Editor’s note: During The Gospel Coalition 2015 National Conference, Randy Alcorn will lead a workshop on Continuity & Discontinuity: How Similar or Different Might Life on the New Earth Be To Our Present Lives? To register for the conference click here.
People usually think of “Heaven” as the place Christians go when they die. A better definition explains that Heaven is God’s central dwelling place, the location of his throne from which he rules the universe.
Many don’t realize that the present pre-resurrection Heaven and future post-resurrection Heaven are located in different places. The exact location of the present Heaven is unknown, but we’re told the future Heaven will be located on the New Earth. The present Heaven is a place of transition between believers’ past lives on Earth and future resurrection lives on the New Earth.
Life in the present Heaven (which theologians call the “intermediate” Heaven) is “better by far” than living here on Earth under the curse (Phil. 1:23). But it’s not our final destination.
Will We Live in Heaven Forever?
The answer depends on our definition of Heaven. Will we be with the Lord forever? Absolutely. Will we always be with God in the same place Heaven is now? No. In the present Heaven, God’s people are in Christ’s presence, free of sin and suffering and enjoying great happiness: “in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11). But they’re still looking forward to their bodily resurrection and permanent relocation to the New Earth. So, yes, after death we’ll always be in Heaven, but not in the same place or the same condition.
To illustrate, imagine you lived in a homeless shelter in Miami. One day you inherit a beautiful house overlooking Santa Barbara, California, and are given a wonderful job doing something you’ve always wanted to do. Many friends and family will live nearby.
As you fly toward Santa Barbara, you stop at the Dallas airport for a layover. Other family members you haven’t seen in years meet you. They will board the plane with you to Santa Barbara. Naturally you look forward to seeing them in Dallas, your first stop.
But if someone asks where you’re going, would you say “Dallas”? No. You would say Santa Barbara, because that’s your final destination. Dallas is just a temporary stop. At most you might say “I’m going to Santa Barbara, with a brief stop in Dallas.”
Similarly, the present Heaven is a temporary dwelling place, a stop along the way to our final destination: the New Earth. (Granted, the Dallas analogy isn’t perfect—being with Jesus and reunited with loved ones will be immeasurably better than a layover in Dallas!)
In the Present Heaven Do People Have Physical Forms?
Unlike angels, who are in essence spirits (John 4:24; Heb. 1:14), human beings are by nature both spiritual and physical. We don’t occupy our bodies as a hermit crab occupies a shell. We can’t be fully human without both a spirit and a body.
Given the consistent physical descriptions of the intermediate heaven and its inhabitants, it seems possible—though debatable—that between our earthly lives and bodily resurrection, God may grant us temporary physical forms. If so, that would account for the repeated depictions of people now in Heaven occupying physical space, wearing clothes and crowns, talking, holding palm branches in their hands, and having body parts (e.g. Luke 16:24, Rev. 7:9).
Certainly we do not receive resurrection bodies immediately after death. If we have intermediate forms in the intermediate heaven (and we may not), they will be temps, not our true bodies, which remain dead until the final resurrection.
Will We Recognize Each Other in the Present Heaven?
When asked if we would recognize friends in Heaven, George MacDonald responded, “Shall we be greater fools in Paradise than we are here?”
Scripture gives no indication of a memory wipe causing us to forget family and friends. On the contrary, if we wouldn’t know our loved ones in Heaven, the “comfort” of an afterlife reunion, taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18, would be no comfort at all.
In Christ’s transfiguration, his disciples recognized Moses and Elijah, even though they couldn’t have known what they looked like (Luke 9:29-33). This suggests that personality will emanate through whatever forms we take. If we can recognize those we’ve never seen, how much more will we recognize our family and friends?
After we die, we will give a detailed account of our lives on Earth (2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 12:36). This will require better memories, not worse. Those memories will surely include our families and friends!
Are You Looking Forward to Your Forever Home?
Though life in the intermediate Heaven will be wonderful, it’s not the place we’re made for, our true eternal home. The Bible promises that we’ll live with Christ and each other forever on the New Earth, where God—Father, Son (eternally incarnate), and Holy Spirit—will be at home with his people:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. . . . I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev. 21:1-3)
This passage clearly indicates that ultimately God’s central dwelling place—Heaven—is on Earth. Some, including N. T. Wright, argue that the New Earth shouldn’t be called Heaven. But if Heaven, by definition, is God’s special dwelling place, and “the dwelling of God” will be with humankind on Earth, then Heaven and the New Earth will essentially be the same place. Heaven is also where we see God’s throne, and we’re told that “the throne of God and of the Lamb” will be in the New Jerusalem, on the New Earth (Rev. 22:1).
Instead of us going up to God’s place to live forever, God will come down to live with us in our place, literally bringing Heaven to Earth! God’s children are destined for life as resurrected beings on a resurrected Earth. We should daily keep in mind our true destination, our ultimate home. Let’s be like Peter and the early Christians: “according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).