Most people in the world have got ideas about heaven and what it will be like, the ancient Egyptians had their own ideas about the ‘after world’, and many other ancient civilisations had their own ideas about where people go when they leave this Earth too. People who aren’t even believers either believe that when a person dies, that’s the end of their existence or they believe they will end up somewhere called heaven.
Many people sincerely believe if they just live good lives, heaven awaits them and sadly, some Christians believe that heaven will be nothing more than floating around in the clouds, playing harps for the rest of eternity.
The truth is no human being alive, knows what heaven will be like, and as a Christian, I don’t really care what the realities of heaven are, as long as I’m with the Lord and in His presence.
I think it would be useful to look at what the Bible says about heaven first.
Speaking about himself, the apostle Paul says in ‘I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago, was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.’ 2 Corinthians 12:2
So, we have here three ‘heavens’.
1. The heaven which is God’s spiritual eternal home. This isn’t physical and isn’t created.
2. The heaven where the stars and planets are. This is physical and is created.
3. The heaven surrounding the earth where the atmosphere is, and the birds fly. This is physical and is created.
The word ‘heavens’ is used in different ways in the Bible.
1. It’s used of the two heavens that God created.
2. It’s also used of the third heaven. This is the uncreated heaven where God has always been from eternity.
He is present in all ‘three heavens’. Psalm 115:2-3. We cannot get away from God. Psalm 139:1-16.
The two heavens God created.
So He existed before the heavens and the earth. These aren’t the heavens He has always lived in, these are the heaven where the atmosphere is, and the birds fly and the heaven where the stars are.
The third heaven. The heaven where God has always lived isn’t physical, it hasn’t been created.
He doesn’t need a physical place to live in. He doesn’t need pictures or images or temples or mosques or churches or shrines to live in, Acts 17:24-25.
The word heaven means lifted up and in the Old Testament the promise of an afterlife doesn’t really exist, what we see being promised by God is long life in the land. It’s interesting when we get into the New Testament that the disciples never ask Jesus about heaven and that’s because the Jews were never brought up to believe in heaven.
Israel’s hope was on the Earth because they didn’t believe in the afterlife, they believed if good things happen to you, it was because God was blessing you but if bad things happened to you, it was because of your sin. We see this principle all the way through the Book of Job.
The first of the three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, acknowledges that Job has been a source of strength to others, Job 4:34. But then he turns and puts the blame for Job’s suffering squarely on Job himself, Job 4:7-8,
Job’s second friend, Bildad, says much the same, Job 8:20. The third friend, Zophar, repeats the refrain, Job 11:14-15 / Job 11:17.
In the Old Testament, they simply believed that God sends calamities upon wicked people only.
With regards to Solomon’s observation, we should remember that, even if he was the wisest man of his day, Solomon wasn’t omniscient. There were things which even he didn’t know because God hadn’t yet revealed them. In other words, in Ecclesiastes 9:5, Solomon was merely expressing the view of death commonly held among his people in his day.
But, when we examine the Old Testament Scriptures it becomes clear that, even among God’s ancient chosen people, Israel, there was no clear understanding of, or belief in, life after death, Exodus 20:12.
The Covenant enacted as Sinai related to their manner of life in an earthly ‘Promised Land’. This is quite evident in the Commandment in Exodus 20:12, which declares that parents were to be honoured, in order, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
This instruction, with its promise, is also repeated in the Psalms, Psalm 37:3 / Psalm 37:9 / Psalm 37:11 / Psalm 37:22 / Psalm 37:29 / Psalm 37:34.
A fact, that we are inclined to overlook, is that, in the Covenant, which God made with His people at Sinai, there is no mention of blessings in a life hereafter and certainly no mention of Heaven.
The blessings promised to those who kept the Covenant were related to this present life; namely longevity and posterity. A long life in the earthly ‘homeland’, Palestine, and someone to carry the family name forward.
Consequently, the Old Testament reveals that God’s people of that period had a very simple, one might almost say simplistic, view of life, with a philosophy which declared, ‘Do good, and God will bless you with prosperity and longevity in the Land which He has promised to His people. But do evil, and you will be punished.’
The effect of this belief was that when a person experienced hardship or adversity in his life, people believed that he was being punished by God because of some wickedness in his life. On the other hand, when one prospered, his prosperity was taken as proof of divine approval and blessing.
Well, of course, it would be fine if life were that simple, but we know, and they also were forced to recognise, that it doesn’t always, work out that way! Often the wicked seem to prosper in this life, even to the extent of seeming to escape punishment for their wickedness, whilst those who try to live good lives often have to face severe hardship. This comes out very clearly in Psalm 73, where the writer struggles with this very dilemma.
Therefore, gradually it was revealed to the Hebrews that, because the wicked often escape being called to account for their wickedness in this life, there will be a time and a place where the balance will be redressed, and justice will be done. Because God is the Righteous God, the wicked must, and will, be punished, and the righteous will be vindicated; if not in this life but certainly in the after-life.
And yet, as the New Testament Scriptures reveal, even in the days of the Lord Jesus, the puzzling question of death and what lies beyond, hadn’t been completely resolved and was still fiercely debated among the various religious parties.
The Pharisees firmly believed in both a future life and a Judgment whilst the Sadducees rejected both. It was the Lord Jesus Himself who ‘brought life and immortality to light, through the Gospel,’ 2 Timothy 1:10
He brought it to light, He drove away the mists and doubts which had engulfed it for so long. And He did it, both by His teaching and His own resurrection from the dead.
There’s no arguing that Jesus spoke about heaven more than anyone else, He promised that those enduring persecution would have a reward in heaven, Matthew 5:10-12. He encourages us to lay up treasures in heaven that will last for eternity, Matthew 6:19-21.
When the Lord was preparing to leave this world, He promised to prepare a place for the faithful and take us there with Him when He returns, John 14:2-3.
In this passage, Jesus has the temple in mind with its many rooms and He says, I’m just leaving one to go into another room, death is no big deal. And there are many other passages which speak of the promise of heaven for all those who are faithful till death, Philippians 3:20-21 / 1 Peter 1:3-5.
Let me give you a challenge, if you know someone who is blind, try and describe to them what the colour green looks like, you’ll find it nearly impossible or totally impossible. Imagine how the Bible writers felt when they tried to explain things, they couldn’t really describe, we see this in Ezekiel 1 in Ezekiel’s vision of the throne room of God. That’s why the writers of the Bible when trying to describe something they see or hear often use words like, ‘looks like’, ‘sounds like’ and ‘seemed to be’.
A simple example of this is found in Acts 2:1-3
Please read Revelation 21-22:5. We can only imagine how John felt in Revelation when he was trying to describe what heaven was like, we can imagine him trying to find the words to describe what he sees and when he can’t find the words, he uses words which were familiar to him or what we would call figures of speech, to help him describe what he sees, but in all of this, we have to remember he’s using figurative language, it’s not to be taken literally. There are no literally streets of gold or pearly gates, and walls made of precious jewels.
‘Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’ Revelation 14:13
In heaven, we will be happy, and we will find a state of blissfulness. Matthew 5:3ff / John 13:17. This is one of the reasons Christians are Christians in the first place. Titus 2:13. This happiness is accompanied by ‘rest’ from ‘labour,’ which signifies we will no longer work to the point of being worn out, Hebrews 4:11.
There will be a wonderful reward in heaven, but only for those who remain faithful unto death or until Christ returns to take us home.
On a personal level, the main attraction for me is that I won’t be able to hurt Him anymore with my sin and more importantly I will be in the presence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not only will I be with them, but I’ll be with His angels and those other faithful Christians and those Old Testament faithfuls, Revelation 4:8 / Hebrews 12:23.
Imagine! No more sin, no more filth on TV, no more wars and murders, no more children being sexually abused, no more women being raped, no drug dealers, no pimps or prostitutes. Oh, don’t forget, no more diseases and death, pain and suffering. Just imagine all the evil in this world, there will be no more, praise God for this promise, Matthew 25:41-46 / 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9 / Revelation 14:9-12 / Revelation 21:8 / Revelation 22:14-15.
Many people believe and sadly some Christians believe that when they get to heaven we will just be floating around playing harps, but this couldn’t be further from the truth, Revelation 7:15 / Revelation 22:3.
There’s no floating around here, it’s all about service. Remember what Jesus taught in one of His parables. He spoke about ten servants who were trusted by their master with money to invest in trading and when they were finally called to account, each was rewarded with responsibility in direct proportion to the manner in which he had utilised his ability, Luke 19:16-19.
Now I could be wrong, with my understanding of this text, but it seems to teach that there will be varying levels of responsibility when it comes to the way heaven will be organised, 2 Timothy 2:11-12 / Revelation 3:21 / Revelation 22:5.
To reign implies responsibility but whatever responsibility Christians will have in heaven, they all will be ultimately serving, as we should be doing today.
There are 5 principles I would like to share with you.
I realise sometimes we speak and the Bible speaks about going to sleep in the Lord and that’s true and the physical body is sleeping but the dead are consciously and vividly alive. They are not asleep, they are not unconscious, but they are consciously alive. This was true of Lazarus and it was true of the rich man.
Notice the text says that the rich man was in torment and in agony, he looked and saw Abraham and Lazarus, he spoke to Abraham and he was thirsty. The both of them were very much alive. And remember speaking of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Mark 12, saints that have passed into the unseen, Jesus didn’t count them as dead. In fact, he clearly declares, ‘God is not the God of the dead but of the living’. Mark 12:27
And when Jesus is hanging on that cross, one of the men by His side prayed in Luke 23:42, ‘Lord, remember me when you come in your kingdom’.
Remember the thief by Him? And Jesus replied by giving this dying man a promise in Luke 23:43, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’
It means that Jesus and the dying robber are going to meet in the paradise of God, that very day. Not some distant time in the future but that very day they are going to be consciously alive, they are both going to be conscious of each other. Just as a side note, we don’t have to wonder or speculate where Jesus went when He died, or where He was when He was in the grave, the text clearly tells us where He was going. Revelation 6:9.
Now the reason I wanted us to look at this text is simply to show you that the soul does exist after death. So, death is not just an unconscious sleep for so many hundreds or thousands of years. We are consciously alive beyond the grave, that’s what Jesus teaches here and in other passages, we are still alive after death.
Just as Abraham was still Abraham, the rich man and Lazarus were still the rich man and Lazarus. And both the rich man and Lazarus were very much conscious of still being themselves. Now you might think, ‘Well that’s no big deal’.
Well, yes, it is a big deal. You see at death we are going to lose some things, we’re going to lose the physical, we’re going to lose these bodies of ours and the possessions we have.
Death can rob me of the material things and the physical things, but it can’t take anything else away from us. It cannot rob us of ourselves, it cannot do that. Yesterday I was myself, I will be myself tomorrow, and I will continue to be myself as long as heaven is heaven and as long as God is God.
I’m myself from now on but I’ve got to give up this body someday. You see these bodies of ours are here today and gone tomorrow. And there is something you’ve got to know about your body, your body is in the process of change. You’re getting older and your body over a period of 7 years replaces every cell that it has got. It has been going on from the day you were born and will continue until the day you die. I have had a few new bodies and I get another new one in two years’ time. And I know that there are some people who have had a lot more than I have.
But it didn’t work any change in us at all, did it? It changed every single cell in our bodies, but we are still the same person. Death isn’t going to work any moral change in us. Because you hear these stories all the time where people just live any way they like and all of a sudden, they sprout wings and get a halo and float around in heaven and all those things. As though death has hocus-pocus power to cleanse us and empower us to do something for us.
Don’t expect the undertaker to do something for you, which you won’t allow Christ to do for you here and now because it isn’t going to happen, the undertaker hasn’t got any power. Death cannot and will not work any kind of moral change in us, it just doesn’t happen.
If I learn anything from these words of Jesus, I learned that sometimes we have to live with ourselves, and sometimes it’s not a very pleasant thing to have to live with ourselves. God wants to change us through His Son, but we’re going to be ourselves from now on and death isn’t going to change who we are.
We may forget things in old age, but we won’t forget anything in the afterlife. Abraham asks the rich man to remember, his life and all the good things he had.
The rich man remembers the life he used to live, he remembers his selfishness, his sin. He remembers his lost opportunity and his brother’s back there. You see memory is either going to help intensify the joys of heaven or it will embitter the pains of hell. It’s got to be that way because it can’t be any other way, Matthew 12:36.
And if you think about it, how can God judge anyone if they don’t know why they are being judged? How can God judge anyone if they can’t remember anything that they’ve said or done whilst they were still alive?
In other words, those souls in heaven will know exactly why they are in heaven and those souls who end up in hell will know exactly why they are in hell. Everyone will remember who they are, and they will remember what they did or didn’t do whilst they were alive here on Earth.
These two men didn’t have the same destiny, the text tells us they are separated by a great gulf. But who separated them? God! No way
I believe these men separated themselves by the deliberate choices they made in this life, they separated themselves, so don’t blame this on God. They become morally separated by a gulf that is as wide as right is from wrong, as night is from day and it’s a separation that continues from beyond the grave.
Now, remember Luke says, ‘Lazarus was carried by the angels into Abraham’s side.’ Luke 16:22. Not because in this life he was unfortunate or sick or neglected. He was carried into paradise because in spite of all these calamities, he made a deliberate choice of God, his name signifies, ‘God is my help’. And it was this right choice that made him a right character and the right character that made for a glorious spiritual destiny.
And the rich man is not lost because he’s rich, because he had good clothes, because he ate good food, he was ruined by wrong choices. He made a deliberate choice of things that were seen, and he turned his back on God.
Now you might say, wait a minute it doesn’t say a word in there about the rich man turning his back on God. Well, how do I know he did that? I know he turned his back on God because he turned his back on Lazarus and Lazarus was his opportunity right there.
Matthew 25 has some very important things to say on this matter where Jesus says in verse 40, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
He didn’t do anything for Lazarus and Lazarus was his chance. God has only one way of reaching men and it is through His Son. By believing in Him, responding to God’s grace and love through His Son Jesus Christ. And if we do not hear Him and if we do not receive Him, we will not be saved, it’s as simple as that.
So, Lazarus found himself lying against Abraham’s side, which is the Hebrew way of saying that he was in the paradise of God. And while Lazarus was comforted, the rich man was tormented. But why? Why this heaven or hell? Well, it’s certainly not because God loved one of them and didn’t love the other one.
Their different destinies were the inedible outcome of their different character. Their different lifestyle, who they were, who they believed in, who they placed their confidence and hope in, and their different choices, 2 Corinthians 5:10.
Now that is a tough verse, but it’s true. The truth of the matter is that God doesn’t have a way of getting anybody into heaven if they have hell in their hearts. And that’s the whole point Jesus is getting at.
If we go back to Luke 15:1-2 we find a religious group of people called Pharisees and Scribes listening to what Jesus was saying. And when some tax collectors and sinners joined the crowd the Pharisees and Scribes criticised Him for having anything to do with them. They regarded such people as the lowest of the low, beyond the reach of salvation, not worth bothering with, to be kept at more than arm’s length.
Many of the Jews believed that if they had accumulated enough wealth and upped their social status and got into prominent positions in the religious community, then that proved that they were under the blessing of God. They also thought, according to their logic, that those who were poor were under the curse of God.
And so, Jesus is using an everyday event to make His point. There were rich people in their houses and there were poor people, even beggars walking around the streets every day. And Jesus is telling them that just because you guys are well off and have high positions in the Jewish religion doesn’t necessarily mean you are right with God.
Now you also need to realise that you cannot mix the living with the dead. You can’t mix them, and you can’t do it in this life.
When the rich man wanted Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his family and his brothers, Luke 16:29-31 tells us that
That’s why I find it very disturbing when you get all these so-called mediums and spiritualists who claim they can speak to the dead. You never hear of any dead person telling their loved ones, ‘hey you better believe there is a God because where I am right now, you don’t want to come here.’
When we lose a loved one in death, we know we can’t keep them, we have to put them in the place of the dead; you have to go to the cemetery. You can’t do it physically, you can’t mix the living and the dead. And it’s the same with eternity, you can’t mix the living with the dead.
Now I want to tell you one thing about hell, I don’t know much about it, but I will tell you this. Whatever hell may be, it is a burying ground of dead souls, souls that are dead in trespass and sin. And forever you are going to live, you are created into the image of God and indwelt with a soul that lives forever.
And so, there is something really special about you. Forever you are going to be yourself, and you are going to have to keep house with yourself for all eternity. And forever we are going to have to enjoy or suffer the destiny that we have created in this life.
Whether it is through the grace of God to love and embrace His son, our saviour, and live with Him and be created anew by His Spirit. Or whether we are going to go on our own and turn our back on God and His son and live for the day, live for the material things, live for how much we can store up and stash away.
But remember this, even though some are lost, no one has to be lost, ‘Whoever comes to me, I will never drive away.’ John 6:37. Whatever heaven will be like, wouldn’t you want to be there?