. To be thrilled by the tantalising of our taste buds is another gift from God.
To be intoxicated by a flower’s fragrance is yet a further gift from God. To be enraptured by the sound of music is still another gift from God. To be delighted by a lover’s touch is, yes, also a blessed gift from God. Our Father has created us to take great pleasure in the delights He has made. However, we can only truly delight in them when we understand that they are all just a foretaste of glory divine.
None of these natural God-given delights fulfil us permanently, and neither are they designed to do so. After the beauty of the sunset, we see the harsh realities of our fallen world. After a mouthful of delight, we bite into a rotten fruit. After the perfume of the flower’s fragrance, we recoil at the whiff of a sewer’s stench. After the melody of music is over, we hear a shriek of pain. After a lover’s embrace, we may be inflicted by our lover’s harsh words or by another’s hand of cruelty.
We can relish the delights God gives us knowing none of them will ultimately fulfil us in this age … yet knowing also that they serve as a foretaste of the glory that awaits us in the coming age.
The early church knew how to feast as well as fast. Their celebration of the Lord’s Supper was indeed a grand meal in which they celebrated in anticipation of His return. In fact, they viewed the “love feast” as an appetiser of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (1 Corinthians 11:26; Revelation 19:9; Jude 12). The overwhelming joy experienced in the love feast was a “starter”, anticipating the five-course meal awaiting them in the age to come.
Paul even described the Holy Spirit as a down payment—literally, the first instalment—of the glory to come (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; Romans 5:1-5; Colossians 1:27). As much as we enjoy the fellowship of the Spirit’s Presence now, we admittedly “see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). As sweet as it can be now, we experience Him and His life-giving Presence only to a measure. However, in the coming age, we will experience Him in overwhelming, staggering fullness.
The God-given delights of this age are appetisers of the glory to come.
This is a liberating truth. In a world obsessed with finding absolute fulfilment now—attempting by all means possible to maximise life on this fallen earth—the Scriptures actually teach the opposite. We are to delight in the pleasures that God extravagantly gives us in the present age while understanding that they only serve to express God’s greater intention to fulfil us in the age to come. Thus, we can enjoy these delights without becoming hooked on them, knowing their limitations and understanding the scope of their purpose. As Paul said:
All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”
(1 Corinthians 6:12)
When I watch the rising of the sun and the beauty of a new day dawning, I’m filled with the wonder of God’s glory and anticipate the extravagant beauty of the coming age. When the joys my children bring me move me to delightful tears, I’m filled with awe at the glory of God and eagerly await the sublime enchantment of divine communion with God and His Beloved in the next age. And then armed with this heart filled with glory and hope, I’m empowered to make the sacrifices required in this fallen age to hasten the coming of the glorious age He will establish.
The richest entrepreneur or movie star living in Hollywood lives in total squalor junk compared to the glory and majesty of God’s new heaven and earth. That which we consider so grandiose on this earth and so vital to a comfy fulfilled life, pales into insignificance in the light of eternity. The battles and struggles we fight in the confines of this fallen world will all be so worthwhile when Jesus’ return affirms our victory and consummates His Kingdom. The injustices we weep over now will be made right and God will dry every tear.
One of my all-time favourite C.S. Lewis quotes actually addresses this point ingeniously:
Indeed if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
(The Weight of Glory, 1941)
While we enjoy the God-given delights of this age (knowing their limitations), we are to use them to fan into full flame our passion for His return and the “holiday by the sea” prepared for us in the Parousia age.
After Paul outlined the life-threatening challenges he suffered, he then said:
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
(2 Corinthians 4:17)
You can almost hear the devil groan. The prince of darkness had just thrown everything he had at him, to which Paul—with the perspective that divine hope brings—simply responds: “our light affliction, which is but for a moment.”
Confident in the Parousia (2 Corinthians 4:14), he reveals his hope-fuelled outlook:
While we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
(2 Corinthians 4:18)
The Greek word translated “temporary” (proskaira) refers to a “season”, which is contrasted with “eternal”, the Greek word (aionia) meaning “age” or “agelong”. In other words, what we endure in one specific season of time is nothing compared to the joys of the Parousia age.
Only from a hope-inspired perspective of the Parousia age can our vision become clear and our lives be true. Only in eager expectation of Christ’s return can we live as we ought and accomplish what we should as this generation of believers.
Paul’s use of the phrase “eternal weight of glory” captures the full, undiluted picture of the wonders of the coming age. Again, the Greek word (aionion) translated “eternal” means “agelong” and refers specifically to the glory of the Parousia age: Christ triumphant and the redeemed restored into God’s original plan, dwelling on a new earth and enjoying an ‘open heaven’.
Similarly, when Paul marvellously proclaims, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), he is not assuring the church at Colossae that they are going to heaven; rather, he is assuring them that they have a future in the glorious age to come in which Christ reigns sovereign and triumphant (Colossians 1:13-20).
Let’s Talk about Rewards
In Jesus’ parables of the “talents” (Matthew 25:14-30) and the “minas” (Luke 19:11-27), we are envisioned as stewards who, attending faithfully to our Master’s business (Luke 19:13), give an account at His return. The implication of both parables is the same: our faithfulness to what He entrusts to us now not only brings reward, but it shapes our contribution in the age to come.
Again, the specifics aren’t revealed (or important). And it’s wise to avoid jumping to literal and dogmatic conclusions based on a parable. Remember to imagine, not join dots.
That said, both parables motivate and provoke.
Firstly, we live in wonderful anticipation of His affirming words:
Well done, good and faithful servant … Enter the joy of your lord.”
Secondly, purified and stirred with the thought of these powerful words, we’re enlarged by the idea that our faithfulness and fruitfulness in this age prepares us for whatever the Parousia age has in store for us. In His parable of the “minas,” for instance, Jesus explained that the master blessed the steward:
Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.”
A growing sphere of responsibility and influence was the steward’s reward.
The Bible speaks boldly of the many lavish rewards the Father longs to pour out upon us. For instance, the Bible speaks of the “crown of righteousness” for holy living (2 Timothy 4:8), the “crown of honour” for believers who fulfil their destiny (1 Corinthians 9:25), the “crown of rejoicing” for believers who are faithful in discipling others (1 Thessalonians 2:19,20), the “crown of glory” for those who serve as elders (1 Peter 5:2-4) and the “crown of life” for those martyred for their faith (Revelation 2:10).
(It’s probably worth pointing out that this is metaphoric language. In the ancient world, crowns were symbols of both reward and authority. We won’t literally be parading around the new earth showing off our crowns. Again, in powerful allegory, John’s Revelation pictures the twenty-four elders, representing the redeemed, as “casting their crowns before the throne” (Revelation 4:10). That is, we acknowledge that all we have from God is His, in Him and through Him and for Him.)
Now, some feel a little queasy and embarrassed on God’s behalf at the mention of rewards, as if He stoops to bribe us into action. That, however, is certainly not the Father’s heart.
In the same way that we don’t bribe our children to perform for us yet take great delight in blessing them when they do well, so the Father’s heart is not to tease us with a dangling carrot but to be lavish in expressing His pleasure in us. And He does so unashamedly and with great delight. As Zephaniah declared,
He will rejoice over you with gladness … He will rejoice over you with singing.”
Thus, these parables imply that our faithfulness and fruitfulness to what God has given us will be a primary means the Father uses to both prepare us for and reward us in the age to come.
Furthermore, Jesus clearly implied that authority to rule and reign was entrusted to the faithful steward, consistent with the concept that the dominion mandate, entrusted to us in creation, is the ongoing theme in the Parousia age.
Paul mentioned the same thought when he rebuked those in the church at Corinth for failing to govern their disputes as a family, instead airing their dirty washing in public.
Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? … Is it so that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?”
(1 Corinthians 6:3,5)
In the coming age, we will judge angels! (Whatever this might mean.)
Although the Bible does not explain the details of our life in the coming age, we certainly won’t grow wings or loaf around on sofa-shaped clouds. We will surely express the quality and substance of the dominion life we were created for (Psalm 8:5,6) without the restrictions of a fallen, sin-addled universe.
While we have little clue what this involves (read: don’t join the dots), the point is emphatic: our purpose in the age to come is shaped by our faithfulness and fruitfulness in this present age.
PS. The emphasis on faithfulness and fruitfulness in the section above is deliberate. While Biblically, the word faithfulness implies fruitfulness, we sometimes view faithfulness as merely preserving something or “holding the fort”, so to speak. The parables of the “talents” and “minas” brutally dispel this idea.
The Father’s Wonderful Surprise
As mentioned ad nauseum (apologies!), the Bible does not map-out in specifics what our experience in the next age involves. It only offers hints; enough to get our minds racing but not enough to be conclusive. It is my opinion that God does this for three reasons.
Firstly, as a Father, God has a glorious surprise for His children, and He builds up our sense of expectation by not giving the full secret away.
Secondly, as our Father, He knows that too much information on the glories to come would rob us of initiative in the present. Can you imagine if a parent placed a bowl of ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce next to a bowl of spinach and cabbage and said to their child, “Eat your veggies, and then you can have dessert”? This would be cruel and unproductive. The kid would never stomach the vegetables engrossed with the mouth-watering vision of the dessert.
Instead, the wise and loving parent places the vegetables in front of his child and says, “Finish your food, and then I’ve got a wonderful surprise for you afterwards.” Sharing the news of the dessert motivates the child to eat the vegetables, but being brief on the details avoids stealing the child’s initiative to finish the food. If God shared too much about the Parousia age, we’d neglect our Kingdom responsibilities in this age, drooling over the prospect of the next.
And finally, our finite minds could simply not comprehend the infinite pleasures of the coming age even if God did spill the beans! Some mull over the age to come with rational, finite thinking, such as, “Will there be sin? If not, will we still be able to choose? If the earth is restored, what does ruling and reigning mean? How will it all work?” and so on.
These questions have a looking-back perspective. However, you can be sure that as we step into the coming age we won’t be looking back; rather, we will be staring wide-eyed, mouth open … drawn forward in indescribable anticipation.
With a looking-forward perspective, we don’t make the mistake of reasoning from our fallen world. Instead, we start to imagine what a redeemed humanity are capable of being and doing. Consider one thought down this line of “unimaginable imagining.”
It’s fair to say that the average human being realises only a portion of their maximum potential. And there are any number of reasons for this, many out of our control. In fact, we might attribute many of these reasons to the result of living in a fallen world, a world limited not just by fallen humanity and the likes of the third law of thermodynamics (all things decline, decay and die), but to four dimensions: length, breadth, height and time.
Imagine a world that transcends these limitations in some way, a world in which we all realise our maximum potential. And yes, for good … for the good of others and all of creation.
Is it not possible that in the age to come, with our resurrected bodies, we’ll realise our full God-given potential?
Recall that the resurrected Jesus ate food and could be touched yet walked through walls and seemed to materialise here and there at will. Was He not perhaps using the full potential of His resurrected body? Is this not another Biblical hint of the glory to come; not enough for us to make dogmatic statements about, yet more than enough to stir our imaginations?
Can you even begin to imagine what we might be capable of clothed in glorified bodies, liberated to maximise our full created potential? The mind boggles! And the spirit bubbles in expectation!
Can you imagine a world in which every human being is actively living for the glory of God and the greater good of the created world? Then you are seeing a glimpse of the age to come … and you’ve tapped into divine hope.
Are you now, in response to this Parousia vision, living in such a way as to bring this to pass?
If so, you are now living by Biblical faith.