going to heaven

Yesterday Kevin DeYoung wisely pushed back against Christians who so emphasize the new earth that they dismiss the benefits of going to heaven when they die. Dying saints may be encouraged by the renewal of all things, but they also want to know what happens the moment they leave this earth.

Kevin is right that we need to avoid an either/or situation. It’s not either we go to heaven when we die or we live forever on the new earth. It’s both/and. Sunday night I spoke about the new earth to a group of Junior Highers. I emphasized that I’m not taking away their hope for heaven. I’m just adding to it. Praise God that our souls go to heaven when we die, and praise God more that he will resurrect our bodies and put us back together to live with him here, on this restored earth.

The new earthers must not despise the promise of heaven, but they rightly warn that a fixation on heaven easily distracts from our even greater hope of the new earth. It’s no accident that heaven obsessed evangelicals no longer believe in their future resurrection. This is no small detail, but a threat to the foundation of the Christian faith.

While I appreciate the thrust of Kevin’s post, his final two paragraphs contain a whiff of Platonism that new earthers are concerned to correct. He wrote:

“I understand that some good Christians have an underdeveloped eschatology that rarely touches on crucial New Testament themes. But many of these same Christians have a sweet and simple longing for heaven, a commendable confidence that because of Christ they will, in fact, die and go to a better place. Correcting eschatological imbalances is good, but not if it means undermining or minimizing one of the most precious promises in all the Bible; namely, that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Even the intermediate state is indescribably good–better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord is how Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:8).”

“In trumpeting the good news of cosmic renewal let us not lose sight of the hope that anchors the believer in hard times and is the reality awaiting us on the other side of suffering and death: we really do go to heaven when we die.”

Here are my concerns:

  1. Is heaven a “better place”? This is a complex question that belies a simple yes or no answer. In the most important way heaven is better than earth, but only because Jesus is there. If heaven by itself were superior, then Jesus would not have raised Lazarus from the dead. Earth is the best place for humans, because this is where God made us to live. The problem of “better place” will not be resolved until Jesus returns and unites heaven and earth. Until then, we should be careful not to unequivocally call heaven “a better place,” as it isn’t better in every way and saying so promotes the Platonic idea that heaven is our final home. Who would want to leave the better place to come back here? (This is not merely a hypothetical problem, as Irenaeus makes this mistake in Against Heresies 5.31-32).
  2. Is “to die is gain” “one of the most precious promises in all the Bible”? Well, it’s not technically a divine promise (such as John 6:54, “I will raise him up on the last day”), but more a description of a benefit that follows death. Specifically, we are with the Lord. When we say “to die is gain” is a promise, we risk confusing good and evil. David Platt makes this mistake in Radical, when he says that we must “see death as reward.” He explains that a missionary’s death was a reward rather than a tragedy because she immediately went to heaven (p. 179-81). Praise God that the missionary went to be with Jesus, but this does not mean that her death was not a tragedy. God brings good out of death (i.e., he takes our soul to be with him), but this does not make death itself a good thing.

From start to finish, Scripture calls death our great enemy. It is the first enemy to appear in Scripture (Gen. 2:17), and it is the last enemy to be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Paul does not call death a good thing. One chapter after saying “to die is gain,” Paul says that God had mercy on Epaphroditus and spared his life (Phil. 2:27). So Paul clearly doesn’t think death itself is good. If we minimize death, calling it our reward or something less than the tragic end of Adam’s sin, we also minimize the victory of Christ that conquered it.

  1. The “intermediate state is indescribably good,” but not in every way. The martyred saints in heaven are impatient, shouting “How long?” to the Lord and told to “wait a little longer” (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul longed to be with Jesus, and push comes to shove, he was willing to die to make that happen. But Paul’s desire was to be with Jesus not by dying but by Jesus’ coming. Paul’s cry of “Maranatha!” (1 Cor. 16:22) echoes the closing prayer of Scripture, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

Here’s the tension: we must hold the comfort of heaven with the ultimate hope of the new earth. If we leave the impression that our loved ones in heaven are perfect in every way, we minimize the need for Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the body. If we only talk about the promise of the resurrection, we omit the comfort that their souls are now with the Lord. The solution is to rejoice that our loved ones are with Jesus, while claiming God’s promise that the best is yet to come.

  1. This is what is lacking in Kevin’s final sentence. Going to heaven is not by itself “the hope that anchors the believer in hard times.” If “going to heaven” is shorthand for “seeing Jesus,” then of course that is the largest part (though we’d have less confusion in our Platonically saturated churches if we avoided “going to heaven” language and spoke more directly about being “with the Lord”). But the anchor for hard times includes even more than being with Jesus. Jesus himself said it requires the resurrection. “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:40). Paul ends his resurrection chapter by saying this bodily hope is the anchor that causes us to stand firm, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).

I hope this post sparks conversation rather than ends it. It should be viewed as a small, though not insignificant disagreement between ministers who are on the same team. I thank God for Kevin and David, and would be happy to continue a mutually enriching dialogue as providence permits.

Image by Theophilos Papadopoulos. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.





22 responses to “going to heaven”

  1. Mike – Thank you for your insightful comments in this blog. There was only one statement that I wrestled with, probably because it seemed like a cute sound bite, but both distracted from your point and fell short in pastoral theology. You wrote, “If heaven by itself were superior, then Jesus would not have raised Lazarus from the dead.” Are you sure? I’m not. Jesus rose Lazarus from among the dead, not because earth is superior to heaven (or whatever the intermediate state could be called prior to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension), but to show that He is the Resurrection and the Life. Raising Lazarus was primarily meant to evoke belief (Jn 11:14;42) in His power over death, as it was the penultimate miracle in the Gospel of John. The condition of “heaven” as less superior had nothing to do with it. Lazarus would die again. Additionally, (and this is my concern as a chaplain) if we say that God only takes us from less superior experiences to more superior circumstances, we are at risk of diminishing God’s use of horrible, sin-caused circumstances to bring about His glory and to let us experience His merciful presence. I know this wasn’t your intent. As I said, true to form, your comments are insightful. I plan to use them in a discussion group. Thank you.

  2. mikewittmer

    Thanks, Bruce. What I meant from that line is that if heaven is so much better than earth, then Lazarus would have been disappointed to have come back to earth. I didn’t elaborate here, but have elsewhere, that the reason Lazarus was not disappointed is because Jesus was there, and his presence made Bethany a literal heaven on earth. I’m only trying to say that what makes heaven “better” is the presence of Jesus. That’s it (and that’s enough!). In every other way earth is better for us, assuming sin is erased. Note the effects of sin reach all the way into heaven, as we will not have our bodies there. So while sin is not present in heaven, its effects are still experienced there.

  3. Paul.

    Those poor theological primitives who have a simple hope of the joy and peace of Heaven, need to rescued from their crudity by the erudite and smooth Dr Wright and others.

  4. Mike,
    I agree that heaven is better because Jesus is there – and that is enough. But then you say earth is better in every other way, assuming sin is erased. But sin is not erased, and here we struggle long and hard with sin. Is this not one way that heaven is better – that we will be free from sinning? That we will never be tempted to rebel against our Creator? That we will never again chase after foolish idolatry and hideous iniquities? Yes, the effect of sin will be there (physical death), but the constant fight and failure, the disgusting reality of continuing sin, will be over. With the Lord, we will never commit another sin for which Jesus had to suffer and die – and this makes “heaven” better.
    Which brings up another way that “heaven” is better than this current earth – there will be no more suffering. This is what excites many older saints about “heaven.” It is an easy thing for people my age and yours to speak of enjoying God’s creation, and we ought to (and I want to read your book), but what about when that enjoyment is no longer possible? What about the senior saint whose body no longer functions and is unable to do much of anything? What about the dear brother or sister in Christ whose body is racked with pain beyond what you or I can begin to fathom? When each moment is a living agony? For the Christian, escaping such a body and all of the suffering found in it, can be a great hope and blessing. No, it is not the greatest hope or blessing. But heaven is better than hell on earth. Even as we wait for that greater hope when we will take on resurrected bodies forever free from pain to walk, run, leap, and jump on the new earth.
    The new earth is my great hope, but being in the presence of the Lord free from sin and suffering make heaven seem pretty good in the meantime.

  5. mikewittmer

    Thank you for these fine comments, Brian. You are right. My only concern is to connect the absence of sin and suffering to the presence of Jesus rather than to the place per se. We will be free from sin and suffering the next time we see Jesus. If we die, we will see him in heaven, and be free of them there. But the cry of Scripture is to be free of them by his return. I mention in the book about going to visit my friend in hospice. She was suffering and dreaming of heaven. Her family was ready for her to go. But even there, we didn’t pray for Jesus to take her but for Jesus to come. He didn’t, and we are comforted from knowing she is no longer suffering in heaven. Though she is impatient (Rev. 6:10). My concern is that when we connect these benefits to the place rather than to the person we breed Platonists who think going to heaven is the goal, rather than heaven coming here. As my wife says, directions matter!

  6. Pete

    Mike, thanks for the article. It was helpful. Where would you put “The Eternal Now” perspective in this discussion?

  7. mikewittmer

    Pete: can you elaborate on what you mean?

  8. Pete

    Are you familiar with the “Eternal Now” perspective (FF Bruce among others)? The perspective that when we die we enter into eternity – no time, space, etc. as God is. In effect there is no “Intermediate State” where we are waiting for the Resurrection, etc. Death is the stepping from time into timelessness – eternity (2 Timothy 1:9; 2 Peter 3:8). Just wondering your take on this perspective?

  9. Pete

    Mike here are a few others that I believe held similar view: TF Torrance; AC Custance; MJ Harris; K. Giles see also: Murray J. Harris, “The Interpretation of 2 Cor 5:1-10 and Its Place in Pauline Eschatology” (Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, 1970), “2 Cor 5:1-10, Watershed in Paul’s Eschatology?” Tyndale Bulletin 22 (1971): 32-57, “Paul’s View of Death in 2 Cor 5:1-10.” (Pages 317-328 in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. R. N. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), Raised Immortal: Resurrection & Immortality in the New Testament (London: M & S Marshall, 1983); Bruce, “Paul on Immortality.”

  10. Pete

    Mike, another reference: AC Custance’s Journey Out of Time (available free online)

  11. mikewittmer

    Pete: this view seems far too Platonic for me. We creatures will never be outside of time. Only God is eternal. This view seems to compromise the Creator/creature distinction.

    I would be more sympathetic to the idea that we are somehow “fastforwarded” to the new earth, though I don’t understand how that would go–how would departed saints already have experienced the resurrection that in this time hasn’t happened yet. Maybe Einstein could figure that out, but I can’t.

  12. Pete

    Thank you Mike

  13. […] Going to Heaven: By Mike Wittmer – Wittmer notes: “Here’s the tension: we must hold the comfort of heaven […]

  14. Pete

    Mike, I have appreciated our “discussion”. But, I think you’re missing the point of the timeless-eternity view. (1) We DON’T become eternal (like the Creator), we become immortal (having a beginning but no end); so who says we “will never be outside of time”? (If the only opposing point is that it’s an attribute of God, we share other attributes with Him–and in eternity, possibly even omniscience.) And (2) how is ANY experience from eternity processed through time (like REVELATION 13:8)? It doesn’t take an Einstein, it just takes God’s Word.

  15. mikewittmer

    Pete: I can’t tell what you are arguing for. Point #1 in the last post seems to say that we will and we won’t be outside of time. If you mean that we will, I have Scripture that says we won’t (Rev. 6:10) and no Scripture that says we will. More problematic is your blurring of the lines between us and God. There is an ontological chasm between him and us. If you get omniscience, then you would know God like he knows himself, which puts you on his level (and becomes a problem for the rest of us!).

  16. Pete

    Mike, Thank you for responding. You have given me much to continue thinking about.

    I don’t see how Rev. 6:10 says that we will never be outside of time. I thought you yourself had written above that this passage tells us that the dead believers are still waiting for something (resurrection), but what about when it takes place? This passage may at best only show that there is a time after death when they are not outside time. Or am I missing your point?

    I don’t agree that in point #1 I am arguing both “that we will and we won’t be outside of time.” I don’t know how any fair reading of the point could come to that conclusion. Where in that point does it say, “we won’t be outside of time”? I think my point is very clear: there will be a point when we “step” outside of time – at our death. I’m not completely sold on this view, but I think it is a lot more substantial than you give it credit. Men like AC Custance; MJ Harris & FF Bruce were not kooks, were they? Have you read A Journey Out of Time? Or MJ Harris’ treatment of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 referenced by me above? I think there are problems/difficulties with this view (including but not limited to Bruce’s ambiguity as to the duration of torment in hell – Annialation(?), but that is true of the other views as well. Are you willing to concede that about yours? Are you willing to concede that the problems/difficulties with your view are better answered by another view? You seem intolerant of any view other than your own (re: Kevin DeYoung; David Platt) and closed to the possibility that you could be wrong. Or am I misreading you?

    We do share attributes with God now don’t we? You wrote, “More problematic is your blurring of the lines between us and God. There is an ontological chasm between him and us. If you get omniscience, then you would know God like he knows himself, which puts you on his level (and becomes a problem for the rest of us!).” But, where is your Scripture for this?

    Please bear with me if you think I’m out of line. I don’t mean to be combative. I truly have been stimulated; challenged and enriched by this article and your replies to these comments. Thank you again. May the Lord richly bless you.

  17. Chad D. Nightingale

    I live in pain. I get multiple tests and scans each year in hopes that the tumors in my body have not spread again. I have had countless surgeries and I am all of 38 years old. Two of my children have the same disease I do and have to be tested also. Thankfully for them the surgeries should not start until their mid twenties. I still work everyday, I am pursuing further theological education, and I stay very physically active. With that background in mind when I see my doctors the worst thing they could possible say is, “Sorry Chad but their is nothing else we can do, you are going to die”. Am I terminal? Yes! There is not a cure for the disease beating up my body. In truth we are all terminal. Our only hope is Jesus return not that we would die.
    The New Earth is the hope we have of physical life without pain and suffering or the fear of death. In reality we do not want to die. We want to live. We just want to live the way we were created to live. We want to live without fear, pain, suffering, loss. We want everything Jesus has promised will come through the redemption of the creation.
    I long for the New Earth. I long to be with Jesus and experience life as it was meant to be for eternity. When Jesus is the only desire of eternal life that is not bad but it does limit what he has done. He has made a way for us to be with him forever and he has promised the redemption of all creation. We do not have to accept only part of the gift.
    Death is not a blessing. Death is a terrible destructive thing resulting from the curse. I am in total agreement with you Mike. Death is not a great escape from the difficulties of the curse. Just because Jesus has conquered death through his resurrection does not make the death of a believer good. Jesus has changed the outcome of a tragic reality and given us hope.

  18. mikewittmer

    Thank you for sharing, Chad. I’m thankful that God has kept you these many years, and for your trust in him through it. I think your perspective is exactly right. Thank you for modelling it for us.

  19. […] Wittmer offers a push back to DeYoung. He enumerates two concerns. The first is this: “Is heaven a ‘better place’? This […]

  20. […] For other reading see Kevin DeYoung’s nuanced post here and Mike Wittmer’s response. […]

  21. […] recently posted about the rights and wrongs of yearning for heaven. I wanted to communicate its main point in a winsome way to the average Christian, so I wrote this […]

  22. This blog was helpful, thank you Mike. I’m teaching about heaven tonight at our Wednesday night service.

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