by Ethan Magness
I’ve recently developed an eagerness to go to Heaven. To my great surprise, I have begun to live actively hoping for my future in God’s kingdom.
To clarify, it isn’t that I ever wanted to avoid Heaven. I wanted to go to Heaven someday, but I just wasn’t excited about it. I certainly didn’t want to go to Hell, and since the alternative was Heaven, I was glad to know where I going.
I had some vague religious notion I ought to look forward to Heaven, but I wasn’t worried about my disinterest—in fact, I wasn’t sure it made a difference. I figured I would like it once I got there, so I didn’t think it mattered whether I was excited about Heaven now.
I knew other people would be excited about Heaven, and that made sense to me. Those suffering in this life seemed likely to long for a life without suffering. Those who grieved the loss of a loved one seemed likely to long for reunion with God (and maybe even that loved one) that is beyond grief and loss. I usually imagined that if my health failed, it would be the catalyst that finally gave me a longing for Heaven, because I would be ready for my new body as my old body gave out.
In short, I never expected to be eager for the next life until the present life had become distasteful.
But none of that has happened. In fact, my taste for the present life has been growing. I have a great job at a great church. My immediate and extended family is a source of joy and blessing in my life. I have a wood stove and three cords of neatly stacked wood. I’m called to a ministry that challenges and inspires me. These are the precise conditions I assumed would prevent me from ever having any interest in Heaven.
BETTER THAN NICE
Nevertheless, it was not an adverse life event or a distaste for life that led me to this new development; it was, of all things, Bible study.
It turns out that despite years of Sunday school, sermons, and VBS—despite a Christian home and a seminary degree—I had believed all sorts of nonsense about Heaven and the future of God’s people. I had seen so many fanciful paintings and strange movies about Heaven that those silly thoughts had become mine.
I was convinced Heaven would be nice. It would be peaceful and calm, free from suffering and pain, but ultimately boring and meaningless. I couldn’t imagine an eternal, unchanging existence as anything but interminable. I knew that God knew better. I knew God would not plan an eternity that would not be for my best. I could sing “Heaven is a wonderful place” and know it and believe it.
But this knowledge had not impacted my heart or subconscious. Embarrassingly enough, pop culture had a bigger impact on my potential desire for Heaven than my trust in God’s innate goodness.
The first glimmer of change began as I prepared a study on Revelation for my youth group. I was struck by how the story ended. The faithful are not shuttled off to the clouds and given harps. Instead, God comes down and establishes a new kingdom on a new earth. Eternal life doesn’t happen in Heaven, it happens on a restored earth. In a new earth, I wondered, how great would the waterfalls be? The scenery, the beaches, the wind, and the sky?
Those questions sat untended in the back of my mind, but the seeds of my discontent were growing. Finally that discontent grew into an active desire to debunk some of the nonsense taught about Heaven. I couldn’t say much about Heaven, but I could at least tell people they didn’t need to practice the harp. I could assure people we were not going to be floating in the clouds like spirits. Mostly, I could tell them what I told myself, “Heaven may not sound like any fun, but God says it will be all right, and we can trust God.” In short, I was on a mission to replace the foolishness of popular ideas about Heaven with the shallowness of my own ideas about Heaven.
Fortunately I had a simple strategy for this task. I set out to study what Scripture taught about God’s ultimate plan for his people. I remembered what I had read in Revelation and I knew that what Scripture taught would not match up to popular ideas about Heaven. What I did not realize is that my own shallow, disinterested approach would be shattered as well.
FROM BOREDOM TO HOPE
The eternal life that awaits God’s people actually appeals to me. In part, of course, this is because I trust God with my future, but mostly it is because God has told us quite a bit about his ultimate plans for his people, and this doesn’t involve harps or clouds or eons of meaningless boredom.
There is so much good news about Heaven, starting with the fact that Revelation 21 tells us we will live on a restored earth under the reign of a present heavenly Lord. Paul tells us we will have renewed bodies. In dozens of places we are told we will be fully with God and Jesus Christ. Jesus says he has personally prepared a place for us.
There are too many texts to examine and celebrate, so I will simply share the one that finally pushed me over the edge from boredom to hope.
Consider Isaiah 65:17-25. This is a great song about God’s final restoration plan. I remembered only the end: “‘The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord” (v. 25). That is good news, of course. In our world of so much heartache and death, it is very good news. But to be honest, it mostly sounds like a nice place for a vacation. It makes me hopeful, but it does not fill me with hope. It is the rest of the song that really sings.
The song starts with a bold proclamation that God will create a new Heaven and earth and it will be great (vv. 17, 18). Isaiah proclaims that God will rejoice and delight in his people (v. 19). That is something I want. I desperately want to please God. It still makes me smile to think that some day this will happen. When all things are made new, that will include me and I will fully live a life that is wholly pleasing to God. In verse 24 we learn that our relationship with God will be so close that God will hear before we call. But above all this, I am most encouraged by verses 21-23:
They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.
REACHING ITS POTENTIAL
God’s ultimate plan for my life is apparently not meaningless porch-sitting. There is work to be done. The years of our eternity will apparently be the most productive and meaningful of our existence. Instead of the frustration of earthly work that often fails to live up to its potential, we will build houses and live in them and we will enjoy the fruit of our labors.
That is a vision that excites me. That is a future that gives me hope and energy for today. Now I understand how Paul can say, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” When I live my present life working for God’s kingdom, I am now imperfectly doing what I will one day do perfectly.
Finally, my new hope for Heaven empowers my witness. I always felt able to offer people freedom from death. But now I realize that, in Christ, I can offer a life of meaning now and eternally. As long as God has work for me to do, I am in no rush to leave this life, but I live this life with a new hope and anticipation for the life God has prepared for me.
Ethan Magness is pastor of spiritual formation with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.