What Is The “Heaven” Jesus Is Preparing?
In order to facilitate teaching older preschoolers the biblical story, we have created a simple framework for the story that includes the following elements that we call the God’s Unfolding Story Narrative Elements.
- God Made Everything
- People Disobeyed God
- God Chose A Special People
- Jesus Came To Help Us
- Jesus Began The Church
- Jesus Is Preparing Heaven For Us
Keep in mind that these story elements were drafted for older preschoolers (3-5 year olds) in order to give them a simple, six-point outline of the biblical story. (You can learn more about God’s Unfolding Story Narrative Elements here.) Still, each point may need some clarification for the sake of those who are teaching. In the case of the sixth and final point, we want to avoid supporting the notion that “heaven” is a purely spiritual place that is disconnected from this world and where God’s people will spend eternity in a disembodied state. We do not believe this is what the Bible teaches about “heaven.” This article is intended to clarify what the Bible does teach about “heaven” and our world in the coming age (after Jesus’ Second Coming). So, what is the “heaven” Jesus is preparing?
I Am Going Away to Prepare a Place for You
The night before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples… “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).
Much can be and has been said about this powerful text. Our point here is simply that Jesus promised that even though he was “going away,” this was not the end of the story. During His absence, Jesus was going to “prepare a place” for His followers. This is the basis for how we worded the sixth and final story element… “Jesus is Preparing Heaven for Us.” We believe this is accurate as long as we understand “heaven” in a biblical sense. Unfortunately, the word “heaven” is often misunderstood. So, this article is intended to clarify the biblical teaching regarding the coming age and what we are referring to as “heaven.”
This clarification is important not simply to insure that teachers of little ones accurately interpret “heaven.” It’s also important in order for anyone to accurately understand the flow of the larger story itself. In order to better understand the biblical story, we need to understand where the story is going. What is it, after all, that God is seeking to accomplish in history and His story? How we (and children) understand the goal of the story impacts how we understand the flow of the story now and in the past.
I should point out at the beginning that I’m not talking about the “place” to which Christians “go” when they die before Jesus’ Second Coming. Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t say as much about this “place” or state as we would like. The Bible’s primary focus seems to be on the ultimate state of things in the coming age rather than the condition of Believers who die before then. However, Paul certainly seems to indicate that when Christians die, we are immediately in the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). And, since the biblical notion of “heaven” is best understood as the space in which God dwells, it’s reasonable to suggest that Christians go immediately to “heaven” (God’s space) when they die. But what about the ultimate future of time and space (this world and universe) as we know it?
It’s pretty common for people today to think of heaven as a disembodied, non-physical place that is “up there” rather than understanding heaven as “God’s space.” The basic, popular idea is that when this physical world is put behind us, either through death or at Jesus’ Second Coming, Christians will go on to enjoy an eternal, spiritual, non-physical state of bliss in the presence of God, and this current, physical universe will come to an end. This notion of heaven as a purely spiritual place is reinforced by popular media, sermons, and a host of other things we might encounter in the course of a normal day. The concept, however, isn’t as biblical as we might think.
Spiritual and Physical
To be sure, there is a spiritual realm or dimension that is distinct from the physical realm in which we live. There is an invisible (spiritual) realm that exists beyond the limits of our physical world. But that doesn’t mean the physical world is bad or that it will not be part of God’s ultimate plan. Neither does that mean that everything about the spiritual realm is good. There are evil, Satanic forces within the spiritual realm that are working against God’s purposes.
So, while we need to recognize the difference between the physical and spiritual dimensions, we mustn’t fall into the heresy that would suggest the physical realm is evil while the spiritual realm is good. We can inadvertently adopt this mistaken notion when we choose to believe that this world is a place from which we as Believers are destined to escape. This physical existence is “bad” (we believe), so we look forward to a day when we will escape from this world and join with God in a purely spiritual existence. But this is not what the Bible teaches about the future.
The Kingdom Revealed
When we think about the future and what God has planned (this is called eschatology), we need to remember that the biblical story (past, present, and future) is about God’s Kingdom. The biblical story is the Kingdom story. This has been true since the very beginning. That being the case, it will help us to frame our discussion in the context of God’s Kingdom story.
When we read the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see how God intended His Kingdom to be before Adam and Eve sinned (Gen. 3). The story of creation is, therefore, the story of God’s Kingdom revealed. This is how He wanted things to be in His Kingdom, not just then, but forever.
We need to remember, then, that the Garden of Eden was not a purely spiritual place. It was both spiritual and physical. And, it was a “good” place in which humankind was to flourish and operate as God’s image-bearers in the vast, untame universe He had created. Eden was just as physical as the world we live in today. In fact, Eden WAS THE WORLD we live in today! Eden was spiritual. Eden was physical. AND, Eden was good!
Perhaps even more important is the fact that God was there. Eden was a physical place custom-built for humankind, but God lived there as well! It was a place where God’s space (heaven) and man’s space (earth) overlapped, and it was “good.” It was ALL good! The Garden of Eden was, therefore, a picture of the way God wanted His Kingdom to be. It was the Kingdom revealed.
The Kingdom Rejected
This is not the place for an extensive treatment of what happened when Adam and Eve sinned (the Fall). For our purposes, suffice it to say that the choice to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a rejection of God’s good Kingdom and His plan for them. He had created a “good” world that provided everything humankind needed, including purpose, the abilities to accomplish that purpose, and the means by which they could grow and learn under the tutelage of God Himself.
It is important to note this rejection here because this is how the world became broken and in need of restoration. Had it not been for this rejection, there’s no reason to think that things would have changed, ever! Creation was “good.” It didn’t need to be fixed, restored, or changed in any way. It is the Fall that created the need for God to act and move creation toward redemption and back toward restoration. God created the Eden He wanted and it is that Eden to which we will someday return!
The Kingdom Anticipated
After Adam and Eve sinned, God promised to send a “seed” from the woman (Gen. 3:15). According to this promise, the “seed” would eventually crush the serpent’s head. (We believe this “seed” was Jesus, the Messiah, and that He crushed the serpent’s head on the cross.) The point of this promise, however, is that the “seed” (Jesus) would someday reverse the effects of sin and restore creation to its intended and original state. The “seed” was not going to take us into a purely spiritual realm, but would, rather, restore the Edenic Kingdom that was rejected and lost in the Fall.
The future, anticipated Kingdom will be a restored Eden; a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). It will be “new” as compared to heaven and earth in its current condition. This “new heaven and new earth” will be like the original heaven and earth (Eden) in that it will be both spiritual and physical.
This theme of restoration continues through the Old Testament as various writers noted that God’s glory (His Kingdom) already went beyond the Promised Land to include all lands and all people. Numbers, for example, notes that “…the whole earth is filled with the Lord’s glory” (Num. 14:21b).
The Temple itself (and the Tabernacle, the Temple’s predecessor) was a physical reminder that God’s intended “home” was to be here among humankind. Passages like Psalm 72, 89, and Isaiah 11 paint a picture of creation restored. Malachi closes the Old Testament with a vision of the coming “Day of the Lord” and describes it this way…
“…the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and playfully jump like calves from the stall” (Mal. 4:2b).
This is no other-worldly place, but sounds very much like a beautifully restored and healed earth.
The Old Testament, therefore, anticipates a coming restoration of God’s Kingdom as revealed in the creation story; a Kingdom that was both physical and spiritual. Nowhere are we led to imagine that someday we will be taken away to a purely spiritual place. Rather, when we get to the New Testament, it sounds as if the Kingdom of God is coming here!
The Kingdom Announced
The opening chapter of the New Testament affirms that God is, indeed, invading humanity’s space in the person of Jesus. “…They will name Him Immanuel, which is translated ‘God is with us‘” (Matt. 1:23b, emphasis added). Jesus’ first words following His baptism and temptation as recorded by Matthew affirm this reality… “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17b, emphasis added).
All of the Gospels affirm that Jesus was announcing the arrival of God’s Kingdom in Himself. This is important because it means that Jesus was the beginning of the restoration! He didn’t come here in physical flesh to then, later, establish a spiritual Kingdom somewhere else. In His model prayer, Jesus specifically prays, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, emphasis added). This is the goal! Jesus is bringing heaven to earth in Himself. This is where the story is going and it has already begun in the person and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah! This is the Kingdom announced!
The Kingdom Represented
The early church was established with a firm commitment to the hopes and expectations of the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament). What the Old Testament anticipated, and what Jesus announced, the church was to carry to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b). The early church represented the Kingdom and consistently told the story of the Kingdom that reached all the way back to creation.
When Peter preached his famous sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he was declaring that the hopes and dreams of the Old Testament had been fulfilled in Jesus and what was happening that day in Jerusalem was a fulfillment of a powerful Old Testament prophecy…
And it will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. I will even pour out My Spirit on My male and female slaves in those days, and they will prophesy. I will display wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below: blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and remarkable Day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:17-21).
This prophecy is not about some other-worldly, purely spiritual place in the far distant future. Peter was declaring that the future had arrived ON EARTH in the space and time in which they were living! Yes, the church was also looking forward to Jesus’ Second Coming, but even that was not perceived as something that would bring this world to an end and carry all Believers to another realm. Jesus’ Second Coming would be the culmination of what He had already started HERE. The early church taught that Jesus became incarnate (physical) in His life and ministry. He brought God’s Kingdom TO EARTH in His own body and person. When He returns, He will complete the restoration of God’s Kingdom ON EARTH and banish those forces opposed to God and His people ON EARTH!
Paul makes this point in his famous passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. When Jesus appears, he says, “the dead in Christ will rise first.” That is, those who have died before this time will be reunited with their physical body in a resurrection much like Jesus’ own resurrection body. “Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…” The idea here is that we will be going out (Paul says “up”) to meet the Lord as He is arriving. He is not coming to take us away. He is coming TO STAY! We’re simply going out to “meet the Lord in the air,” but that’s not where we stay. He is coming HERE. We are going “up to meet” Him, but then we’re all coming back with Him HERE, “and so we will always be with the Lord.” We will be with Him HERE!
John reinforces this reality in the final chapters of Revelation. When he sees “a new heaven and a new earth,” he doesn’t mean a completely DIFFERENT heaven and earth somewhere else. Rather, the current heaven and earth will be RESTORED to such a degree that it will be “new.” The current earth, so marred by sin and death, will pass away as it is renewed and restored to what God intended in creation. Notice that the “Holy City, new Jerusalem” is coming “DOWN.” We are not transported UP. Then, to make it completely clear, John reveals, “Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them.” God’s space is coming to humanity’s space! God is coming to live HERE with us in a newly restored cosmos where “death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things [sin, death, and destruction] have passed away” (Rev. 21:1-4, bracketed words added). This is clearly a restored Garden of Eden.
The Kingdom Restored
The biblical story is the story of God’s Kingdom. It started with creation and the Kingdom revealed in the Garden of Eden. The Kingdom was rejected in the Fall. The Kingdom was anticipated in the Old Testament and announced in Jesus’ life and ministry. The church now represents the Kingdom as the expanded Israel. So, what will it be like when the Kingdom of God is finally restored? We’ve seen a glimpse of it in the passages above, but we simply don’t know as much as we would like.
Certainly our “new heaven and new earth” will be a place of indescribable blessing if for no other reason than the fact that we will be in the actual presence of Jesus Himself. Evil, sin, sorrow, and death will be gone. But, we should also assume that there will be responsibilities, challenges, and tasks to perform. This is, after all, how it was in Eden.
The Garden was not a place of self-indulgence. Yes, God had provided everything they needed, but Adam and Eve were created to reign responsibly over the world in which God had placed them (Gen. 1:26-28). This would involve challenges and require sacrifice, discipline, leadership, management, and learning.
I believe it will be this way for God’s people in the future as well. We, too, have been called to reign. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul asked, “Or don’t you know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor. 6:2a). This is the natural expectation if we are returning to Eden. John affirms this…
And they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because You were slaughtered, and You redeemed people for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth (Rev. 5:9-10, emphasis added).
This language affirms the dominion mandate given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:26-28, but it also reflects the assignment given to Israel at Sinai…
Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation.’ These are the words that you are to say to the Israelites (Ex. 19:5-6, emphasis added).
God has called us (His people) to reign in His Kingdom. We are called to reign NOW as His image-bearers and representatives of His Kingdom, but one of these days the Kingdom will be fully restored and we will, somehow, reign with Him throughout eternity in the world and universe He created in Genesis 1 and will REcreate upon His return! THIS is the “heaven” Jesus is preparing for us even now!
Author, Speaker, Bible Teacher
See a list of other articles by Rick Edwards.