In light of the recent passing of Becky’s mom and time spent with two friends who are on a palliative journey, Becky and my conversation has often turned to musing about what we might expect in heaven, or at least the place we commonly refer to as heaven. I think all of us have hopes about what it might entail, many of those hopes being based on what we enjoy here on earth. For some it involves never ending sporting events, which for others is more of a description of the alternative place to which the naughty are assigned. A lady in our church described heaven as sitting on centre court at Wimbledon watching the best of tennis while eating strawberries and cream. The other day, a little boy at our church asked me if there would be playdo in heaven. I certainly had to pause, but then assured him if he enjoyed it, then maybe it would be there. I use to think of heaven as a great reunion, catching up with all my old friends and family. That would be an extroverts dream, not necessarily that of an introvert, for whom it may be a series of one on ones, with long gaps of time alone. I don’t dream of the reunion scenario anymore, but rather, if I was to choose a heavenly experience, it would be a long day of surfing with perfect waves in perfect weather. To feel that rush of adrenaline as the wave catches your board and be reminded you are one with nature, alive and free. I think that comes to me now, as I know it is no longer possible to do that in this aged body. Maybe heaven is custom designed for each person based on when they arrive.
The promise of heaven is not very explicit in the Bible, and most of the time when the word heaven is used it is a reference merely to the skies above, to the universe or the place where God dwells, not to the place we hopefully go when we die. Other words or phrases are often used to reference the latter, such as eternity, paradise, with the Lord, Father’s house, and the city of God. Of course, there is a description of a new heaven in the last book of the Bible that paints a word picture that could be described as beautiful and far beyond imagination. Maybe far beyond imagination is really what heaven is, and we are free to use our imagination.
Some writers have used their imagination to help us understand. Randy Alcorn in his book Heaven says all you need to do to picture heaven is “look around you and imagine what all this would be like without sin and death and suffering and corruption. I imagine our first glimpse of Heaven will cause us to similarly gasp in amazement and delight. That first gasp will likely be followed by many more as we continually encounter new sights in that endlessly wonderful place. And that will be just the beginning, because we will not see our eternal home – the New Earth- until after the resurrection of the dead. And IT will be far better than anything we’ve seen.” It does sound amazing.
Leif Enger has a beautiful description of heaven in the penultimate chapter of his book Peace Like a River. Using a similar picture as Pilgrim Progress, coming to heaven is seen as crossing over to a stunningly beautiful shore. Enger’s hero says ‘near the shore the water appeared gold as on your favorite river at sunup, but farther out it turned to sky and cobalt and finally a kind of night in which the opposite shore lay hidden. At that moment I had no notion of identity. Nor of burden. I laughed in place of language.’ He goes on to describe nature and all of creation being one, dancing and laughing in perfect harmony. This sense of jubilation he describes as ‘my soul leapt dancing inside my chest, and my feet sprang up and sped me forward, and the sense came to me of undergoing creation, as the land and the trees and the beast of the orchard had done some long time before. And the pulse of the country came around me, as of voices lifted at great distance and moved through me as I ran until the words came clear and I sang with them a beautiful and curious chant.’ In reading this I get a sense of wild abandonment and inexhaustible vigour, used to discover the insatiable adventure of being. The description appeals to me as it resonance with my desire of freedom, celebration, unity and beauty.
Years ago I told my family I wanted them to sing the song I Can Only Imagine at my memorial (along with number 386 in the Believers Hymn Book). Pete Kipley, who wrote I Can Only Imagine, doesn’t try to answer the question of what heaven will be like, but recognizes that both the question of heaven and our reaction to it, is left to our imagination. He writes:
I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine
The songwriter has captured what we do know about heaven; that it’s about being in the presence of God. My grandson Nathan was talking about heaven with Becky and he said that we would just stand there and say ‘wow’ at Jesus. I think Nate understands something we adults easily miss. Heaven is about Jesus. I remember when my Mom was passing away and I was trying to release her to go and be with Jesus. I told her Jesus would be there waiting to take her by the hand and she then asked, with her patented twinkle in her eye ‘can I take Dad with the other hand’. Admittedly, for some of us the thought of reuniting brings hesitancy, for our relationships are not all perfect. In talking with a another lady in our church about heaven and whether we would know people in heaven, she thought we would know people, but our renewed relationship with them wouldn’t be encumbered by the worries and anxieties that pockmark the best of relationships here and now. Our desire to have a reunion with those we love is a beautiful testimony to the loving relationships we have enjoyed and I think it is hard to grasp that the love of Jesus could so overwhelm us that we would lose sight of those precious relationships. Maybe we won’t lose sight of them, mostly because Jesus’ own humility would enable him to step aside. But will I want him to?
Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus
Or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine
I wonder if part of the struggle we have in thinking of heaven being a worship fest for Jesus is that many of us have not experienced the elation that can come from pure worship. Many years ago, Becky experienced a moment of powerful worship at a Soul Survivor conference in Vancouver. Matt Redman was leading thousands of people in music and as the worship band was coming to the end of a song, a swell of sound broke out that was not the melody or words of any particular song, but the indescribable emotions of hearts touched by God. Becky said it swelled from one side of the stadium to another in this great wave of worship, then would pause, and then another wave from a different direction would build and come flooding over the crowd. Her description of this echoed in my mind some years later as I read Engler’s description of ‘the humming began to swell — it was magnetic, as sound uncurling into song and light’. I remember reading an autobiography of the times of the great evangelist Charles Finney and him describing waves of repentance and forgiveness coming over the congregations during revival meetings causing people to groan and gasp from the powerful, but pleasurable sense of God’s presence.
I have failed to describe heaven in detail; I am left with overused words like awesome, amazing, superb and great to describe our promised future. These words have a vagueness that is both attractive and puzzling. Maybe it helps to think like the psalmist when he alludes to heaven by saying “in your [God] presence is fullness of joy; in your right hand there are pleasures forever.” So whatever our greatest joy is here on earth, we can use that to think of heaven, but hold it gently recognizing that our current dream may only be a poor reflection of what heaven will be in reality. I think God’s vagueness in description is an invite for us to dream and use our imagination, to hope and long for that day when we will be filled with inexpressible joy. Feel free to not only imagine, but to imagine fully.