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What is heaven like? Is there anyone who hasn’t raised that question at one time or another? We could first ask, “Is there really such a thing as heaven?” Christianity has been loudly criticized for being a so-called pie-in-the-sky religion. Karl Marx popularized the idea that religion is the opiate of the people. His thesis was that religion had been invented and used by the ruling classes to exploit and oppress the poor people of the world. Religion, Marx claimed, would keep them from revolting by promising them great rewards if they would obey their masters, accept low wages, and so on—but their rewards would be deferred into eternity. In the meantime, these ruthless exploiters of the poor would amass fortunes for themselves here on earth. Marx took the cynical view that religion, with its hope of heaven, has been used as a club to keep unthinking people in line. Versions of this view have become so prevalent that now people are considered unsophisticated if they think at all about a future life, unless they’re at a funeral home or at a graveside. One cannot take Christianity seriously without seeing the central importance of the concept of heaven. There really is a “pie in the sky” idea that is integral to the Bible. I’m afraid we’ve lost our appetite for, or our taste sensitivity toward, those delights that God has stored up for His people in the future.

Christians are sometimes asked to name their favorite chapter in the New Testament. The top two results are 1 Corinthians 13, the great love chapter, and John 14. John 14 is where we’ll begin our brief study of heaven.

In this chapter, Jesus is speaking to His disciples in His last great discourse with them in the upper room on the night of the Last Supper. This is the night on which He was betrayed, the night before His execution. He tells them: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1–2). Jesus begins with an admonition to His disciples not to allow their hearts to be distressed or disturbed. This is a call to trust and to faith. These words are so comforting to us that we can sometimes gloss over the cogency of the argument contained in this brief exercise in reason.

Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” and then He urges them, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” Belief in God and belief in Christ are inextricably tied together, for this reason: according to the testimony of the New Testament, it is God who certifies and verifies the identity of Jesus. By endowing Christ with miraculous power and by raising Him from the dead, God proves and certifies that Christ is His beloved Son. Three times the New Testament records that God spoke audibly from heaven, and on all three occasions the announcement that came audibly from heaven was substantially the same thing: “This is my beloved Son.” In one case, the voice says “with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Another time it says, “Listen to him” (Matt. 17:5). In John 14, Jesus is saying that God the Father sent Him into the world, and God the Father bears witness to His identity in the world.

It’s in this context that Jesus makes His statements about heaven. Before He makes His announcement about heaven, He speaks of faith in God and faith in Himself. Why does He begin by saying, “Believe in God”? In a real sense, one’s relation to God is the controlling idea for one’s whole understanding of life, of the world, of death, and of heaven. If there is no God, then there is no reason to have any significant hope for the continuity of personal existence that we call life. And yet if God exists, what would be more ridiculous than to assume that He creates creatures in His own image that are ultimately destined for annihilation—to fall into the abyss of nonexistence, to live as grass for a season, only to perish with all our memories, hopes, and labor ending in meaninglessness?

In Macbeth, Shakespeare writes about the poor player who “struts his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” And what’s the assessment? “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” What an image. Here’s a person who was in the limelight for a brief interlude of his life, and then suddenly there is only silence. The idea is that if this is the final conclusion to human existence, then the story of life is the idiot’s tale. An idiot is someone who is irrational. An idiot is someone who doesn’t make sense. He is on the rim of madness, and the tales he tells are not credible stories. They may be filled with sound and fury, noise and passion, but they signify nothing. I think this is the great existential question that every human being faces when he or she faces death.

The ultimate hope of my soul is to see the resurrected Christ in His Father’s house, and He promised that this will happen.

I’ll never forget the day my son arrived. When you see a newborn human who has come into your life, your life changes automatically. All relationships will now be different forever. I remember that occasion vividly because I left the hospital and picked up my mother to take her to see her grandson that evening. When she saw him, she was ecstatic. Later that evening as we walked into her living room, she said, “This is the happiest day of my life.” Then we said goodnight.

The next morning, my daughter’s yelling awakened me. She came into my room and said, “Grandma won’t wake up.” As soon as I walked into my mother’s room, I realized that she had died in her sleep. When I touched her, her body was cold. It was one of those uncanny moments of human experience. I stood there by her bed, and it seemed to me that just moments before, I had heard my mother say, “This is the happiest day of my life.” She had been a living, breathing, caring, passionate, human being, and now she was lifeless. The previous morning, I had seen the newness of life with the birth of my son, and virtually on the same day that my son was born, my mother died. I experienced this conflict between life and death. I stood there and said: “This doesn’t make sense. Death doesn’t make sense.” And every fiber in my being said to me, “This cannot be the final conclusion for human experience.”

Now, all of that could be explained by an emotional need in my soul to believe that life is meaningful, but I was thinking in these terms: if God exists, then this cannot be the end. That’s what Jesus is telling His disciples when He says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” When I stood beside my mother in that room, my heart was deeply troubled, but Jesus urges: “Don’t allow that. Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me.”

Immediately upon making this connection between faith in the Father and faith in Christ, He states: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2). Do you hear what Jesus is saying to His disciples? As He approaches the moment of His death, He declares to them: “Trust Me. Trust the Father. There is plenty of room in My Father’s house, and I am going ahead of you to prepare a place for you.” Keep in mind that if Jesus Christ is God incarnate, He’s the greatest theologian who ever walked the planet. He doesn’t make theological mistakes or approve of theological error. He was not going to allow His disciples to go through the rest of their lives holding to a false belief.

He continues, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). Jesus says: “I’m going home. I’m going to My Father’s house. I’m going to receive My final inheritance, but I’m not going to be alone in heaven. I am going there to prepare a place for you and then I’m coming back, so that where I am, you may be also.”

Every single person, Christian or not, longs to be reunited with loved ones who have died, but the Christian longs to be with Christ. I can’t wait to see my father, my mother, and my friends in heaven, but beyond that, the ultimate hope of my soul is to see the resurrected Christ in His Father’s house, and He promised that this will happen.

Sometimes we shrink in terror and doubt when we contemplate something as wonderful as heaven purports to be. We are sometimes assaulted by the idea that it’s just too good to be true, so we’re better off living for the here and now. Many people then cling to life in this world desperately, fearful that what lies beyond is worse, but for those who are going to heaven, the bliss that God has stored up for us is unworthy to be compared with any joy or delight we cling to in this life.