“What do you think heaven will be like?” she asked, breaking the silence in the dark car. I glanced at her pretty face lit by the dashboard lights. I knew there was pain and longing behind her question, thoughts of loved ones who have gone there, some departures gradual and expected, others jarring and sudden, leaving searing wounds of fresh loss behind them. And questions.
I glanced out the window, into the darkness pushing against the roadside, thinking. There are physical descriptions of heaven in the Bible. They describe a place shining, glittering with all things precious, pearly gates and streets of gold. But those things are just a framework, really, to display the true treasures found there.
Many people view heaven as some kind of consolation prize for our sorrows here on earth, or as a nebulous default status we attain by being “good” enough. In any case, it doesn’t usually sound like a fun place to spend eternity.
Heaven is a place, yes – but it is so much more. It is a place for us. A home. Our home. An end to wondering where we belong, trying to fit in a world seemingly designed against us.
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.John 14:2-3
I worked at a Christian camp as a teenager. In summer evenings, after the dining hall was swept and dishes washed, I would slip into the back of the meeting hall to listen to the music and the speakers, the cold concrete block at my back a reminder that I didn’t truly belong to the larger group swaying and singing before the stage.
I’ve often thought it would be enough for me to slip into heaven like I did on those summer evenings, soaking up its joy from the periphery. But Jesus came for the ones on the edges of life, the broken and sinful and outcast – the lonely and alone – specifically seeking us out to join His kingdom.
In heaven we will no longer be on the border of life, but instead, seen and celebrated. Welcomed. Included.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”Luke 15:1-7
There will be a throne in heaven, high and exalted, occupied by One with authority to judge the living and the dead. But one day that mighty and glorious God also stepped down into our pain, our questions; our ordinary existence. So I believe that He will once again step down to join us in celebrating the life He suffered and died, lived and laughed, hungered and wept, to give us.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”Revelation 21:3-4
The Bible also describes a great wedding celebration in heaven. People from every tribe, language and culture will be there, dancing and singing and rejoicing, each according to our own expression of resurrection joy.
My daughter lives in Hawaii, and married into that culture five years ago. The most touching part of her wedding reception came when her friends laid aside their shoes and performed a hula for the new bride and groom, blessing them through their swaying bodies and expansive gestures in a way unique to the islands she chose for her home.
It was then, blinking back tears at the unique beauty of their offering, that I understood that heaven will not necessarily mirror my own culture. For instance, I have pictured the wedding feast at a table with plates and silverware arranged just so. But in Bible times people reclined on the floor, leaning against each other, reaching with fingers into shared bowls. Will the main course come wrapped in banana leaves? Or scooped onto naan or injera bread? Or rolled up in a tortilla? And the royal wedding – will it be solemn and formal, or will there be hula? Or perhaps joyful dancing, laughing and spinning with our arms around each other? Who am I to define the parameters for such a celebration?
Jesus didn’t come to earth to gain more worshippers for a place already filled with them. No, He came for love. He came to love. Not that He lacked it; a God who is love doesn’t need love, except to spend it. And He chose to create us so that He could lavish it on us. “Not that we loved God, but He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” it says in 1 John.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!1 John 3:1
We are the ones who need love. We, who beg and scramble and twist our souls to chase after scraps of love from others who are desperate themselves for affirmation and meaning.
Heaven is love. Being wanted, just as we are. “Father, I want them to be with me,” Jesus prayed the night before His death. “I have not called you servants, but friends”, He also said. Our presence brings God joy. Have you ever considered the implications of that?
Heaven does not need us. But somehow, inexplicably, we have been invited – no, more than that – pursued, cherished, and loved into a welcome that we will celebrate forever.
I had trouble finding the right words, that night in the car. I didn’t describe the re-created earth, filled with peace and beauty, or the purpose and rest we will experience there. I didn’t mention the music – oh, the music!
It will be more – so much more than we can ask or imagine, I told my friend. She nodded, eyes fixed on the road ahead. “Amen”, she said softly. “I can’t wait.”