You May Be Going to Heaven, But You Won’t Be Staying There

Many Christians are hoping to make heaven their home — even though the Bible does not support that hope. Here’s why.

From John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress to Rick Warren’s more recent bestseller The Purpose Driven Life, Christians have long been taught that the point of life is to get us to heaven. Old hymns sing of the Sweet By-and-By and contemporary Christian music “can only imagine” a worshipful paradise. The common narrative of most Christian funeral services repeats it: Let’s rejoice that today Aunt Martha is in heaven with Jesus!

Lately, heaven has even gained eyewitnesses in There-and-Back-Again travelogues, like Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real, an account of his young son Colton’s experience of heaven during emergency surgery.

As a Bible publisher, I’m keenly aware that in this version of the Christian journey, the Bible becomes the B.I.B.L.E.: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. If escaping the broken Earth for glorious heaven is our destiny, then the Bible is mostly an owner’s manual for the temporary life we know before getting to the real thing when we die.

But this is not the original Christian hope, nor the way the Bible tells our story.

As New Testament historian N. T. Wright puts it, the Bible promises not just heaven, but a new and bodily life after life after death. We have been misreading the Good Book’s good ending, and it’s time to ditch the idea that the Bible pledges a heavenly reward. Here’s why:

1. Heaven is the wrong answer to the problem of evil.

It’s ironic how we fight battles over the origins of the universe, and then are apparently eager to dump the material world once we’ve established how it got here. The Bible tells the story of God’s struggle in this time and this place to defeat evil, not run away from it. The hope for heaven is a backdoor way of admitting God is too weak to bring his original intention to fruition.

Heaven is not our home; earth is. It is the place God made for us. So the right response to injustice and brokenness is to engage the struggle to overcome it, not to check out.

2. The hope for heaven misreads the sources.

Seeing the Bible as a heaven-promising book blinds us to biblical texts about a renewed creation. Scripture’s description of the destination of the story is never “heaven,” but rather the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of all things, the time for God to restore everything, the liberation of creation, the new heavens and the new earth, and the life of the age to come. This is all about terra firma — the ground and stuff made from the ground. Restoration language dominates the vision. This is the kind of story the Bible is.

But Christians have a profound disconnect with the Bible’s message. We manage to say good-bye to our loved ones at funerals without the slightest mention of the resurrection of the body. We celebrate Easter yet don’t notice the cognitive dissonance: Jesus rose from the dead and had breakfast on the beach with his friends, but our destiny is a disembodied eternity in another realm?

3. The Bible’s key tension is between now and then, not here and there.

In the New Testament, the present evil age is beginning to be overcome by the triumph of good in the age to come. Heaven (God’s realm) and earth (our realm) are somewhat separated for now, in this era of in-between. But the promised future is always heaven and earth reunited. Time will bring the estranged places back together.

The true biblical picture points us toward the reunification of God’s sphere and our sphere — a new heavens and a new earth — as a single created reality, made whole and functioning for our flourishing as God always intended.

In other words, if you buy that ticket for the Glory Train, you may want to make it round trip, since the final action is going to be right here.

4. Our view of heaven bears a striking resemblance to ancient Elysium.

The “I’ll fly away” scenario explicitly borrows lyrics from the Greek philosopher Plato and his escapist fantasies. Every time we sing about freeing ourselves from the prison-house of the body, we are not speaking in our native Jewish and Christian tongues. Those beliefs and sentiments are Greek and Roman, not biblical.

The Roman poet Virgil describes a scene in which a newly released soul entering the afterlife encounters a path that comes to be split in two: the branch on the left leading downward into dark Tartarus, the one on the right rising into bright Elysium. Over time, as Christianity was influenced by its Hellenistic surroundings, that view of humans’ eternal destination moved to the center of the Christian story. The eternity the Bible actually speaks of — this very world being renewed, and our bodies along with it — was hijacked.

5. We’re supposed to be reading the Bible for life, not for death.

Hoping for heaven distracts us from our fundamental human calling. From start to finish, the Bible is inviting us in to a certain way of being in the world. To be made in the image of God is to reflect God’s character and intention in the way we shape life on earth.

What we have in the Bible, says Wendell Berry, “is a story and a discourse about the connection of a people to a place.” If we fail to see the Bible this way due to a preoccupation with otherworldly hopes, we miss the myriad and detailed ways the sacred writings are trying to transform our lives as part of the renewal of all creation.

As another beloved but misleading hymn has it, if we turn our eyes upon Jesus, “the things of earth will grow strangely dim.” But if we turn our eyes upon the real Jesus of the Bible — the incarnate, embodied, fully human Jesus — the things of earth might just grow strangely clear, and we’d see how to help heaven come to earth in the here and now.

The Bible shows no strong interest in an afterlife. It is there, of course, but functions merely as a necessary stage on the way to the ending that matters: the return of the king, his reckoning of the world, and the full institution of the healing, restoring reign of God over all things. Changing what the story says about our destiny is more than quibbling about a few details tacked on at the end. It alters the fundamental nature of the biblical drama, and it revises our understanding of how we live our roles within the story. It changes why and how we read the Bible.

We are in a new creation story, not a post-creation story or end-of-creation story. Heaven knows, it’s critical we get this right.

Image by Ron Waddington.

Glenn Paauw
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  • Christopher Jones

    Just a thought, but maybe it would be useful for this article to explicitly state the postmillennial presuppositions underlying its arguments.

    • Seth Callahan

      Well, if the author agrees with N. T. Wright, then the Millennial Reign is a contemporary misunderstanding of Revelation, not an actual future event.

  • Andi Newberry

    Explain Jesus saying He was going to prepare a place for us, and unbelievers going to hell when they die. Your article makes no sense with regards to those statements in scripture.

    • John Doherty

      The problem here is your literal reading of Scripture. It has always been assumed that Jesus went somewhere physical, but is that necessarily what Scripture says? I’d challenge you to go back and re-read it again yourself. Also, look at the original language (or find someone who has studied it deeply) and see what tense the verbs are in. There’s one where it’s basically a “in the future”.

      • http://davidmschell.com David M Schell

        The problem here isn’t a literal reading of scripture, but something worse – the belief that these beliefs are based upon a literal reading of scripture, or any reading of scripture at all. The Bible doesn’t say that unbelievers are going to hell when they die. It doesn’t say that anywhere.

        • John Doherty

          It does talk about separation from God, though. I also don’t believe that Hell is a literal place, but I do believe in eternal separation.

          • http://davidmschell.com David M Schell

            “Eternal separation” was a way that modern Christians tried to make the idea of hell nicer and make God seem less creepy. That line about “eternal separation” isn’t in the Bible, either.

          • John Doherty

            Hey David, how about instead of just naysaying and not contributing to the discussion, you point us to something about what you believe? Thanks!

          • http://davidmschell.com David M Schell

            I don’t know exactly what I believe, when it comes down to it. However, I did quite enjoy the original article. I admit, though, it is much easier to point at things and say “That’s not in the Bible,” particularly as they relate to eternity, because, as the original post noted, there are many things that most Christians believe about what happens after we day that are untrue, unbiblical, and/or patently ridiculous.

            I don’t have an answer for what I believe, but I do feel that by “naysaying,” as you call it, I am contributing to the discussion by offering disagreement and dissent with viewpoints already presented.

    • Kenneth Thong

      Well, when Jesus says He was going to prepare a place for us, He might just be referring to himself as that place. That in abiding in Him, we would know His father and have peace with His father. The context was not talking about another physical place, as many would like to assume that they’ll receive huge mansions, but rather, of a dwelling place in Him.
      Jesus’ going away to prepare that place was the preparation of His own body as the atonement for those whom will believe in Him. If it were not so, He would have told us.

  • Nesi Finau

    I see you’re trying to turn it the other way but it is written in the bible that He (God) prepared a place called Heaven ad He’ll come back and take His people…so we should think why God wasting His time of preparing Heaven?? And why Jesus died for our sins?? And why He resurrected from death?? Wow! What a great love God did for us…God’s plan is done! Please don’t misunderstood the Word of God :)

    • John Doherty

      Except, the author (not to put words in his mouth) likely won’t disagree with any of your questions! I personally think it makes God more powerful AND redemptive AND gracious if he were to renew creation instead of blow it away.

  • Keith L. Bell

    Extremely one-sided argument. Misses the many wonderful truths about our eternity in HEAVEN AND EARTH. By the way heaven is wherever Jesus is, and Scripture tells us that when we meet up with Him, we will forever be with Him. All of God’s creation will be accessible to us. Yet none of us can begin to imagine how much ground or ether that covers. :)

  • John Doherty

    AMEN Glenn! This is something I’ve believed for a long time, and when you look at “Heaven” that way you begin to engage more in this world as opposed to separating from it. I highly recommend reading “Heaven is a place on earth” by Michael Wittmer. That got me started on this path of thinking back when I was a student at Swiss L’Abri.

  • http://chev.as chevas

    If you’re going to nitpick at “Heaven”, the “afterlife”, or “the life of glory beyond this mortal body”, then you should spend more time affirming the hope that they give and less drudgery about what exactly it is. Heaven is for real. I personally believe that Heaven is a redeemed planet earth (it does say new heaven and new earth with a new Jerusalem), but the point is that it’s not Hell. Hell is a place, so it’s a lot easier to juxtapose Heaven against Hell. The Bible does this all the time.

    I’m all for good Biblical Theology and the Grand Narrative of the Bible, but most of the shadows are in the Old Testament. Revelation (and it’s apocalyptic genre) is a cluster, but Rev 21 is pretty dang straightforward vs the rest of the vision. I’m going to take it literally when it says there will be “no more tears or pain” and since this is in the same context, I’ll pretty much take the rest of Rev 21 literally too. Part of it is a new earth, and part of it is a floating city. So to me, it’s a new place and a old place renewed.

    You bank too much on N.T. Wright. He’s too dismissive of literal aspects of the text where the genre demands literal readings.

  • Stanley Toney

    Some nice arguments, But it would be far more persuasive if the author had cited Scripture to back them up. Without context proper citations, this is just an argument from logic, which is just a fallible as the “unsupported” view of heaven the author is challenging.

  • Paula Arnett Austin

    Nice read, drawls one into critical thinking, as we all should read God’s word and listen to what the spirit reveals to us without changing it’s vital original structure of content, it’s foundation — and that is Jesus, period! Yes, Jesus said: “I go to prepare a place for you.” He also said: “The kingdom of God is in your HEART.” Those of us who know him, have invited him into our hearts, know that he has made his home in our hearts. He is not in some far off land or space preparing a place but right here in our hearts helping us to engage the struggle with the enemy whose mission is to kill still and destroy. To prevent us from living the truth of who we are and where we are seated; with him in the heavenlies. Is he not preparing our hearts to LOVE as God loves us? Is not the foundation of God’s commandment’s to LOVE our neighbor as oneself. “You shall love the stranger as yourself” (Lev. 19:34). This mitzvah (i.e., commandment, blessing) applies not only to someone whom we regard as an “outsider,” but more radically to the “stranger within ourselves,” that is, to those aspects of ourselves we censor, deny, or reject. Like the prodigal son, we have to “come to ourselves” to return home (Luke 15:17), yet we won’t know that we are unconditionally loved until we venture complete disclosure. That is the great risk of trusting in God’s love for your soul: You must accept that you are accepted despite your own unacceptability… Those parts of ourselves that we “hide” need to be brought to the light, atoned for, healed, and reconciled. If we don’t love and accept ourselves, then how can we hope to love and accept others? Indeed, the message of the universal love of God is at the heart of the gospel itself, harkening back to God’s earliest promises to redeem humanity and restore paradise lost. “Religion,” tribalism, prejudice, ethnic pride, and so on, are anathema to the Kingdom of God, and that kingdom is in truth our HEART.

  • Doug Spurling

    Dearest Glenn, The Truth of the Word need not be presented with shock & awe. I humbly submit there may be a better way to present this solid truth regarding the new heaven and earth; rather than taking shots at long standing hymns and phrases from our God loving ancestors. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but in my opinion, your presentation is counterintuitive to the very image of Christ’s purpose and calling…to unify God and man, Immanuel.