I said off-hand in a different blog post that Christians weren’t going to heaven, and I got some lip about it. But before I start explaining myself, let me narrow the audience for you.
This post is directed at Christians. The “yous” in this post are “readers who have believed the gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of God, and by believing, have life in His name.”
Okay, lets get back to the point. Christians don’t end up in heaven.
“Of course we’re going to heaven!” you say. “That’s the gospel, Stephen! We’re going to go to heaven instead of hell! Jesus died so we could be saved from hell and go to heaven instead!”
I agree only with the first half of the final sentence. Jesus died so that we might be spared from hell. I agree with that (kind of… though I would say there are other reasons that rank higher on his list of motivations for going to the cross… but I digress.)
However, I stand by the title of this post: Christians don’t end up in heaven. If you read the last 2 chapters of the Bible, you will see a very clear description of where you Christians will end up. John calls it a “new earth,” along with a “new Jerusalem” which comes down FROM a “new heaven” TO the “new earth.” Let’s look at the text.
Revelation 21 takes place right after the great white throne judgment. All the people whose names are not written in the book of life have been cast into the “lake of fire” with “the beast”, and “the false prophet,” and “the devil” (20:10). John continues in chapter 21:
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. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
So we have the new earth and new Jerusalem coming from heaven and the announcement that God is going to start living with man, as opposed to living separated from man. That should open up a deep well of joy in the believer. The problem presented to humanity in Genesis 3 is finally resolved. We’re not going to be separated from God any longer. In the end, he will live with us.
Later he continues about how an angel takes him to see something new:
(the angel said) “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
So we have “the bride” (which I would argue is the new Jerusalem· i.e. resurrected Israel, but if you have another idea let me know and show me where that interpretation comes from in the text) coming down out of heaven.
Then after describing this New Jerusalem in great detail he writes this:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
So we have the spirit and the “bride” and “the one who hears” all beckoning people toward them, bidding them to drink the water of life, for free.
Regardless of how you interpret all of those texts (theres a right way and a wrong way) one that all interpretations will agree on is the answer to this question: Where do all the characters end up at the end of the book? Answer: One of two places:
(1) the lake of fire, or
(2) the new earth.
Even GOD ends up in the new Jerusalem that is on the new earth.
The final state of the Christian is not “heaven” it might be “the new Jerusalem” and it’s definitely on the “new earth.” If the new Jerusalem comes DOWN FROM heaven, it, by definition, can no longer be IN heaven, and the new earth must be a separate place from the new heaven for the new Jerusalem to travel from point a to point b.
It boggles my mind that the most basic and common message Christians give to non-believers is a factually incorrect one. The eternal state is often presented as a “heaven or hell” option. Neither of those words are the ones John chose to describe the two eternal states in Revelation. John chose “lake of fire” and “new earth/new Jerusalem.”
The word “hell” in the heaven/hell presentation isn’t as bad as the word “heaven” is, for 3 reasons:
- “hell” is used adjectivally just as much as nounally. In almost equal measure people describe things as “hell” and people refer to the place “hell.” Both are reasonable uses of the word.
- Jesus refers to “hell” as a noun as the place where people go in the afterlife. (Though he’s always using the terms “hades” or “gehenna” in the Greek, but both of these terms can be reasonably translated “hell” in English.)
- When Jesus talks about hell, he very much says that people will be cast into it… i.e. they will end up there. i.e. they will go
None of these reasons apply to the word “heaven” (“uranos” in Greek).
The ONLY references we have in the New Testament that even come close to speaking of humans (other than Jesus) entering heaven (uranos) for any length of time is the “man” that Paul knows from 2 Corinthians 12:2, who was caught up into the “third heaven,” but he doesn’t stay there, Phil 3:20 mentioning that our “citizenship” is in heaven but immediately saying that we’re waiting for Christ to come FROM heaven, not for us to go TO heaven, Hebrews referring to a church of firstborns enrolled in heaven (12:23), and Revelation, where John is repeatedly taken to see something in heaven, but he doesn’t stay there.
NEVER in the 240 occurrences of the word uranos (“heaven”) in the New Testament is there a promise made that believers will go there! Seriously. Go do a word search for “heaven” in the New Testament. Not ONCE does it say that humans will go there. There are constant references to Christ going there, to angels and God being there, to riches and treasures being stored up there, but never of Christians GOING there, and definitely not to stay.
If believers go there at all, (which I’m not positive we do) we all come back down to live in the new earth, just as John described. Heaven is not where we finally land; it’s not where we end up.
The one good argument I heard in prepping this piece is spoken of the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This would seem to suggest that the thief is going wherever Jesus is going, and Jesus is going to the Father… but on further examination there are plenty of problems with that idea. 1) Jesus didn’t go to the Father, or to heaven on “that day” he went to death, the grave, hades, hell, whichever you wanna say (the creeds say hades) but it definitely wasn’t heaven until about 43 days later. 2) Paradise is not the same as “heaven, the dwelling place of God”. 3) might this be an exception to the rule, sort of like Elijah and Enoch being exempted death, this thief gets exempted waiting to see paradise? Yes, we’ve crossed over into speculation. Best leave it alone now. Needless to say, I don’t think that one verse refutes the main point of this article.
Why it Matters Theologically
It’s important to realize that in the eternal state there will be an earth, there will be matter, there will be a city, and there will be life. God created matter, he likes it, and he’s going to have it around in the eternal state. This idea that when Christians die we’ll be floating around on the clouds in “spiritual bodies” for all eternity is completely unfounded biblically, and comes pretty darn close to one of the biggest early heresies (Gnosticism). That kind of existence may be a temporary state we inhabit (though I don’t think so) but it is definitely not the final state.
In the final state we’ll have a physically “resurrected body” following in the first-fruits of Christ’s resurrection. We’ll live in or just outside of a city that has walls, and gates, and measurements, and trees, and a river, and fruit. All of that is right there in Revelation 21. You can take these descriptions as completely figurative, but I think you’re wrong. I think they’re largely literal. (There are a few obvious similes used, but that’s it. The rest reads like John is describing a literal city.)
Even if you do take the city’s descriptions as completely figurative, I have to ask: what are they figuring? All figures of speech are used to describe something real, something non-figurative. Figures of speech don’t just float around in space completely devoid of meaning. They always have a referent. They are always trying to communicate something literal: either a literal idea, a literal description, a literal color, a literal talent, a literal state of being, etc.
Even if you don’t have an answer to that, you must agree that the New Testament never, even figuratively, uses the word “heaven” to denote the final state of believers. Christians don’t end up in heaven. If they go at all, they go temporarily. Where they go eternally is the new earth. Describe it as the eternal state if you like. Describe it as paradise if you want. Think of it as grand, as marvelous, as heavenly: just don’t call it “heaven.” Or if you do… make sure you’re using it as an adjective, not a noun. Recognize that when you use the word “heaven” to describe the eternal state, it is purely a description of what the new earth and new Jerusalem are like. You should not be saying that heaven is the actual place believers go for all eternity, cause it’s not.
“Heaven” the noun, “heaven” the actual place, is the residence of God and angels. Jesus ascended into it, has descended and will descend from it, and a select few humans have seen it, but it’s not where Christians end up.
Christians end up on the new earth, and I’m pretty sure they are the “nations” mentioned in Revelation 21:24-27 (go read it then ask yourself, “If the nations going in and out of the city aren’t the gentile Christians, then who in the heaven are they?” [<-jajaja. I make joke.]). You could argue that Christians are part of the new Jerusalem as members who have been grafted into Israel, as per Romans 11.
One thing I’m sure about: they don’t end up in heaven.
Okay nay-sayers. Go ahead. Tell me I’m wrong.