In August 2015, as I was having a physical therapy session, the physical therapist said that heaven will be boring. I agreed that IF her imagination of heaven is like having wings and floating on clouds and attending a church service that lasts forever, then heaven will be mind-numbingly boring. Instead I told her that heaven is enjoyment of deep intimacy with Jesus and our heavenly Father. Then I asked her to go back and remember how she felt when she first fell in love with the man who became her husband, and she responded right away by saying "ecstasy." So I told her that heaven is a sense of ecstasy, of deep joy experienced eternally as a result of deep intimacy with God. From then on, whenever we referred to heaven the word "ecstasy" surfaced.
More recently, as I was meditating on some verses in Acts 7, the word ecstasy came to mind. After Stephen confronted those who wanted to stone him, he had a foretaste of that ecstasy. "When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.' 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him" (Acts 7:54-58). The last thing one would expect from Stephen while facing stoning is the feeling of ecstasy as he saw Jesus. I am very much looking forward to that ecstasy in heaven.
Since that conversation with the physical therapist, I started a journey of learning about heaven, and I encourage you to join with me in this learning process.
I started out by watching three episodes where my friend, Pastor Adel Malek, was interviewed on Al-Karma TV (in Arabic) on the topic of heaven. Each episode is two hours long. My friend Adel has learned through extensive study on this subject. I have known Adel for more than 35 years, beginning when we both were living in Egypt.
For the study of this subject 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is a foundational text. "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage each other with these words."
Here is another foundational text for my study, along with a quote from a book I will refer to later. "Paul wrote to the Corinthians, 'If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. ... [and] we are to be pitied more than all men' (1 Corinthians 15: 17, 19). The physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of redemption—both for mankind and for the earth. Indeed, without Christ’s resurrection and what it means—an eternal future for fully restored human beings dwelling on a fully restored Earth—there is no Christianity."
Other scriptures I studied that address this subject are: Luke 16:22-31, Luke 23:43, Romans 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 3:13-14, 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Corinthians 5:8, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Philippians 1:23, 2 Timothy 2:12, Hebrews 12:1-3, Revelation 2:26-28, Revelation 3:21, Revelations 6:9-11, Revelation 20:11-15, and Revelation 21.
I also looked at the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Catechisms and the Heidelberg Catechism for perspective.
Westminster Shorter Catechism
Question 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
Answer: The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.
Westminster Larger Catechism
Question 86: What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?
Answer: The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. ...
Question 87: What are we to believe concerning the resurrection?
Answer: We are to believe that at the last day there shall be a general resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust: when they that are then found alive shall in a moment be changed; and the selfsame bodies of the dead which were laid in the grave, being then again united to their souls forever, shall be raised up by the power of Christ. The bodies of the just, by the Spirit of Christ, and by virtue of his resurrection as their head, shall be raised in power, spiritual, incorruptible, and made like to his glorious body. ...
Westminster Confession of Faith
CHAPTER XXXII. Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead.
1. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. ...
2. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever.
Question 57, speaks about the intermediate and the final status of the believer.
Question57: What comfort does “the resurrection of the body” give you?
Answer: That after this life my soul shall be immediately taken up to Christ, its Head, and that this flesh of mine, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and be conformed to the glorious body of Christ.
After listening to the six-hour interview of Adel and studying these foundational texts, I read a book by Randy Alcorn titled Heaven. In his book, Alcorn addressed interesting and thought provoking questions. Many of his facts are based on the scriptures, and some of his conclusions are speculative by his own admission.
The book is about 500-pages long, and it was first published in 2004. Some people think that it could have been written in 200 pages, with the arguments clearly stated and without repetition. On Amazon, there are 1359 customer reviews, and 80% rated the book with five stars. I always find it helpful to read not only some of the five-star reviews but also some of the reviews by those who disagree with the author. In his review, Alan Reynolds gave the book three stars and concluded: "This book could be recommended, but only to be read with great discernment. Young believers may even need to seek a mentor to help them through the text. However, there is a great deal of helpful material to be found in the book. It is certainly thought provoking, and it shows that Heaven is not something to be feared, but something to look for expectantly."
A bird's-eye view of the book by Randy Alcorn could best be presented in two analogies that appeared in Alcorn's book at Kindle location 1003-1028.
"Let me suggest an analogy to illustrate the difference between the present Heaven and the eternal Heaven. Suppose you lived in a homeless shelter in Miami. One day you inherit a beautiful house, fully furnished, on a gorgeous hillside overlooking Santa Barbara, California. With the home comes a wonderful job doing something you’ve always wanted to do. Not only that, but you’ll also be near close family members who moved from Miami many years ago. On your flight to Santa Barbara, you’ll change planes in Dallas, where you’ll spend an afternoon [in the intermediate heaven]. Some other family members, whom you haven’t seen in years, will meet you at the Dallas airport and board the plane with you to Santa Barbara [the eternal heaven]. You look forward to seeing them. Now, when the Miami ticket agent asks you, “Where are you headed?” would you say “Dallas” [the intermediate heaven]? No. You would say Santa Barbara [the eternal heaven], because that’s your final destination. If you mentioned Dallas at all, you would only say, “I’m going to Santa Barbara by way of Dallas.”
When you talk to your friends in Miami about where you’re going to live, would you focus on Dallas? No. You might not even mention Dallas, even though you will be a Dallas-dweller for several hours. Even if you spent a week in Dallas, it wouldn’t be your focus. Dallas is just a stop along the way. Your true destination—your new permanent home—is Santa Barbara."
A More Precise Analogy According to Alcorn
"Another analogy is more precise but difficult to imagine, because for most of us it’s outside our experience. Imagine leaving the homeless shelter in Miami and flying to the intermediate location, Dallas, and then turning around and going back home to your place of origin, which has been completely renovated—a New Miami. In this New Miami, you would no longer live in a homeless shelter, but in a beautiful house in a glorious pollution-free, crime-free, sin-free city. So you would end up living not in a different home, but in a radically improved version of your old home."
Here are some of Adel Malek's conclusions:
1. We who have faith and a genuine relationship with Christ need not be afraid of what happens after death. We should live with hope based on our knowledge of what the Bible teaches.
2. Those who know Jesus and died, although their bodies have disintegrated, biblically speaking their bodies are in a state of "bodily sleep" while their souls are very much awake and alive in the "intermediate heaven."
3. Lazarus was raised from the dead and sometime later he died again and his body disintegrated. His soul is now in the intermediate heaven waiting for the resurrection of his body. In contrast, Christ died and his soul went to the intermediate heaven for a very short time when his body was in the tomb. As a result of the resurrection of his body, he became the first and the only one of those who were "bodily asleep" who has now a resurrected body.
4. The intermediate heaven is a temporary phase where there is great rejoicing that comes as a result of deep intimacy with Christ. There is rest and no pain, and there is a longing for the resurrection of their bodies and for the final destination, which is the eternal heaven.
5. When Christ returns, the souls of the saints who are in the intermediate heaven will be bodily risen first, then the bodies of those who are still alive on earth and believe in Christ will be changed next, and all of the believers will be taken to the eternal heaven.
There are many other books that can assist in the study of heaven. One that was recommended to me, which is a bit more cautious on the speculation, is Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: Connecting This Life to the Next, by Nathan L. K. Bierma.
Another easy read on this subject is this article : "10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Heaven."
I have presented brief overviews of several resources I studied in my efforts to learn more about heaven. Hopefully they have piqued your interest. Whether you begin your own study in some of these texts or elsewhere, may our longing for heaven direct our steps as we follow Jesus day by day.