Part 1: Heaven and Huckleberry Finn
Two weeks ago we began a Sunday School series at Uptown Church on the topic of heaven. One thing that has surprised me in preparing for the class is the low expectation many have of our eternal home. Heaven is a fascinating concept, but for many people it’s just that, a concept. An idea of the future, but not an actual physical place they are excited about. The excitement for heaven has fallen on hard times and I believe it is mainly due to a misunderstanding of what heaven actually is and what it is like to live there.
To illustrate this, Randy Alcorn begins his book on heaven with an excerpt from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Here we find Huck describing a conversation with Miss Watson, the sister of the Widow, with whom he lived.
“Miss Watson went on and on about Heaven. She said the only thing people do there is sing and play the harp forever and ever. This didn’t sound so great to me. I didn’t tell her this, though. I asked if she thought Tom Sawyer would go to Heaven, and she said not by a long shot. This made me happy, because I wanted the two of us to be together.”
Huck Finn’s idea of heaven is sadly, how many people view heaven. It is no wonder he wasn’t excited to go. If I’m honest, I wouldn’t either. In an effort to help us all grow in our anticipation for heaven, I am beginning a series of posts on several misunderstandings that hinder our anticipation of heaven. Here are the first two:
#1: Failure to make the distinction between the Present Heaven and the New Heaven.
Most of the scripture we have about heaven are in reference to the new Heaven or the eternal state (after Christ’s 2nd coming). Therefore much of the error in understanding what happens to someone when they die comes from not understanding the difference between the current and final state of heaven. See the chart below for a visual. After the fall, God’s dwelling place was no longer with man and heaven and earth were separated into different dimensions. Christ came to bridge that gap so that man could once again be united with God spiritually and at death go immediately into his presence. When Christ returns, the New Heavens and New Earth will be reunited and the two will exist in the same time and space once again.
We see this distinction in the Westminster Shorter Catechism #37 which says, “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory, and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.” (Luke 23:43, Philippians 1:23, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, Romans 8:23)
So, a helpful tool to use as we read passages of scripture related to heaven is to ask which stage of heaven is this describing? Is it describing the present heaven or the new Heaven and Earth?
#2 Thinking that earth is physical and heaven is not.
This may seem obvious to some, but I have found that most people begin with a wispy, ethereal view of heaven with floating clouds and see through people. I believe it should be the opposite. Our default should be to view heaven as the most physical place we can imagine. The present heaven is more earthy and physical than earth has ever been. Not to mention what the New Heavens will be like as the great City.
Jesus said in John 14:2-3 “I go to prepare a place for you.” In Acts 1:9 He ascended into heaven with his physical body, which he still possesses. Then again in Acts, at the stoning of Stephen, the Lord allows Stephen to look into the present heaven. He did not see symbols of a state of existence rather God opened his eyes to see a dimension that actually exists in real time and space.
Two times in the Old Testament (first Enoch and then Elijah) men were taken up into heaven without dying. If the present heaven isn’t a physical place, then where did they go and what happened to their bodies? Furthermore, Elijah appears at the transfiguration of Jesus in Luke 9. Now you might be tempted to view the transfiguration like the ending of the Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader, Yoda and Obi-Wan wave goodbye as spirits. Again we have been lulled into assuming non-physical. As you read the transfiguration there is no indication that Moses and Elijah were not physically present. Though something is different, Peter recognizes them as men and thinks it best to set up camp for the night and sleep there. You will recall that when the disciples think they saw a ghost they were terrified and did not want to stay. (see Matthew 14:26).
Finally, in Revelation, John is given a glimpse of the present heaven where the souls of the martyrs are crying out in the throne room for God to judge the evil on the earth. Read this again but try to recognize the physical nature of this scene as John describes the saints who have gone before you, experiencing the actual presence of the Lord.
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” Revelation 6:9-11
Armed with the reality of a physical heaven and the distinction between the Present Heaven and it’s final state, we can begin to see heaven as the grand and magnificent home that is our inheritance through Christ Jesus.
How about you? What is your level of anticipation for heaven? How does your ability to view heaven as a tangible place, with physical attributes relate to your desire to go there?
To learn more about heaven and to strengthen your desire for heaven, I recommend Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven or you can click here for the audio from our Sunday School series.