Sometimes Christians get accused of being so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. I understand the critique in that statement, but I’m not sure that all Christians are agreed on what we mean by heaven.
Probably in statements like that, people are referring to Christians who are eager for the afterlife. They endure this world because they know that one day they will spend eternity in heaven.
People are sometimes confused and concerned when I suggest that might not be accurate.
What do we mean by heaven?
First, what do we mean by heaven? In Hebrew and Greek, the words for heaven can mean a celestial place where God dwells and it can mean also simply the sky. This may be because the ancients assumed that God dwelt somewhere high above and so heaven and the heavens were pretty much the same thing.
Heaven is also sometimes used as an alternate word for God. For example, in Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is used instead on the kingdom of God, but they are the same thing. The kingdom of heaven is not a place but is rather about the reign of God.
When reading the scriptures, we should be careful to note which of these meanings are being used in a particular passage.
Where do we spend eternity?
So if we focus on heaven as the place where God dwells with the angels, is that the place where Christians will dwell for eternity?
Interestingly, there is no verse in the Bible that tells us that Christians will go to a place called heaven when we die. In fact the Bible says very little about what happens immediately after death. There are a couple of verses that talk about and all we are told is we go to be with the Lord. The Lord, is Jesus, and we are told that Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father, and so it is safe to say this is heaven.
But when it comes to the afterlife, the New Testament by far focuses on the resurrection. The resurrection is the raising of the dead and the providing of bodies similar to Jesus’ resurrection body. This will happen when Jesus returns. See 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 5.
The question is: where do we go from there? Presumably the souls have been waiting for the resurrection in heaven. Do we return there?
Based on Romans 8 and Revelation, I see the New Testament as teaching that our eternal home will be on a resurrected earth, in many ways parallel to what God will do with our physical bodies. There will be both continuity and discontinuity with the pre-resurrection state.
What is the purpose of heaven?
So in my view, heaven is not where we spend eternity. Heaven is the place we go to be with Jesus as we wait for the resurrection. But once we have been raised, we will live on the new earth.
If you are interested in more on this, I suggest N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. (Amazon affiliate link)