February 4-5, 2012
Pastor Joe Wittwer
ILL: “Do you believe in life after death?” the boss asked one of his employees.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“Well, that’s good,” the boss said, “because after you left early yesterday to go to your grandmother’s funeral, she stopped in to see you.”
Do you believe in life after death? That’s the question we’re going to discuss today. One of the big ideas in Christianity is this idea of eternal life and heaven. Today, I’m going to answer all your questions about heaven in 30 minutes!
This is the final message in this series, Basic Christianity, and I’m going to wrap it up by talking about heaven. The Apostles Creed ends by saying we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. One of the core beliefs of the Christian faith is that this life is not all there is. There is life after death. There is heaven and hell. We’re going to focus on heaven: life everlasting with God.
The Big Idea: We have eternal life in Christ and will live with Him forever; the best is yet to come!
Since I’m often asked questions about heaven, I decided to approach this talk as a series of questions. (Read questions from outline page with brief answers. “Any questions? Let’s stand for closing prayer.” First question.
1. What happens when we die?
I suppose that depends on what you did when you lived!
ILL: There is an Indiana cemetery with a tombstone that bears the following epitaph:
Pause stranger, when you pass me by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be,
So prepare for death and follow me.
An unknown passerby read those words and underneath scratched this reply:
To follow you I’m not content,
Until I know which way you went.
The Bible says that there are two possible ways to go: heaven or hell. In my final point, I will tell you how to know for sure that you are going to heaven. For right now, I’m going to assume that you are a follower of Jesus and answer the question, “what happens when we die”.
Christians have generally given two answers to that question. First, some Christians believe that when you die, you “rest”, you go to sleep and don’t awaken until the end of time when Christ returns. This is commonly called, “soul sleeping.” Where does this idea come from? The Bible authors often used the word “sleep” as a metaphor for death. I have listed many examples; we’ll read just one:
1 Thessalonians 4:13–17 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Evidently the Thessalonian Christians feared that those who died were gone forever; Paul corrects that by saying that those who have died in Christ will be the first to rise to meet him when he comes. Notice that three times he describes those who have died as those who have “fallen asleep.”
The question is, “Does Paul use sleep as a metaphor or euphemism for death, or does he literally mean that we sleep until Christ returns.” Most Christians think he is using it metaphorically, much like we say a person who has died has “entered rest”.
The more widely accepted answer is that when we die, we immediately go into God’s presence. We are with the Lord. When Paul was in prison, facing death, he wrote this to the Philippian Christians.
Philippians 1:21–24 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Paul believed that if he were to die, he would be with Christ, “which is better by far”. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
2 Corinthians 5:6-8 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Paul indicates that when we die, we go to be “at home with the Lord.” I love that phrase.
ILL: When my granddaughter Jenna was 2, she would get tired when she was visiting us, and she would go to our front door and say, “Home. Home.” She’s like ET. That’s how I felt toward the end of my wonderful trip to Europe: I longed for home.
I think all of us have an instinctive longing for home, and Paul says our real home is with the Lord. I’m not home yet.
Good Christians hold both of these views, and I’m not sure it matters a great deal either way, and here’s why. If you do sleep until Christ comes, you will fall asleep when you die and wake up when he comes, and no matter how long it is, it will seem like no time has passed.
ILL: When I had surgery in 2006, they put the anesthesia mask on me, and the next thing I knew I woke up in a different room without a prostate! It seemed like no time at all had passed. Why? I was asleep.
So either way, when we die, the next thing we see is the Lord! I don’t think it matters…but I believe we go to be with the Lord.
2. What is heaven?
The word “heaven” is used in the Bible of the atmosphere we breathe, the sky above us, and of the abode of God. It is important to remember as we try to explain heaven that we are using our limited human vocabulary and perspective to describe something divine and eternal. We talk of heaven as a place, the abode of God, but of course, no single place can contain God. So as I explain this, just remember that using our words to explain heaven is like trying to put the ocean in a bucket.
Heaven is the home of God. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven.” It is also the place of God’s throne from which He rules the universe. And it is where Jesus is, at the right hand of God.
Acts 7:55–56 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Heaven is where God and Jesus are. And in heaven, God’s will is always done.
Matthew 6:9–10 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We pray for God’s will to be done here on earth, in our lives, as it is in heaven. Heaven is where God’s will is always done. When Jesus came, He brought heaven to earth. He brought the Kingdom of God (called “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew) to earth. Wherever the King is, the Kingdom is there too.
Matthew 4:17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Just as God’s will is perfectly done in heaven, Jesus came to bring heaven to earth, to bring us into a relationship with God in which we do His will here and now. “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So somehow, heaven intersects earth, and we have a foretaste now of what it will be like to live under God’s gracious reign.
Finally, heaven is not only where God and Jesus are; it is also where we go to be with them forever. In a moment, we’ll talk about what that heaven is like. But first, I have to address this question:
3. Is there a heaven?
Some of you might be thinking, “Come on…heaven, shmeaven! No one really believes that pie-in-the-sky-after-you-die stuff, do they?”
Not everyone thinks there is a heaven. Atheists insist that there is no heaven, that heaven is just wishful thinking. I certainly can’t prove there is a heaven.
ILL: Have any of you read this book, Heaven is for Real? It is the remarkable story of 4 year-old Colton Burpo who claims he went to heaven during an emergency surgery. I read it this week and loved it—very encouraging—I’d recommend it. Colton describes what he saw including seeing his parents praying for him in separate rooms in the hospital; his grandfather whom he had never met; a sister that he had never heard of who was miscarried; and of course Jesus. It is quite convincing…but does it prove there is a heaven? No.
Even though we can’t prove it, Christians believe that there is a heaven; but on what grounds? Of course, the Bible says so. And there are many stories like Colton Burpo’s. But there is a more important reason we believe in heaven. Jesus. Jesus claimed to have come from heaven.
John 3:11–13 I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
When Jesus spoke of heaven, He claimed to speak of something he knew by experience, something he had seen, of a place that he was from.
ILL: I’m listening to a book, Lost in Shangri-La, a true story of three US soldiers who survived a plane crash in New Guinea near the end of World War 2. They were found by natives who had never been outside their isolated and remote mountain valley, and had never seen a white person.
All they knew was what was in their jungle valley where there were no seasons, a constant temperate climate, lush vegetation, and an abundance of food and water. Imagine this: what if someone had told them of a place called the Arctic that was perpetually covered in ice and where nothing grew. They couldn’t have imagined it, wouldn’t have words for it and may not have believed it. But what if an Eskimo came? “I live there; I know.”
That’s similar to what happened when Jesus came. He claimed to come from heaven, and so he could tell us about it. Ultimately, I believe in heaven because I believe in Jesus. I can’t prove it or disprove it; but I believe it because Jesus said it’s so. Next question:
4. Does it make a difference now?
Have you ever heard someone described, “He is so heavenly-minded that he’s of no earthly good?” That’s how some people think about heaven—too much thinking about heaven will make you of no earthly good. What difference does it make right now? The Bible says it makes a lot of difference. Knowing that there is a heaven (or hell) at the end of life changes the way we live. It affects the way we respond to God, the way we treat people, the way we spend our money and use our stuff. It affects everything. One example:
Matthew 6:19–21 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
If this life is all there is, then go for the gold! Get all you can and spend all you can on yourself, and the one with the most toys when he dies, wins. But if there is more than just this life, if this life is the shorter part of existence, then that changes everything. Now I invest not just for the short term, for this life; I invest for the long term, for the life to come.
How do you store up treasures in heaven? I have heard this read before an offering, implying that if you give money to God now, it will be credited to your account in heaven and you’ll be accruing interest for eternity! I can’t discount that entirely because on other occasions Jesus said that when we give to the poor, we are laying up treasure in heaven. Being generous here has some connection to treasure to heaven.
But think of it like this. What do you know will be in heaven? Two things: God and people. God will be there and we’ll be there. The only thing you will take to heaven with you is relationships—your relationships with God and people. Those are the real treasures. So the best way to store up treasure in heaven is to invest your time, energy and money into your relationships with God and people.
Does it make a difference now to believe there’s a heaven later? Lots! I gave one example, but there are lots of verses on your outline for you to explore. It might be a great discussion for your Life Group this week. Next question, and it’s the one I’m asked most often:
5. What will heaven be like?
I don’t know. Next question.
Obviously, there is a lot we don’t know, but we do know some things. John ends the book of Revelation with a description of heaven that is obviously metaphorical, and alternately beautiful and weird.
Revelation 21:1–4 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, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live 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.”
Heaven is pictured as God dwelling with us—we will live in the physical presence of God. And there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. I love the image of God wiping every tear from our eyes! Beautiful! Here are two of the most important things to know about heaven. First, we will be with God; we will be face to face with God. Later in this passage, John continues:
Revelation 22:3–5 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
We will see His face. That’s the most important part of heaven: to be with God and see Him face to face. The presence of God will be so immediate that John says we won’t need any other source of light—God’s presence will light up everything. The most important part of heaven won’t be streets of gold or pearly gates; it will be the immediate presence of God; we’ll see Him face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:2 “Now we see dimly as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.”
That’s the really big deal!
The second thing John tells us is that all things are new; it’s a new order and the old order that included death, mourning, crying and pain is gone. Heaven is an entirely new order of things that we can’t imagine: living without sickness or death or pain. It is difficult for us to even imagine what this will be like, but do your best to imagine and it will be better still.
The central image in John’s vision is the New Jerusalem, which is the bride of the Lamb, and is the dwelling place of God. Of course, for a Jew, Jerusalem was the holy city where God’s temple was located; it was the God’s home on earth. So you can see why John would naturally choose that as the image for God’s dwelling place in the new heavens and earth. John paints a dazzling picture of the New Jerusalem: it shines with the glory of God and the brilliance of a precious jewel. The whole city, including the streets, is made of pure gold, like transparent glass. Each of the twelve gates is made from a single enormous pearl. This is where we get the idea of the streets of gold and the pearly gates. The New Jerusalem’s dimensions represent its perfection: it is a perfect cube, 1400 miles long and wide and high! John’s description of the New Jerusalem is dazzling and dominates his vision of heaven. Here’s the cool thing: he’s describing us! The New Jerusalem is the bride of the Lamb; it is the church, God’s redeemed people; we are the dwelling place of God and will shine with the glory of God!
I think that much of John’s vision is symbolic or metaphoric—he’s trying to use his limited vocabulary to describe something that is indescribable. He’s the Eskimo describing his home to natives in New Guinea—they don’t have words it. The big idea here is that it’s cooler than anything you’ve ever seen or imagined!
I said that John’s vision of heaven is alternately beautiful and weird. It’s weird because he uses imagery that would have been meaningful to an ancient Jew, but may not be to us. For example, he said, “there was no longer any sea.” The Jews disliked and feared the ocean; they considered it a symbol of chaos. So it makes sense to John that in heaven there would be no sea. But I love the ocean! My favorite place to vacation is the beach! So I can’t imagine heaven without an ocean and beaches…and motorcycles…and golf courses…and ski slopes with deep powder and no lift lines…and all the food you want except you never gain weight! And I can dunk!
ILL: Sandra Cox’s sons, ages six and two, were walking hand-in-hand behind her and her husband as they left their small-town carnival. They had a blast on the rides, and they overheard Tyler tell his younger brother, “This is what heaven is like–except it’s free!”
We all tend to imagine heaven as the best of what we know. It will be better than that.
God will be in heaven and people will be there. That is more central to heaven than anything else. Paul says:
1 Thessalonians 4:17–18 And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.
Turn to someone and say, “We will be with the Lord forever.” We…not just me. We will be with the Lord forever. This is the best one sentence description of heaven I know.
This raises some other questions:
Will we have bodies in heaven? Yes. 1 Corinthians 15.
Will we recognize each other? I think so. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, the disciples recognized Moses and Elijah, even though they had never seen a picture of them.
How old will we be? The perfect age. Medieval theologians argued that it was about 30; I’ll let you decide what that is.
What will heaven be like? Better than anything you can imagine. We will be with the Lord forever.
6. Can I be sure I will go to heaven?
If heaven is that great, and it’s forever, you want to be sure you go there. Can you be sure? Yes.
1 John 5:11–13 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
John says that you can know that you have eternal life. You can know—and the word know means to know for sure, to know fully, to know with confidence and assurance. Do I have eternal life? Yes. Will I go to heaven? Yes. How do I know that? I have the Son. I believe in Jesus, I follow Jesus.
It’s not that I’m perfect; He is. It’s not that I have it all together; He does. And I have Him.
If you have the Son, you have eternal life. Do you have the Son? Do you believe in Jesus?
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.