Alex Malarkey, who co-authored The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, publicly confessed his story is malarkey. He and his mother had been saying so for some time, but few noticed until last week.
His admission left me wondering why heavenly tourism gets so much attention. Christians might be less obsessed with heaven if we better grasped four things.
1. We were never supposed to go to heaven.
God created Adam and Eve to live on Planet Earth. Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground.” The Hebrew word for man is ’ādām, and the word for ground is ’ādāmâ. God wanted to emphasize our connection to the earth, so he said our name is dirt. If this is true, then the most theologically accurate name you could ever give your child is “Clay.” Or “Dusty.” If you have a girl, try “Sandy.” God made us from the dust of this world. We are earthlings, for heaven’s sake.
If Adam had passed his probation, we assume God would have cut to the end of the story and come down to live permanently with us (Rev. 21:1–3). Adam and Eve would have continued to live here, for there would have been no reason to go anywhere else. But Adam rebelled, and brought sin and death on the human race.
What happens when people die? Their bodies and souls are unnaturally torn apart; their bodies stay here while their souls go to either heaven or hell. Praise God that those who die in Christ go to heaven, but never forget that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. The only reason anyone ever goes to heaven is because of sin.
2. Scripture says little about heaven.
The Bible tells of one person who went to heaven and back. He claimed he “heard inexpressible things” that he was “not permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:2–4). This leaves me skeptical about those heavenly pilgrims who tell all, especially when there is money involved.
In Scripture we learn about heaven from Luke 23:43 (“Today you will be with me in paradise”); 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 (“be at home with the Lord”); Philippians 1:21–23 (“depart and be with Christ”); and 1 Thessalonians 4:14 (“God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him”).
What do all these passages say about heaven? Nothing more than we are with the Lord. That is enough, because being with Jesus makes heaven “heaven.” If heaven by itself is so great, then Jesus pulled a dirty trick on Lazarus when he raised him from the dead. Why didn’t Lazarus complain, “Aww, Lord! I was in heaven! Why did you bring me back here?” Lazarus was glad to come back because Jesus was here, and his presence made their corner of Bethany a heaven on earth.
3. Heaven is not the goal.
Heaven is not where the Bible ends. Isaiah, Peter, and John all promise that our final destiny is a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1; cf. Isa. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13). The term “heaven” here means the sky, where airplanes fly. The point of these prophecies is that God will restore his originally good creation. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), and in the end he will create a “new heaven and a new earth.” Creation, then new creation. Unfortunately, many Christians never reach the “new earth” end of this phrase. They stop at “new heaven” and, assuming it means the celestial abode of God, mistakenly think their destiny is to fly from this world and live with God somewhere above the clouds.
We take immense comfort from knowing our redeemed loved ones are in heaven. But we must remember that they aren’t yet entirely satisfied. They still long for something more (cf. Rev. 6:10, where heavenly saints “called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord?’”). As great as it is to be a disembodied soul in heaven with Jesus, there’s something even better: enjoying Jesus as a whole person on earth, where resurrected bodies are meant to live. So praise God that those who die in Christ go to heaven. And praise God even more that they’re on the first leg of a round-trip journey.
Do you feel the tension? We must not minimize the comfort and glory of heaven, but we also must not so praise our condition there that we minimize the return of Christ and our resurrection. The apostle John shows us how to put this together. In John 14:1–3, Jesus promises to “go and prepare a place” for us. Too many Christians stop there and miss that John later completes this thought. In Revelation 21:1–3, John sees that place, “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” so that “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.” Jesus does temporarily take us to be with him. But in the end, Jesus comes to earth to live with us. He is Immanuel, “which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). Let’s stop reading that name backwards.
4. Fixation on heaven can forfeit the gospel.
It’s no accident that in our heaven-obsessed culture, nearly half of “born again” Christians don’t believe their bodies will rise again.1 How can such persons be saved? As Paul told the overly spiritual Corinthians, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:13–14). You can be more spiritual than God, who raised his Son from death. You can be so spiritual you’re no longer Christian.
The Christian faith is earthy, physical, and, in the best sense of the word, materialistic. Our story begins in a sensual garden of delight and then tells how a nation was delivered from physical bondage into a land overflowing with milk and honey. It turns on an embodied God who physically died and rose again, whose sacrifice is remembered in the physical waters of baptism and the bread and the cup. The story consummates on a new earth where, in the presence of God, we will celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb, bite into fruit from the Tree of Life, and gulp handfuls from the River of Life. From beginning to end, the material world matters. The gospel of redemption may be more than creation, but it is not less. Redemption can’t get started without it.
Malarkey’s book may be full of what his name suggests, but the title got something right. Christians will go to heaven when we die, and we all will come back. We don’t believe in the Platonic dream of an eternal, disembodied heaven. We believe in the resurrection!
Editors’ note: In light of his new book Becoming Worldly Saints: Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life? (Zondervan), Wittmer will speak on “Teaching Your People to Be Worldly Saints” in a workshop at our 2015 National Conference, April 13 to 15, in Orlando. Rates go up in less than two weeks, so register today!
1 “Poll Reveals Few Believe in Physical Resurrection,” Grand Rapids Press (April 8, 2006), D9.