The cartoonist Gary Larson once illustrated a familiar view of heaven: A man with angel wings and a halo sits alone on a cloud. He has the expression of someone stuck on a deserted island, lonely and bored. "Wish I'd brought a magazine," the caption reads.
If only this stereotypical view were limited to the imaginations of pop culture! As I've taught on this topic over the years, I've found that many Christians — from teachers and theologians to pastors and parents — have serious misconceptions about heaven. A pastor friend once told me that the idea of heaven — floating in clouds, strumming a harp — actually made him depressed. "How terribly boring!" he exclaimed. Later, I wondered where this seminary-educated pastor got such a view of heaven. Certainly not from Scripture, where Paul said that to depart and be with Christ would be far better than remaining on earth (Philippians 1:23).
Many Christians seem to assume the Bible lacks clarity on the topic of heaven, that answers must be left to the imagination. For parents, this lack of clear direction isn't helpful as we discuss faith with our kids. Heaven is a topic that many kids love to talk about — and to ask questions about! Will my dog be there? Will we eat? Will we play ball?
While we can't answer every question to our kids' satisfaction, the Bible does go into more depth on heaven than most people realize. The picture Scripture reveals of eternity engages our imagination and strengthens our faith. Here are a few principles that can help your family begin a Bible-based conversation on heaven:
Heaven certainly won't be boring
The belief that heaven will be boring betrays the belief that God is boring. Nonsense! Our desire for pleasure and joy come directly from God. He made our taste buds, adrenaline, the nerve endings that convey pleasure to our brains. Surely we aren't so arrogant as to imagine that human beings came up with the idea of having fun.
Ask your kids this question: "If you could spend an evening with any person, who would you choose?" Most of us would probably love to spend the evening with a great author, musician, artist or head of state. Yet God is the master artist who created our world, the inventor of music, the author and main character of the unfolding drama of redemption. He's King of the universe. Surely spending time with Him will be anything but dull! After all, the positive qualities we admire in others are true of God. He is the source of all those qualities!
Heaven is not our default destination
First things first. Scripture is clear that what keeps us out of heaven is universal: sin. Our sin separates us from a relationship with God, and we are therefore not entitled to enter His presence. Unless that problem is resolved, we go to our true default destination — hell, a place of utter misery and punishment for sin. The reality of hell should break our hearts and take us to our knees and to the doors of those without Christ. But today it's common to ignore — even deny — Scripture's clear teachings on hell.
Talking about hell isn't fun. There are certainly more enjoyable topics for the dinner table. But if you were giving someone directions on how to go somewhere, and you knew that one route led there safely but a second ended at a sharp cliff, would you only tell him about the safe road? No! You would talk about both, especially if you knew that the road to destruction was often traveled. We mustn't believe it's improper to discuss hell. Indeed, the most loving thing we can do for our families is to clearly explain the road that leads to destruction — and the road that leads to life.
And how marvelous that road to life is! The price for our sin has been paid! Consider the wonder of it: God so desires us not to go to hell that He made the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross so that we could instead live forever with Him in heaven.
Heaven is a real, physical place
The eternity described throughout the pages of Scripture is not an ethereal realm of disembodied spirits. Jesus said, "In my Father's house are many rooms. . . . I am going there to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2). A place is by nature physical, just as human beings are by nature physical and spiritual. Jesus chose familiar physical terms, giving us something tangible to anticipate — a home, where we will live with Him.
So what does that place look like? Scripture is filled with hints and images about our eternal home. Put together, these jigsaw pieces begin to form a beautiful portrait of "a new heaven and a new earth" (2 Peter 3:13). In Hebrews, heaven is described both as a city and as a country. We have some ideas what countries and cities are like. They have buildings, art, music, sports, food and events. They have people engaged in activities, conversations and work. I think many elements of the new earth will be familiar to us.
And consider this: If the Bible consistently describes heaven as "a new earth," shouldn't the current earth be bursting with clues about what heaven will be like? The place that we've been specifically designed for is the place God originally made for us: earth. If the word earth means anything, it means that we can expect to find . . . well, earthly things there — including mountains, flowers, water, trees — and, yes, cities and streets.
Heaven is the completion of our redemption
The entire physical universe was created for God's glory. But humanity rebelled, and the universe fell from God's grace under the weight of our sin. Yet God was not surprised, and He had a plan to redeem mankind from sin and death. And just as He promises to make people new, He promises to renew His creation.
As you read Scripture with your family, take note of the vocabulary that makes this point clear: Redeem. Restore. Return. Renew. Resurrect. These words all demonstrate a return to an original condition that was lost. God always sees us in light of what He intended us to be and seeks to restore us to that design though Jesus' death and resurrection. Likewise, He sees the earth in terms of what He intended it to be, and He seeks to restore it to its original design.
We may pass from the earth through death, but eventually we'll be back to live in restored bodies on a restored new earth. The world as it once was — as God made it — is our home. So far, we've not known a world without sin, suffering and death. Yet we yearn for such a world. When we see a roaring waterfall, beautiful flowers, the incredible animals God has made, we sense that this world is — or at least was meant to be — our home.
Heaven inspires our faith
Does the thought of heaven fill your family with excitement? Do you talk about it? I believe a biblically energized view of heaven can bring a new spiritual passion to our lives and to our families.
When we fix our minds on heaven and see the present in light of eternity, even little choices become significant. After death, we will never have another chance to share Christ with a friend, to give a cup of water to the thirsty, to reach out to the lonely, to help the helpless. Remember that God desires the redemption of everything — and everyone! Our goal should be to raise heavenly minded kids who see human beings and the earth not simply as they are, but as God intends them to be.
Longing for the new earth, "where righteousness dwells," Peter says, "Since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him" (2 Peter 3:14).
We can't live perfect lives, nor can we expect our children to. But knowing that our destiny is to live as redeemed, righteous people on a redeemed, righteous earth with our righteous Redeemer should be a powerful incentive to call upon His strength to live as righteously as we can today.
Randy Alcorn is the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries and author of Heaven.