Summary: Is heaven real and what is heaven like?
Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon at Harvard. He thought everything had a scientific explanation including out of body experiences until in 2008, when he slipped into a coma for 7 days after contracting bacterial meningitis. During that time, he had an out-of-body experience of his own, a visit to heaven. He describes a place with beautiful butterflies and flowers, with souls dancing and angels flying above. It was full of bliss, and there was a comforting and cherishing love from the Creator. There was nothing to fear. There was no pain and there was nothing that one could do wrong in that realm. He came away from that experience knowing that we are all eternal spiritual beings and we are all loved. Colton Burpo is the son of a minister who almost died with a burst appendix. While on the operating table, he was taken to heaven and saw Jesus, had angels sing to him and met family members he never knew including his great grandfather and a sister whom he never knew about who had died due to a miscarriage. In response to his son’s story, his father Todd Burpo writes, “Over and over, I kept asking myself, ‘How could he have known (all those things)?’ But…(then) I had another question: ‘Could this be real?’”
Is heaven real? Recent polls suggest that nearly 80% of all Americans believe there is a place called heaven. There are many stories today of those who have had near death experiences and seen heaven for themselves. But they aren’t the only ones. There are several people in the Bible who have been eyewitnesses to heaven before they died. Elijah (II Kings 2:1-12) and Enoch were each taken up into heaven. Paul saw heaven while travelling on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians. Acts 9:3-4 The book of Revelation is John’s record of his experience with heaven that he saw through an open door. (Revelation 4:1)
The Bible uses the word heaven 532 times in the Bible. The Hebrew word for “heaven” is shamayim and is plural meaning “heights,” “elevations.” It is found in the first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” and in Gen 2:1 “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.” The phrase “heavens and earth” refers to the whole universe (Genesis 1:1; Jeremiah 23:24; Acts 17:24). But according to the Jewish belief and the OT, there were three heavens, all created by God. The first is our atmosphere and sky. The Scriptures speak of God opening the doors of heaven to provide food or rain. (Psalms 78: 23,Gen. 7:11-12, Deut. 11:17, 28:12, Mal. 3:10) The second is outer space, the Bible calls it firmament, and includes the sun, moon, and stars. (Genesis 1:17, Psalm 19:4,6)
The third heaven is where God dwells and is located beyond the space and stars. Jesus called it the “Father's house” but he also called it paradise when he promised it to the thief hanging on the cross next to him. Paul also uses the word paradise to refer to the third heaven. (2 Corinthians 12:4) This is where God’s throne is located. Jesus Christ is also there as are the angels. In fact, there are myriads of angels and heavenly beings serving the Lord in various ways. And finally, the saints of God who died on this earth are in heaven enjoying “everlasting life.” 2 Corinthians 4:17. Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3). Is heaven real? Twice in three verses, Jesus calls heaven a place and so it is a real place, just as real as the place you call home. In fact, this is God’s home. It is the dwelling place of God.
So what is heaven like? John Lennon sang, "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try." Although there is little in his song that agrees with what the Bible has to say about heaven, Lennon got it right on one point: it’s easier to imagine that heaven does not exist than it is to imagine heaven as it does exist. Heaven as we have traditionally pictured it described by corny clichés and is often the center of jokes. At one time, people seemed to think that saved souls would float around on clouds playing harps. The reality is the Bible doesn't give us a great deal of information. What we have are images and pictures of heaven and comparisons with life on earth. It’s the Father's house (John 14:2) It is a city designed and built by God (Hebrews 11:10). It is a better country (Hebrews 11:16). It is Paradise (Luke 23:43). Revelation 21, which offers us the most extended picture of heaven in the entire Bible, says it is a place where the streets are paved with gold, the gates are made of pearl, and the walls made of precious jewels. I love the old story of the rich man who, on his deathbed, asked God to allow him to bring his earthly treasures with him when he came to heaven. God's reaction was that this was a most unusual request, but since this man had been exceptionally faithful, permission was granted to bring along just one suitcase. When the man presented himself at the pearly gates, suitcase in hand- BOTH hands, actually, since he had stuffed it with as many bars of gold bullion as would fit. St. Peter opened the suitcase to check the contents and when he saw the gold bars, he asked quizzically, "You brought PAVEMENT?"