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Heaven: Part 1 – The difficulty of conceiving of heaven10 min read

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This post is part of a series.

Imagine a world where there is no sorrow, no disease and no death. Imagine life without fear, and with the love of deep, unselfish, and pure relationships.

Now imagine you’re talking to someone who tells you they would rather be dead than live that way for eternity because it would be repetitive and boring. Would that person be insane, or would they have a point?

1. Trying to Comprehend Heaven

One valid way to evaluate, if not criticize someone’s claims is to challenge their logic, claiming it to be self-contradictory or in conflict with other established truths. And Jesus’ smart opponents often tried to catch him this way.

Jesus was once approached by a group of Sadducees, a powerful Jewish sect that did not believe in a physical resurrection, as He was teaching. They attempted to catch him being illogical by comparing his claims to the Jewish tradition of a widow marrying her husband’s brother if her husband died. And they didn’t just approach it politely, they exaggerated the example in the hopes of making Jesus look foolish. But he turned it back on them, calling them ignorant.

23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” (Matthew 22)

Not just two husbands, but seven! “Explain that Jesus!” was their challenge. Their main mistake, however, was thinking that the life to come, if physical, must merely be a nicer version of this life, including relationships. But as it turns out, they were being narrow-minded, relying only on what they could observe and had experienced.

29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.

2. Why the life to come is not entirely comprehensible

Jesus scorched his accusers with two accusations, and both hurt.

2.1 You don’t understand the scriptures

This is truly damning when aimed at religious leaders. Those who claim spiritual knowledge, authority, and mastery ought to understand their own tradition. But Jesus let them know that their question revealed ignorance.

Most of us, Christian and non, picture heaven in terms of cultural tropes, such as disembodied spirits floating on clouds, singing worship songs forever, and being otherwise unoccupied for eternity. But this is a very thin veneer, and such partial truths obscure the biblical clues to the life to come.

2.2 You don’t understand the power of God

In this context, it is hard to know what Jesus is referring to – except that somehow, there will be no marriage in heaven, and we will be like the angels. What could that mean? It seems that there is a transformation of both ourselves and material reality that is much greater than just coming to life as we were previously. The idea that heaven is merely more of what we already know denies this transformation.

3. The limits of what we can comprehend

One of the great logical fallacies to avoid is called “an appeal to mystery.” “It’s just not understandable, and God is therefore logically unassailable” is often rightly seen as a cop out.

But as finite creatures, some things may be beyond our complete comprehension. 1 The scriptures indicate that with regard to heaven, this argument may apply:

No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no heart has imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love Him. (1 Cor. 2:9)

The Bible, however, is not entirely silent on the matter, and clues us in on the unimaginable pleasures and glories of heaven.

3.1 Believing in order to see

Those who find the concept of heaven illogical, unappealing, or even boring may be more out of their league than they think.

In the famous story of the night visit of Nicodemus to Jesus, we hear Jesus introduce the central tenet of the New Covenant – regeneration, aka being born-again, and arguing that this, and not intellectual study, is necessary for being able to see what God is doing (“see the Kingdom of God”), as well as enter into it.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again,[a] you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Nicodemus, even though he is a religious teacher and leader in the Jewish community, is confused, and Jesus responds with some incredulity, stating that if he doesn’t even understand this basic spiritual reality, he will not be able to understand complex spiritual truths:

But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (John 3:12)

This principle applies to our current discussion – those who are attempting to understand or criticize the Biblical view of heaven (“heavenly things”) without first being a believer “can’t even see the Kingdom of God,” much less understand it.

If we don’t understand through experience the reality of God through the introductory faith of regeneration, how do we expect to even touch the perspective and experience of faith required to begin to grasp heaven? It is nigh impossible. And trying to understand merely through intellectual means is insufficient.

There is a real sense in which we must believe first, or walk through the door off belief before we can see anything inside or beyond the door of the kingdom.

3.1.1 The Analogy of Colorblindness

Imagine you have never seen in color, and someone describes the color spectrum to you. Perhaps they could describe it in terms of senses you do have, like warmth or coolness, brightness or darkness. Having no experience with colors, you may find it incredible.

Now imagine you suddenly see colors, but they are muted. Now you have a direct experiential basis upon which to conceive of potentially brilliant color.

Before that you had unconvincing analogies. Now you have a partial experience which can inform your speculations and beliefs. What formerly only seemed like pure speculation now can be seen as an extension of what you have already confirmed.

3.2 Leaving poverty, entering prosperity

Before we explore what the scriptures say about the life to come, a metaphor regarding our limited experience is necessary.

In the excellent 1984 film Moscow on the Hudson, Robin Williams plays a Russian circus performer who defects to America. Used to waiting on lines for the meagerest of food and supplies, he goes to a grocery store to get coffee and asks for “the coffee line.” He has no idea that he will find anything more than minimal offerings, but when he gets there, he is overwhelmed to find multiple bags of coffee, in multiple brands, all for him to select from.

All of his experience could not prepare him for the abundance of the west, and we are often limited by our own experience and inability to concieve of such a wonderful reality.

4. What is not there

Along these lines, scripture speaks more of what is not in heaven, rather than the hard to imagine good things that are there. Our experience of good is puny and insignificant compared to the blessings of existence in the life to come, but our current experience in this “veil of tears” has plenty of bad things we wish did not exist. This understanding is just a start.

According to scripture, in the renewed heaven and earth there will be NO MORE:

  • death (Revelation 21:4)
  • mourning (Revelation 21:4)
  • weeping (Revelation 21:4)
  • pain (Revelation 21:4)
  • curse (Revelation 22:3)
  • night (Revelation 22:5)

5. Conclusion

Unbelievers can contemplate heaven, but are severely limited since they lack even the basic Christian experience.  Those justifying intellectual and intuitional incredulity regarding eternal life and heaven are out of their league because they don’t even have the basics of the *experience* of faith to be able to evaluate more advanced concepts.

Because faith is not primarily or first an intellectual endeavor, but an experiential and formative one, and they are like completely color blind men trying to understand and describe colors. To them it’s just a fantastic myth. Jesus informed Nicodemus that he could not even see what he was speculating about without basic faith. And even Paul the Apostle says the same:

“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” 1 Cor 2:15

To repeat, understanding of and belief in heaven by the unregenerate, while it can be addressed intellectually and with analogies, is essentially out of reach for them, and so incredulity is expected because it reflects a total lack of ability. Not having even basic faith, they lack the eyes to see or the heart to understand the reality of the life to come. If that is the case, they may be entirely unable to use their imagination to process the hints of what will be present in heaven. Those are covered in Part 2.

  1. The two great mysteries of the Bible ([]