Revelation 21:1-5; 22-27
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
After church today, my family and I will be packing up and heading out of town for a night to celebrate the holiday and my mother-in-law’s birthday. She wanted to ride the Cass Train with her grandchildren, so we will be in West Virginia.
The official state motto of West Virginia is, of course, Montani Semper Liberi, which means “Mountaineers are Always Free.” West Virginia also has an unofficial state motto, which you will see on the signs welcoming you to our neighboring state. The unofficial motto is “Wild and Wonderful.”
However, I prefer an even less official state motto; one proposed by the late John Denver. Denver referred to West Virginia as “Almost Heaven.” And since West Virginia borders on both Ohio and Virginia, the state of my birth and my current place of residency, I assume that when Denver referred to West Virginia as almost heaven, he was saying what many of us already know: either Ohio or Virginia must be heaven.
Obviously, I am joking. As much love as I have for my birth and current states, I know that they are far from heaven. If I’m being honest, I need to keep in mind that the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire and burned because of industrial pollution, not once, but multiple times. A burning river seems a little more like hell to me than heaven.
We have spent the month of May talking about hell, and we could spend another month or two talking about hell and not make up our minds on a number of issue. My goal was never to answer all of your questions, but to simply help you dig deeper and ask even more questions about what you really believe. And we always turn back to our Bibles to see what is actually there, to see what the text actually says.
Today we finish this series on life after death by looking at not hell, but heaven. And yes, it does seem silly to talk about hell for four weeks and only spend one week looking at heaven. But as I mentioned last week, we have a lot more information in our Bibles about hell than heaven. And as I heard a pastor say this week, we have more information packed into Revelation 21 about heaven than we have in the rest of the Bible combined. What we will be doing today will be to try to piece together some of the passages that seem to be referring to heaven and attempt to formulate something coherent from that information.
So what happens when you die? Do you see a light? Are you met at the pearly gates by St. Peter? Let’s just say “perhaps.” But as I’ve said all through this series, we can’t let popular depictions of the afterlife be our main source for our theological formation. Maybe we go toward a light; God is light, after all. And in him there is no darkness (1 John 1:5). But let’s just say that the idea that we will be lying around on clouds and playing harps is really not biblical.
At least we will be able to fly on our wings, right? Like Clarence, we will earn our wings as angels after helping George Bailey realize that he really did live a wonderful life. As much as I want to fly (me and Sugar Ray), there is no reason based on the Bible to think that we will be changed physically into flying angels. We don’t become angels. Angels are a different class of being all together, and even they don’t seem to have wings. In places like Genesis 19, angels are confused for human beings. The word angelos in Greek and mal’ak in Hebrew simply mean “messenger.” God’s angels are God’s messengers.
Yes, there are creatures in the Bible who have wings, like the cherubim, seraphim, and the winged creatures in Revelation. But the cherubim also have four heads, and you never see the angel Gabriel depicted in artwork with four heads, now do you? So angels, cherubim, seraphim, and the winged creatures in Revelation all seem to be separate categories of beings in heaven. And while we will be among them in heaven, this doesn’t mean that we will look like them. Which is good, because I don’t own enough hats for four heads.
So all of that is to say that much of what we think we know about heaven comes from pop culture and artistic renderings. And as sorry as I am to say it, I don’t think we are going to have wings in heaven. But I’m still pretty sure that it will be okay, even without the wings.
There is some discussion out there in theology world questioning what happens immediately after a Christian dies because the Bible talks about a couple of different events. You have some people that say that our soul immediately goes to heaven to be with Jesus forever when we die. Others will say that our soul goes into a time of “hibernation” from the time we die until the resurrection of our bodies. This is sometimes called “soul sleep.” Others try to get fancy and say that we will no longer be subjected to chronological time when we die, so when we die, we will immediately find ourselves at the resurrection of the righteous, which has not yet occurred.
When we read the writings of Paul, it seems like Paul was convinced that immediately following death, a Christian would be in heaven. Philippians 1:23-24 says, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” And 2 Corinthians 5:8, which is often paraphrased “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” actually says, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
Those verses alone aren’t all that clear and decisive for me. But we also have a line from Jesus that seems to be helpful. Luke 23:43 says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Not “at the resurrection,” and not “after your soul sleeps for a while.” Today you will be with me in paradise.
So there is scriptural support for those who believe that when a person dies, they immediately go to be with Jesus in heaven. And as Paul suggests, this seems to be some sort of disembodied state where the soul is separated from the now-deceased flesh. This is what New Testament scholar NT Wright calls “life after death.” That’s a simple and obvious thing to call it, but it will get more complicated in just a minute.
There are also many people who claim that the idea of a disembodied soul is a product of Greek philosophy, and biblical Christianity. And they say that the soul is forever connected with the human body. We will be in heaven at the final judgement when we will be resurrected with Jesus. These people quote Paul in 2 Timothy 4, where Paul talks about the day when God will judge the living and the dead, or the quick and the dead, if you prefer the KJV. God “will judge” not only the living, but also the dead. That’s future tense. And Paul goes on to say in verse 8, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
When did Paul say he will receive his reward? Immediately when he dies? Nope, “on that day,” the day of judgement. Paul died a long time ago, and as far as I know, the day of judgement has not yet arrived. So is Paul waiting on his reward in heaven?
There is clearly teaching in the Bible about a resurrection of the dead who are in Christ. Those who know Jesus will be brought back from the dead. In Luke 14, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to help those who cannot return the favor. He continues, “And you will be blessed. Although [the poor] cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
I used to visit a dear old man in the nursing home who was worried about the resurrection because one of his relatives had been cremated. He asked me, “Pastor, what’s going to happen to those who have been cremated when the righteous are resurrected?” I assured him that God would be able to put them back together, and to remember that fine Christians like Paul have been dead for close to 2,000 years. Their bodies are probably just as bad off as someone’s who had been cremated.
If the language of resurrection sounds familiar, that is because some guy you might have heard of was resurrected. And we can look at Jesus to see what our resurrected bodies will look like. In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
At the resurrection of the dead, our bodies will be made like the resurrected body of Christ. And by looking at the accounts of the resurrection, we can see that our bodies will be physical. The disciples could touch Jesus. Jesus ate with them, which is great, because while I’m not sold on the idea of sitting on a cloud playing the harp, I like to think that I will be able to enjoy a cheeseburger in paradise (yes, I did just make a Jimmy Buffet reference).
So what do we do with these two competing narratives? Does our soul go immediately to heaven when we die, or do we wait until the day of judgment when we are resurrected? I would say, “yes.”
Do you remember that little phrase that I gave you from NT Wright? He said that when you die, your soul goes to be with God immediately in heaven. This is “life after death.” Wright then says that at the resurrection of the dead, we will be given new bodies, like the old ones but without the aches, pains, and deterioration that we experience today. This, he calls “life after life after death.”
We have very little to go on in the Bible when we consider life after death, but we do have today’s passage from Revelation 21 to at least give us a glimpse into life after life after death. Verse 1 says, “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” Did you catch that last part? There was no longer any sea. That sounds like heaven to me, because I hate the beach. No, remember that in Revelation, the beast and the dragon come out of the sea. The metaphorical sea in Revelation is the source of all evil. The source of evil is now gone.
There is a new heaven and a new earth. So the place where the disembodied souls of believers went to be with Jesus in the first life after death is replaced, as is the current earth. This doesn’t mean that all of this world ceases to exist. This world is recreated, combined with heaven. Heaven comes down to earth and the two are made one. John the Revelator calls this the “New Jerusalem.”
I prefer to think of heaven as God restoring not only our bodies, but restoring this world to what God had originally intended it to be. God created man and woman, put them in the Garden of Eden, and said, “It is very good.” It is only after sin entered this world that death came to the people, heaven and earth were divided, and the earth began to deteriorate. But notice what Paul writes in Romans 8:21, “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
Remember that in verse 5, God says, “I am making all things new.” He doesn’t say “I am making all new things.” (See Brian Blount’s commentary on Rev. 21.) All of the destruction and deterioration caused by sin will be erased. There will be no more pain, no more suffering, and no more mourning. And just as important, there will be no temple, nor any reason for a temple because God will dwell among us.
There are many images for this restored creation in the book of Revelation. And if it helps for you to think of heaven as being paved with pure gold and adorned with every jewel possible, that is fine. But I think the point that God was trying to make in this vision to John was that restored creation will exceed anything we can imagine. Take whatever is beautiful to you and multiply it by ten.
As I prepare to eat a quick lunch and head west to the place John Denver called “almost heaven,” I realize that this place is far from heaven. But in my mind, the rolling mountains, sparkling rivers, and abundant trees of the Mountain State represent a glimpse into what the new heaven and new earth, life after life after death, will look like. Add to that scenery that we will not experience death or pain, and that we will walk with God among us, and that is an image of heaven that I can get excited about.