I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same. (C. S. Lewis)
When I see ocean fish in an aquarium, I enjoy watching them, but I feel as if something’s wrong. They don’t belong there. It’s not their home. The fish weren’t made for that little glass box; they were made for a great ocean.
I suppose the fish don’t know any better, but I wonder if their instincts tell them that their true home is elsewhere. I know our instincts tell us that this fallen world isn’t our home – we were made for someplace better. As we’ve seen, the Bible repeatedly confirms this instinct.
Theologian Donald Bloesch suggests, “Our greatest affliction is not anxiety, or even guilt, but rather homesickness – a nostalgia or ineradicable yearning to be at home with God.”
Christian slaves sang of “goin’ home to live with God,” and a chariot “comin’ fo’ to carry me home.” Christians have always thought of going to Heaven as going home. When Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for us, he spoke of building us a home. To anticipate Heaven, then, we need to understand the meaning of home. Early in the book we touched on it. Now it’s time to take a closer look as we move toward our conclusion in the next chapter.
What Home Is Like
Have you ever been on a trip that became miserable, where everybody got sick or everything went wrong? What did you want more than anything? To go home. In your imagination you could feel your comfy bed, taste a home-cooked meal, and picture the company of family and friends laughing together in front of the fire, telling stories about what went wrong on your trip.
Home is also about comfort. It’s a place where we can put on jeans and a sweatshirt and throw ourselves on the couch to relax. It’s a place we want to be. As much as I’ve enjoyed traveling to many different countries, I always love to come home. That craving for home is sweet and deep. Home is our reference point, what we always come back to. No matter how much we enjoy our adventures away, we anticipate coming home. Knowing we can come home is what keeps us going – and that’s what Heaven should do fo us. It should keep us going because it’s our eternal home, the welcome refuge that awaits us and calls our name.
Home is where friends come to visit. It’s where we putter, plant gardens, read our favorite books, and listen to music we enjoy. Home is where I inhale the wonderful aroma of strong, rich coffee every morning, and where Nanci fixes great meals and her amazing apple pie.
I realize it sounds as if I’m romanticizing home. I know that many people have had terrible experiences at home. But our true home in Heaven will have all the good things about our Earthly homes, multiplied many times, but none of the bad.
The world says, “You can never go home again.” It means that while we were gone, home changed and so did we. Our old house may have been destroyed or sold, been renovated or become run-down. In contrast, when this life is over – and particularly when we arrive on the New Earth – God’s children will truly be able to come home for the very first time. Because our home in Heaven will never burn, flood, or be blown away, we’ll never have to wonder whether home will still be there when we return. The new heavens and New Earth will never disappear. They’ll give a wonderful permanence to the word, home.
When it comes to our eternal home, we often fail to think Biblically in two ways. First, we imagine we won’t be fully human and our ultimate home won’t be physical and Earthly. Second, we imagine that this world as it now is, under the curse, is our ultimate home. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
If Heaven is truly our home, we should expect it to have the qualities we associate with home. Home as a term for Heaven isn’t simply a metaphor. It describes an actual, physical place – a place promised and built by our bridegroom; a place we’ll share with loved ones; a place of fond familiarity and comfort and refuge; a place of marvelous smells and tastes, fine food, and great conversation; a place of contemplation and interaction and expressing the gifts and passions that God has given us. It’ll be a place of unprecendented freedom and adventure.
The unbiblical stereotypes of Heaven as a vague, incorporeal existence hurt us far more than we realize. Among other things, they diminish our anticipation of Heaven and keep us from believing it is truly our home. Bible scholar Graham Scroggie was right: “Future existence is not a purely spiritual existence; it demands a life in a body, and in a material universe.” Though many of us affirm a belief in the resurrection of the dead, we don’t know what that really means. Our doctrine dresses up men and women in bodies, then gives them no place to go. Instead of the New Earth as our eternal home, we offer an intangible and utterly unfamiliar Heaven that’s the opposite of home. No wonder there is such ambivalence and uneasiness about Heaven in our churches.
Going to the Party
Imagine someone takes you to a party. You see a few friends there, enjoy a couple of good conversations, a little laughter, and some decent appetizers. The party’s all right, but you keep hoping it will get better. Give it another hour, and maybe it will. Suddenly, your friend says, “I need to take you home.”
You’re disappointed – nobody wants to leave a party early – but you leave, and your friend drops you off at your house. As you approach the door, you’re feeling all alone and sorry for yourself. As you open the door and reach for the light switch, you sense someone’s there. Your heart’s in your throat. You flip on the light.
“Surprise!” Your house is full of smiling people, familiar faces.
It’s a party – for you. You smell your favorites – barbecued ribs and pecan pie right out of the oven. The tables are full. It’s a feast. You recognize the guests, people you haven’t seen for a long time. Then, one by one, the people you most enjoyed at the other party show up at your house, grinning. This turns out to be the real party. You realize that if you’d stayed longer at the other party, as you’d wanted, you wouldn’t be at the real party – you’d be away from it.
Christians faced with terminal illness or imminent death often feel they’re leaving the party before it’s over. They have to go home early. They’re disappointed, thinking of all they’ll miss when they leave. But the truth is, the real party is underway at home – precisely where they’re going. They’re not the ones missing the party; those of us left behind are. (Fortunately, if we know Jesus, we’ll get there eventually.)
One by one, occasionally a few of us at a time, we’ll disappear from this world. Those we leave behind will grieve that their loved ones have left home. In reality, however, their believing loved ones aren’t leaving home, they’re going home. They’ll be home before us. We’ll be arriving at the party a little later.
Remember, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” He said, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Laughter and rejoicing – a party awaits us. Don’t you want to join it? Yet even that party, in the intermediate Heaven, is a preliminary celebration. It’s like the welcome at the airport for a woman who’s come home for her wedding. Sure, she’s home now, and it’s wonderful, but what she’s really looking forward to is the wedding, and the wedding feast, which will be followed by moving into her new home with her beloved bridegroom.
To be in resurrected bodies on a resurrected Earth in resurrected friendships, enjoying a resurrected culture with the resurrected Jesus – now that will be the ultimate party! Everybody will be who God made them to be – and none of us will ever suffer or die again. As a Christian, the day I die will be the best day I’ve ever lived. But it won’t be the best day I ever will live. Resurrection day will be far better. And the first day on the New Earth – that will be one big step for mankind, one giant leap for God’s glory.
Longing For Resurrection
I’ve never been to Heaven, yet I miss it. Eden’s in my blood. The best things of life are souvenirs from Eden, appetizers of the New Earth. There’s just enough of them to keep us going, but never enough to make us satisfied with the world as it is, or ourselves as we are. We live between Eden and the New Earth, pulled toward what we once were and what we yet will be.
As Christians, we’re linked to Heaven in ways too deep to comprehend. Somehow, according to Ephesians 2:6, we’re already seated with Christ in Heaven. So we can’t be satisfied with less.
Desire is a signpost pointing to Heaven. Every longing for better health is a longing for the New Earth. Every longing for romance is a longing for the ultimate romance with Christ. Every desire for intimacy is a desire for Christ. Every thirst for beauty is a thirst for Christ. Every taste of joy is but a foretaste of a greater and more vibrant joy than can be found on Earth as it is now. A. W. Tozer said, “In nature, everything moves in the direction of its hungers. In the spiritual world it is not otherwise. We gravitate toward our inward longing, provided of course that those longings are strong enough to move us.”
That’s why we need to spend our lives cultivating our love for Heaven. That’s why we need to meditate on what scripture says about Heaven, read books on it, have Bible studies, teach classes, and preach sermons on it. We need to talk to our children about Heaven. When we’re camping, hiking, or driving, when we’re at a museum, a sporting event, or a theme park, we need to talk about what we see around us as signposts to the New Earth.
When we think of Heaven as unearthly, our present lives seem unspiritual, like they don’t matter. When we grasp the reality of the New Earth, our present, Earthly lives suddenly matter. Conversations with loved ones matter. The taste of food matters. Work, leisure, creativity, and intellectual stimulation matter. Rivers and trees and flowers matter. Laughter matters. Service matters. Why? Because they are eternal.
Life on Earth matters not because it’s the only life we have, but precisely because it isn’t – it’s the beginning of a life that will continue without end. It’s the precursor of life on the New Earth. Eternal life doesn’t begin when we die – it has already begun. Life is not, as Macbeth supposed, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Informed by the doctrines of creation, redemption, resurrection, and the New Earth, our present lives take on greater importance, infusing us with purpose. Understanding Heaven doesn’t just tell us what to do, but why. What God tells us about our future lives enables us to interpret our past and serve him in our present.
Consider the old proverb, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” It assumes that the only Earthly pleasures we’ll ever enjoy must be obtained now. As Christians, we should indeed eat, drink, and be merry – and also sacrifice, suffer, and die – all to the glory of God. In doing so, we’re preparing for an eternal life, then, is not our last chance to eat, drink, and be merry – rather, it is the last time our eating, drinking, and merrymaking can be corrupted by sin, death, and the curse.
We need to stop acting as if Heaven were a myth, an impossible dream, a relentlessly dull meeting, or an unimportant distraction from real life. We need to see Heaven for what it is: the realm we’re made for. If we do, we’ll embrace it with contagious joy, excitement, and anticipation.
Heaven: Our Source of Optimism
Secular optimists are wishful thinkers. Discovering the present payoffs of optimism, they conduct seminars and write books on thinking positively. Sometimes they capitalize on optimism by becoming rich and famous. But then what happens? They eventually get old or sick, and when they die they go to hell forever. Their optimism is an illusion, for it fails to take eternity into account.
The only proper foundation for optimism is the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Any other foundation is sand, not rock. It will not bear the weight of our eternity.
However, if we build our lives on the redemptive work of Christ, we should all be optimists. Why? Because even our most painful experience in life is but a temporary setback. Our pain and suffering may or may not be relieved in this life, but they will certainly be relieved in the next. That is Christ’s promise – no more death or pain; he will wipe away all our tears. He took our sufferings on himself so that one day he might remove all suffering from us. That is the Biblical foundation for our optimism. No Christian should be a pessimist. We should be realists – focused on the reality of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and his promises, Biblical realism is optimism.
Knowing that our suffering will be relieved doesn’t make it easy, but it does make it bearable. It allows joy in the midst of suffering. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you, and insult you. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in Heaven.” Paul said, “I rejoice in my sufferings,” and James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” The apostles didn’t enjoy suffering, but they rejoiced in the midst of it, because they trusted God’s sovereign plan and they looked forward to Christ’s return, their bodily resurrection, and the redemption of all creation.
Christ said to his disciples, who would suffer much, “Rejoice that your names are written in Heaven.” Our optimism is not that of the “health and wealth” gospel, which claims that God will spare us of suffering here and now. Peter said, “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” Christ’s future glory, in which we will participate, is the reason for our present rejoicing while suffering.
Anticipating Heaven doesn’t eliminate pain, but it lessens it and puts it in perspective. Meditating on Heaven is a great pain reliever. It reminds us that suffering and death are temporary conditions. Our existence will not end in suffering and death – they are but a gateway to our eternal life of unending joy. The Biblical doctrine of Heaven is about the future, but it has tremendous benefits here and now. If we grasp it, it will shift our center of gravity and radically change our perspective on life. This is what the Bible calls “hope,” a word used six times in Romans 8:20-25, the passage in which Paul says that all creation longs for our resurrection and the world’s coming redemption.
Don’t place your hope in favorable circumstances, which cannot and will not last. Place your hope in Christ and his promises. He will return, and we will be resurrected to life on the New Earth, where we will behold God’s face and joyfully serve him forever.
In C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a ship sails east in search of lost countrymen and new adventures. But the heart of one passenger, Reepicheep, the valiant mouse, is steadfastly set on a greater adventure. He has one destination in mind: Aslan’s country.
From his youth, Reepicheep was taught in a poem that one day he would journey to the far east and find what he’d always longed for:
Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.
After reciting the poem to his shipmates, Reepicheep says, “I do not know what it means. But the spell of it has been on me all my life.”
Late in the journey, when they have sailed farther than anyone on record, Reepicheep is thrown into the sea. To his surprise, the water tastes sweet. His excitement is unrestrainable. He’s so close to Aslan’s country, he can literally taste it.
Earlier in the voyage, Reepicheep had expressed his utter abandonment to the cause of seeking Aslan’s country: “While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.”
We can identify with Reepicheep’s glorious quest, because the spell of Heaven has been on us all our lives, as well, even if we have sometimes confused it with lesser desires. At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Reepicheep’s traveling companions watch him disappear over the horizon. Does he make it to Aslan’s country? In the final book of the Narnia series, we discover the answer, which confirms what we already knew in our hearts.
Through the Doorway
When five-year-old Emily Kimball was hospitalized and heard she was going to die, she started to cry. Even though she loved Jesus and wanted to be with him, she didn’t want to leave her family behind. Then her mother had an inspired idea. She asked Emily to step through a doorway into another room, and she closed the door behind her. One at a time, the entire family started coming through the door to join her. Her mother explained that this was how it would be. Emily would go ahead to Heaven and then the rest of the family would follow. Emily understood. She would be the first to go through death’s door. Eventually, the rest of the family would follow, probably one by one, joining her on the other side.
The analogy would have been even more complete if the room that Emily entered had had someone representing Jesus to greet her – along with departed loved ones and Bible characters and angels. Also, it would’ve helped if the room she walked into was breathtakingly beautiful, and contained pictures of a New Earth, vast and unexplored, where Emily and her family and friends would one day go to live with Jesus forever.
Every person reading this book is dying. Perhaps you have reason to believe that death will come very soon. You may be troubled, feeling uncertain, or unready to leave. Make sure of your relationship with Jesus Christ. Be certain that you’re trusting him alone to save you – not anyone or anything else, and certainly not any good works you’ve done. And then allow yourself to get excited about what’s on the other side of death’s door.
I’ve often read at memorial services this depiction of a believer’s death:
I’m standing on the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She’s an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and the sky come down to mingle with each other. And then I hear someone at my side saying, “There, she’s gone.”
Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side. And just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not, in her.
And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she’s gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming, and there are other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
And that is dying.
The place of our arrival will be beautiful, though temporary, place where we’ll await the culmination of history: the return of the risen Jesus, who will resurrect us. When his millennial reign is accomplished (whether that’s a nonliteral present reign or a literal thousand-year future reign), we’ll join him in ruling the New Earth, free of sin and the curse.
Five months before he died, C. S. Lewis wrote to a woman who feared that her own death was imminent. Lewis said, “Can you not see death as a friend and deliverer? What is there to be afraid of? Your sins are confessed. Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. Our Lord says to you, ‘Peace, child, peace. Relax. Let go. I will catch you. Do you trust me so little?’ Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal.”
Lewis signed the letter, “Yours (and like you, a tired traveler, near the journey’s end).”
We see life differently when we realize that death isn’t a wall but a turnstile; a small obstacle that marks a great beginning. Calvin Miller put it beautifully:
I once scorned ev’ry fearful thought of death,
When it was but the end of pulse and breath,
But now my eyes have seen that past the pain
There is a world that’s waiting to be claimed.
Earthmaker, Holy, let me now depart,
For living’s such a temporary art.
And dying is but getting dressed for God,
Our graves are merely doorways cut in sod.