As a new believer I had conflicting thoughts and emotions about eternal life. Those who led me to the Lord told me I could go to heaven by trusting Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins. I hadn’t thought much about heaven, and what thoughts I did have ran more to the negative—hell sounded like a pretty bad place. If there were only two choices, then heaven seemed like the better alternative.
Someone told me that in heaven we would spend all eternity worshiping God. This presented a problem because most of the worship services I attended were boring. Could it be true? Would heaven consist of an unending songfest directed toward the Almighty? I enjoyed singing Amazing Grace in church but one of the verses gave me cause for concern:
“When we’ve be there 10,000 years
bright shining as the sun
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we’ve first begun.”
With a strong measure of guilt I tried to imagine myself happily singing for 10,000 years only to consider that we had just begun. It was not appealing.
Popular images of heaven include the idea that we will inhabit celestial mansions, waft upon fluffy light clouds and worship eternally. These images certainly beat the idea of eternal torment and suffering but do they truly present the activities we would choose to do forever, especially given the activities and tastes we have right now?
Here’s a question: What if you got to live forever but you didn’t like the life you got to live?
The difficulty flows from two misunderstandings. First, popular images of heaven may not be correct, and secondly, “heaven” and “eternal life” are not the same things.
Jesus himself provided a reliable definition of eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Nothing about clouds, songs, or heaven. Eternal life is knowing the Father and knowing Jesus. The Father has given Jesus the authority to grant eternal life, and Jesus’ definition is simply that we would come to know the Father and the Son.
So when does eternal life begin? If we can adjust our view to what Jesus has revealed, the answer, of course, is now. When we first turn toward God, we are entering into eternal life. When we turn away from our selfish choices and orientation and choose Jesus, we are entering into eternal life. When we grow in our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are growing into eternal life.
When does a child know its mother? At birth? From within the womb? As a teenager? Earlier in the same gospel Jesus tells us that we cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God unless we are “born from above.” (John 3: 3 – 8) His choice of birth imagery is instructive: a child begins to perceive light and dark before birth. A child intuitively knows its mother’s voice and heartbeat before birth. Yet after the trauma of labor and delivery a child is characterized by what it does not know: the entire process of growth and maturity could be considered “getting to know” its parents.
This process of growth and knowledge continues even beyond childhood. Most adults realize that with each passing decade they come to “know” their parents more and more. I knew my father more fully after I became a father.
Our life in God is made possible by Jesus Christ. That life has its beginning when we are “born again,” and John’s Gospel reminds us from the very beginning we are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1: 13) As we are born of Him, his intention is that we would spend every moment of eternal life growing in the grace and knowledge of Him.
So what about heaven? As we begin to experience eternal life through our walk with Jesus, he begins to work heaven into us even now. I may not know the details of what heaven “looks like,” but I have come to understand that heavenfeels exactly like the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruit of coming to know the Father and the Son, through living in the Spirit each day (see Galatians 5: 16 – 25)
I’m no longer troubled by the thought of heaven. Whatever it looks like and whatever he has for us to do, I can rest my relationship with him. As I cooperate with the Holy Spirit he is making fit for heaven, whatever that is!