Five Things We Forget About Heaven, by Gavin Ortlund:
In 1952, Florence Chadwick tried to swim from Catalina Island to the coast of California. For fifteen hours, she endured choppy waters, possible shark attacks, and extreme fatigue. Then a thick fog set in. She gave up.
Two months later, she tried again. This time, though it was foggy again, she made it. When asked what made the difference, she said, “The first time all I could see was the fog. The second time I kept a mental image of that shoreline in my mind while I swam.”
For me, Chadwick’s comment gives a great image of how heaven should function in our lives as we follow Jesus. In order to persevere through the fog and fatigue of life, we need a mental image of the eternal shoreline toward which we swim.
But if you’re like me, you tend to think about heaven far less than you should. Many days it’s completely off my radar screen. What’s more, when we do think about heaven, we have a lot of misconceptions about it, as Randy Alcorn has helped us understand.
So lately, I’ve been trying to think more about heaven. As I’ve done so, several features of heaven have surprised me. Think of these as qualities we often forget about heaven — parts of the shoreline most likely to be overlooked.
1. All the Saints Are Equals
When I picture my grandfather in heaven, I picture him as he looked toward the end of his life, because that is when I knew him. But of course, he won’t have an aged, broken-down, 84-year-old body in heaven — any more than those who die in infancy will remain infants for all eternity. Everyone in heaven will have a perfected resurrection body (Matthew 22:30).
So here is a happy thought: my grandfather greeting my children in heaven, and all of them hugging as equals. Oh, how I pray for this! What a joy it would be to introduce them.
2. All the Saints Are Friends
Imagine being out for a walk and bumping into Charles Spurgeon. Or Moses. Or Joni Eareckson Tada (who, of course, can walk and run!). All the saints, from all times, will be your intimate friends and neighbors. It is, after all, eternity, so if you miss anyone over the first ten billion years, you’ll have no less time to get started.
Personally, I look forward to having a conversation with C.S. Lewis. I feel like I have come to know C.S. Lewis somewhat because I have spent so much time in his books. I cannot wait to tell him all that I love about Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, and Till We Have Faces, and see what he thinks about my theories.
3. Sadness Is Permanently Unmade
We know that earthly sadness cannot enter heaven. This is true, but the Bible seems to point to something even more profound — that heaven will enter our earthly sadness.
Once when I was preaching on heaven, my eye was drawn to Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This verse seems to be claiming more than simply, “We won’t weep in heaven.” The imagery of God wiping away our tears seems to suggest consolation for, as well as the end of, earthly grief. Heaven will not merely end our pain — somehow, it will mend it.
Tim Keller puts it like this: “Resurrection . . . means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.” It’s like at the end of The Lord of the Rings, when Sam asks Gandalf, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Imagine yourself newly arrived in heaven. God Almighty summons you. As you stand trembling before him, he surgically draws up the deepest wound of your life, healing you and transforming your pain into glory and joy.
Such imagery is tender to the point of embarrassment. Dare we believe it? Dare we not?
4. Every Pleasure Finally Finds Itself
We tend to think about the spiritual joy of heaven more than its physical pleasures. But I think heaven will have both. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know how to imagine all the details, but I don’t think God created waterfalls, raspberries, relationships, and art only to destroy them forever so we could float in an ethereal, cloudy realm. And I’m pretty sure the “pleasures forevermore” at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11) are not exhausted by an eternity of singing praise choruses.
That means something startling: not only will heaven heal your earthly sorrow, but it will also recall, answer, and fulfill all your earthly happiness. Your happy moments on earth are not lost to you. They will return to you, in some deeper form — part of that final, settled Happiness of which they were, even at their best, mere anticipations.
It’s like in The Chronicles of Narnia when one of the characters makes it to heaven and says, “This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”
In happy moments, I sometimes pray, “Lord, store this up until heaven.” I believe that is a valid prayer.
5. We Will See Jesus
How amazing will it be to finally see, with our own eyes, the risen, glorified, incarnate Christ in heaven? Truly, this will be one of the most glorious parts of heaven. The one to whom we’ve prayed a thousand times — but he’s always been invisible to us — now we can look into his eyes. We can put our hands into the holes in his wrists. We can hug him and say, “Thank you” into his ear.
But there are hints in the Bible of something even more intriguing (Psalm 11:7; 17:15; 27:4; Revelation 22:4). Theologians have often spoken of the “beatific vision” — that heavenly vision which involves not our resurrected bodily eyes, but “the eye of the soul.” In this way, it is said, we will behold Christ in his divine nature — a glory that surpasses the sweetness of laying our physical eyes on him.
Even the greatest theologians labor to describe this experience. But all agree it is the ultimate happiness of creatures. John Owen claimed that it “will make us blessed unto eternity.” Jonathan Edwards called it “happifying.”
Such an encounter with the glory of Christ can scarcely be imagined. How will we even endure such light and joy? Surely this will be the pinnacle moment of our existence, as we ascend into that permanent roar of joy from which we shall never, and can never, descend.
That Eternal Shore
These features of heaven’s eternal shoreline change how we swim, don’t they? For now, we struggle through rough waters, deep fatigue, and thick fog. But the day is coming soon when the seemingly unending waves will give way to a broad, sturdy shoreline where the joy is full and the pleasures are forevermore.
Knowing this awaits us at the shore can help us keep swimming, no matter how choppy the waves get.