My thoughts for this study started out with the question, “How many heavens are there?” but it soon diverged quite widely (and wildly) into the matter of what heaven will like for us and if we will be rewarded for the work we do while here on earth.
We probably all like stories of heaven and there are innumerable books and movies about it. Two more receant and popular books have pursued the theme: 1) Heaven is for real: A little boy’s astounding story of his trip to heaven and back (HIFAR Ministries, 2010) and 2) The boy who came back from heaven: A remarkable account of miracles, angels, and life beyond this world (Tyndale, 2010). Books like this sell, but both books turn out to be false and we should not be surprised. Heaven is not transparent until we are resurrected and in God’s presence.
For example, although Paul mentions three heavens, he doesn’t tell us much about them. He doesn’t know for sure if he was having a dream or actually space-travelled to the 3rd heaven. Here is what he said:
1I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—4was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 Corinthians 12.1-4)
Paul speaks about this man in the third person out of humility, but it is clearly himself who had this vision or revelation. It took him fourteen years to tell anyone about it although he must have thought about it many times. Why did he wait so long and why tell the Corinthians, of all people?
Fourteen years before this vision would be about A.D. 41-43 and this would have been during his second visit to Jerusalem (Acts 22.17). He had a “trance” at that time, in which he heard the Lord command him to leave Jerusalem and go to the Gentiles. From the very beginning of Paul’s ministry it wasn’t unusual for God to speak to him in a special way and it was apparently at this time that he saw the vision of the 3rd heaven and paradise.
What were the “inexpressible things” that he could not reveal and why couldn’t he give us just a hint as to what that heaven contained? Apparently, they were so unusual that no one would have believed him.
We think that Paul must have gone to the third heaven in a spiritual “body” or sense. If he had gone physically, his absence would have been noticed by others. Paul was always with people and had close associates, for example, Peter, Barnabas, Timothy and Titus, so it is unlikely that he was absent physically.
But Paul is even more mysterious about his experience. He relates it to being in “Paradise.” So is Paradise the 3rd heaven or a different layer of heaven? We remember that Jesus said to the believing thief on the cross “today you shall be with me in Paradise,” indicating either that it was a quick journey for Jesus, or that “today” did not refer to the present time.
We know from Acts 16-11 that after the resurrection Jesus was taken up into heaven and the apostles saw it happen. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4.10 that “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” It is clear that Paul is telling us something higher than the heavens exists, mainly the realm of God that covers “the whole universe.”
There is lots of speculation: I read about a commentator who thought that the three heavens were the air, the stars, and everything beyond the stars. He did not have telescopes or space travel to prove otherwise.
The most prolific and often obscure visions of heaven are by the old man St. John, in Revelation, the prophetic and highly metaphorical last book of the New Testament. John, who was exiled to the Island of Patmos (a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea), saw all kinds of weird things that were revealed to him through an angel. John believed “the time is near when all these things will happen” (Rev. 1.3).
When John had his vision there were still active churches around the Mediterranean, seven of them received a specific message. Today, they churches have all but disappeared and most of the area is now firmly in Muslim control.
For Christians destined for heaven, the way we get there is sometimes confusing. John tells us that Jesus is coming in the clouds and all the peoples of the earth will see him (Rev. 1.7). Paul also said this, reminding his churches that there will be the sound of God’s trumpet, the command of the archangel and Jesus will come down from heaven in a cloud. Those who died believing in Christ will rise first, then those who are left (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18).
Paul also ties God’s judgment to the coming of Christ: Jesus will appear with his angels to punish those who reject him and they will be separated from the believers (2 Thessalonians 1.7-10).
The exact sequence of these events seems at times conflicting: Are there still buried believers, those who have not gone to heaven, their souls “asleep” (as the Seventh Day Adventists believe)? Or is the soul of everyone immediately taken to heaven or hell, or someplace else to await judgment?
Matthew 22.31-32 makes it clear that the prophets (and by extension saints) who have died are alive: “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
On the Mount of Transfiguration, which we read about in Matthew 17, Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah, who had “died” but were now alive: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” Dead men don’t talk and their souls are not asleep!
But, are we made for heaven? C. S. Lewis (1949:3-4) asserts that if this is so, “The desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival to that object.” And further, “The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself” (p. 6).
Lewis reduces the promises of Scripture to: 1) we shall be with Christ; 2) we shall be like him; 3) we shall have “glory” (to be loved by God is our “weight of glory”): 4) we shall be feasted or entertained; and 5) we shall have some sort of official position, like “ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’s temple” (1949:7).
The story in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus is instructive. The rich man, who has refused sympathy and even scraps of food for the beggar Lazarus, dies and goes to hell. He is able to see Abraham, far away, in Paradise with Lazarus is at this side. The rich man talks to Abraham and asks for pity, but Abraham reminds the man that he had it good on earth and Lazarus didn’t. The roles are now reversed and the rich man wants the beggar Lazarus to just “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in the fire” (v. 24).
Let us, for the moment, interpret the story literally: we see that both men are judged immediately by their actions on earth and go directly to their places of torment or rest. These are not immaterial opaque souls talking—in the case of the rich man, he has a body and he can feel pain. He is being punished for the way he lived and acted on earth.
There is no bridge from Hades to heaven, a great “chasm” is in place so that the inhabitants of Hades cannot visit heaven (Abraham’s location) and neither can those in heaven reach out and help those in hell. This doesn’t seem farfetched, although most commentators interpret it metaphorically. However, there is a lot of theology begging for explanation in the story.
C.S. Lewis (1949:39) summarizes the resurrection like this: “There will come a time when every culture, every institution, every nation, the human race, all biological life, is extinct, and every one of us is still alive. Immorality is promised to us, not to these generalities. It is not for societies of states that Christ died, but for men…. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected.”
Some commentators see the rich man “praying” to Abraham, although he is obviously begging for help in his torment. The IVP commentary sees the nameless rich man as the representation and danger of wealth and could therefore be anyone. Lazarus represents the poor and crippled, the underprivileged. His sores make him unclean and he has to scrounge for food. But in the story he has nothing to say because he is at Abraham’s side and Abraham speaks for him.
It seems clear to me that if a poor beggar like Lazarus gets to sit by a great prophet such as Abraham, we will have some wonderful surprises in store when we get to heaven.
What will we be like? There are two variations of this in the Gospels, but in both cases we will be “like the angels in heaven.” Both Matthew and Mark note that at the resurrection (“when the dead rise” Mark 12.25) people will not be married, nor will they marry. Luke takes it a step further and says what should be obvious (20.36): “and they can no longer die.”
We also note that when Christians get to heaven, there will be rewards for the righteous, but none for the hypocrites, who “have received their reward in full” Matthew 6.1-2. We are not told exactly what the rewards will be, but they are directly attributable to the acts of righteousness (the labor or work) that we have done in His name. “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” Revelation 22.12.
The main aspect of our reward is “an inheritance,” being proclaimed co-heirs with Christ in his kingdom. It seems that in our relationship with him we share in his glory (Romans 8.17). We are heirs of all things, but especially “the gracious gift of life” (1 Peter 3.7).
“The gift of life” doesn’t seem very tangible, so what about crowns? We read in James 1.12 that the person who perseveres under trial will “receive the crown of life.” This seems much like the inheritance of eternal life and, again, not very physical. When it is physical, like the crown of thorns put on Jesus, it was to mock him, not honor him like a crown should. Similar to the “inheritance of righteousness,” Paul anticipated the “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4.8), which he promised to “all who have longed for his appearing.” In Revelation the crown is of gold (4.4) and indicates one who has been victorious.
On a practical level, God has also awarded us talents to use. Two Gospels (Matthew 25.14-30 and Luke 19.12-27) have parables that tell us about the distribution and purpose of them. The story was a message by Jesus to the people of Israel, who will live in the last days before the Lord returns. Those that endure to the end will be saved from the impending judgment.
A talent was a piece of silver that contained 3,000 shekels and a talent of gold was double the weight of a silver talent. In New Testament times the talent and denarius were used as currency. One talent was equal to 6,000 denarius, which would take a worker 16 years to earn. Entrusting a person with talents was with the goal that it would realize additional talents. The parables about talents show the graciousness of God by providing them and his expectation that a talen will be multiplied in value when it is used properly. The basis for the reward is on the basis of how it is used, grounded on the resources God has given us. If it is wealth, he expects us to use it for his glory and the benefit of others.
The issue does, it seems to me, lead to the question of whether there will be different rewards in heaven—degrees of reward. We are all saved equally by the grace of God, but salvation is not the same as reward. We read in Matthew 16.27 that God, with his angels, will “recompense every man according to his deeds.” Other parables and passages in the Bible indicate the same thing. For example Matthew 25.21-23 is the story of servants who were faithful of a few things and the master subsequently put them in charge of many things. Is this a example of what it might also be like in heaven?
Rewards will be given for apparently insignificant actions: welcoming a prophet or righteous person (even a missionary?), providing a cup of cold water, visiting someone in prison, providing shelter and clothes—all of these, if done in the name of Christ, will receive a reward. We don’t know what the reward will be—exactly—but we get a hint by knowing that when we leave our mother, father or other relatives, we will get others who take their place.
We have experienced that in our own lives. We never realized that an Australian couple—Tom and Elsie Hibberd—would become our surrogate parents. We left our real parents in America and were not able to even attend their funerals. God provided others to take their places in our lives. We are often unaware of the gifts and rewards that God is providing for us until we contemplate them. God does not owe his children anything for their fine efforts—the rewards are a gift.
The ultimate reward, however, is that we please God and, without faith “it is imposable to please God” (Hebrews 11.6). Those who did, in faith, obey God often lived as foreigners and strangers here on earth. They were looking for another (better) country and that was heaven. They were tested, but through faith they quenched flames, escaped death, put up with chains and imprisonment. Although many were also killed, God had planned something better for them—they would be made perfect in heaven (Hebrews 11.40).
C.S. Lewis wrote often of his feeling of “longing,” summarized by Glaspey (1996:70) as “the sense of the numinous, of a reality that lay beyond the material realm we can experience with our senses.” According to Lewis, at present we are on the wrong side of the door, trying to get in, but someday, God willing, we shall get in and our souls “will put on its glory, or rather the greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch” (1949:13).
Alcorn, Randy. 2004. Heaven. Tyndale House Publishers.
Glaspey, Terry W. 1996. The spiritual legacy of C.S. Lewis. Nashville TN: Cumberland House Publishing.
Graham, Billy. 2012. The heaven answer book. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Hooper, Walter, ed. 1984. The business of heaven: Daily readings from C.S. Lewis. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers.
Lewis, C.S. 1949. The weight of glory. New York: Macmillan.
Neal, Mary C. 2011 To heaven and back: A doctor’s extraordinary account of her death, heaven, angels, and life again: A true story. Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook Press.
 Some books about heaven do stick more strictly to the Bible for their information, so they are worth reading. For example, Randy Alcorn and Billy Graham have written popular books about heaven. There are also accounts about heaven by “authorities” that seem true, but have no real proof, such as by Neal (2001). Hooper (ed. 1984) put together daily readings by C.S. Lewis and a number of them deal with heaven.