This week's question comes from Dean King of Loganville, the happiest and most optimistic man I've ever met. Dean asks, "What will heaven be like?"
For anyone growing up in the church this seems like a rather easy question. Images of pearly gates, great thrones, streets of gold, and so on come to mind. And indeed, these are images mentioned in the Bible (Revelation 21, to be exact). The problem is, this description isn't describing heaven! Instead Revelation 21-22 is actually a description of what John calls the new earth. "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, See, the home of God is among mortals. The Lord will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God will be with them and will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away'" (Revelation 21:1-4). Further verses describe the city more completely, including gates made of single pearls, streets of gold, a great throne, rivers, and the Tree of Life but John's description of the city is not a description of heaven!
To find a physical description of heaven in nearly impossible. The Bible offers few words to describe heaven with most of the descriptions coming from Jesus himself.
The first words of description are offered in Matthew 5.34. There Jesus reminds his listeners that heaven "is the throne of God." Problematically, this verse says heaven is the throne of God, not that it contains the throne of God. So is heaven a giant throne? Probably not.
The next revelation of heaven is found in Matthew 22.30, and this verse doesn't describe heaven, but tells us there are no marriages there.
The last description of heaven is found within a promise given to the disciples. "In my father's house are many rooms . . . and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again" (John 14.2-3). Here, at least, is someting we can relate to.
But virtually every other reference to heaven in scripture, other than the Old Testament which generally ascribes heaven to the sky, not a place of the hereafter, speaks not of heaven but of "the kingdom of heaven" or "the kingdom of God." Though it sounds like this is splitting hairs, these are not so much a description of heaven, but a description of those who will inhabit the kingdom. Further, Jesus said the kingdom was both here now, as well as a later promise.
According to the scriptures Jesus' first sermon was "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 4.17). Although this could easily be interpreted as a coming promise, Jesus later better defines this "coming" kingdom. When Jesus was questioned about the kingdom by the Pharisees he responds by saying the kingdom is here and it's here now: "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, Look, here it is!' or There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17.20-21). Finally, Jesus promised that some who lived in his day would not die "until the kingom of God has come" (Luke 9.27). This is generally understood to be a reference to Christ's resurrection, but indicates the coming of the kingdom of God is already a present reality.
On the other hand, the kingdom of heaven is also a future promise given for us. Its inhabitants are "like little children" (Matthew 18), it has treasures of some sort stored there for its residents (Matthew 6.20), there will be feasting with the prophets (Matthew 8.11), and those who are greatest on earth will be least in heaven and vice versa (Matthew 5.19).
But what will heaven be like? Because it is a promise and a creation of God's handiwork, heaven can be nothing less than incredible beyond our wildest imaginations. But it's one of those things we'll just have to take on faith and wait and see; God didn't see fit to answer that particular question for us. But I'll see you there!