(The idea for this question came from Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology Vol 4 p 436)
Have you read a book with a testimony of someone who temporarily died and then came back to life? We are given “eyewitness” accounts of what afterlife is like, and just a few years ago these types of books were bestsellers. I would deem them to be vain imaginative writings of people who are out to make a buck, and I think the reason those books appeal to so many Americans is probably the fault of Charles Dickens. He certainly did fire up our imaginations with the dreams of Ebenezer Scrooge. He gave us the three ghosts of Christmas, and Biblically speaking, there are three witnesses who tell us a bit about heaven, and these three witnesses are the ones that I would trust. Let me put all three witnesses up, in order of importance.
Jesus is of course the most important witness about the things of heaven. Many singers have been captivated by the song, “I Can Only Imagine”, and while Jesus did tell us about heaven, there are certainly a lot of things which we do not yet know about—we can only imagine. Jesus said I go now to prepare a place for you that where I am, there you may be also. While we might have difficulty in imagining specifics, we ought to take great comfort and solace in the fact that the very God who created this world, a world that we find so intriguing and satisfying to our needs, that same God created a heavenly place which will be even better for our habitation. God took six days to create the whole of the earth, and yet he has had over 2,000 years to finish making our abode in heaven. Does that mean it is going to be thousands of times better than earth? Quite possibly.
We are not going to be in heaven long—for seven years if the book of Revelation is to be taken literally, and then the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, and according to Jude, we all will be right behind him. Somewhere in this time, or right after his return, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb takes place. It is unclear from Revelation 19 exactly when this occurs, and I have read quite conservative Bible scholars who disagree—some saying it takes place during the seven years in heaven with Christ, and others feeling that it is the first major event after the coming. I personally am inclined toward the first view because it was Jewish custom for the groom to take his bride to his parent’s house and have a grand feast. It seems to fit well within this scenario to have God the Son presenting his bride to the Father, but I am not dogmatic about it, and we shall just have to wait and see how it all works out.
The second witness is Paul the apostle, who tells us that he was caught up to the third heaven. Chafer suggests that this actually happened when Paul was stoned at Lystra, and further suggests that Paul actually died at that time, was sent to heaven, and then sent back to finish the task that he was appointed to do. It may have happened that way, but from a reading of the Bible we cannot be absolutely sure. I find it fascinating that Chafer is suggesting that an actual after-death written account comes from Paul, especially since after-death accounts seem to bubble up into national bestsellers every few years. Chafer wrote this suggestion at least seventy years ago. We do know that Paul was able to write most of the epistemology for the church, directions for the church that were full and complete enough to give it character and direction for the last two thousand years. It is absolutely unimaginable where the church might be today without those directions.
Before going further, the third heaven should be defined. The first heaven is the sky with the clouds that we see round about us, the second heaven is the starry host above, and the third heaven is the abode of God and his heavenly host. Jesus, we are told, will return from heaven in the same manner in which he left—that is, he will return feet first in the sky to the very place that he ascended, the Mount of Olives. Interestingly, Zacharias, hundreds of years before, lets us know that upon his return to the Mount of Olives his feet will touch the mount, and a great cleavage of the mountain shall happen, so great that a vast new area will be created right there. Is this the place that will be created for the church? We do know for certain that we are to be with Christ for the rest of eternity.
Paul actually does not tell us much about this third heaven. The relevant passage is 2 Corinthians 12, and Paul says that he heard unspeakable things that it was not permitted for him to share. He was given a thorn in the flesh, an unnamed physical ailment, that was given to keep him humble, and from being proud about the great revelations. Many scholars feel that the thorn in the flesh may have been poor eyesight, but we are not told specifically what it is. We are told that Paul chose to glory in his thorn, whatever it was. I find myself wondering if his eyesight could possibly have been damaged from his being stoned, but the Bible is unclear about specifics. In any case, Paul tells us that to live is Christ, but to die is gain. Whatever he saw in that vision was enough to carry him through to martyrdom looking for a better world. His witness of the world to come could not be made stronger.
The last witness is that of John, who tells us about heaven in the book of Revelation. Revelation is the only book in the Bible where we know what day of the week it was written on. In the first chapter, John is caught up in an initial vision on the Lord’s day (Sunday), and told to write the seven letters to the seven churches. When the letters are completed, in chapter four John is swept up to heaven, “behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter” (v. 1).
So John, like Paul, is caught up into heaven, but unlike Paul there are many more things that John is able to reveal to us. True, what John sees starts in heaven, and the consequences are terrible as the earth is judged, but the last chapters of Revelation are some of the most beautiful in all of the Bible. Satan is at last judged, and the Lord with his saints sets up a rule in Jerusalem to usher in a time of prosperity that is unequalled. We start with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, whether in heaven or on earth after the judgments, I am not certain. But it does seem to me that that supper will finally be the time, long promised and long awaited, when at last the Lord will drink a toast with his bride, and we will finally understand why we have had all those communions remembering our Lord and his sacrifice, for we shall at last see him as he is, and will experience a full communion with him. A toast to look forward to, where we will be renewed in our kingdom together and forever.
After the thousand years is up, a mere blink of time for those who dwell on the edge of eternal things, a final rebellion shall be forever put down, with Satan being cast forever into Hell, and the time of the Great White Throne judgment shall at last be. And then a new heavens and a new earth shall be revealed, one that we with the Lord shall step finally into eternity. We shall see a new city, a new river of life, twelve manners of fruits that will forever nourish us, and so shall we ever be with Christ. All of that John gives us details about in Revelation.
I enjoy reading about Christian history, and have found that many Christians of many generations have long looked for this heavenly time. Augustine thought he saw the end times in his own day, and wrote identifying several of the main characters of Revelation. Reading the correspondence of Jonathan Edwards with his fellow religious leaders, I came across speculations about the end times being near again and again. In my own generation we have certainly been watching for his coming, just as we are charged to. I long for his coming, as many of you do, but when I find myself dwelling on it, I have to ponder about where I would be if he had come in Augustine’s or Edwards’ time. His patience in judging the world has enabled so many more of us to find life in him, and that is much to be grateful for. John, in his book of Revelation, the book of endings and beginnings, has told us very vividly what those last times will be like, and the very detailed descriptions that he gives should make it become that more real to us. God has planned the end from the beginning, and there is no doubt that things will work out exactly as John foresaw, something that should bring all the more relief when we are distressed.
So there you have it. We do have 3 New Testament characters telling us details about heaven. Perhaps not enough details to do more than whet our appetites for heaven, but it may be that God intends us to look forward by faith to that which is to come. Besides the New Testament characters, there are several men in the Old Testament who give testimony about that which is to come. Ezekiel tells us of the valley of dry bones coming to life, suggesting that lifeless Israel will be drawn back to the Lord. Isaiah tells us of the living conditions of heaven on earth, when the Christ shall come to reign, when animals and men shall be at peace with one another, and man shall learn war no more. Zacharias has told us of the return of Christ to earth, and Jeremiah has promised a New Covenant with Israel that will never end. All in all, we have quite a bit of information about heaven, and we do not need the testimony of those who die for a few moments and then come back to write bestsellers about their visions. God has already adequately told us of what is to come; it is our job to be found waiting faithfully. Are you watching for his return?