How do we know there is a heaven, and how should it affect our lives now?

Christianity has been criticized loudly in modern times for being a so-called "pie-in-the-sky" religion. Karl Marx popularized the idea that religion is the opiate of the masses; his thesis was that religion was invented and used by the ruling classes to exploit and oppress the poor people of the world and to keep them from revolting. The promise of "pie in the sky" was designed to encourage them to be good workers and to obey their masters—their reward would be deferred to eternity.

But one cannot take Christianity seriously without seeing the central importance of the concept of heaven. There really is a "pie-in-the-sky" idea that is integral to the Bible, and especially to the New Testament, and I'm afraid we've lost our appetite for the delights God has stored up for his people in the future.

From time to time, pollsters have asked Christians to name their favorite chapter in the New Testament. When polls like that appear, there always seem to be two chapters that come in first and second. The chapters that vie for the greatest popularity in the New Testament are 1 Corinthians 13, the great "love chapter," and John 14.

As John 14 begins, Jesus is speaking to his disciples in his last great discourse with them in the upper room on the night in which he was betrayed, the night before his execution. Verses 1 and 2 say, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?" Jesus begins this part of the discourse with an admonition, an imperative to his disciples. He tells them, "Do not allow your hearts to be distressed or disturbed." This is a call to trust and to faith. He then goes on to reason with them in a succinct but profound manner. Because these words are so comforting to us, we may too easily gloss over part that comes next.

Jesus says, "Do not let your hearts be troubled," and then he makes an assertion about the disciples. He says, "You believe in God." He doesn't ask them if they believe—he knows that they do. That's his first premise. He goes on to say, "Believe also in me." This is central to the testimony of the New Testament—it is God who certifies and verifies the identity of Jesus. By endowing Christ with miraculous power and raising him from the dead, God certifies that this is his beloved Son. Three times in the New Testament it is recorded that God speaks audibly from heaven, and on all three occasions the announcement is substantially the same: "This is my beloved Son."

In one case, the voice continues, "in whom I am well pleased." Another time it says, "Hear him." Jesus is telling his disciples that God the Father both sent him into the world and bears witness to his identity in the world; now, the night before he is to die, Jesus tells his disciples, "You believe in God; therefore, believe in me."

Why does Jesus start with the premise that they believe in God? There's a real sense in which that proposition is the controlling idea for one's whole understanding of life, of the world, of death, and of heaven. If there is no God, there is no reason to have any significant hope for the continuity of personal existence that we call life; and yet, if God exists, what would be more ridiculous than to assume that he creates creatures in his own image who are destined to live as grass for a season, only to perish with all of their memories, all of their hopes, and all of their labor ending in meaninglessness?

We remember the line from Shakespeare's Macbeth: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more." This refers, of course, to the life of the actor or the dramatist. What's the assessment? "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The image we get from that statement is that of a person who is in the limelight, in the spotlight, for a brief interlude of life, and then suddenly is silenced. The sentiment of this idea is that if this is the final conclusion to human existence, the story of life is an idiot's tale. An idiot is someone who is irrational, who doesn't make sense. An idiot is on the rim of madness, and the tales that he tells are not credible stories. They may be filled with sound and fury, with noise and passion. They may be loud and moving. But what do they signify? Nothing.

I think the meaning of life is the great existential question that every human being faces at death. I'll never forget the day that my son was born. I stood in the hospital and looked down at my firstborn son.

I knew that my life was irrevocably changed. All relationships would now be different. I remember that occasion vividly because, when I went back to the hospital that evening, I took my mother to see her grandson. She was absolutely ecstatic about him, and when we got home, she said, "This is the happiest day of my life."

The next morning, I was awakened by my daughter calling to my mother. She came into my room and said, "Grandma won't wake up." As I walked into my mother's room, I realized that she was dead; she had died in her sleep. It was one of those weird, uncanny moments of human experience. It seemed to me that just moments before I had heard my mother say, "This is the happiest day of my life." She was a living, breathing, caring, passionate human being. Now she was lying lifeless in her bed. The previous morning, I had seen the newness of life with the birth of my son. On the same day that my son was born, my mother died. So I had an experience of the conflict between life and death. As I stood there, I said: "This doesn't make sense. Death doesn't make sense." Every fiber in my being said to me, "This cannot be the final conclusion for human experience."

My response could be explained away as an emotional need in my soul to believe that life is meaningful, but I was thinking in these terms: If God exists, this cannot be the end. That's what Jesus is saying to his disciples when he says, "Do not let your hearts be troubled."

When I stood beside my mother in that room, my heart was troubled—deeply troubled. But Jesus says: "Don't allow that. If you believe in God, believe also in me." And immediately upon making this connection between faith in the Father and faith in him, Jesus says, "My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?"

Do you hear what Jesus is saying to his disciples? As he approaches the moment of his death, he says to them: "Trust me. Trust the Father. He has a huge house with many rooms in it." And he says, "If this were not so, if this were just fantasy, if this were just emotional wish projection, if this were a fairytale or human superstition, I wouldn't have told you this."

Keep in mind that if Jesus Christ is God incarnate, he is the greatest theologian who ever walked the planet. He doesn't make theological mistakes, nor does he approve of theological error. He would not allow his disciples to go through the rest of their lives holding to a belief that was false. He says: "Your hope for life after death is not groundless. It is not a false hope. If it were a false hope, I would have told you. I would have corrected it."

He then goes on to say: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am" (John 14:2-3). Jesus basically says: I'm going home. I'm going to my Father's house. I'm going to receive my final inheritance, but I'm not going to heaven alone. I am going there to prepare a place for you so that where I am, you may be also.

Everyone, Christian or not, longs for reunion with those loved ones who have gone on before them, but the Christian longs to be with Christ. I cannot wait to see my father, my mother, and my friends who have died when I get to heaven, but the ultimate hope of my soul is to see the resurrected Christ in his Father's house, and he has promised that that will happen.

How often have you wondered whether there is life after death? Sometimes we shrink in terror and doubt when we contemplate something as wonderful as heaven purports to be. We sometimes are assaulted by the idea that it's just too good to be true.

A few years ago, my wife and I were involved in a train accident in Alabama that killed more people than all the rest of the accidents in the history of Amtrak. Afterward, we had newspaper reporters poking microphones in our faces and asking questions like, "Why were you so lucky as to survive this?" and, "Why would God allow you to survive while he took other people's lives?"

I've often thought about that experience, and one of the things that pops into my mind is the assumption behind those questions: the idea that I was the lucky one because I survived the train wreck. But if I hadn't survived it, I'd be home. I would be in heaven. We naturally cling to life in this world, fearful that what lies beyond is worse. But for those who are going to heaven, the bliss that God has stored up for them is unworthy to be compared with any joy or any delight we may cling to in this life.

This article is adapted from Unseen Realities by R. C. Sproul, published by Christian Focus Publications, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland and is used with their permission.

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