Heaven is a Wonderful Place
Christians have read about, sang about, and prayed about heaven for nearly two thousand years! Before Christians, the Jews also expended a great deal of mental energy reflecting on the nature of heaven. This is as it should be. It would surprise many an evangelical today that many common conceptions of heaven are quite new and different from historical Christianity. Many of these common ideas are rooted in Enlightenment separation of the spiritual and physical and a Greek Platonism rather than biblical theology.
Perhaps my experience was common enough to be typical. But perhaps not. While I was growing up in church, and on into my adult years, my mental picture of heaven was something less than appealing to me. I grew up with the idea that heaven was going to be super "spiritual." By "spiritual," as I then conceived it, I meant immaterial. Heaven was where our "souls"(but not our body!?) went to. I imagined ghostly wisps of air floating around the universe. In my thinking then heaven was more of a state than a place. Apparently I was not alone in these thoughts because one of the first questions to arise when we did talk of heaven was "Will we know each other in heaven?" There are lots of hidden assumptions in that rather "innocent" question.
However, I now have a radically different conception of the nature of heaven. Now I understand that the doctrine of creation, the kingdom of God, and redemption are all related to a biblical doctrine of heaven as well.
Heaven is not somewhere "out there beyond the blue." Heaven will be the new heavens and the new earth. Scripture plainly teaches that God will -- at the end of this age -- renew this present world. This is clearly the thought of such passages as Isaiah 65.17-15, Isaiah 66.22ff and others in the Hebrew Bible. But this thought is not limited to the First Testament but brought into the New through Paul and Peter, both of whom speak of the new creation. One of the most important texts, theologically speaking, on this point is Romans 8.19ff. Here Paul affirms that creation itself (ktisis) groans and waits for the day of redemption.
Peter, in his short epistle we call 2 Peter, describes the day of the Lord in chapter 3. Yes, this world will be destroyed. But we must not assume the word "destroyed" means nonexistence. Peter compares the final destruction by sea of fire to destruction brought by a sea of water in Noah's flood (3.5ff). The world did not cease to exist in Noah's day . . . but it was "destroyed" (Peter uses the same Greek word in both v. 6 and v.10). Peter in verse 10, after saying the world would be destroyed by fire, says the earth will be "laid bare." Much as it was laid bare after Noah's flood. So, as Mark Black writes in his commentary on 2 Peter, Peter is talking about the purification of the world by a sea of fire. That purification ushers in the "new heavens and new earth" (3.13).
This renewed and purified earth is going to be our eternal heaven. God's kingdom will be here for eternity when the New Jerusalem comes down to earth (cf. Rev. 21.1-4). Heaven is the goal of God's creation. There will be beauty in the plants, the flowers and . . . yes . . . even the animals. Most of all, we will fellowship with our Father around his table. Indeed there is great biblical teaching in that children's song: "heaven is a wonderful place filled with glory and grace - I'm going to see my Savior's face - Heaven is a wonderful place."
Bobby Valentine, i.e. Stoned-Campbell Disciple
Those interested in exploring this understanding of heaven further should consult my recent book, with John Mark Hicks, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Leafwood 2006) which is easily obtained through Amazon.Com. The biblical and historical roots of this doctrine in the Stone-Campbell movement are explored in detail in ch. 11.