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What You Need To Know About Heaven, The Hereafter & Near-Death Experiences
By Hank Hanegraaff
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2013 Hank Hanegraaff
All rights reserved.
What is heaven about?
WHAT IS HEAVEN?
To be resurrected for the life of heaven is the true Christian hope. As life in the "intermediate" or "interim" state between death and resurrection is better than the life in this world that preceded it, so the life of resurrection will be better still. It will, in fact, be best. And this is what God has in store for all his children. Hallelujah!
—J. I. Packer
The biblical story of redemption is rooted in the tree of life. In the beginning the tree of life appears as the centerpiece of the Edenic garden. On the far side of history, it reappears in the eternal garden. In between, it stands on Golgotha's hill as the fulcrum of human history. On it, God-made-flesh stretches one hand toward the garden of Eden, the other toward the eternal garden. The immortality the first Adam could no longer reach, the Second Adam touched in his place. He vanquished the power of evil and gave ultimate victory to the knowledge of good. As descendants of Adam, we can as yet embrace the tree of life where the personification of all that is good took all that is evil upon himself. In other words, you and I can experience heaven. The question is, what exactly does that mean?
First, heaven is the experience of eternal life—the polar opposite of eternal death. Death is what the parents of humanity experienced when they ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In accordance with God's warning, they were driven from Paradise and experienced what it meant to be alienated from their Creator. In place of eternal life they experienced spiritual death, and creation itself experienced the reality of groaning in travail.
Post-Paradise, the Bible chronicles an unfolding plan of redemption by which our human parents, their posterity, and Paradise itself might be brought back into right relationship with their Maker. A plan of redemption by which earth and earthlings would once again experience wholeness. A time in which "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14). A time in which earthlings will be fulfilled in knowledge and relationship to God. "This is eternal life," wrote the Apostle of Love, "that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3).
The Apostle to the Gentiles summed up the essence of eternal life brilliantly: "As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22). Indeed, writes John, Christ is "eternal life" (1 John 5:20). Everlasting destruction is to be "shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power" (2 Thessalonians 1:9); conversely, eternal life is to experience what Adam and Eve once knew when they walked with God in the cool of the day.
Furthermore, heaven is the eternal expression of the image of God. From the fall onward the goal of redemption is the restoration of God's image in fallen humanity. As such, the imago Dei tarnished in the fall is to be transformed in the forever: "Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven" (1 Corinthians 15:49). Put another way, the redeemed will—in perfection—eternally bear the image of God in heaven.
Think about it this way. Christ is the image of the invisible God, and Christ-ians are progressively being conformed to the image of Christ. When "Philip said, 'Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us,' Jesus answered, "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father'" (John 14:8–9). In other words, Jesus is "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being" (Hebrews 1:3). And as Christ "is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation" (Colossians 1:15), Christians are "predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29).
What that means from a practical standpoint is that through sanctification God is renewing an image that as yet is blemished and broken. And when Jesus appears a second time, "we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). The image of God now distorted will then be divine. Christ-ians will bear the image of God patterned after Christ—the true imago Dei.
Finally, heaven is quite literally the Easter of earth—the moment that all creation yearns for. The hope of Christianity is not only that God will resurrect our physical carcasses but that he will redeem the physical cosmos. Christ will not resurrect an entirely different group of human beings; rather, he will resurrect the very people who throughout history have populated this planet. In like manner, God will not renew another cosmos; rather, he will redeem the very world he once called "very good" (Genesis 1:31). As such, the Easter of earth is the transformation of the cosmos.
What happens to our physical carcasses and what happens to the physical cosmos go hand in hand. Together they will be redeemed, restored, and resurrected. Paul elucidates it eloquently. The very creation which is at present "groaning as in the pains of childbirth" will, at the second appearance of Christ, "be liberated from its bondage to decay." Likewise, "we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:18–25). As Christ emerged from the tomb of Easter, so a new cosmos will emerge from the womb of earth.
It is incredible to think that one day soon we will not only experience the resurrection of our carcasses but the renewal of the cosmos and the return of the Creator. We will literally experience heaven on earth. Eden lost will become Eden restored and a whole lot more. The veil between heaven and earth will be vanquished and Jesus will appear in a new heaven and a new earth wherein righteousness dwells. Heaven and earth will no longer be separated but will be united as one glorious domain—a domain in which we will experience eternal life, eternally express the image of God, and bask in the Easter of earth.
WHERE IS HEAVEN?
The early Christians hold firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world.
—N. T. Wright
Ask a Christian where heaven is and the inevitable answer is that it is somewhere up there. If you travel upward from the perspective of Jerusalem (downward from Tonga) you will inevitably encounter a heavenly city. Some say that city measures two and a quarter million miles square and has a wall two hundred and sixteen feet wide and seven million feet high, twelve gates made of single pearls, foundations constructed from a variety of precious stones, and a singular street that is literally pure gold. Upon their return, many near-deathers speak of being received thorough pearly gates and running on pure gold. It is, they say, precisely as described by the Apostle of the Apocalypse. But is that true? Is heaven really up there somewhere? Does it really have a street of gold? And if so, how exactly do we get there?
First, from a biblical perspective we may rightly say that heaven is where God is. As we have seen, to be "away from the body" is to be "home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8). While this is a profound reality, it is not at present a physical reality. Only when Jesus appears a second time will physical bodies be resurrected. In the meantime, the immaterial souls of those who have died in faith are even now, as Jesus described it, at "Abraham's side" (Luke 16:22).
This, of course, is not a locational promise; it is a relational promise. Indeed, to ask where Abraham's side is reduces our Lord's words to an absurdity. While souls most certainly have awareness, they do not have whereness. Put another way, nonphysical souls do not have extension in space. Therefore, asking for the physical location of a soul is a category mistake. The language Scripture employs to communicate where God is should be regarded as a heavenly condescension by which heavenly realities are conveyed through the lingua franca of earth.
When my father died in 1997, we buried his body in a cemetery in Michigan. Not so the nonphysical aspect of his humanity. His non-material soul is even now where God is. He once prayed, "Our Father which art in heaven" (Matthew 6:9 KJV). He is now in that very space. The best, however, is yet to come. For one day, "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" (1 Thessalonians 4:16). On that day, his soul will reemerge in a resurrected body that is immortal and imperishable. In the meantime, he, along with "a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1), is enjoying the presence of God.
Furthermore, heaven is where we are. For heaven is not a place altogether other than this universe; rather, it is this universe restored. If God annihilated the present cosmos, Satan would have won a decisive victory. The Bible, however, knows of no such thing. Satan is defeated and the full measure of his defeat will be evidenced when a corrupted cosmos groaning in travail will be liberated from its bondage to disease, destruction, decay, and death itself.
That, ultimately, is the hope of Christianity: the resurrection of our physical bodies and the renewal of the physical universe, including earth. The grand and glorious promise of the biblical worldview is that we will once again walk this physical planet. Therefore, when the apostles Peter and John speak of "a new heaven and a new earth" (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1), they are describing a universe that, though renewed, stands in continuity with the one we presently inhabit. In other words, at the second appearing of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ this universe will be thoroughly transformed as opposed to totally terminated.
Just as there is continuity between our present body and our resurrected body, so too there will be continuity between the physical universe and the one we will inhabit throughout eternity. Again the caterpillar is instructive. In the chrysalis it experiences ruin and then resurrection. Though its constituent parts dissolve into a mysterious molecular mixture, out of the ruins a butterfly springs forth in resurrection. So it will be with the present creation. Its elements will "melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:12–13). Though the elements will be destroyed by fire, like a mother in labor, the present cosmos will give birth to a perfect creation in which "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!'" (Revelation 21:3–5).
Finally, we might rightly say that heaven is where God is and where we are. At present there is, as it were, a veil that separates the habitation of God from the habitation of humanity. In the redemption of all things, that veil will be removed. Christ will then be available to us physically as he now is available to us spiritually. The Shekinah glory that once filled Solomon's temple will fill the new heavens and the new earth. When the veil is removed, "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14). Sacred space will fill our place.
Bethel, an ordinary place, became sacred space when Yahweh, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, appeared to the father of true Israel. Suddenly that which was ordinary became extraordinary. Bethel was transformed into the sacred space of God. "Surely," exuded Jacob, "this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:16–17). Mount Sinai likewise became sacred space when Moses there encountered God's glory. "To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain" (Exodus 24:17), for a glimpse of glory had been unveiled. Joshua encountered sacred space when he neared Jericho. Thus, the commander of the Lord's army said to him, "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy" (Joshua 5:15). The garden of Eden, of course, was the quintessential sacred space. For there it was that God walked with the parents of humanity in the cool of the day.
All of this is but a portrait of what will be when the veil, between where God is and where we are, is permanently removed. Moses trembled in fear when he encountered sacred space at the burning bush (Exodus 3). Likewise, when the prophet Isaiah, the holiest man in Israel, "saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple," he cried out, "Woe to me! ... I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (Isaiah 6:1–5). Yet when God's space and ours merge, all such terror will be no more. Our lips will be cleansed. Our hearts will be purified. We will touch the sacred mountain, the heavenly Jerusalem, without as much as a tinge of fear. We will "come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God" (Hebrews 12:22–23).
So where is heaven? Is it up there somewhere? A place made of jasper with pearly gates and a street of pure gold? Heavens, no! The language is a heavenly condescension to our earthly inadequacies. Revelation's descriptions are not intended to communicate what heaven looks like any more than hair "white like wool, as white as snow" is intended to tell us what Jesus looks like (1:14). Rather, such descriptions are intended to communicate what heaven is like. As with the golden bowls full of incense (prayers of the saints); the golden lampstands (churches); and fine linen (righteous acts of the saints); so the metaphors describing the heavenly city magnify a far more majestic and glorious reality. A reality far grander than a fourteen-hundred-cubic-mile Jerusalem constructed of jewels and jasper.
No! Heaven involves our earth—these fields, these mountains, these rivers, our space—united as one with the glory of God. It is God's sacred space and our purified place a glorious whole. "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" (1 Thessalonians 4:16). "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. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 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" (Revelation 22:3–5).
WHEN DO WE RECEIVE OUR RESURRECTED BODIES?
I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
—Martha, sister of Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead
The question of when we receive resurrected bodies is one I encountered frequently after the death of my father. Family members and friends wanted to know whether my dad had become a disembodied soul or whether he received his resurrection body the moment he died.
First, Scripture clearly refers to the moment of death as disembodiment, not re-embodiment. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it crystal clear that to be "at home with the Lord" is to be "away from the body" and to be "away from the body" is to be "at home with the Lord" (5:6, 8).
The notion that believers receive temporary bodies during the intermediate state is either ad hoc or atrocious hermeneutics. Nowhere does the Bible explicitly tell us that upon death we assume temporary bodies. Those who suppose such things turn Scripture into a wax nose. One writer goes as far as to suggest that the martyrs in heaven were given fine linen to wear; thus, they must also have had temporary bodies. What is not mentioned is that the Apostle of the Apocalypse specifically defines "fine linen" as "the righteous acts of the saints" (Revelation 19:8). In like fashion, he defines "golden bowls full of incense" as "the prayers of the saints" (5:8).
Furthermore, Scripture teaches that believers are not resurrected until the second coming of Christ. Paul explicitly says that when the Lord comes down from heaven, "the dead in Christ will rise first" (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Jesus himself taught that at his coming bodily return to earth "all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:28–29).
Excerpted from After Life by Hank Hanegraaff. Copyright © 2013 Hank Hanegraaff. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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