We won’t live in heaven forever—and that’s a good thing.
Are the heresy alarm bells going off in your head as you read that? The idea of Christians living in heaven forever is so widespread in both our culture and our churches that such a statement might seem absurd. But it’s true: while the Bible has a lot to say about where believers will spend eternity, nowhere is this place given the name “heaven”.
This is no mere semantic quibble; I am convinced that our drift away from biblical language has had a profound effect on how many of us think about our future and how we live now in light of it. Much of the worldliness that pervades our culture, seeps into our churches and finds its way into our hearts can, I believe, be traced back to a misunderstanding about heaven.
Let me explain.
“Heaven” in the Bible
The word “heaven” (or “heavens”) appears over 600 times in the Bible and is used in two distinct ways. In Genesis 1, “heaven” is the name God gives to the expanse above the earth—that is, the sky (v. 8). The expanse of the heavens is where the sun and moon are placed to rule (vv. 14-18) and where birds are placed to fly (v. 20). Its windows open to release rain (Gen 7:11) and its winds blow onto the earth (Jer 49:36). The phrase “heaven and earth” was the typical way to describe the whole of creation (e.g. Gen 1:1, 14:19; Matt 5:18, Acts 4:24). In fact, nowhere in Scripture is heaven the counterpart to hell; it is always in contrast to the earth. It’s quite simply all that space “up there”.
From early on, however, the biblical authors also used the word “heaven” in a second way: to speak of the dwelling place of God (e.g. 1 Kgs 8:30, Ps 115:3). This was not because they thought God was somehow limited in space to one part of his creation. As Solomon admitted, the highest heavens could not contain God, let alone the stone temple he had just built (1 Kgs 8:27). God fills and sees the entire universe (Jer 23:24). The biblical authors placed God “in heaven” to convey two key theological truths:
- His transcendence: God exists apart from and beyond the visible, physical realm (along with the angels); and
- His kingly reign over all creation: God is “above” all things, in complete authority over them.
God exists, not only in the world we can observe, but in a transcendent, otherworldly realm in which he reigns as the Sovereign King and is served by his angelic messengers. Somehow—and this really should bend our minds—the physical, resurrected body of Jesus ascended into the Galilean sky (Acts 1:9) and entered into this transcendent realm. He now reigns as the Father’s “right-hand man”, sharing his rule in heaven (Heb 1:3, 8:1).
Will we go to heaven?
So will we go to heaven? The wonderful promise of the New Testament is that we who follow Christ will, in some profound and glorious way, be consciously united with him the moment our eyes close in death. 1 We will enter the otherworldly world of heaven. Compared to life in this broken world with all its suffering and injustice, it will be “better by far” (Phil 1:23)—an experience of joy and comfort and peace (Rev 7:9-17).
If the word “heaven” conjures up images of an ethereal, disembodied, otherworldly experience in the angelic realm, it’s because we’ve read our Bibles! In heaven, we will be “away from the body” and yet “home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). In death, we don’t “remain in the body” but instead “depart to be with Christ” (Phil 1:23, 24). In heaven are the “spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb 12:23) and the souls of martyrs (Rev 6:9). Even apart from our physical bodies, we will not be separated from the love (or presence) of Christ (Rom 8:38-39).
Yet as glorious as heaven will be, it is a holding pattern, not a final destination. It is our temporary residence, not our eternal home. Throughout the Bible, the ultimate hope for humanity is life, not in heaven, but on a renewed earth.
Life in the new creation
When Jesus returns from heaven, he will not be taking anyone back there, but will establish his kingdom in its fullness here on earth. It will be, as Jesus himself described, “the renewal of all things” (Matt 19:28). He will not be making all new things, but making all things new (Rev 21:5), transforming creation into what it was always meant to become. Just as our own physical bodies will be raised and perfected to be like Christ’s (Phil 3:21), the whole of creation will be resurrected and freed from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:20-23). No longer will sin spoil relationships or death cut them short. No longer will depression weigh us down or anxiety wear us out. No more will moments of pure joy be few and fleeting. The paradise of Eden will be restored and will, this time, fill the earth.
Picking up on the language of Genesis 1:1, the biblical authors call this eternal home “a new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17, 2 Pet 3:13, Rev 21:1)—that is, a new sky and a new land. It is a new creation—a new world! Life in heaven—that transcendent, other-worldly realm—is only a temporary, intermediate state between the death and resurrection of our physical bodies. It will be a kind of “paradise” (Luke 23:43). In this new world, we will enjoy the fullness of life we were created for.
Although there are many things we don’t know about life in this new creation, what we are told invites us to use our sanctified imaginations. We’re invited to imagine a world with its joys multiplied and sorrows removed—an earth scrubbed and cleansed and purified. The delights will remain and their obstructions removed. We will dwell with God himself, who will show us the immeasurable riches of his grace forever and ever (Eph 2:7).
From “bucket list” living to the freedom of contentment
What does this all mean for us? Well, confusing heaven and the new creation easily leads to what I call “bucket list” living—a brand of worldliness rampant in our age and culture. We try to squeeze as much out of the 70 or 80 years we’ve got on this planet before (we assume) our chance to enjoy it is gone. We travel the world, collecting as many earthly experiences as we can. We pursue our dream job or our dream spouse, whatever the cost. We buy the latest gadget at the first opportunity. We don’t do it in rebellion against God; these pursuits aren’t necessarily sinful. But they can arise from a sneaking suspicion that this is the only chance we’ll get to enjoy the good things of life in this world.
It makes sense: the deepest longing of our heart is not to escape from this physical world to live in heaven forever, but for heaven to come down and perfect this world, purifying it from everything that steals our joy. The eternity God has placed in our hearts is one spent not in heaven, but in the new creation. Our pursuit of the joys of this creation are (or at least can be) completely natural. But we think we only really live once, and so we do our best to make sure we don’t miss out on anything. All the while, we miss opportunities to live the life God has called us to this side of his return.
The truth is, we have actually have two lives in which to enjoy God’s good gifts. But we only have one life to spend in costly, self-sacrificial service. Knowing this means we can live now with a contentment that frees us to forgo good things for the sake of the kingdom. We have two lives to explore God’s world, but only one to explain God’s word to those who haven’t heard or understood it. We have two lives to enjoy the latest entertainment, but only one to encourage the sick and suffering. No doubt there is a tension here that we must all wrestle with; there really is a place for enjoying God’s gifts here and now. But wrestling with this tension is what Christ calls us to.
The earthly pleasures we deny ourselves today will, one day, be made perfect and permanent for all who come to Christ. We don’t just want to enjoy God’s gifts now, but we want to make sure our friends and neighbours can join us in enjoying them then too. May we live and love with not only our departure to heaven in mind, but with our hopes fixed on our eternal home: the new creation.
Sam Davidson has completed his fourth year at Moore College.
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1 While the Old Testament describes a generic realm of the dead—“Sheol”—where both the righteous and the wicked dwell, the New Testament provides more clarity in specifying that believers will be with Christ in this intermediate state, distinct from unbelievers.