Perhaps we should ask what “heaven” is before we investigate the case for heaven. Heaven is—note that a biblical theology for answering such a question (rather than a modern sociological one) must be admitted—the place where God makes all things right in relation to himself, all of creation, and all humans.
Heaven is where God is truly God, where the Lamb’s work on the cross will be celebrated on the throne, where our life will be intoxicated with divinely intended pleasures and joys, where death and evil will no longer be a threat, where humans from all of history and all of creation will enter into a global fellowship, and where we shall all live in the joys of love, justice, and peace. There is much to be said about each of these points, but this space was reserved for me to park but one car: the case for heaven.
If this is heaven, then why should we believe in it? If we are honest, many of us will admit that we believe in heaven because we were nurtured into a worldview and faith where heaven was either central or at least part of that faith. As a Protestant, I want to know how that nurtured faith is connected to and supported by what the Bible teaches. I think there are four elements to the case for heaven in the Bible.
1. Because Jesus was raised from the dead.
No resurrection means no hope, and therefore no heaven—it’s that simple. If Jesus was contained by death, then we will be too; if he cracked the death barriers, then we will too. Some might say it’s nothing but foggy speculation, and they might have the steely courage to suggest we will just have to abide in that depressed fog with the little hope we can muster.
After all, in the inimitable words of N. T. Wright, “All language about the future, as any economist or politician will tell you, is simply a set of signposts pointing into a fog.” But is it just a fog? Will the fog lift? Can we find our way through it? Because Jesus was raised, Wright declares that the “fog” will not have the last word: “Supposing someone came forward out of the fog to meet us?” (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, xiii–xiv). That “someone” is Jesus, who burns off the mists in the blazing heat of his resurrection. It’s in the fog that we discover the one who can dissolve the fog.
There is much more that could (and should) be said, but I want to narrow our focus to this singular point: The entire heaven hope of Christians stands or falls with the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul knew this from the outset, and he knew it in part because he encountered the crucified one as the resurrected one on the road to Damascus:
That is my point: If Christ is not raised, then our hope is false. The biggest if in the world now follows: If Christ was raised, then the barriers beyond death have been broken.
I may have believed in heaven as a child because my Christians parents taught me about heaven or because my Sunday school teacher’s flannel graph had heaven on it or because my pastor preached about it, but I believe in heaven now because Jesus was raised from the dead.
2. Because God is a God of promise who is faithful to his promises.
If you read very far into your Bible, say thirteen or more chapters, you will discover the Promise of all promises. God made a promise to Abraham that included making him a great nation (which means lots and lots of descendants), a nation so big it would bless the entire world; and to this man, God also promised a place to live in safety: the Promised Land.
It is not hard to follow the land promise (which is tied closely to the temple promise) from Abraham to Moses (tabernacle, temple), to David (land, temple), to the prophets (land, exile, temple glory vacated), to Jesus (Jesus as temple, Jesus as God’s glory, Jesus and the Spirit), to the apostles (where land is expanded to the whole world, where the church is indwelt by the Spirit to make all Christians God’s temple), and then on to the new heavens and the new earth. The Promise of all promises is key to an accurate reading of the Bible.
The heaven promise of the Bible is a promise that begins with Abraham and ends with the new heavens and the new earth. The case of heaven is established in faith in the God of promise: If God is good on his promissory word, then heaven is sure.
3. Because the Bible’s view of justice is incomplete without heaven.
A third element in the case for heaven is what the Bible means by justice, and here I want to briefly criticize the accommodation tendency of too many Christians today to embrace “justice” as defined by the U.S. Constitution. The Bible’s sense of justice is inextricably tied to the term “righteousness.” “Justice” and “righteousness” are variant translations of the tsdq and dikaios word groups, which mean conformity to God’s will as revealed in the Torah, in the teachings of Jesus, and in life in the Spirit. This definition of righteousness/justice dictates the directions of the Bible from its very opening to its closing, and thus informs us of what God wants for this world: a world shaped by his will in Christ.
The Bible’s sense of justice without the reality of the hope of heaven leaves an incomplete world, an unfulfilled promise, and a disobeyed directive from God. From Moses to the prophets and then into the New Testament authors, the Bible both criticizes the injustices of God’s people and this world and anticipates the coming day when those injustices will be rolled up and destroyed so room can be made for a world marked by justice.
The case for heaven, I contend, entails a conviction that the victims of the injustices of this world (many of which are never undone in this life) cannot experience the Lordship of God and the victory of the Lamb until those injustices are made right in the justice of the new heavens and the new earth.
4. Because the Bible says so.
We’ve beaten this drum a few times now, but a few more bangs won’t do us any harm. The case for heaven is made not by trusting in near-death experiences or visions, but by trusting the Bible’s words as trustworthy and true. Jesus taught about “eternal life” over and over, and nearly every Bible scholar knows that Jesus used Jewish ideas about the Age to Come. Now the Bible’s view of the Age to Come is very much like that Jewish vision: it’s not an escape to an ethereal, spiritual, soul-only reality; rather, it is the restoration, remaking, and recreation of this world in the new heavens and the new earth.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul also excited his readers by tying “gospel” to eschatology, reaching the heights of biblical, eschatological glory with these words:
But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:23–28)
Paul’s vision is expanded and exceeded in Revelation 21, and I close by illustrating our fourth case for heaven. If you believe the Bible, then you believe in heaven, you believe in the new heavens and 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 there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘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!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
My favorite line in the whole Bible on the heaven promise is that last line: “These words are trustworthy and true.”
Scot McKnight is the Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He is the author of more than fifty books.
Adapted from Scot McKnight, “The Case for Heaven,” Modern Reformation, Sep/Oct 2016. Used by permission.