Who will be there? Are near-death experiences reliable? And more on eternal life.
Scot McKnight is a Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, a sometimes-preacher about the first hour in heaven, and an author of more than 50 books, including his most recent, The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible’s Truth About the Life to Come (WaterBrook Press). We asked him to list 10 things he wishes people knew about heaven.
1. If there is a just God, there must be a heaven.
To believe in a future, endless, and human-populated heaven beyond the grave requires that one believe in a God who transcends all creation. The God of the Christian is a just God. And surely a just God creates a world designed for justice, but our world constantly reflects injustice.
If this world is all there is, God must be unjust. But if God is just and this world ends for many without justice, this world will give way to a future world where all things will be right.
This is the heaven hope that motivates so many of us and that gives us hope for those who have experienced horrifying injustices — the tragedies of abused children and the holocausts around the globe, including the Ukraine, the Jews of Germany’s holocaust, the Kurds, and the Syrians. The heaven hope believes God is just and, therefore, the just God will ultimately bring justice.
This just God turns a heaven hope into the heaven promise.
2. There is no heaven for Christians without the resurrection of Jesus.
To believe in a future, endless, and human-populated heaven means death is not the final word. In the Christian heaven promise, there is one death-defeating moment: Easter.
On Easter, God snapped the shackles of death, overpowered the death-dealing powers, and raised Jesus from the grave into eternal life. The entire heaven promise for Christians is based on that one day, that one morning, that one moment. Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no heaven hope or heaven promise for Christians.
3. The best evidence of heaven is the resurrection of Jesus.
To believe in a future, endless, and human-populated heaven means Christians will think about that heaven by examining the resurrected body of Jesus. It means heaven will be an embodied existence and not just a spirit-y or soul-y kind of ethereal, spiritual existence.
It means heaven will include such things as eating (Jesus ate) and fellowship with those we know on earth (Jesus enjoyed fellowship with his disciples). The most common images for the Christian heaven are then not harps and wispy bodies, but a city, a banquet, and God in the middle of it all receiving worship.
4. Near-death and out-of-body experiences are unreliable guides.
While it seems to be a new trend to believe in heaven because of stories of near-death experiences or out-of-body experiences, those who study these stories know the common features are defeated at times by differences.
Reports about near-death experiences have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Those reports tell us about what people believed before entering into that near-death experience. They are, after all, an experience of an already-existing and functioning brain, and what was in that brain is what is experienced as a person enters into that near-death experience.
Since death by definition is medically or physically irreversible, near-death experiences are encounters not with what is beyond death but what is pre-death. Hence they don’t tell us about what happens after death, but what happens to the human brain as a person enters into the dying process. They are then unreliable guides to what lies beyond death and unreliable guides about heaven.
5. Heaven will be full of surprises: #1. The first hour.
If God is just and heaven is about God making all things right, the “first hour” in heaven will be a time when all things are first made right. Realization of this ushers us into the essence of the Christian heaven promise: that first hour is when we will be made right with God, with ourselves, and with one another.
That “first hour” in heaven will mean mass reconciliation at the deepest levels: realization of truth, reception of truth, and reconciliation with others in that truth. It will mean some kind of admission and confession and embrace of God and others as we experience grace and forgiveness and reconciliation.
Heaven will not be heaven until that first hour of realization awakens us to God’s deep truths about God, ourselves, and our fellow humans. In the first hour in heaven our innermost life will be as clear to God and others as glass.
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