Ad Clerum on Heaven

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God..” (Revelation 21:2–3)

What do you think about heaven?

When we were church planting in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the 1980s we had a summer camp for the children of the community called “Good News Camp.” Angela and our own children designed and ran the program while I took care of the parents in the parking lot. One day a rather irate mother objected to one of the camp songs that Angela had introduced. The words seemed rather innocuous to me, even if they were a little casual:

Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.
I wanna see my Savior’s face, ‘cause Heaven is a wonderful place.
I wanna go there! (The song is repeated –faster each time!)

The mother’s basic objection was that we were frightening her child by raising the topic of life after death. Sadly, she is not alone. We live in a culture that is ready to discuss topics of great personal intimacy without hesitation, and yet when it comes to the foundational question of eternal life, we become somewhat tongue-tied.

From the beginning, the teaching of the Bible has been clear...there is life after this life. It is a glorious life lived in the closer presence of God where...“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

We know this to be true primarily because of the teaching and example of Jesus himself, whose post crucifixion appearances made clear that he had not just survived death but he had overcome it--once and for all time. His resurrection confirmed his promise that those who their trust in him will beat death also. But we also have glimpses of the reality of heaven through the testimony of many who have gone before us.

One example that always comes to my mind is the story of Bert Maxwell. Bert worked as broadcast technician for NBC and was a friend of ours at St. Paul’s in Darien, Connecticut, during the early 1970s. After we had moved to Alexandria, Virginia, in 1975 to attend Virginia Seminary, Bert came to Washington to cover the 1976 Bicentennial events. Sadly, during the events he suffered a serious heart attack and was hospitalized. Bert’s wife, Doris, called me in desperation, asking that I go to the hospital and pray for him. In the providence of God, Bishop Alpha Mohammed, a fellow student, was with me at the time that Doris called and he immediately offered to go with me. We prayed fervently, but Bert never recovered consciousness, and soon he died. We called Doris to give her the news. She was disconsolate but kept repeating that her greatest sadness was that Bert was never able to fulfill his life dream to be a missionary. As we talked about possible funeral arrangements, Doris interjected: “Instead of flowers I want to give all of the money to Bishop Alpha so that he can plant a church in Bert’s name.” This seemed to give great comfort to Doris, and so it was agreed.

Four years later Angela and I were with Bishop Alpha in Tanzania and he took us to visit the church that had been established in honor of Bert Maxwell. Doris had given us a large color photo of Bert to present to the church for the occasion. Bishop Alpha called us forward and told the story of Bert’s death and his widow’s desire to establish this church. Holding up the photograph, he said to the congregation, “Study this face. When you get to heaven, look for him and thank him for giving you the opportunity of eternal life.” They all looked intently and resolved to do just as they had been instructed! Afterwards, we had the baptism of a little girl. Alpha announced that in honor of this special occasion her name would be changed to “Doris Angela,” and everyone applauded. It was a wonderful celebration, and Bert’s legacy was secure.

Heaven is a wonderful place filled with glory and grace and people – but of course the big question is who gets to go? That is a question with which the church has wrestled for many generations. As you may recall from church history, one of the underlying issues that led to the great Reformation debates was the question of the necessary qualification for entrance into heaven. Sola Gratia – Grace Alone – was and is the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation. But is still not a settled question for many.

As part of my training for ordained ministry, I served as a chaplain at the Washington, D.C., Children’s Hospital, and it proved to be a life changing ministry as I cared for terminally ill children and their families. Two incidents from my time there have stayed fresh in my memory. The first was the death of a newborn baby – I was called to the room just after the baby had died and was confronted by a grieving family sobbing over their baby’s body. What grieved them most was that their baby had died without being baptized and so, they believed, was lost to them for eternity. I quickly recognized that no amount of theological debate would comfort them, so I offered to baptize the baby then and there. Their tears dried and we had a baptism – I am sure that I could be challenged about its theological correctness or liturgical necessity, but it gave this little family heavenly hope.

There was in the hospital a boy with terminal cancer with only days to live. He was seven or eight years old and full of faith. His attending physician asked me to speak with him. It seemed that the boy, with his parents’ permission, had asked the doctor to arrange for the donation of his organs, tissue, and eyes to any other children who might need them. The doctor was taken aback by the boy’s declaration: “I’m going to get a new body in heaven so I won’t be needing them!” I met and prayed with the family and assured the doctor that it really was a genuine desire from them all.

I am sure that little boy got to see His Savior’s face because heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace!

In Christ,