Summary: Urban legends, heresies, bigotry and prejudices about heaven abound. What is the balance?
BY IAN GRANT SPONG
When I was in Graduate School doing theology our Greek professor asked us what heaven meant to us. Each one of us gave an entirely different answer and he said that our answers said more about us and our personal needs than heaven, because nobody really knows what heaven will be like. There are many theories and urban legends about heaven. What do we know for sure?
WHAT IS DEATH?
THE INTERMEDIATE STATE
Between death and the resurrection is a period of time that has puzzled Christians for two millennia.
Bible-believing Christians discuss several possibilities:
1. Why Soul Sleep is a Weak Theory
John 11:11; Acts 7:60, 13:36; 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20, 51 and many other scriptures use the imagery of sleep for death. Some assume that both body and soul (spirit) sleep at death, waiting for the resurrection before reawakening.
Do these verses prove soul-sleep? Some few believe they do. Do they contradict Jesus’ statement that the faithful would never die? Most Christian theologians believe the context shows the dead may know nothing of what happens “under the sun,” i.e. here on earth.
There are three main theories about this passage:
1. No one has ever gone to heaven, nor will they ever go there. Soul sleepers need better reasoning than this to prove their point. We could possibly take these verses to mean that no one had ever gone to heaven before that time. What do these verses not say? They do not say people would never go to heaven after that time.
2. This is referring to Jesus having heavenly knowledge, not whether or not people go to heaven when they die. In other words, no one has ever gone into heaven and then come back to earth with the ability to give clear teaching about divine matters. This theory is possible in the context.
3. Before this time no one had gone to heaven, only to “paradise” – where the dead awaited Christ’s resurrection before entering heaven.
This theory is possible if paradise and heaven are not the same thing. Most believe paradise and heaven are the same place.
John 3:13 also addresses another interesting issue. The Son of Man seems to have been on earth and in heaven simultaneously. Are some human arguments about heaven silly? Can we really understand what all this means as long as we are in the flesh?
2. A Consciousness Spirit -- The Traditional View
Traditional Christianity believes that the spirit of a believer goes to God at death, where it resides in conscious bliss until the resurrection. At that time, the spirit and a new body unite in some fashion.
Many passages seem to indicate that at least the spirit is conscious after death even if the body is asleep:
• Luke 16:19-31 the rich man cried out from Hades – Abraham answered him from the other side of a great gulf where Lazarus was comforted
• Luke 23:43 today you shall be with me in paradise
• 2 Corinthians 5:8 absent from the body and at home with the Lord
• Philippians 1:21-24 Paul desired to depart this flesh and be with Christ
• Revelation 6:9-11 slain souls cried with a loud voice
3. Theory of Purgatory
This theory appeals to those who see a need to provide for people who had no chance to accept or reject Christ in this life. It also appeals to those who see a need for more works or more growth in grace and knowledge before entry into eternity with God.
4. Theory of Instantaneous Resurrection
Ignoring passages that prophesy our resurrection as being future, some hold the view that we receive our spiritual body instantly upon death. This is not accepted by very many.
5. Inherit the Earth?
Matthew 5:5 some believe in eternal life on earth. The ancients did not use the word earth as we do. They used it to mean “the land.” The Promised Land is a metaphor for eternity with God.
OUR HEAVENLY FUTURE
The following passages seem to indicate heaven as the eternal home of the saints:
• Matthew 5:12 your reward is great in heaven
• Matthew 6:20 store up for yourselves treasures in heaven
• Luke 6:23 your reward is great in heaven
• John 11:26 those who live and believe in Jesus will never die
• Ephesians 1:3, 20, 2:6 spiritual blessing in the heavenly places – Christ, seated at God’s right hand in heavenly places – seated us with him in the heavenly places