Christians look forward to heaven, but how much do we really know about it?
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. . . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:3–6)
Two thousand years have passed since the resurrection of Jesus, and myriads of Christians worldwide are “gazing into heaven,” expectantly awaiting his return (Acts 1:10–11). At the same time, powerful super-telescopes continually scan distant star systems looking for evolved, extraterrestrial life in a futile hope to find proof that there is no God.
But God’s Word makes clear that we were created to commune with God and have dominion over his creation. We did not spark into life from a primordial soup or stardust without any purpose or plan. We know that the ultimate destination of Christ’s followers is the heavenly state of “the new heavens and earth,” which we generally refer to as heaven. Yet many of the details about that incredible and mysterious place remain hidden in a spiritual realm. Even the most impressive of telescopes cannot peer beyond the physical limits of our mortal lives.
If we base our expectations about eternity on our current experience in this terribly broken world, we’ll be hopelessly wrong. We can’t begin to imagine the glories of heaven unless we first consider what the Bible records about life before Adam’s sin brought the curse upon creation. If heaven sounds boring, as it does to many people, we will not look forward to the incredible endlessness that begins when the effects of Adam’s fall cease.
We need to go back to the Bible. It’s the only source of information about our past and future, where sin does not defile God’s good purposes. The Creator has always intended for us to enjoy “pleasures forevermore” at his side (Psalm 16:11).
Thankfully, the Bible reveals just the right facts about this otherwise mysterious place, so that we can stay focused on what really matters, both now and for eternity.1
When asked, “What is your biggest question about heaven and hell?” most people would reply, “How do I avoid hell and get to heaven?” On that issue, the Bible is quite clear: we don’t get to heaven by being good because we can’t possibly be good enough. God requires perfection, but he tells us in the third chapter of Romans that all of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Yet we are not without hope. God made a way!
God sent his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to take on human form and do everything necessary to ensure that we could have everlasting life—with him, in heaven.
His blood, his grace, his life for ours. Salvation is free. We can’t earn it. The one way to heaven is by repenting of our sins and believing in the gospel of Jesus. All who repent and receive Christ as Lord and Savior (John 14:6; Romans 10:9–10) will live forever in heaven with our Redeemer and the redeemed people we love.
So then, what do we know about “life” there? What is it like in heaven?
We will live on the perfect new earth in perfect new bodies. We will recognize and be reunited with redeemed loved ones. And we will apparently be able to recognize people we have never seen before, as Peter, James, and John did when they recognized Moses and Elijah at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:3). According to 2 Corinthians 5:1, our bodies will be imperishable.
Revelation 21:4 assures us that there will be no more tears, suffering, or death. There will be no envy or selfishness. No injustice, no lying, no possibility of sinning ever again.
Heaven will be even more amazing than God’s original creation. First Corinthians 13:9–12 makes it clear that we cannot adequately imagine what it might be like: “For we know in part . . . but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. . . . For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” And Revelation 21:4 reveals that once we are in the new heavens and new earth, “neither shall there be pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” As Helen Lemmel wrote in her worship song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” the things of life on the present earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.
The Bible mentions its many mansions, splendid music, plentiful foods, and crystal-clear water. But heaven is not just a huge city park where we sit around doing nothing all day. For instance, there will be joy-filled work. The late evangelist Billy Graham wrote that, “In heaven, we’ll never grow weary or tired, like we do here. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, from that moment on work became a burden for the whole human race (see Genesis 3:17–19). But in heaven, that curse will be lifted, and work will no longer be a burden. Instead, it will be a joy!”2
The book of Revelation shares that there will be amazing, talking creatures (4:8–9, 5:13, 8:13). Creation researcher John Morris writes that, “just as Adam was to ‘tend’ the Garden, we may have the privilege of exploring and showcasing [God’s] stellar handiwork . . . giving glory to him in all.”3 And it is possible that every moment in heaven will be eternally fresh and new to us, like the marriage honeymoon of a valiant groom and his beautifully attired bride. God may continually reveal inexhaustible splendors and details, ever stirring us to euphoric, delight-filled worship!
To understand the essentials of what happens when people pass into the afterlife, we must simply read what the Bible clearly states.
Is there biblical justification for the idea that Adam and Eve will be in heaven?
After Cain murdered Abel, Eve named her new son Seth (“given/appointed”), indicating her hope that he was the offspring that God promised in Genesis 3:15 after sin brought sorrow and death into the world.
In a previous issue of Answers magazine, researcher and speaker Dr. Georgia Purdom explained, “Eve displayed her hope in God’s promised Seed through the naming of her sons. She was looking forward to Christ and the destruction of sin and despair that Adam’s sin had brought upon the world. Just as Eve did nearly 6,000 years ago, we too have a choice concerning our own legacies. Will we choose to be like Eve at the fall and not obey God’s Word, which leads to a legacy of sin and despair? Or will we choose to be like Eve when she named her sons and evidenced hope in the Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to save us?”
Apologist Ken Ham gives another insight about Adam and Eve’s relationship to God after they sinned.
“Abel was Adam and Eve’s son and it seems that the only way he could have learned about God was from his parents. . . . They were the first to sin and that sin started the practice of making sacrifices to God for the forgiveness of sins. (Remember how God killed an animal to make clothes for Adam and Eve because they suddenly knew they were naked?) Abel knew how to offer a sacrifice that was pleasing to God. He offered that with a heart that believed in God through faith, and he probably learned that from his parents, Adam and Eve. If all that is true, then it seems as though Adam and Eve knew the truth as well, and if they did, they will be in heaven.”
During the four millennia between the fall of Adam and the resurrection of Jesus, when people died, their bodies went to the grave (qebura) and their spirits to the place called Sheol. But most people do not go to heaven—Jesus told us in Matthew 7 that many go to destruction, but few go to life. So how could everyone prior to Christ’s resurrection go to the same place?
It is my understanding that Sheol had two distinct parts. The spirits of the wicked were sent to punishment in the part called hell (see Luke 16:19–31). The spirits of the saved were given peace in paradise (Luke 23:43; see Isaiah 57:2). That was before Christ’s death and resurrection.
Since Jesus’ resurrection nearly 2,000 years ago, our Savior’s home has been the present heaven (Hebrews 8:1). He is at the right hand of God. The souls of all who receive him as Savior go there to be with him. But all who fail to repent and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead suffer in hell, awaiting the final judgment (Revelation 20:13–15).
The Bible also reveals that the angels rejoice when a sinner repents (Luke 15:10), but it does not state that a deceased spouse can watch a living spouse or that deceased parents watch over their living children (see “Who Is the ‘Cloud of Witnesses’?” sidebar). After all, heaven is a place of peace, not worry or regret.
It’s popular to believe that deceased loved ones are in heaven looking down on us right now. Is that the case?
Hebrews 12:1 states, “Therefore . . . since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
Though this scripture is often used to justify the idea that deceased loved ones in heaven are monitoring our daily lives on earth, that is not likely. The “great cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12 very likely refers to the previous chapter, Hebrews 11 (see the therefore), which is about the saints or martyrs of earlier days.
These witnesses are the saints that have lived strong by faith in chapter 11. They are men and women “of whom the world was not worthy,” including Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. They are not witnesses of us. They are witnesses to us! By the witness of their enduring, triumphant faith, they are examples that inspire us to live and die strong in the Lord.
Abel, who was murdered by his jealous brother Cain, is in the cloud of witnesses listed in 11:4, which says, “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”
All the Hebrews 11 witnesses are helping us by way of the scriptural record of their lives. By faith they finished well. And we can too!
Jesus told us in John 14 that, in the future, he will return! He also told us that we would not know exactly when (Matthew 25:13). Christian theologians hold different views about the order and timing of the fulfilment of these passages, but nearly all agree with the basics that there will be a great trumpet blast, and with a mighty shout an archangel will declare the bodily return of Jesus. The earthly remains of the dead in Christ will rise and be united in the clouds with their spirits.
First Corinthians 15:51–53 reveals that in the twinkling of an eye our bodies will be transformed and rematerialize as incorruptible. First Thessalonians 4:17 teaches us that every born-again believer still alive on earth will also rise and meet the Lord in the air. There will be a resurrection of the just and the unjust (Daniel 12:1–2) as everyone who has ever lived, from the wicked multitudes before the worldwide flood to the billions living today, will bow before Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords. Satan, the demons, and every person whose name is not written in the Book of Life will be cast into the eternal lake of fire (Revelation 20:10, 15).
Second Peter 3:10 tells us that “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (NKJV). In the perfect eternal state in the new heavens and earth, redeemed people from every language group will experience an amazing new, eternal life without the effects or possibility of sin (Revelation 7:9).
Theologian Dr. John Whitcomb connects this glorious heavenly reunion to the disunity produced by mankind’s sin at the tower of Babel: “The curse of Babel, the division (“peleg”) of peoples, the separation of nations, and the confusion of tongues will end forever, and the wisdom and love of our great God, even in his Judgments, will be understood in a new way by those who have put their trust in him.”
The Bible describes the new earth as having an immense and beautiful walled city, the New Jerusalem. And God will be worshipped forever for his glory, honor, and power.
Imagine the joy of Adam and Eve, whose sin brought suffering and death into the once-perfect world (Romans 5:17–19). Finally, they will again be able to eat the fruit of the tree of life, as the Creator originally designed for them in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8–9; Revelation 2:7, 22:2). God’s merciful restoration and redemption will be complete and the gospel fulfilled.
Indescribable and glorious joy in heaven awaits all who repent of their sins and receive Jesus Christ as Savior!
This article is adapted from the author’s chapter “The Hope of Heaven” in The 10 Minute Bible Journey: The Big Picture of Scripture in 52 Quick Reads (Master Books). The 10 Minute Bible Journey is a chronological, apologetics-infused overview of the Bible that begins with creation and ends with a chapter about heaven. The most popular views on the end times (eschatology) are summarized in an online extra (see download below).