The Other Christ-Centered Joys of Heaven: An All-Things Vision of the Christian Afterlife
“I know he’s up there laying down shingles with Jesus.”
I recoiled internally at the statement. I was preaching the funeral service for a fellow in our small town, a well-known and respected long-time roofer, and a buddy of his was just sure the man’s vocation carried on in the Great Beyond. I wasn’t so sure at the time, mainly because I have doubts about whether our mansions in Paradise would really need any maintenance! But I also recoiled because of the apparent low vision of heaven I thought the statement evoked. The point of heaven isn’t getting to do all the stuff we do on earth; the point of heaven is finally seeing and enjoying Jesus in person. The face-to-face being with the Lord is the singular joy of the afterlife (1 Cor. 13:12), isn’t it?
I confess my internal disdain for this thinking was largely driven by the rash of “heavenly visitation” books of the last twenty years. You know the ones—somebody claims to have died and gone to heaven, only to come back and tell his story. Grown men see ghostly angels; little boys are reunited with departed grandfathers. Apart from the spurious notions of these heavenly tourism claims—at least one has been retracted by the now-grown subject of his story—one of their major (and borderline heretical) faults is that they push Christ off to the perimeter of the very place for which he is the center (Rev. 21:23). Jesus becomes a kind of afterthought, a “feature” of heaven, rather than the star. My aversion to heaven-as-personal-playground is based entirely on this biblical truth: the risen and ascended Christ is the very point of heaven, and any place that had all the joys of earth included but not Jesus would not be heaven at all.
And yet, is it possible that some of us have ridden the pendulum swing too far to the other side? What if, in our right-sized aversion to a Christ-deficient eternity, we’ve underemphasized the many joys that come with his consummation of the kingdom? The Bible does in fact hold out the promise of a multitude of joys in the age to come. Paul writes, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32) “All things” put in subjection under his feet (1 Cor. 15:27). The head over “all things” is given to the church (Eph. 1:22). This raises the question, of course, Does all things mean all things?
Yes, and amen. What, then, are some of these “all things” that those united to Christ will get to enjoy under his totalizing Lordship?
A RESURRECTION BODY
For starters, many Christians think of the afterlife as disembodied bliss in an ethereal paradise. Indeed, we only get glimpses of the intermediate state in the Scriptures. We know that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). It’s gospel truth that when a Christian dies, he or she goes to heaven. But the major vision the Bible holds out for heaven isn’t a kind of outer-spatial angelic aether, a place we go to, but rather a tangible, visceral place that comes to us! John’s vision is of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1).
This means that we will not forever be spirits in the clouds, but resurrected creatures in a restored creation. This is exactly what Paul is on about in 1 Corinthians 15, when he describes Christ’s bodily resurrection as the firstfruits of our own (v.23). “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable,” he writes, “and this mortal body must put on immortality” (v.53).
Christ’s resurrection body gives us a clue as to what our own will be like. We’ll still be us, of course, but we’ll be transformed (v.51). Remember: Christ’s glorified body was recognizable and at the same time unrecognizable. He could be seen and touched, but he could also walk through locked doors. He could eat breakfast!
This hope of Job’s should thus become ours: “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26). One of the greatest joys of heaven will finally be inhabiting bodies as they were made to be—tangible; strong (immortal even!); perfectly capable of walking, eating, dancing, laughing, and of course worshiping forever the Lamb that was slain, never to die again (him or us!).
A RESTORED CREATION
Many believers tend to think of this world as “going to hell in a hand-basket.” And in a way, I suppose, it is. This world is indeed passing away. “[T]he heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire,” we are told (2 Pet. 3:7). “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). This, too, is Job’s hope: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25).
When Paul describes the groaning of the present creation, he characterizes it as “birth pangs,” not death pangs (Rom. 8:22). Why? Because it’s giving way to something. Not just a return to a kind of Edenic state, but something far better—a renewed creation with Christ as the preeminent feature. Jesus said “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5), not “I am making all new things.”
So we can expect the new heavens and new earth to have some continuity with our earth, only exactly as God created it to be. Can you dare to imagine the new dazzling beauty of a restored Mt. Everest, climbable without danger by any resurrected soul? How about a redeemed Amazon, where any of us may explore without trepidation? Considering the beauty now of the Rocky Mountains, any of our vast oceans, the Swiss Alps—literally everything!—what will it all look like under the lamp of Christ’s manifest glory (Hab. 2:14)?
If all things are to be made new, can we dare to imagine what chocolate and coffee will taste like? What flowers might smell like? What it will be like to live in perfect harmony with the rest of the creation—animals, weather, and everything else?
What joy it will be to finally see, hear, touch, and taste things as God truly and eternally intended! Perhaps we’ll even get to continue in our vocations, including roofing. But perhaps the greatest joy, under the infinite joy of seeing and enjoying Christ himself, will be finally enjoying perfect communion with the church he has purchased with his blood.
A REUNITED FAMILY
There’s nothing inherently wrong with longing to see departed saints in the age to come, for it’s not for no reason that Jesus has formed himself a people by his own reconciling work in the cross and empty tomb. This was perhaps David’s hope in the death of his child (2 Sam. 2:23). We will indeed be reunited with our lost loved ones, provided they too know Jesus as Lord.
Like everyone I know, my wife and I have lost numerous loved ones, some of which we deemed “too soon.” This includes for us a child lost to miscarriage. We named our baby Angel, not because we think humans become angels in heaven, but simply as a reminder that she is owned totally by heaven in her passing and that our hope and expectation is that we will see her again. Neither Angel nor angels will be the central joy of heaven, but they will certainly be part of the enjoyment God intends for it, as will the great reunion with the entire cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) that has gone before us.
If our departed loved ones knew Jesus, we can be confident that we will be reunited with them in the age to come. Our relationships will be changed, of course—note that while Jesus says there is no marriage in heaven (Matt. 22:30), he doesn’t say our departed spouses will be strangers—but we will enjoy relationships nonetheless.
Just imagine: Relationships with our believing family members, with all the brethren of Christ’s church, people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation—finally sanctified, sinless, without temptation or suspicion or envy or pride. We will finally and truly know and be known. Together we will experience family as it was always meant to be. All under the radiant kingship of our Lord Jesus.