Tag Archives: Heaven

There and Back Again

My grandmother was dying of pancreatic cancer. She faced her terminal diagnosis with grace and faith. While we, her children and grandchildren, were terribly sad, her Christian peace in the face of dying comforted us all.

Except, that is, for one night when I panicked. I was lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep. This was the first time I had faced the death of someone close. All at once, it occurred to me that we had no idea what would happen to my grandmother. None of us had closed our eyes in death, and that meant none of us knew what she would see when she opened them. The horror of the unknown washed over me. I realized it wasn't really her death that I was afraid of. It was my own.

Fear of the Unknown

Light at the end of the tunnelI'm not alone in being frightened by how little we know about the experience of death. The fact that books about journeys to heaven and back repeatedly land on the bestseller list testifies to our need for someone to tell us what death is going to be like. We want to hear that we will be met by someone we know. We want the assurance that the light at the end of the darkness is real, and that someone dear to us will be holding the lamp. Who in their right mind would want to go into a tunnel without knowing what they would find on the other side?

When faced with the unknown, I've watched my cousin's children adopt roles that suit their birth order and personalities. The older is cautious and worried about danger. The younger is foolhardy and tough; he's unaware that there is anything he should fear. When confronting a new—and potentially scary—situation, the older will send the younger in first. He waits for his little brother to come back and assure him that he won't get hurt.

Following Our Older Brother

In our case, it was our older brother, Jesus, who ventured into the dark unknown. He didn't leave us behind indefinitely to wonder what happened. He conquered death and came back to let us know that it is now safe to follow. He speaks to us these comforting words: "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades" (Rev. 1:17b-18).

That night, my panic lasted for several minutes until I remembered that simple truth: Jesus died and lived to tell about it. Death is not a total unknown to the human race. Jesus has been there and come back again. I felt enormous relief as the implications of his resurrection rebuked my fearful imagination.

Oh, how comforting it is to follow someone who knows the way! The Christian has the assurance that to depart this life is to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). Jesus won't be holding a lamp because he himself will be our light. The bestselling stories of journeys to heaven may or may not be true, but we have a guide who is himself the Truth.

My grandmother died a few weeks after that night I panicked. One minute she was in her bed, drawing difficult breaths, and the next minute she was somewhere that I have never been. But I know she was welcomed by her older brother and mine. At her funeral, I sang with peace, joy, and expectation these words:

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!

Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!

Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!

Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

My Brother Zach

I remember as if it were yesterday the first time I heard the gospel preached. Four years ago this month I was invited to a Bible study for football players at my university.

I had never attended a Bible study, so you can imagine my unease and anxiety when I arrived. But when I walked into the room I was shocked to see it filled with young, African American men who you wouldn't think would ever be sitting in the pews of your local church.

Hafeez (right) with Zach (center) and his wife, Brynn.
Hafeez (right) with Zach (center) and his wife, Brynn.

Then when I met the leader of the Bible study I went from being amazed to perplexed. He introduced himself to me as Zach Marcum, a short white guy from rural Kentucky. Zach isn't one of those guys who tries to act like he was from the "hood" in order to fit in; he is 100 percent suburban white. Neither is he one of those guys who keeps on talking about his favorite African American movies or rappers in order to prove that he understands "my people." Zach is simply an honest, genuine guy who shows everyone genuine Christ-like love and affection that isn't based upon reaching some ethnic conversion quota.

God has used Zach to lead not only me to Jesus, but also dozens of other African American men on campus throughout the years. How does he do it? What is his magic formula?

There isn't one. He is simply a man with a genuine love for people who are different from him. And he has decided to move outside his comfort zone and obey God's call to make disciples of all nations.

End of Tension

We often hear about ongoing racial tension. Did you know that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week because of homogenous church services? Did you know that many church leaders of the past owned slaves and supported their beliefs with the Bible? Did you know that many evangelical seminaries did not allow minority students until the latter half of the 20th century? These questions and many more remind us of the challenges.

But as we ask these questions we must also seek answers to the problems. How? By looking at the early church we're inspired as we see the beautiful message of the gospel spreading to people of all nations and places (Acts 2:1-41). We see new believers from Ethiopia (Acts 2:24-29), Egypt (Acts 18:24-27), Corinth (Acts 18:1-4), and Rome (Acts 28:23). Remarkably, they were all led to Christ by Jewish men and women who were ethnically different from them. The Holy Spirit tore down the dividing wall of hostility in order to show that "in Christ we are all children of God, through faith" (Gal. 3:26).

The early church knew that Jesus made it possible for all people—regardless of race, creed, or nation—to join the trans-cultural family of God. These Christians didn't view people of other ethnicities as projects, and they didn't view them as "those people" they were guilted into helping. They saw these men and women from around the world as created in the image and likeness of God, as purchased by the blood of the Lamb. Still today such Spirit-empowered Christians share this heartbeat. Captivated by a beautiful vision of the diverse family of God, such believers trust God to end the ongoing racial tensions in our country.

Heavenly Destiny

The day Zach got married, I still remember crying as I sat in the church. At that moment I reflected on our love for one another, a bond stronger than blood brothers. The world says we could never be friends. But my friendship with Zach offers a glimpse into what relationships are going to be like in heaven. Before the throne of God we'll enjoy love between people of all races and places as together we worship Christ (Rev. 7:9-10).

We serve a God who is big enough to bring together for his glory people who have been segregated for years. We will never experience this family perfectly until eternity. But we can still catch peeks of our destiny today.

We Don't Have to Read the Book or See the Movie to Know Heaven Is Real

"Have you read Heaven Is for Real?" I've been asked this question more times than I can count. So let me just tell you—no, I haven't. I was actually asked by the publisher to read the manuscript to offer an endorsement before the book came out, but I declined. And clearly the lack of an endorsement from me has not hindered sales.

HeavenisforrealtheaterposterI've been hoping that the hoopla surrounding this book and so many of the other "died and went to heaven and came back" books would end. And then I went to the theater over the holidays and saw previews for the upcoming movie based on Heaven Is for Real. So before you ask if I am going to see the movie, let me just tell you—no, I'm not.

Do These Books Encourage Genuine Faith?

People sometimes say these stories encouraged their faith or the faith of someone they know. But I think they actually diminish biblical faith by elevating claims of a supernatural experience over the substance of the Scriptures. Most of these claims of seeing into heaven focus on earthbound concerns and stunted human desires that lack what the Bible describes as the heart of heaven—the glory of God, the Lamb who was slain, on the throne of the universe. In embracing these stories we're saying the Bible is simply not enough, that someone's mystical experience is needed to verify or "make real" what God has said. But saving faith is putting all our hopes in who God is and what God has said as revealed in the Bible. It is being confident of what we can't see (John 20:29; Hebrews 11:1), not being convinced by something someone else supposedly saw.

Interestingly, Jesus himself spoke of the uselessness of such testimony for generating genuine faith. Jesus told a story about a rich man in the place of the dead who calls out to "Father Abraham" to go and warn his brothers so they will not end up in the place of torment (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man wants someone who has died and gone to heaven to come back to life and tell about his experience so that his family members will believe what the Scriptures teach about the consequences of failing to become united to Christ by faith.

In Jesus' story Father Abraham says, "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, (meaning, if they won't believe what the Bible says) they won't listen even if someone rises from the dead." Jesus is saying that everything we need to put our faith in the promises of God, everything we need to find comfort and hope regarding the life beyond this life, can be found in the Scriptures.

Testimonies You Can Trust

There are only five testimonies of seeing into the realities of heaven that we are obligated to believe. These testimonies clearly develop rather than diminish biblical faith. There is Isaiah, who saw the Lord high and lifted up, seated on a throne (Isaiah 6); Ezekiel, who was given a vision of the future new heavens and new earth that he describes as garden-like city in the shape of a temple called The Lord Is There (Ezekiel 40-48); Stephen, who, before he was stoned by the people of Jerusalem "gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God and said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God'" (Acts 7:55-56); John, who saw the risen and glorified Jesus seated on the throne of the universe being worshiped by all the people of the earth, all the creatures of the earth, and all the angels of heaven (Revelation 1, 4); and the apostle Paul, who was caught up into the third heaven and "heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (2 Cor. 12:1-7). Isn't it interesting that Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, did not include details about what he saw in his personal guided tour of heaven and said, in fact, that it should not be talked about?

None of these witnesses claims to have died and come back to life. None of these testimonies focuses on meetings with other people who have died. These witnesses are clearly captivated by God alone. We read that they fell on their faces as their eyes beheld the glory of God radiating from his being.

Of course, the Bible does tell us about some people who died and came back to life. Yet it doesn't see fit to record their testimony about the experience. Evidently it just isn't worthy of being presented to us as a foundation for faith. If it were, wouldn't there be a book of Lazarus in which he gives us a run-down on those four days in the grave before Jesus called him back to life (John 11)? Matthew tells us that when Jesus died, "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" (Matt. 27:52). Amazingly that's all we're told. If the testimonies of those who have died and gone to heaven and come back to life provided something of value to help us to put our faith in the promises of God, wouldn't the Gospels contain their testimonies?

How We Really Know Heaven Is Real

The question really isn't about whether or not a 4-year-old's description of heaven lines up with what the Scriptures teach. The question is whether or not we really believe that God in his Word "has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3). Admittedly the Bible does not provide as much detail about what awaits us beyond this life as some of us might like. It does tell us four significant things:

1. We will be with Christ (Luke 23:42-43Phil 1:21-23).

2. It will be far better than life on this earth (Phil 1:21-23).

3. We will be away from the body (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

4. Our spirits will be made perfect—completely cleansed of sin (Hebrews 12:22-23).

Since we know that to be at home with the Lord is to be away from the body, when one of these books describes physical bodies in heaven that are healed and whole, we know instantly that it is not a genuine account of the current realities of heaven. One day the physical bodies of those who are united to Christ will be healed and whole like the body of the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22-23; 1 John 3:2). But that will not be until the day Christ returns and makes all things new. Right now "we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20-21).

Until then, we do not need the testimony of an impressionable 4-year-old boy, a neurosurgeon, spine surgeon, sports writer, or even a pastor to know that heaven is real. We have everything we need in the Bible. Its testimony is enough to generate genuine faith in Christ, as well as a greater longing for unending life in his presence.

Remember the Future

I remember when Christian discussions used to revolve around heaven. There was an expectation of finally seeing our Lord, a longing for the fulfillment and consummation of all things, and a hope of assurance that would well up inside when thinking about our coming glorification. It was almost impossible to fathom that one day we'd receive an everlasting and inexhaustible joy. As a young believer, heaven didn't create a barrage of speculation so much as greater affection for Jesus, whom I'd one day get to see face to face.

And then, like a thief in the night, it seemed to vanish.

Stricken with rapturemania in the 1970s and 1980s, the evangelical landscape seemed to be ruled by end-of-the-world worship songs, apocalyptic sermons, and shoddily produced movies warning believers of the coming judgment. Many churchgoers I knew seemed to be operating with low-level anxiety at best, while others were digging out bunkers in their basements and distributing hastily written underground conspiracy fanzines. Even the slightest mention of "heaven" was swiftly trampled by discussions about world leaders, war in the Middle East, numbers on foreheads, and guillotines that possibly had my name written on them—depending on whether I was "pre-," "mid-," or "post-," of course.

Long Time Ago

Though it feels like a long time ago now, this time still shapes how many of us view eternity with Jesus. I've recently realized just how much my heart longs to remember the future we've been promised through him. A hope that doesn't need to disintegrate under any number of idle end-time debates that put more emphasis on man's speculation than Christ's salvation.

Once again, the gospel brings perspective and balance by pointing us back to where our hope and our home truly lie:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil. 3:20-21)

Notice that Paul doesn't focus so much on our future location as the One responsible for our present salvation and the future transformation of our mortal, earthly bodies. The power isn't in heaven, but in him, who is in heaven.

Have No Fear

Christians, we need not live under the fear of an unwritten future. The One who established our origins is the One who will establish the end of all things. And through it all, he continues to equip his children to endure to the end.

When will the end be? I have no suggestions, but I do know the greatest hope is built on what's unseen, not on what's visible (Rom. 8:24-25; Heb. 11:1, 6). It's a hope grounded in what Jesus has done in the past, what he is doing in the present, and what he will accomplish in the future.

We often forget, don't we? We forget that at one time our hearts were filled with the bright hope of Christ returning in glory to his good and faithful servants. Indeed, the sheer wonder of this reunion will cause all fears to subside, all pain to vanish, and all tears to dry as our King's face becomes visible to all who have longed for his appearing. In the meantime, may we encourage one another daily to remember that future—and to let it galvanize and propel us in the present.

Come, Lord Jesus.

When Faith Causes You to Doubt

I believe in a God whose love is so great that he is love. I also believe in a God who is so powerful that he is all-powerful. But sometimes my belief in such a God causes me to struggle.

When I see sad and desperate situations, compassion compels me to pray and to help. This is where I am sometimes confused by faith. Some struggle because they doubt; I sometimes struggle because I believe.

My faith does not waver: God can do something to help those who suffer. But when I cannot do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering, and neither do my prayers alleviate their suffering, I struggle to understand why God does not seem to answer the cries of my heart for those in need.

Worn Out from Calling on God

I realize that I am not the first to be conflicted over faith and suffering. I resonate with the psalmist who asked, "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?" (Psalm 13:1-2)

Things were so intense for the psalmist that he said, "I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. . . . Answer me, O LORD, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble. Come near and rescue me" (Psalm 69:3, 16-18).

Many before me have struggled with an apparent uneven distribution of pain and suffering. Or with that age-old question of why righteous people suffer and the wicked appear to enjoy health and prosperity.

But on a much deeper level, I hold strong reservations about anyone being righteous enough to claim a good life from God. I believe in the verdict "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). I believe the "wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Death is such a horrible word and an even more horrible experience. But it is the just verdict pronounced over sinners like me. We are slowly experiencing it every day of our lives.

No Easy Answers

There is a sad back-story to our suffering and a glorious end-story for those whom God loves. Yes, pain in this life can be hard to reconcile with God's love and power. The agonizing question I face is why God chooses to allow pain and suffering when I am praying so much for its relief. Why doesn't he answer my prayers for those who suffer? I cannot endure superficial answers to this real-life question.

Skeptics offer answers ranging from atheism to deism. But these alternatives only lead to deeper levels of despair. They also force a degree of thoughtless dishonesty I cannot permit. If I must choose between "no God" or "a God who means well but either cannot or will not do much to help" I am left with even more perplexing questions on far more levels than human suffering.

I also know other weighty questions deserve reflection.

1. Why does God choose to love and to forgive rebellious creatures at all?

2. The back-story of human sin explains the source of suffering better than any other explanation (and there are not many on offer). So why would I think we deserve to have it better?

3. Why do I feel God should intervene? And what would intervention look like on a world scale?

4. If I want God's love and power to converge to rescue us from our misery, isn't this exactly what happened when he entered our world of suffering in the person of Christ and suffered for us (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)?

5. Finally, why does God provide such a glorious end-story for forgiven sinners?

I admit that I have become accustomed to---and even impatient for---solutions to pain and suffering. Advancements in science and medicine have strengthened my expectations. Is it possible that I am conditioned to hold unrealistic expectation for health and gregariousness? Do I have a place for sadness and suffering in normal life?

Suffering and Sustaining Grace

These are not theoretical questions. When my father came down with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis in his mid-30s, I learned to carry a prayerful burden for a suffering loved one. It profoundly shaped my life and, gratefully, did not lead to bitterness. I learned so much about God's sustaining grace and his redeeming power to bring good out of pain and suffering. I continued to learn when I entered pastoral ministry and began caring for many others.

These Scriptures carry me in times of struggle:

  • 2 Corinthians 1:3-11; 4:16-18; 12:1-10
  • James 1:2-9
  • Psalm 62:8
  • Proverbs 3:5-6

I will continue to pray and trust that suffering has a purpose even when I cannot see it. I will pray with one eye on the back-story and by faith with hope-filled longing for the glorious end-story for forgiven sinners like me (Colossians 3:1-4). I groan inwardly as I wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).

When God's loved ones enter the place he has prepared for them, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:1-6; John 14:1-3). I long more and more for this day, for this place.

I'm now a "permanent resident." (Or am I?)

WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

This is to notify you that your application for permanent residence has been approved. It is with great pleasure that we welcome you to permanent resident status in the United States.

That's what I read in the the first letter I opened on my return from Scotland on Saturday. Three years after arriving here with my family we have been granted our "green cards," moving us from "resident alien" to "permanent resident" status.

There is a tremendous psychological boost from such news. It gives me and my family a sense of security and stability. We can plan our future with a bit more certainty. We can begin to orient our hearts and minds to really making our home here and eventually applying for citizenship in five years time. We are also encouraged to see the providential hand of God in the immaculate timing of this notice - just a few hours after the sadness of leaving aging loved ones in Scotland, and but one month before our present visas expire.

However, later on Saturday I was reminded by Hebrews 11 that really there is no "permanent resident" status in this world. You would have thought that when Abram reached the Land of Promise he would have felt "at home." But he didn't. He still felt as if he was in a "foreign" or "strange" country (v. 9). He had no sense of belonging or permanence, a feeling underlined by his family dwelling in tents (v. 9). This was not some natural home-sickness for Ur. Rather, it was a spiritual "heaven-sickness," a godly longing for his eternal resident status.

If you had asked Abram how he felt having arrived in the Promised Land, he would have said, "I feel like an alien, a pilgrim, an exile" (v. 13). "But, Abram, you've got everything God promised. Your can put down roots here. You can build for the long-term." "No, no," Abram would have replied, "I know I'm living in the best place in the world. But I'm looking far beyond this world. I'm on a life-long journey to a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. I desire an even better country than this, a heavenly country" (v. 10, 16).

Abram's new-found permanence actually deepened his sense of temporariness and transitoriness. His new home made him long for his eternal home.

That's what I want too.

"The Happiness of Heaven"

This book is one year too late. Twelve months ago, I was about to start teaching Eschatology here at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and discovered there was a dearth of books about heaven, especially written from a Reformed perspective. There were lots of books about the millennium, but precious few about heaven. Hardly reflects biblical proportions, does it?

If you had asked me then, “Which Reformed theologian or pastor would you choose to write a book about heaven?” Maurice Roberts would have been in my top three. As a young Christian, I was privileged to live relatively close to Pastor Roberts, and regularly profited from his preaching. However, what I remember most were the fellowships I attended in Pastor Roberts’s manse, first in Ayr and later in Inverness. Pastor Roberts has the wonderful ability to stimulate and lead Christians in discussing theology and its relation to Christian experience. Two subjects were always central in these discussions: the person and work of Christ, and the believer’s happiness in heaven.  Many of us experienced unforgettable foretastes of heavenly glory during these memorable evenings.

The Happiness of Heaven comes from the pen of one who has often visited heaven by faith. Pastor Roberts writes of heaven, not as someone who has simply cut-and-pasted from the books and sermons of others, but from hours of personal reflection on Scripture, many years of deep Christian experience, and years of ministering these precious truths to his congregations in Ayr, Inverness, and to Christians throughout the world.

I would not ask Pastor Roberts to analyze contemporary politics, or popular culture or any other transient things of this world. But, if I had a questions about heaven – where it is, how to get there, what it is like, who is there – then I can think of few more knowledgeable or reliable than this heavenly-minded man. In this book, Pastor Roberts gives bible-soaked answers to often-troubling questions such as: “What about children dying in infancy?” “Will we recognize one another in heaven?” “Do people in heaven know what is happening on earth?” “How can heaven be heaven without my loved ones?” Will we remember our sins in heaven?”

Pastor Roberts writes on such profound subjects in a clear, succinct, and simple style. This book is biblical, not speculative; practical, not philosophical; pastoral, not academic; evangelistic, not presumptive; searching, but also comforting. Throughout the book he challenges preachers to fill their pulpits again with the primary things, the ultimate things, the real things, the eternal things.

This book will produce much spiritual fruit in its readers. It will provide pastors with many sermon-provoking ideas. It offers mature Christians new light on old texts. It inspires aging Christians to long more for heaven, and busy Christians to slow down and find time to meditate on these heavenly themes. Young Christians will find their basic questions answered. Worldly Christians will be convicted of their earthly-mindedness and stimulated to live a more heavenly life on earth. Suffering Christians will be assured “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). Theologians will find challenging material to “chew” upon. Unbelievers will be faced with their unfitness for heaven and be directed to the Savior, who alone can fit them for the heavenly mansions.

Randy Alcorn says Reformed theologians have somewhat neglected heaven in their writing. In his own book on heaven, Alcorn notes that Calvin commended meditation on heaven but wrote little about it. William Shedd’s three-volume Dogmatic Theology has eighty-seven pages on hell but only two on heaven. Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology devotes only one page out of 737 to the eternal state of heaven. Pastor Roberts greatly assists the church by righting this theological imbalance with his book.

I have never read any of Pastor Roberts’s books without looking heavenwards with greater longing and desire. This book will quicken your spiritual pulse, put this fading world in perspective, and unite you with Jonathan Edwards in determining to be “Resolved to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can.”

The Happiness of Heaven by Maurice J. Roberts. $7.50 from Reformation Heritage Books.