It’s a common view in the Western world that Christianity is ultimately about going to heaven. The thought is even pervasive among believers. Is heaven where believers will ultimately dwell for eternity?
First of all, the ancient Jews primarily referred to three heavens. The “first” heaven is the atmosphere that immediately surrounds the earth; the sky, where the birds fly and clouds glide (see Gen. 1:28 & Is. 45:8). The “second” heaven is what we call outer space; where the sun, moon, and stars are located (see Gen. 22:17 & Ps. 8:3). The “third” heaven represents the place where God takes up his residence (see 1 Kings 8:30 & 2 Cor. 12:2).
It’s this “third” heaven that is often assumed to be the place where believers will spend their eternity. But is that God’s purpose for us?
Before we get to that, let’s answer a different question: does God really have a place of residence?
1. God is infinite — Infinite means “no limits.” There are no boundaries with an infinite God. To limit God’s presence to a singular location would imply that God is not outside of that location. Which would mean there is someplace God is not, and therefore God would be finite.
2. God is invisible — Because God is infinite, God is also invisible. God does not take a shape or form, or that would result in a limitation. If God were present only in a particular location (heaven), do we assume he takes a shape or form to be present there? And because God is invisible, there’s no particular location that can confine God.
So, what is this “third heaven”? This heaven, then, represents where God takes up his residence. The best we finite humans can do to try to understand is to imagine a place where God is. We call that place heaven. This is how God expresses himself to us in a way that we can comprehend.
Everything that goes on in heaven represents the fullness of who God is. Heaven is the place where God reigns. Heaven represents the place where God’s ways are always in perfect practice.
THE VISIBLE EXPRESSION OF THE INVISIBLE GOD
Why did God create? God created so that the invisible God could provide a visible expression of himself. Creation (the visible) testifies of God (the invisible):
For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. (Romans 1:20 NET)
God created in order to express his eternality and divinity. The visible (creation) affirms the existence of the invisible (God). Without creation, God’s eternality and divinity would not be on display. God would ever and always be eternal and divine, but it would never be demonstrated without creation.
God expresses himself through creation in innumerable ways. The pinnacle of God’s creation is humanity. Mankind was created in the image of God, according to his likeness. Mankind was a visible, physical expression of the eternal God.
However, the first man transgressed, proving himself to be a counterfeit. As a result, all of creation was marred. God’s expression of himself in creation was tainted.
Because the first man transgressed, the ground was cursed; it would bring forth thorns and thistles. And because the transgression of Adam corrupted the ground, he would return to it one day.
It’s fascinating that God’s curse to Adam had more to do with the earth than it did Adam himself (Gen. 3:17-19). The only aspect of God’s curse to Adam that had to do with Adam was within the context of how Adam related to the recently corrupted earth. God’s focus is on the fact that his masterpiece (creation as a whole) no longer expressed him well, and it was Adam’s fault.
God would indeed provide a remedy for his corrupted creation; someone who would accurately represent him and make all things right. Whereas Adam failed to faithfully display the image of God, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
All things were created for and by Jesus. This includes all things in heaven and on earth, and all things visible and invisible (Col. 1:16). Through Jesus, God will reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven (Col. 1:20). God will do this work of restoration through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus!
Jesus’ death on the cross made peace between all things on earth (that which has been corrupted) and all things in heaven (that which remains uncorrupted). When Jesus returns, he will make all things right! He will reconcile the corrupted things on earth with the uncorrupted things of heaven. At the fullness of time, Jesus will “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). This is the plan of God for his creation, “which he set forth in Christ” (Eph. 1:9).
But God isn’t waiting until the last day to begin making all things right. He’s already begun the process of making things right, and he’s starting with the pinnacle of his creation: humanity. And it’s all rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, who is the pinnacle of humanity. If humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creation, Jesus is the pinnacle of the pinnacle.
When Jesus returns, the dead will be raised (1 Cor. 15:22) and the heavens and the earth will be made new (2 Pet. 3:13). That’s where believers will reside with Jesus forever: on the newly created earth in resurrected bodies! A restored earth that has restored humans dwelling on it; that is the eternal state of believers.
As believers, we await to fully experience the redemption of our bodies; creation also eagerly awaits its redemption! (See Rom. 8:19-23.) Not only is natural man born in bondage to sin, so too is creation subjected to the bondage of decay. Creation longs for the sons of God to be revealed in glory because that’s when creation experiences its eternal freedom also!
THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN COMING TO EARTH
Let’s rehash a few points:
- Heaven represents where God is, where everything is done according to God’s ways. It is God’s domain; where God reigns. Heaven is the place of God’s kingdom.
- What is God’s purpose in creation? God’s purpose in creation is to provide an expression of himself; an expression of the realities of heaven. God’s plan is to bring the realities of heaven to earth.
- Where is the place of God’s residence? Heaven represents the place where God is. Then God created and walked with man in the Garden of Eden before sin entered the world. Later, the tabernacle and then the temple represented God’s dwelling place on earth. Then Jesus referred to himself as a temple (i.e., the dwelling place of God on earth). Now those who are in Christ are being built into a spiritual temple by the Spirit.
All along, God’s purpose in creation was to make himself present in it. God is increasingly making his residence on earth, and he’s doing so by indwelling humanity! First and foremost in the person of Jesus, and then also all those in whom Jesus dwells by his spirit.
Many Christians think God’s purpose in salvation is to take us from earth. “Get me outta here!” is a sentiment that is far too often expressed. We often hear a gospel message about “getting saved and going to heaven.”
But God’s purposes are not about removing his children from earth and taking them to heaven. God purposes are to restore creation and bring the realities of heaven to earth! The sin-cursed earth is not the enemy; it is a very important component of God’s plan for redemption. The sin-cursed earth is going to be transformed into a new creation just as sin-cursed humans who have been raised in Christ are being transformed into a new creation.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is about: that God is bringing the realities of heaven to earth, and he’s doing so already by indwelling redeemed humans. Jesus spoke many parables that pertain to the kingdom of heaven; they’re about how one responds to the good news, which is currently ongoing. The realities of the kingdom of heaven are happening on earth, not merely in heaven.
Jesus’ sample prayer for the disciples included praying that God’s kingdom would come (to earth) and that God’s will would be done on earth in the same way that God’s will is done in heaven. God’s kingdom is to no longer only remain in heaven; God is penetrating earth with his presence and his rule.
If we think Christianity is about being saved from off the earth, we don’t fully understand redemption because God is also saving the earth.
Jesus ascended to heaven where he has been for 20 centuries. When he returns, he’s coming here to stay here. Heaven must receive Jesus until the time for restoring all things (Acts 3:21). Jesus is coming “from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:10) and we are to wait for him because the restored earth is Jesus’ final and eternal destination.
The restored earth with restored humanity is Jesus’ inheritance, which is also our inheritance (see Matt. 5:5 & Rom. 8:17). The land/earth being Jesus’ and/or our inheritance was prophesied in Psalm 2:8, Psalm 37, Psalm 82:8, Isaiah 60:21, among numerous other passages.
OUR TREASURE IS IN HEAVEN
There are some passages that may confuse people into thinking that heaven is our final destination. One reason for this is that we have rewards in heaven (Matt. 5:12; Mark 10:21; Luke 6:23). We have an inheritance that is kept safe for us in heaven (1 Pet. 1:4). Our hope is laid up for us in heaven (Col. 1:15).
These verses merely state that our reward/treasure/hope pertains to the realities of heaven (i.e., God). But note that these verses do not state that we’ll be present there. Our desires, what we find valuable, will be for the heavenly realities; however, God is ultimately bringing those heavenly realities to earth.
Sure, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20), but continue reading: “from it (heaven) we await a Savior.” We, on earth, are awaiting a savior who is coming from heaven. It also helps us to understand that Philippi was a Roman colony; that citizens of Philippi were also granted citizenship of Rome. Their Roman citizenship didn’t mean that they were going to Rome, but that their citizenship was of Rome while living in Philippi. Likewise, believers’ heavenly citizenship doesn’t mean that we are going to heaven, but that our citizenship is of heaven while we live on earth.
Some may think that Abraham’s bosom in the parable with a poor man named Lazarus is evidence of going to heaven. However, (1) a parable is fiction that is intended to teach a particular lesson, and (2) even if Jesus’ parable was not fiction, it pertains to the intermediate state, not the eternal state. The intermediate state refers to the period of time between a person’s death (when the soul and body are separated) and when Jesus returns (when the soul and body are rejoined in resurrection). For those whose body has fallen asleep, their soul is currently in the intermediate state.
Many Christians confuse the intermediate state and the eternal state by thinking that a person who has passed away has entered eternity. Actually, it just means that they have entered the time period between death and resurrection (i.e., the intermediate state). We will all enter the eternal state together after Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the dead. No person who has died gets to the eternal state ahead of any of the rest of us. (Besides, because our soul is eternal, we’re eternal beings already while we’re still alive.)
In the parable with Lazarus at Abraham’s side, there was still time for the brothers of the man in torment to be warned and repent in order to change their outcome. This is the intermediate state. The eternal state is irreversible.
Where the soul goes in the intermediate state is indeed likely heaven. This is what is meant by “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). That’s also why the article title isn’t “Believers Don’t Go To Heaven.” In fact, the souls of saints whose body has ceased to function do go to heaven; but that reality is not God’s purpose for our eternal destination.
God is bringing the realities of heaven to earth. He’s doing it now by reigning in the lives of those who are his. He’ll complete that work when all things are reconciled in Christ.
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. (Revelation 21:1-3 ESV)
This is a reality that is already ongoing (God dwelling in newly-created humans). It will be fully consummated on the day Jesus returns on a newly-created earth. The realities of heaven are coming down from heaven to earth, where the redeemed portion of mankind is and will be the dwelling place of God.