Now, before you start freaking out, let me explain a little further. Please don’t mistake this for me saying that there is no eternity spent with God – that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that I’m not so sure that we go straight to heaven when we die. After all, there’s not a verse in the New Testament that specifically says so. Yes, there are verses that speak about heaven – passages like Revelation 5, 21, and 22 – but the pattern I seem to be finding in each of these is that almost every verse speaks with a tone of hopefulness: waiting for things to come instead of describing something that is already available. Here are a few verses that echo that:
- 2 Peter 3:13 – But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
- Hebrews 11:16 – But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
- Hebrews 13:14 – For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
- Hebrews 11:10 – For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
Do you see the pattern as well? These verses seem to point towards a future event, which I believe to be the consummation of our faith through Jesus’ second advent. The time when a new heaven and a new earth are revealed.
So what happens when we die?
Honestly, I don’t know. My best theory is that those who have not chosen to seek Christ will descend to hell immediately and that those who have been sanctified will be kept safe by God until Christ’s second coming. I don’t really know what that will look like, in all honesty. But I have a hard time believing that we’ll just float around on clouds until the second advent, when we begin our residence on the new earth. After all, that is where we will be for eternity: new earth. Not heaven, not floating on clouds, but in the new earth. But here’s where it gets tricky: the new heaven and new earth will be made one. We will enjoy complete and unending communion and unity with God and the pain of sin will be gone. I think that life will be relatively close to what it’s like now; like I said, I don’t think we’ll just be floating around doing nothing for eternity. But what will change is the fact that all suffering will have disappeared at the moment of our faith’s completion. No longer will we weep, will we long for change, will we feel pain and anguish. Our faith will be complete, our journey will have reached its finish. All will be made new in the precious name of Christ.
Lazarus and Elijah
As you’ve been reading this, I’m sure the same thought has popped into many of your heads: What about Lazarus (both of them) and Elijah? Well, the Lazarus question covers two topics: the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man and the passage in John 11 speaking about Lazarus’ death and resurrection. I’ll cover both.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
To start, it’s important to remember that this passage is a parable, not intended to be taken literally. Dr. Lawrence Richards, author of The Victor Bible Background Commentary, New Testament explains in his findings that Jesus used popular Jewish beliefs about the afterlife to make his point. These beliefs, also, were influenced by pagan mythology. The popular belief at the time was that those who died went to Hades, the abode of the dead, which was thought to be divided into two sections (the place of the righteous and the place of the unrighteous). It was also believed that those in separate sections could still communicate with each other. Because of this similarity in Jesus’ language to the contemporary Jewish beliefs, I’m inclined to side with Richards and view this parable from a teaching standpoint instead of a literal one. Viewing it from this lens would both create an explanation for what seemed like contradictory information about heaven as well as help to understand Christ’s language more clearly.
In John 11, another story is told, this time chronicling the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. This story is different from the first because it is, without any doubt, intended to be taken literally. However, this one does not make any claims that Lazarus goes straight to heaven; in fact, Jesus actually seems to confirm the fact that Lazarus was dead and not residing in heaven:
John 11:11-13 – After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.
Now, this passage is much less decisive in its proof against or for my theory, and so I have had a much more difficult time including it in this post. In conclusion, I will simply say that Lazarus is never said to have spent his time of death in heaven, and the language that Christ uses to describe his sleep is very similar to language used to describe those waiting for their time on the new earth.
An explanation of Elijah’s story has been by far the most difficult to understand while I’ve been reading about eternity. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s the excerpt:
2 Kings 2:11-12 – And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
The most credible argument I have found to explain this event also deals with the transfiguration:
Matthew 17:1-3 – And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
The explanation I have come to find for Elijah’s ascension to heaven deals directly with the transfiguration and how we view it: as a representation of Christ’s second coming. See, Moses and Elijah represent the two groups of believers who will be present during the second advent – those who have died, and those who are still alive. Why? Well, because Moses died and Elijah did not. Simple as that. When you understand that significance, it becomes easier to understand the symbolism behind the transfiguration. Jesus returns, and both groups of believers are present with him. Elijah’s ascension serves the purpose of giving a vivid picture of what the second advent could be like. The focus is not on the ascension itself, but rather on his presence at the transfiguration.
More Scriptural Evidence
Read these words from 1 Thessalonians 4:
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
And there it is. A passage that states it clear as day. The dead in Christ and those who are alive will be brought together in the presence of the Lord. I love what the verses have to say about the hope we have in Christ as well: even though we may have loved ones that have died, we do not need to grieve as others do who have no hope. Through Jesus’ resurrection, we have hope! Through his selfless sacrifice, we have hope. By his stripes we are healed, raised to life in the glorious name of Jesus Christ.
Now, by writing this I am not meaning to say that what I’ve written is undoubtedly true. The beauty of our Savior is that he is infinite; unable to be fully comprehended by finite minds like our own. But I would be remiss to not seek all the knowledge I might gain while here on earth, and because of that I am inclined to look for all that my mind can understand. In doing so, I believe that I’ve come to a reasonable theory (and one that has been contemplated for many years) that may point to the events which may take place during Christ’s second coming. I’m not interested in arguing over this belief, nor am I interested in causing conflict because of it. Division over small details is not appealing whatsoever. But my goal in writing this is to simply share with you what I have found encouraging myself. If you have questions, rebuttals, different opinions, or even things that I may have interpreted incorrectly or left out, I would ask you to please let me know in the comment section below.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
Have any insight on this post? Let me know in the comment section below.