Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off
Life in heaven sounds downright boring, if some descriptions are to be believed. In my boyhood, psalms were sung very slowly in church, and I thought heaven was like that—a place where one sat on hard benches all day long and sang Dutch Psalms. I was not enthralled. Huck Finn thought heaven was a place where a person would "go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and forever."
This future life is often seen as an eternal existence without bodies. Also, it is thought of as "above," somewhere off in space, far removed from this earth—an escape, in fact.
Some hymns suggest this (and people often learn more of their theology from hymns than from sermons). "We're marching through Immanuel's ground / To fairer worlds on high" (Isaac Watts). Heaven is "Where the harps of angels ring, / And the blest forever sing" (H. E. Blair). And this heaven is a place of rest, we are told; work is restricted to these present evil days. "Be not aweary, for labor will cease some glad morning; / Turmoil will change to infinite peace, some glad morning" (Charlotte Homer).
Are we then to spend eternity in space, disembodied spirits who flit from cloud to cloud, plucking golden harps in an endless day off? We can agree with the element of truth in these teachings: Paul tells us that when he dies he will go to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23), who has now been taken up into heaven (Acts 1:11). And he also says that this state is "away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8).
But, and here is the critical point, this will be a temporary existence—one where we shall eagerly await the resurrection of the body to take place on the last day, at Jesus' second coming.
Resurrected bodies are not intended just to float in space, or to flit from cloud to cloud. They call for a new earth on which to live and to work, glorifying God. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body, in fact, makes no sense whatever apart from the doctrine of the new earth.
The Bible teaches such a new earth on which God's people will live eternally. The Old Testament reveals that the ultimate destiny of man is an earthly one. In Isaiah 65:17 we read that the final state of the universe will involve a new earth: "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth" (see also 66:22). This vision of the future is continued in the New Testament. Peter tells us that we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell (2 Pet. 3:13). From the last book of the Bible we learn that those purchased by Christ's blood from every tribe, language, people, and nation will some day reign forever on the earth (Rev. 5:9-10). And we remember the words of Revelation 21:1, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away."
This last passage, in fact, adds a crucial fact: in the final state, heaven and earth will have merged! "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." (Rev. 21:2). The "new Jerusalem" stands for the entire glorified church of God. This church, in John's vision, does not remain in a "heaven" far off in space, but it comes down to the renewed earth; there redeemed will spend eternity in resurrection bodies. So heaven and earth, now separated, will then be merged: the new earth will also be heaven, since God will dwell there with his people. Glorified believers, in other words, will continue to be in heaven while they are inhabiting the new earth.
Will the new earth be totally other than the present earth (annihilation followed by re-creation), or will it be the present earth renewed and purified? I favor renewal for the following reasons: