Have you ever heard a preacher saying something like, “Whatever heaven is, it will be wonderful because Jesus will be there”? I don’t know if it’s due to the fear of being divisive or even a personal lack of information, but I rarely hear preachers give much definition to what believers expect for their future, what is commonly termed, “heaven”. I believe this is detrimental to Christian hope and here’s why. Vague concepts of heaven do little to ground our hope in such a way that we are truly “waiting”, “looking”, “longing”, and even “groaning” for the age to come like the Apostles spoke of.
Imagine if this is what we did with other goals for the future. Most people, my wife included, would never purchase a vacation package without any reviews or pictures. Imagine if I told my wife that she didn’t need to look at the pictures or reviews, saying, “Honey, whatever the vacation is, it will be great because we’ll be together.” For her, it’s not that she doesn’t love being with me or enjoy the occasional surprise of not knowing what to expect, but to commit significant time and money on a destination she has no information about doesn’t give her a lot to be excited about. She wants to know what the room looks like, what we will be doing, what the food is like, etc. She wants concrete things to look forward to. This simple analogy points to the fact that an uninformed hope is not as powerful as an informed one. While it may amuse you for a moment, it won’t get you up in the morning and get you through the day.
But this is only half the problem. We are not simply uninformed, we are also misinformed. With ambiguity comes false interpretation as our brain’s tendency is to use what information we do know to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know. We may be told that our ultimate future involves being with Jesus. This is true and glorious, but like my wife looking forward to a five-day getaway, we really want to know what it looks like and what we will be doing for years and years without end. What is our vision of the age to come? When the image in our mind is incomplete and not shaped by the rich teaching of Scripture, the ambiguity forces our brain to pull for other information to clarify and give shape to that hope. For many, what is envisioned, maybe even subconsciously, involves some kind of unending church service in an immaterial realm. But because that image is so ethereal, it’s almost impossible to build upon and even harder to look forward to.
In his book, “Heaven”, Randy Alcorn writes, “Our bodies and our God-given appetites and taste buds don’t permit us to desire to eat gravel. Why? Because we were not made to eat gravel. Trying to develop an appetite for a disembodied existence in a non-physical Heaven is like trying to develop an appetite for gravel. It’s not going to work. Nor should it. What God made us to desire, and therefore what we do desire, is exactly what God promises to those who follow Jesus: the resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected earth.”
The church is starving to be informed of biblical hope and one of the central problems perpetuating the general lack of attention given to the age to come is this distorted and unappealing concept of an immaterial heavenly destiny. This downward trend relegates our ultimate future to a mere afterthought in the Christian’s life. We’d rather focus on the here and now because that is what’s most important, right? To the contrary, Scripture tells us time and time again that the power to follow Jesus in the here and now is a firm confidence in the future, not an ambiguous future, but one shaped by the glorious promises of resurrection to eternal, immortal life in a restored, righteous cosmos. The promises of biblical hope purify us (1 John 3:3; 2 Cor. 7:1), inspire our labors (1 Cor. 15:58), and underlie our call to be disciples of Jesus (Mt. 16:24-27). As Christians, they are not a peripheral afterthought. They shape our very outlook on reality.
Given the overwhelming apostolic emphasis on “waiting”, “looking”, “longing”, and “groaning” for the age to come (cf. Gal. 5:5; 1 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 9:28; Jude 21; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 3:12-14; 2 Cor. 5:2; Phil. 1:23; Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 5:4), we must not let the topic of “heaven” rest in ambiguity. Our very vigor and unshakable hope rests on such teaching and reminding and encouraging.