Randy Alcorn is the bestselling author of Heaven (Tyndale) and founder/director of nonprofit Eternal Perspective Ministries. So who better to address seven questions from our readers on heaven. Here's what you asked—and how Randy answers.
1. When a believer dies, when does she go to heaven?
At death, the human spirit goes either to heaven or hell. Christ depicted Lazarus the beggar and the rich man conscious in heaven and hell immediately after they died (Luke 16:22-31). Jesus told the dying thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). The apostle Paul said to die is to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23), and to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
These passages clearly invalidate the notion of "soul sleep," or a long period of unconsciousness between life on earth and life in heaven. Every reference in the Book of Revelation to humans talking and worshiping in heaven prior to the resurrection of the dead demonstrates we're conscious after death. Our spirit's departure from the body ends our existence on earth. The physical part of us "sleeps" until we're resurrected, while the spiritual part immediately relocates to a conscious existence in heaven (Daniel 12:2-3).
2. Will I know my husband and children in heaven? Will they know me? And why can't we be married in heaven?
Christ's disciples recognized him countless times after his resurrection: when he cooked breakfast for them on the shore (John 21:1-14); when he revealed himself to a skeptical Thomas (John 20:24-29); and when he appeared to 500 people at once (1 Corinthians 15:6). And at Christ's transfiguration, his disciples recognized Moses and Elijah, even though they couldn't have known what the two men looked like (Luke 9:29-33). If we can recognize those we've never seen, how much more will we recognize our family and friends?
Many people misunderstand Matthew 22:30: "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." The Bible doesn't teach no marriage in heaven, but one marriage, between Christ and us, his bride. Our marriage to Christ will satisfy more than even the most wonderful earthly marriage. Once that ultimate marriage begins at the Lamb's wedding feast, all human marriages will have served their noble purpose of foreshadowing this one great marriage.
The God who said, "It is not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18), is both the giver and the blesser of our earthly relationships. My wife, Nanci, is my best friend and closest sister in Christ. I'm convinced we'll be closer in heaven, not more distant. Receiving a glorified body doesn't erase history; it culminates history. According to 1 Thessalonians 4, we'll be together with the Lord forever, so we'll doubtless pick right up in heaven with relationships from earth.
3. If we already go to heaven or hell right after death, why does the Bible teach about another judgment?
When we die, we face the judgment of faith to determine whether we go to heaven or hell. When God judges those who've accepted Christ's atoning death, he sees his Son's sacrifice for us, not our sin.
But this judgment is different from the final judgment. The Bible indicates all believers will have to give an account of their life (Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Our works don't affect our salvation, but they do affect our reward (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 3:21).
Unbelievers also face a final judgment. The Bible says it will come at the Great White Throne, at the end of the old earth and before the beginning of the new (Revelation 20:11-13).
4. I lost my son in a horrible auto accident three years ago. What kind of body does he have in heaven?
My friend David O'Brien is a brilliant man trapped in a body that groans for redemption. His cerebral palsy will disappear the moment he leaves this world for heaven. And at his resurrection, he'll have a new body forever free of disease. I picture David running through fields on the new earth. I look forward to running beside—and probably behind—him.
I often think how paraplegics, quadriplegics, and victims of constant pain, physical trauma, violence, or catastrophe will walk, run, jump, and laugh in heaven. Believers now blind will gawk at the new earth's wonders. The only body we've known is a weak, diseased remnant of the body God first designed. But free of sin's curse, our resurrection body will be restored to its original design and purpose, even more glorious than Adam and Eve's.
5. When a baby dies, does he remain young, grow up, or mature instantly in heaven?
Bible Answer Man Hank Hanegraaff suggests, "Our DNA is programmed in such a way that, at a particular point, we reach optimal development from a functional perspective. For the most part, it appears that we reach this stage somewhere in our 20s and 30s. … If the blueprints for our glorified bodies are in the DNA, then it would stand to reason that our bodies will be resurrected at the optimal stage of development determined by our DNA."
This hypothesis doesn't necessarily mean children who die won't be children in heaven. Isaiah 11:6-9 speaks of a place, presumably the new earth, where "the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. … The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain." Is it possible that after they're resurrected, children will be at the same developmental level as when they died?
If so, these children would likely grow up on the new earth. Such a childhood would be enviable! Although I'm speculating, I believe parents whose hearts broke at the death of their children not only might reunite with them, but might also experience the joy of seeing them grow up … in a perfect world.
6. Are our loved ones aware of what's happening on earth?
The Bible makes evident heaven's inhabitants see, to some extent, what's happening on earth. When Babylon is taken down, an angel points to events occurring on earth and says, "Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you" (Revelation 18:20). That the angel specifically addresses people living in heaven indicates they're aware of earthly happenings.
Hebrews 12:1, in telling us to "run with perseverance the race marked out for us," creates the mental picture of Greek competitions that attracted throngs of engrossed fans who watched intently high up in stadiums. The "great cloud of witnesses" refers to saints whose previous accomplishments on life's playing field are now part of our rich history. The imagery suggests those saints, the spiritual "athletes" of old, now watch and cheer us on from the great stadium of heaven that looks down on the field of earth.
"There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10). Who's doing this rejoicing in heaven? I believe not only God is rejoicing but also the saints in heaven, who obviously must be aware of what's happening on earth.
7. Do pets go to heaven?
God created "the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:25).
Eden was perfect. But without animals, Eden wouldn't have been Eden. The new earth is the new Eden—Paradise regained, where the first Adam's curse is reversed and transformed into the last Adam's blessing (Romans 5:14-15).
God entrusted animals to us, and our relationship with them is significant. Would God take away from us in heaven what he gave—for delight, companionship, and help—to Adam and Eve in Eden?
Animals aren't nearly as valuable as people. But God is their maker, and through them he's touched many people's lives. On the new earth, he easily could create brand-new animals, re-create old ones, or both. If restoring our pets in the new earth would bring us pleasure, our joy may be all the reason God needs to do so. He's the giver of all good gifts, not the taker of them.
Christ proclaims from his throne: "Behold, I am making all things new" (Revelation 21:5, ESV). He won't renew just people, but also the earth and "all things" in it. "All things" includes animals. The entire creation will benefit from Christ's death and resurrection.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
Click here for reprint information.