As far back as I can remember, heaven and hell have captivated my imagination. I was born into the home of Baptist missionaries, grew up in church and was lovingly raised with the ever-present awareness of life’s brevity and eternity’s endlessness. My impressionable mind quickened at mentions of life after death. I was mesmerized, overwhelmed and confused. I was well trained – my parents and my church made sure of that – so these uncertainties had no basis in poor discipleship. I received a firm foundation and accepted the truth I had been taught. I still know and accept that truth.
Throughout my childhood, I wrestled to understand what Scripture says about our eternal destination. To this day, my mind and soul battle over the concept and theological implications of eternal punishment. That, as they say, is a story for another time. (If you need more clarity on that to be sure you are not reading the words of a heathen, be assured that I accept the traditional theology on hell.)
My internal struggle with heaven has been a completely different fight. I have never doubted the existence of a literal heaven. My belief in a good and loving God makes heaven more than a reality. It makes it an absolute certainty. How could a perfectly loving and kind God not create an eternal home for his children? Belief was not my issue. My confusion resided entirely in the tangible specifics that are detailed in Scripture.
I am going to open myself up to criticism, but when I was a child, I thought as a child, and heaven sounded a little boring to me. Bowing before the throne and singing for all eternity did not appeal to my young heart the way I knew it should. That bothered me. It made me feel less spiritual – less saved – even though I knew that was impossible. As I matured, I slowly began to understand that much of the language used in Scripture to describe heaven is both figurative and literal. (Revelation 21:10-27) I became convinced that there will be an eternity of singing and worship. (Rev 4:8-11) I became convinced that there will be streets of gold and all the rest. I also became convinced that our words and language and ideas and paintings and songs were barely scratching the surface. That also bothered me. If heaven was meant to be the believer’s eternal home (John 14:2-4), surely it should be a home I longed for – a home I ached for.
Instead, my view of heaven felt subdued and anti-climactic. All the talk in Scripture of eternal singing, precious gemstone architecture, mansions,” Holy, Holy, Holy” chanting, and all the rest sounded so alien to me. Those things bore little resemblance to the best things in my life. It made me feel that all the things I loved in life: family, home, the beauty of creation, music, and friends were not good enough. It made me feel that those things were going to be replaced by things that were more important and spiritual, but that did not have the same deep, emotional pull on my heart.
I have always needed both mind and emotion working in tandem for the deepest truths to engage my faith fully. My early understanding of heaven did not connect to my heart, my emotions. I hasten to add that even at a young age, I realized my understanding of heaven was limited. I knew that in death, entering the very presence of Jesus would erase all misgivings I had. I knew heaven would not disappoint in the least, but I felt it was wrong of me if I did not try to gain a fuller understanding of heaven while still on earth. So, my journey to a deeper, fuller, and more resonate connection to heaven began in earnest.
Bill and Ted’s Heavenly Instruction
In the spiritual masterpiece of the 1980s, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, our heroes, the aforementioned Bill and Ted, travel through time in a phone booth. (Don’t ask.) They do so to prepare for the final exam in their high school history class. At the beginning of the film, they are visited by a man from the future who tells them that they have to pass their history class or they will be split up and their band, Wyld Stallyns, will never exist. If Wyld Stallyns does not exist, the music they create will never exist, and that music is destined to bring an end to war, hunger, and all sorts of other bad things. (Seriously, it does not matter. It is a very dumb movie.) About midway through the film, they accidentally travel to the future. In typical 80s fashion, the film’s picture of the future is full of pastels, lasers, ambient smoke, and sunglasses. The future also has a song playing in the background that hit me like a bolt of lightning – “In Time” by Robbie Robb. You have probably never heard of it or the singer. And if you heard it now, you would probably shake your head and stop reading. Yet, for a kid that loved 80s rock like it was a part of his soul and responded to power ballads like an addict to his drug of choice, that song, in that moment in the film, felt like poetry, inspiration, and theology. This scene was the film’s view of utopia. It was a picture of the world as it could be, if Bill and Ted could graduate high school, form their band, and create their world changing music. In the film’s vernacular, it was heaven.
My first connection was made: Worship in heaven will be spiritually satisfying in ways we cannot grasp. As silly as it might sound, the song “In Time” playing in that specific scene gave me a picture of heaven I responded to on a purely emotional level. It challenged my immature view of heavenly worship – something that seemed dry, stuffy, and boring – and told me that if I could enjoy and respond to music on earth like this, I had nothing to worry about when it came to music created and conceived by the Lord of every good thing.
Zihuatanejo opened my eyes a little more. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is unjustly imprisoned. He is surrounded by inmates and prison officials that abuse him at every turn. Over time, he becomes close with one fellow inmate, a man named Red. It is to Red that Andy shares his dream: to escape prison and make his way to the coastal town of Zihuatanejo, Mexico. From all appearances, it is a hopeless dream. Red listens to Andy but sees the dream for the fantasy that it is. To Andy, Zihuatanejo is heaven. Andy is convinced he will make it there one day. He knows that he does not belong behind bars.
Eventually, Andy does break free. Shortly after, Red is released, yet he does not feel free. The only life he has known as an adult is one of incarceration and life on the outside feels alien to him. Mostly though, he misses his friend. He finds a place to live and gets a job, though the work is unsatisfying and humiliating. Once out of prison, Andy leaves clues and money to help Red make the trip to join him. The film closes with a breathtaking shot of a beach, crystalline blue waters, and Andy and Red embracing in the sun.
I had made a second connection: Heaven is a place of reunion. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) It will be a time of reunion with those who have journeyed before – those we have loved and lost – and those who have walked with us on the road of faith. When we reach our final resting place, we will be welcomed and embraced by those that mean the most to us; brothers and sisters in Christ that share a bond that transcends any human connection. While my fear of heaven being impersonal and ethereal were not based on anything I was taught, seeing Andy and Red embrace on that beach removed those fears and misconceptions. Our faith is one of relationships and heaven will only serve to make those relationships more fulfilling because they will not be limited by human frailties and time.
Gladiator’s Biblical View of Heaven
The credits were rolling and the lights were back on, but I could not leave. Deep down, I knew I had experienced something true. Something deeper and more important than swords and spears, choreographed fights and battles. What I felt then, I was unable to fully articulate until some years later, but even in my inability to put words to my emotions, I knew Gladiator had opened my eyes a little wider and made heaven all the more real.
Gladiator tells the story of Roman general, Maximus. He is betrayed by the usurping prince Commodus. This betrayal leaves him at death’s door and his family executed in the vilest manner possible. The rest of the story follows Maximus’s attempt to set things right – to bring justice to those who wronged him and to fulfill the dying wishes of the previous Caesar, his friend, Marcus Aurelius. We will not take time to argue the merits of a film that on one level amounts to little more than a revenge tale. That is a fair criticism of the film but does nothing to diminish my point. At the film’s conclusion, as Maximus drifts between life and death, he sees a vision of his wife and son waiting for him in the afterlife. This is the one thing Maximus has longed for the entire film, even before his family’s death: Home. His view of heaven was to be home with his family. Forever.
It was then I made my third connection: Heaven is the greatest home we will ever know. Scripture is clear that at the end of all things, God will bring the new heaven down to the new earth, and his children will live there forever. This new heaven and earth will be so amazing, we will not even think about the old ones anymore (Isaiah 65:17,21). It will be our home, but better, the way our home was meant to be from the beginning. It will not be some dreamy fantasy of clouds and harps and things we do not recognize or appreciate. It will be real and tactile. It will feel like the best version of the best day you have ever had, but fuller, deeper, and more real than you can imagine.
In discussing this scene with friends, fellow REO contributor, Josh Crowe, put it this way: “That scene…with the music and wheat and other-worldliness was the first time in my adult life that I pictured heaven as a real place. Until then I had always thought of heaven as ‘a place in the clouds’. Since then, it’s taken on a reality that I can’t quite explain.” My connection to heaven took on a far more powerful reality when I realized that God’s new heaven and earth will be His way of correcting all that went wrong on this earth. It will be the redemption of all the wrong that sin has wrought, and a refashioning of all the good in creation. It will take the best of our world, our home, and make it better.
In The Pendragon Cycle, Stephen Lawhead’s epic retelling of the story of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table, we are introduced to the bard Taliesin. He is a singer, a poet, and most importantly, a prophet. His life and vision pave the way for Merlin and Arthur. Though raised in pagan druidism, when he encounters the True God, he easily hails him as Lord. It is with this new faith that he is given a vision of the world to come. A world he hopes to help usher into existence. His words, near the end of the first book in the series, pierce me like an arrow every time I read them:
I have seen a land, a land of shining goodness where each man protects his brother’s dignity as readily as his own, where war and want have ceased and all tribes live under the same law of love and honor. I have seen a land bright with truth, where a man’s word is his pledge and falsehood is banished, where children sleep safe in their mother’s arms and never know fear or pain. I have seen a land where kings extend their hands in justice rather than reach for the sword; where mercy, kindness, and compassion flow like deep water, and where men revere virtue, revere truth, revere beauty above comfort, pleasure or selfish gain. A land where peace reigns in the hearts of men. Where faith blazes like a beacon from every hill and love like a fire from every hearth; where the True God is worshiped and His ways acclaimed by all. I have seen this land. I have seen it and my heart yearns for it.
Here was one final connection: The Kingdom of heaven is here and coming. We live in the time between times. Jesus ushered in the Kingdom with his life, death and resurrection, yet the ultimate fulfillment of His kingdom will only come at the end of the age. As believers, we have seen the Kingdom of heaven and our hearts yearn for it. One of my favorite passages of Scripture, from a book that I have wrestled with since I was eleven or twelve years old, is Revelation 21:4-5a. It is a message of hope and renewal. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” I did not realize the importance of the final five words when I was young. At times, I fail to realize them even now. “I am making everything new!” Heaven will be something we cannot imagine, yet will have the flesh and bones of the very best of what we know and love now. The very things that matter most in life: love, faith, family, kindness, fellowship, mercy, grace, home, and peace will be lovingly perfected by the One who made all things. He will fashion this new heaven and earth from the ashes of what has come before and he will declare, “I am making everything new!”
My view of heaven is incomplete but God is doing His best to answer my questions and fill in the gaps. He is using His Word and His character. He is also using the fumbling attempts of man. He is using flawed, fragmented images and unfinished, imperfect connections to reveal Himself. These connections are pushing me back to Scripture to find a fuller picture than I realized was there. This journey has taken me from feelings of confusion and trepidation to deeper trust, assurance, and expectation. So, I pray, much like the Apostle John, at the end of his Revelation, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” – Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption