Scot McKnight is a Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, a sometimes-preacher about the first hour in heaven, and an author of more than 50 books, including his most recent, The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible’s Truth About the Life to Come (WaterBrook Press). We asked him to list 10 things he wishes people knew about heaven.
1. If there is a just God, there must be a heaven.
To believe in a future, endless, and human-populated heaven beyond the grave requires that one believe in a God who transcends all creation. The God of the Christian is a just God. And surely a just God creates a world designed for justice, but our world constantly reflects injustice.
This is the heaven hope that motivates so many of us and that gives us hope for those who have experienced horrifying injustices — the tragedies of abused children and the holocausts around the globe, including the Ukraine, the Jews of Germany’s holocaust, the Kurds, and the Syrians. The heaven hope believes God is just and, therefore, the just God will ultimately bring justice.
This just God turns a heaven hope into the heaven promise.
2. There is no heaven for Christians without the resurrection of Jesus.
To believe in a future, endless, and human-populated heaven means death is not the final word. In the Christian heaven promise, there is one death-defeating moment: Easter.
On Easter, God snapped the shackles of death, overpowered the death-dealing powers, and raised Jesus from the grave into eternal life. The entire heaven promise for Christians is based on that one day, that one morning, that one moment. Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no heaven hope or heaven promise for Christians.
3. The best evidence of heaven is the resurrection of Jesus.
To believe in a future, endless, and human-populated heaven means Christians will think about that heaven by examining the resurrected body of Jesus. It means heaven will be an embodied existence and not just a spirit-y or soul-y kind of ethereal, spiritual existence.
It means heaven will include such things as eating (Jesus ate) and fellowship with those we know on earth (Jesus enjoyed fellowship with his disciples). The most common images for the Christian heaven are then not harps and wispy bodies, but a city, a banquet, and God in the middle of it all receiving worship.
4. Near-death and out-of-body experiences are unreliable guides.
While it seems to be a new trend to believe in heaven because of stories of near-death experiences or out-of-body experiences, those who study these stories know the common features are defeated at times by differences.
Reports about near-death experiences have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Those reports tell us about what people believed before entering into that near-death experience. They are, after all, an experience of an already-existing and functioning brain, and what was in that brain is what is experienced as a person enters into that near-death experience.
Since death by definition is medically or physically irreversible, near-death experiences are encounters not with what is beyond death but what is pre-death. Hence they don’t tell us about what happens after death, but what happens to the human brain as a person enters into the dying process. They are then unreliable guides to what lies beyond death and unreliable guides about heaven.
5. Heaven will be full of surprises: #1. The first hour.
If God is just and heaven is about God making all things right, the “first hour” in heaven will be a time when all things are first made right. Realization of this ushers us into the essence of the Christian heaven promise: that first hour is when we will be made right with God, with ourselves, and with one another.
That “first hour” in heaven will mean mass reconciliation at the deepest levels: realization of truth, reception of truth, and reconciliation with others in that truth. It will mean some kind of admission and confession and embrace of God and others as we experience grace and forgiveness and reconciliation.
Heaven will not be heaven until that first hour of realization awakens us to God’s deep truths about God, ourselves, and our fellow humans. In the first hour in heaven our innermost life will be as clear to God and others as glass.
6. Heaven will be full of surprises: #2. Who will be there?
The Christian heaven promise, rooted as it is in a just God who will makes all things right, sometimes gets twisted into cajoling and coercing our fellow humans into doing this or saying that or confessing a set of lines and believing a few certain truths just so . . . or else!
The more we focus on what we have to do to get into heaven, the more we miss the whole point: the heaven promise is not rooted in what we do, but in the resurrection of Jesus. So when we ask who will be there, the only answer is “Jesus!”
The Christian heaven promise presents a heaven where Jesus is in the center of everything. So, heaven is designed for Jesus and all those who want to be connected to him. Heaven is not about what we do, but about who Jesus is.
7. Heaven will be full of surprises: #3. What it will be like?
Someone I know told me he hopes in heaven we won’t be aware of others; he said he hopes we will be so focused on God that everything else will fall away into non-existence. He was hoping not to meet up with some of his enemies and he feared they’d all be in heaven! He hoped it would some kind of eternal individualism. I reminded him that the vision of heaven in the Bible is not quite like that.
Yes, God is central, but the image is not just of individuals absorbed in a beatific vision of ecstasy — it is of a thriving, flourishing city. If so, heaven will be a flourishing city centered on God, but still a society.
The heaven promise means this: God created this world to work right; heaven will mean that world working right; this world is a society, not cells where individuals go at it alone.
8. Heaven is about our deepest happiness.
The heaven promise lays before us the hope that we will experience joy and happiness at the deepest levels: in our love for God and for self and for others and for all that God has created.
Our yearning and quest for joy and happiness and deep contentment is God’s gift to us now of what someday will be a settled and growing reality: we will be happy and grow happier and happier endlessly into the joy of God’s own joy.
Heaven is about pleasure, our deepest pleasures, that will abound and abound into deeper pleasures.
9. Heaven will be more like our present earth than like the ethereal heaven found in so much Christian art and thinking.
Unfortunately, for too long, Christians have imagined heaven in exclusively spiritual or spirit-y terms. That is, God designed us mostly as souls and these bodies of an encumbrance need to be shed like a lizard’s skin. Heaven is not whispy, but earthly. Jesus shows us that: his resurrected body was not a soul but a body.
The heaven promise of the Bible starts not with bodiless souls or disembodied spirits but with embodied spirits and souls that identify who we are and how we are made. The heaven promise imagines a global fellowship that is more like a grand city — the New Jerusalem — than an ecstasy of spirit.
The heaven promise means our bodies will function right, our social institutions and social forms will be right, and our society will be the way God designed it.
10. A heaven hope reshapes all of life.
Another unfortunate element in the history of the church has been the occasional rise of the person who gets so enthused about the future heaven they become useless for life in the here and now.
The heaven promise prepares us more for life now than anything that life provides. The heaven promise that makes us want to die is not the Christian heaven promise but something else — perhaps some kind of Platonism or Gnosticism.
The heaven promise, since it is glimpsed in the resurrection body of Jesus and in the flourishing city, reveals to us the kind of future that makes a radical difference today. Those who most believe in the heaven promise are most prepared for a life of significance now. And to turn that around: those most committed to making the world right now are most in tune with the heaven promise.