“The Very Heaven of Heaven”: Puritan Reflections on Immanuel’s Land
While the Puritans are often remembered for preaching about the horrors of hell, they gave far more attention to the glories of heaven. They sought, as Thomas Goodwin (1600–1680) put it, to keep “their hearts raised up to heaven.” Richard Baxter (1615–1691) exhorted his readers to “bathe thy soul in heaven’s delights” and offered twelve reasons why such contemplation is beneficial. To that end, the Puritans preached and wrote often on the subject, exploring the glorious heights of the heavenly realms and considering key questions about the future state.
One of the Puritans’ favorite descriptions of heaven was “Immanuel’s Land,” a phrase rooted in Isaiah 8:8 and famously associated with the dying words of the Scottish Puritan Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661). Rutherford’s deathbed confession—“Glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel’s Land”—inspired the poet Anne Ross Cousin (1824–1906) to pen the hymn “The Sands of Time are Sinking” (alternatively titled “Immanuel’s Land”).
Among all the splendors of Immanuel’s Land, the Puritans often focused on the presence of God in Christ as the height of future glory. Baxter defined the saints’ everlasting rest as “the perfect endless fruition [enjoyment] of God by the perfected saints.” Goodwin noted, “He doth not only promise us great and glorious things to be created by him, but he himself will be our heaven.” In the Puritan mind, heaven’s greatest glory will be the presence of Christ.
This Christocentric view of heaven is exemplified in John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) beloved allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, which depicts a Christian’s journey through this world toward his heavenly home. Bunyan’s characters frequently converse about the glories that await them in the Celestial City and their faith-filled desire to meet their King. Longing for Immanuel’s Land distinguishes authentic believers from insincere imposters in the story. The disingenuous Pliable, for example, is eager to hear about the joys of heaven but abandons his journey at the first sign of distress.
Exposing his lack of faith, he doesn’t consider future glory worth the cost of his present sufferings (cf. Rom 8:18).
Whenever Bunyan’s characters discuss heaven, Immanuel Himself is often the focus. When Prudence asks Christian why he desires to go to Mount Zion, Christian responds, “Why there I hope to see him alive that did hang dead on the cross.” This emphasis becomes especially apparent as Christian and his companion Hopeful reach the end of their journey. Here, at the climax of Bunyan’s story, Christ is central in each scene. He is their comfort in death, the very hope of heaven, and the Lord of the land they long to reach.
CHRIST, THE COMFORT IN DEATH
As Christian and Hopeful make their final approach to the Celestial City, they are shocked to discover the River of Death lying before them. When their angelic guide explains that none may bypass this final obstacle, they reluctantly wade into the waters. This final trial almost proves to be too much for Christian to bear. The fearful pilgrim begins to sink, convinced that God has abandoned him in his sins once and for all.
As the darkness closes in, Hopeful is able to comfort his friend by drawing attention to Christ: “Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ makes you whole.” This simple but profound reminder is sufficient for restoring Christian’s hope, as he cries out, “Oh, I see him again! And he tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.’”
Bunyan expresses how Jesus serves as the believer’s hope in life and death. As the waters of death surround a person, one glimpse of Christ is sufficient to restore courage. The promise of God’s presence mediated through His Son (Isa. 43:1–2) transforms a person’s fears, even in the face of death.
As Bunyan’s angel explains, death is the necessary path to heaven, though the particular experience will differ from person to person: “You shall find [the River of Death] deeper or shallower as you believe in the King of the place.” What distinguishes one’s final hours is not ultimately the specific circumstances or the extent of physical suffering, but rather, one’s trust in Christ. As the Apostle proclaimed, God gives each of us victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57).
CHRIST, THE HOPE IN HEAVEN
Once Christian and Hopeful pass through the River of Death, they are led toward heaven’s gate by more angels. As the two friends ascend toward the Celestial City, they excitedly anticipate the glory of the place. While various details strike their imaginations, the promise of communion with Christ is most prominent in their minds.
Heaven will be a place where pilgrims find their senses overwhelmed with the presence of God in Christ. They will “enjoy the perpetual sight and vision of the Holy One” as they “look their Redeemer in the face with joy”; they will “continually serve him with praise” as they “walk and talk every day with the King for all the days of eternity”; and their ears will be delighted “with hearing [his] pleasant voice.” It is clear—Christ is the hope of heaven. At the conclusion of part two of Pilgrim’s Progress, Mr. Standfast similarly proclaims, “I see myself now at the end of my journey, my toilsome days are ended. I am going now to see that head that was crowned with thorns, and that face that was spit upon for me.”
The Scriptures invite believers to anticipate joyfully many blessings in heaven, including rest from earthly labors (Heb. 4:9–10), freedom from sin and suffering (1 Cor. 15:42–44), and reunion with loved ones who died in the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13–18). But, as Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) memorably explained, “Heaven is not heaven without Christ. . . . I say the joys of heaven are not the joys of heaven without Christ; he is the very heaven of heaven.”
CHRIST, THE LORD OF THE LAND
As Christian and Hopeful finally reach the City, the King Himself greets them. It is he who inspects their scrolls for authenticity and he who renders the final judgment. The gates are opened to the weary pilgrims at his command.
Bunyan’s point is unmistakable: Christ is King, the Lord of the Land that bears His name. His rule over this place is peaceful and tender, but he is also a sovereign King who bears absolute authority. In the following chapter, the King commands that Ignorance be cast into hell, as he had journeyed all the way to the Celestial City without possessing genuine faith. Bunyan soberly comments, “Then I saw that there was a way to Hell even from the gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.”
For those welcomed by the King, an endless array of glories awaits, which will far outweigh the sufferings we endure as we journey through this world. Thus, Goodwin exhorts, “Let us therefore take God for our portion, whatsoever else becomes of us, whatsoever befalls us; let what will come, what afflictions, what throbs, what miseries or crosses will come, heaven will make amends for all; God will be better to thee than all.” Indeed, for the Puritans, the hope of someday dwelling in the presence of God in Christ—Immanuel—was “the very heaven of heaven.” All other glories and trials pale in comparison.
 Thomas Goodwin, Of the Blessed State, in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, ed. Thomas Smith (1861–66; repr., Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 7:457.
 Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, in The Practical Works of Richard Baxter (London, 1846; repr., Morgan, PA: Soli Deo, 2000), 3:264.
 As a matter of historical interest, this hymn was selected by Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892) for the final service he ever led. His wife, Susannah (1832–1903), noted that it was a most appropriate choice in her reflections on his final days. See C. H. Spurgeon, C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography: Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife, and His Private Secretary (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897–99; repr., Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1992), 4:370.
 Baxter, Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 3:11.
 Goodwin, Of the Blessed State, 7:462.
 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, inThe Works of John Bunyan, ed. George Offor (Glasgow, 1854; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1999), 3:92. Later Mr. Goodwill remarks regarding Pliable, “Alas, poor man! Is the celestial glory of so small esteem with him, that he counteth it not worth running the hazards of a few difficulties to obtain it?” (97). For contrast, see the Interpreter’s explanation of the portrait of a godly pastor found in the House Beautiful (98).
 See also Christian’s conversation with the man in the iron cage in the House Beautiful. Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 3:101.
 Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 3:108.
 Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 3:164.
 Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 3:163.
 Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 3:164-65.
 Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 3:243.
 Richard Sibbes, “Christ is Best, Or St. Paul’s Strait,” in The Works of Richard Sibbes (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1860), 1:339.
 Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 3:166.
 Goodwin, Of the Blessed State, 7:464.