Surprised by Hope: Will We Go to Heaven When We Die?

In Rev 21-22, we are not pictured as going to heaven. Rather, God’s dwelling is relocated from heaven to the new earth.

The new heaven and new earth

Do other authors say the same thing?

(2 Pet 3:10-13) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. 11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

Notice that Peter envisions us living both in a new heaven and in a new earth.

Isaiah prophesies–

(Isa 65:17-19) “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”

(Isa. 66:22-23) “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD.

The old earth will be transformed into a new earth in which God dwells. Moreover, our bodies will be replaced by new, spiritual bodies that are different in kind from our present bodies (thank goodness! I can’t imagine an eternity in my present body!)

(John 14:1-4) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 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. 3 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. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Now, this is my favorite image of the after-life. The King James Version botched the translation. It says that there are many mansions in God’s house – a mixed metaphor and not at all the thought of the passage.

There are “rooms” – not mansions! We will live in God’s house. We won’t live 20 blocks away, hoping for a weekend invitation to visit. We’ll live in the same house. We’ll eat breakfast together! (or whatever people do in these new bodies we’ll have).

Jesus refers to his second coming. He promises a guest room “where I am.” The present tense is confusing as Jesus was on earth as he spoke. Moreover, Jesus promised this dwelling with God after his second coming, long in the future.

Of course, Jesus’ seven references to “I am” in John are all claims to be co-equal with God, and perhaps he violated the rules of grammar to make the point one last time.

But the implication certainly seems to be that Jesus will be in his Father’s house long before his followers. The resolution has to be found in Revelation 21:2, which we quoted earlier–

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.

It’s the same thought. Jesus will be in heaven getting our new rooms ready.

However, there is still an inconsistency. Our dwelling place is called the new Jerusalem, a city, in several passages but it’s called God’s house by Jesus. The solution has to be found in being a bit less literal.

There will be a place lovingly prepared for us where we will dwell in glorious intimacy with God. But it won’t be like this earth. Just as our bodies will be different, so will our dwelling.

Heaven

In the Gospels, “heaven” is repeatedly presented as the place where God and his angels dwell. At the end of Jesus’ ministry, he was taken up into heaven (Acts 1:2), where he will remain until the Second Coming–

(Acts 3:21) He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.

But for all the many passages that speak of heaven, it’s hard to find a passage that directly states that Christians will die and then go to heaven. (And, yes, I find this VERY surprising!)

The closest I can is in 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul speaks of our having a “dwelling” in heaven–

(2 Cor. 5:1-4 ESV) For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Paul is discussing our bodies, not our earthly houses. After all, he is also speaking of being clothed or naked, speaking of the heavenly dwelling like clothing.

He refers to our present existence as in “tents,” that is, dwellings that won’t last long. In preceding chapter, he referred to our bodies as “jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7-10). The human body seems to be very much under consideration. Therefore, commentators conclude that Paul is speaking of our resurrected bodies, not a home in heaven. But he is speaking of our new, permanent bodies as being in the heavens.

But our new bodies come after the end. 1 Corinthians 15 is plain–

(1 Cor 15:42, 52) So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable … . 52 [I]n a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

Therefore, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul is looking ahead to our existence after the Second Coming. Our “heavenly dwelling” is our imperishable new body.

Consider also–

(1 Pet. 1:3-5) Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

Our inheritance is is “kept in heaven” but we won’t receive it until the “last time.” Our inheritance is the Promised Land, the New Jerusalem, kept in heaven, but not given to us until the Second Coming.

And so, from Acts to Revelation, there is not a single clear reference to Christians going to heaven when they die! I just checked every single reference in the New Testament to “heaven,” “Paradise,” or “Hades.”

The Gospels make far more references to heaven.

(Matt. 5:12) “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

(Matt. 6:20-21) “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.”

(Mark 10:21) Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

These passages, and their parallels, speak of our having rewards stored in heaven. They do not speak of our going to heaven.

Now, obviously enough, the rewards won’t be worth much if we can’t be where they are! But by now it should be obvious that the reward is coming to us, when God and the New Jerusalem and the New Heaven are brought to the New Earth where we will be.

(Rev. 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.”

Now, this should not be nearly as disturbing as it at first appears! There’s much more to consider.

OK. Time for a few preliminary conclusions.

* The images are figures of speech, but they are given to us to help us understand and anticipate and long for the End. But the End is promised to be a new beginning, incorruptible, imperishable.

* This new earth will be radically different from our own. Paul makes clear it will not be the same. I mean, I personally can’t imagine a perfect earth without a beach, and the Bible says there will be no sea! But that’s thinking way too literally.

* I’ve not yet quoted the Judgment Day passages, but a separation of the saved from the lost will certainly happen, and the lost will be taken away from the presence of God (2 Thes. 1:9).

* On the whole, I think Wright has it right. This understanding seems well confirmed by these passages and very consistent with the prophets.

* However, as Wright notes, this leaves us to wonder what happens in between. If we don’t get to live in the new Jerusalem on the new earth until the End, where do we live until then?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to Surprised by Hope: Will We Go to Heaven When We Die?

  1. You are right about our ultimate hope being that we will experience the resurrection, a new body, and new heavens and earth where those who long for Christ's return will live with him forever.

    One other verse may be appropriate: "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. 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! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body" (Philippians 1:21-24, NIV). Paul's words indicate that he expected to be with Christ even in death, although he must await his resurrected body.

  2. Adam G. says:

    I started my Christian walk believing in New Heavens/New Earth, but years and years of talk about going to Heaven when Jesus returns garbled my thinking. I've been listening to N.T. Wright lectures for a while and now have started reading his books, and on the whole I'd say he's very right about these matters (besides this topic, his work on the historical Jesus gave my faith solid footing as I returned from near-agnosticism).

    The trouble a lot of us have, myself included, is the temptation to figure out more than has been revealed. We know we'll be with Jesus until His appearing and the judgment, but we can't consider ourselves whole again until that day with the resurrection of the dead. Other than that, there's not a lot that can be said.

    It annoys me quite a bit when we sing songs in church that talk about going to heaven. We NEVER mention the New Heavens/ New Earth, at least not in our Portuguese-language Song Book. It is not okay, so far as I am concerned, to say "heaven" and mean "New Heavens/New Earth." I think teaching must be more clear about this.

    Thanks for posting on this. I understand N.T. Wright actually appeared on the Colbert Report last night. It was past my bed-time, but entire episodes are availble on Colbert's website. I plan to watch it this evening.

  3. Jon Shelton says:

    The Greek word for "new" is kainos and it emphasizes newness in quality rather than in point of time. The phrase "New Jerusalem" occurs only twice in Scripture (Rev 3:12: 21:1). "The Holy City" occurs three times (Rev. 11:2; 21:1; 22:19); and "the beloved city" once (20:9). It is now seen (21:2) coming down out of heaven and is pictured as a bride ready for her husband.
    I would content, from both literary context and historical context, the the holy city is not an actual city but a symbol of the church in its glorified and eternal state. This is familiar language used for the church (Eph 5:21-32 for example). There seems to be nothing discussed in this text that is not already a possession of the church, or a description of the church in other passages.
    I am wondering where all of the original post came from when the topic was "Will we go to heaven when we die?" I was not sure that an answer was given or not. This is a topic (afterlife) that I have been doing a lot of study on – and I think that a lot of our views stem from traditions rather than the bulk of scripture.
    Anyway, I ended up writing a long paper in a Revelation bible class at a previous university on the subject of the "New Jerusalem" and I just can't teach this as being an actual description of heaven.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Adam,

    Try "This is My Father's World," as a Wright-friendly hymn.

    Jon,

    Strong's says kainos means new especially of freshness, rather than age, so you make a good point. Also 21:5 "Behold, I make everything new [kainos]."

    Re the identity of the New Jerusalem, I'll post something shortly.

  5. Carl says:

    Jay,
    I thought occured to me yesterday about will we immediately go to heaven when we die. Am I right assuming that when Jesus stated that He was going to prepare a place for us that apparently it is not completed? Obviously when He comes back the rooms have been completed.
    If we do immediately go to heaven when we die, does that mean judgement is taking place every second?

  6. Nancy says:

    Where did you find that we go to heaven immediately when we die? What about the dead rising first and meeting in the clouds and all that?

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Nancy,

    A summary of Wright's views on the Rapture is at http://oneinjesus.info/2008/06/14/surprised-by-ho

    Carl,

    You make an interesting point. The natural reading of Jesus' statement is that the rooms weren't yet ready, meaning that people don't go to heaven immediately on death.

    The most common description of the state of those who die is that they "sleep" until the Resurrection, but then again, Jesus told the thief on the cross he'd be in Paradise the very same day.

    I'll post something on that over the weekend, God willing.

  8. Pingback: jesus told thief he would go to heaven

  9. Julie says:

    I believe we will be with Jesus when we die. I believe God breaths life into us when we are born and that same life will return to him when we die. Therefore our spirit man, or breath of God, will be with Jesus when we die. The breath of God will be with all the other "breaths of God" who have died before us, therefore we will be "breath of God", not in heaven and not sleeping.. When our dead bodies arise in Christ, at that time they will be restored and reunited with our breath (spirit). Thus, our spirit man will be with Jesus immediately when we die, but we will not be in heaven, we will be in Jesus until the dead arise in Christ and rejoin our restored bodies with our spirit man.. and at that time we will be in the new heaven.. I'm thinking we will have a new name also, but can't remember why I think that. Can someone help me out here?

  10. Jay Guin says:

    Rev 2:17 is likely what you're thinking of

  11. paul says:

    This may help some…

    "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. "Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Revelation 7:9-17 ESV)

    "Heaven" -simply in the presence of the throne of God, until the time in which the new heavens and new earth come…

    That's what it says…

    p.s. "great tribulation" in this context obviously refers to life on earth in preparation for "heaven", and if it is a specific reference it would be referring to the great tribulation (persecution) of the 1st Century – 4th Century as historically recorded.

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