Heaven. What is it like? What awaits us there? It's one of questions spiritual leaders are asked, the unknowns about heaven. One scholar told me he's asked most often about our pets. Will there be pets in heaven? Go figure.
It's a hot topic, heaven. The books about people dying and visiting there have stirred us. But, we can't imagine it. Paul wrote, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared for those who love him---" (1 Corinthians 2:9). He's hidden the glories of heaven from us!
Accurate Christology acknowledges our Lord's pre-existence in the heavenly realms. In the incarnation he was brought to earth in human flesh. So, when the writer of Hebrews penned "...for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross..." (Hebrews 12:2), he was acknowledging that Jesus could see something that has been hidden from us---the glories of heaven. He endured the suffering, pain, shame, and disgrace of the cross because he knew what was ahead. He could recall the absolute joy of sitting at the right hand of the throne of God (the conclusion of Hebrews 12:2). Envisioning that gave him the endurance to finish God's plan. Joy yields endurance!
In the mysteries of his ways, God has chosen not to show us everything. Moses wrote, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deuteronomy 29:29). Even with the revelation of Scripture, his written word, there are truths that are reserved for the eyes of faith. It "...is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). And, heaven is in that category, the things hoped for and not seen. The Bible speaks often of eternity, the after-life, the New Heaven and the New Earth, and the crown of glory, and all that awaits us when we are transmitted from this life to the next. Revelation 21 is about as accurate a picture of glory as we humans are going to get. But, still, there are mysteries we cannot know. They are hidden from us. Randy Alcorn's book Heaven (Tyndale House, Chicago: 2004) is among the best compilations of Scripture about heaven and what awaits us there. It brings many of the passages of Scripture into a sequence that gives us a glimpse of eternity.
Still, when we are told to "...fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross..." (my paraphrase) we are therefore handicapped. We cannot see what Jesus saw. It is hidden from us. Our feeble imagination can't even think or dream a sufficient picture of heaven to move us through the trials and tests of being his disciples. But, alas, that's not what we've been asked to do, to imagine what heaven is like. We've been asked to focus on him. The author of Hebrews didn't advise that we dream bigger dreams about the joy set before us, or that we imagine the unimaginable, or even write great books about what to expect there. He told us to intently and constantly look to Jesus, the one who authored our faith, and the one who will be at the finish line when we cross into eternity. That is enough of a picture of joy to move us forward expectantly. For the joy set before us, indeed.
One day Jesus sent out seventy-two disciples on their first mission. He gave them instructions about what to expect and do as they prepared the way for his coming to the villages in the area. When they returned they were amazed and joyful that "...even the demons are subject to us in your name" (Luke 10:17). He talked to them about authority, his rule over Satan, and their power over the agents of the evil one. But, he added, "...rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20). He wanted them to know that they didn't have to possess a blueprint of heaven or the all the details of the authority and power he had entrusted to them. Their joy was to come from the reality that they would be there with him. That was enough. The true lasting joy of life is knowing him and believing that we will be with him forever. Fixing our eyes on him is the real joy, the one who calls us, guides us, protects us, and greets us when we cross into the next life.
Sometimes our joy is hidden behind our inability to imagine what it will be like. Something in us wants to know about the streets of gold, the pearly gates, the crystal sea, the dimensions of the new Jerusalem, the pillars, gates, seals, horses, our husbands and wives, and whether Fido will know us there. Even with our vivid imaginations and Hollywood conditioned special effects it's just hard to imagine. But, that's not it, heaven, the source of our joy. That's the imagination problem. We're not to imagine it. We're to imagine him.
The centrality of Christ is the one consistent biblical theme. We should be thrilled at the mentions of what is by him, for him, in him, and through him throughout Scripture. He is our joy. It's one of the tests I use when I read these books, several of which have proved bogus, about people going on a visit to heaven when they die momentarily. If Jesus isn't preeminent---you know, the one on the throne, the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth---then I write that book off as a dream, the effects of medications, or the after-shock of an accident. In my personal opinion, all the other details about heaven are secondary anyway. He is the center.
In a joy deprived world we must adjust the imagination focus some. Let's don't imagine heaven. Let's just imagine him. When the drudgery of life is heavy, the trials of serving pull us in every direrction, when the joy is hidden from us, we must not imagine it. We must just fix our eyes on him.
"And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure".
1 John 3: 3