The Bible provides a lot of rich imagery: a city, a temple, a land. This descriptive and symbolic language is reaching for what the new creation will be like.
When many people think of heaven — the eternal state in which believers are gathered together under the permanent rule of God — they imagine angelic, spiritual beings floating around, playing harps, eating grapes, and doing nothing all day. They tend to imagine a disembodied existence, or at least a kind of aimless, purposeless physical one. But just because the Bible teaches that our bodies will be raised imperishable, that doesn’t mean we are going to be bodiless. By the powerful work of the Spirit, we will be resurrected and our souls are going to be united with our bodies. The new creation will be physical —a transformed physical existence far beyond our finite imaginations.
What’s more, the new creation will be one of purpose. The heavenly scenes we have, like in Revelation 4-5, overflow with the rich, glorious worship of God for his work through Christ.
Heaven will be radically God-centered. God is going to remove every trace of sin and suffering — no more grief, conflict, cancer, divorce, disease. We are going to see God face-to-face, and we’re going to know him like we’ve never known him before. The worship of God in the presence of God needs to be have a prominent place in how we visualize heaven.
Heaven will involve another purpose: We are going to work. We know God is going to take people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, and make them a kingdom of priests (Rev 5:10). That means we will rule and serve — precisely what humanity was intended to do in Eden. One could say it’s going to be Eden 2.0, even better than God’s original design because we won’t be able to sin. We are going to live like humanity was supposed to.
But what will we do?
Here’s what we know: God put Adam in the garden “to work it and keep it” and that work is inherently worshipful. “Work” and “keep” are priestly terms that bring to mind the temple and the worship of God. Worship is not inherently passive, and much of our thinking about heaven seems flat and uninteresting because we assume worship is just singing in a large choir (no offense to large choirs).
Our acts of service will be worshipful because they will be untainted by sin and done unto the Lord. As Paul tells us, “Do your work heartily as unto the Lord, as not a serving man but as serving God, knowing from God we will have an inheritance” (Col 3:23-24). We will experience that kind of work because there will be no more sin, and we will do our work heartily as unto the Lord as we enjoy our future inheritance: the new heaven and the new earth.
Beyond that, it’s hard to know for sure. The Bible provides a lot of rich imagery: a city, a temple, a land. This descriptive and symbolic language is reaching for what the new creation will be like. Isaiah 11 describes a wolf dwelling with a lamb, a lion lying down with a young goat, and children playing with snakes, but that symbolism makes a theological point about the Messiah’s power to totally transform nature. The reality will be far greater than any of those images.
Sometimes I hear people say things like, “If my grandmother is going to be there, then I want to go to heaven;” or, “Heaven’s going to be great because I can golf any time I want to.” That can easily lead to idolatry, because heaven isn’t fundamentally about what I can enjoy outside of God. Heaven is fundamentally about joy in God. In the course of this life we derive joy from all kinds of things, and he designed us for that. He’s created us for awe and joy and worship. But we must find that ultimately in God through what he has done for us in Christ and given us by his Spirit. If we are satisfied in the Giver, then his gifts can be properly enjoyed in their place.
So is it helpful to speculate about what heaven will be like? Is it healthy to imagine being the president of the new creation version of NASA or playing baseball with your dad again like you did as a child? As long as that speculation doesn’t distract us from why heaven is going to be so great and glorious: being in God’s holy, life-giving presence with his people. We get a taste of it here as we seek to know him, find our identity in him, and live out of our union with Christ by his Spirit. But it’s going to be a thousand times more joyful and satisfying than we can ever imagine. Speculation about what the new heaven and new earth will be like isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can be disordered, so we need to reorder it around our glorious triune God.
A grounded view of heaven
I used to hear this statement growing up: “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good.” I think that’s inaccurate. God calls us to be so heavenly minded that we can be maximally good and useful where God has called us in Christ. After all, we were created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph 2:10). Paul writes: “If then you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Don’t set your mind on earthly things, but things above.” (Col 3:1-3). Knowing our resurrected identity in the resurrected Christ then motivates our sanctification, according to Paul, who describes in the following verses what desires and virtues Christians must put off and put on (Col 3:5-10).
Paul gives us very specific earthly things to believe, think, love, live, and do because of our new identity. He puts flesh on our heavenly mindedness. It means killing sin, putting on Christ, and doing our work in ways that honor him. As I love my wife, parent my children, prepare to teach, relate to others, serve my church, and even play kickball with the kids in my neighborhood, I am called to put off anything that hinders me from running the race. Instead, by God’s transforming grace I need put on the kinds of things that will enable me to grow in Christ and proclaim him to others. Looking to Christ encourages us to live our lives in light of his certain return, which causes us to cry out with the Apostle John: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).