- Tomorrow will be a day of homecoming for God.
- The Christian hope is not about going somewhere to be with God.
- It is about God’s plan to invade humanity with his glory forever.
If you ask many Christians what their purpose in life is, they might say something like “to get to heaven.” This is the kind of mindset made popular by evangelistic preachers of the last few centuries. But they have created that mindset by consistently misquoting and misrepresenting the promises of Scripture.
Billy Graham’s heaven
I have deep respect for Dr. Billy Graham and his life of service to the Lord, but his sermons and writings actually serve as an example of this problem. He quotes John 14:3, which has Jesus saying “Where I am, there you may be also.” So he uses that verse to prove that heaven is the goal of the Christian, and that one can get there when he or she dies.1 But Jesus’ promise in John 14:3 is not about death at all. He says “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”2 The hope that Jesus promised was not the hope of going to God at death, but the hope of Christ coming back to take us – not to heaven – but to himself. This distinction is all the more important when we realize that Jesus’ purpose when he returns is to reign on this earth! The last thing a true Christian should want is to be away in some place called heaven when the Saviour is reigning on earth.
Graham spoke of heaven like a journey to a place that you had to decide to go, and purchase a ticket for in this life. He spoke of Jesus’ blood as the price that paid that ticket, and quoted John 14:6 as a proof text. 3 True, Jesus did say “No one comes to the Father except through me.” But he was not speaking at all about a place one gets to go to because of the atonement. The way to the Father was reconciliation of a relationship, not the fare for a new location.
Graham sees this location described in the book of Revelation. He says that John had “caught a glimpse of heaven” and described it there. So he concludes that “when we get to heaven, all the elements that made for unhappiness on earth will be gone. Think of a place where there is no sin, no sorrow, no insecurities, no quarrels, no selfishness, no racism, no misunderstandings, no hurt feelings, no worries, no pain, no sickness, no suffering, no death.”4
The believer’s hope in Revelation
But can we allow the Bible to determine what the Christian’s hope is? If we actually look at the book of Revelation, it describes the hope of the believer in this way:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 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. 4 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.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”5
John does not see a people coming up to heaven from earth. He sees a city coming down out of the sky from God. He sees God himself invading earth. In fact, John describes both advents as invasions from outer space. He said “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”6 That was the first advent, when Jesus Christ came and lived among us. At the second advent, when Jesus returns, all of God’s holiness will come down to earth with him.
the temple from Genesis to Revelation
G.K. Beale’s phenomenal book The Temple and the Church’s Mission7 argued that all of the Bible’s descriptions of the presence of God among men — from Eden to the eschaton — were pictures of God’s ultimate purpose. His purpose in the Old Testament and the New will culminate in his coming down to us, and residing among us. The tabernacle, and later, each successive temple was a physical and prophetic manifestation of that plan. Jesus’ first advent was an even more specific physical manifestation of God’s glory among us. Like all the temples before him, the temple of Jesus’ body was destined for destruction. But his resurrection signalled that death will not be the end of the Holy Spirit indwelling the church. In fact, even the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is merely a guarantee of a future, permanent indwelling.8
Notice, for example, these instances of the Hebrew word Shachanti (I will dwell) in the Old Testament).
· “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”9
· “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God.”10
· “And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel.”11
· “Now let them put away their whoring and the dead bodies of their kings far from me, and I will dwell in their midst forever.”12
· “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD.”13
· “And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.”14
· “Thus says the LORD: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain.”15
The holiness of God’s people was directly related to his presence among them.16 The temple was to be a manifestation of that dwelling and that holiness. But even Solomon recognized that the temple served only as a symbolic reflection of the presence.17 God intends to dwell in the midst of humanity in a deeper, more real sense. He intends to invade the planet, bringing his holiness and sinlessness to the whole universe. Once the universe is purged of every evil thing, and everyone not found in the Lamb’s book of life has died the second death, God will come down to reside among us forever. His presence will ensure that the new earth remains pure and sinless forever. That is what the Bible story is all about.
Christ’s role in the plan
Jesus serves as the crucial figure in the process of making that divine plan happen. He came and pitched his tent (Greek: skénoō skénoō ) among us,18 and because of what he did, the dwelling place (Greek: skénoō) will be “with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”19 John sees that ultimate event as a tremendous uncountable crowd of people redeemed from every nation on earth. These “are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter (Greek: skénōsei) them with his presence.”
The prophet Ezekiel described a future temple that would be constructed as part of the new holy city.20 Some interpreters believe he is describing a physical temple that will be built during the millennial reign of Christ, but the New Testament use of the word temple to describe Christ21 or Christian believers22 would make a new physical temple superfluous. It would be reverting to the type after the arrival of its fulfilment. It makes more sense to see Ezekiel’s temple as an allegorical reflection on God’s will for redeeming Israel by restoring his glorious presence in eternity. As such, it is essentially the same message that John gives in Revelation, albeit John is speaking of the eternal sanctification of all who are in Christ, while Ezekiel concentrated on a sanctified Israel.
the kingdom from the sky
The key to this ultimate sanctified community is the presence of God coming down to earth and establishing his kingdom. This kingdom can be sought now, and by trusting in Christ a person can enter this kingdom of God by faith. But it can also be inherited, because its final fulfilment has not yet come. It is called “the kingdom of God”23 because it is the same thing as the eternal relationship with God that John pictures in Revelation. It is also called “the kingdom from the sky”24 because it will descend from the sky as John describes in Revelation.
The unanimous mistranslation of hé basileía tōn ouranōn as “the kingdom of heaven” is unfortunate, because it has added to the misconception that the goal of Christianity is to get people to a new location after they die. That notion fit well with the pagan understandings of the first few centuries that the goal of a good life was release into the heavenly realms, but it has never fit with what the Bible proclaims as God’s ultimate purpose. His purpose (as revealed in Revelation 20:3) is for his presence to come down and reside eternally with us. This is why John the Baptist, proclaiming this coming kingdom, urged his people to “make his paths straight.”25 The picture is not one of our making ourselves ready for a trip up to him, but of making ourselves ready for his trip down to us.
Both the Hebrew word shamayim and the Greek word ouranos can sometimes refer to the place where God dwells with his angels. But both words are also the normal, everyday words used for the sky, as opposite the Hebrew erets and the Greek gé. Both of those words are somewhat consistently translated into English as “earth.” But the words almost invariably simply mean “land” as opposite “sky.” The consistent mistranslation of these words in combination: “heaven and earth” has bolstered an unbiblical cosmology, as if the universe can be divided into two distinct places. Man lives on a place called earth but God resides in another place called heaven.
Purely as a result of a verbal accident, sometimes shamayim va’arets/ ho ouranos kai hé gé does appear to refer to the known universe. God is called the possessor of both.26 He calls both to witness those who covenant to follow the law.27 He made both.28 He is Lord of both,29 But there are an uncomfortable bunch of texts which seem to ruin that carefully crafted cosmology, by introducing a third element (the seas) into the expression.30 There are also texts which state that both the ouranos and gé are going to pass away.31 Given these realities, it makes more sense to translate all of the expressions as referring to “the sky and the land” – thus eliminating the phrase as a cosmological summary. But this author doubts that the major Bible translations would ever concede this point, since to do so would be to drastically reduce the number of proof-texts for the cherished “going to heaven when we die” doctrine.32
The real biblical cosmology is reference not to two places, but to one event. God is invading this planet with his presence. He did so temporarily at the first coming of Christ. He did so for the church at Pentecost by sending the Holy Spirit. But the final and ultimate invasion is yet to come. The lost today are being challenged to join this coming kingdom – this kingdom coming down from the sky. Its coming – his coming – is sure and certain. There is no way to avoid this event. The question for everyone today is not where we are going when we die, but are we ready for his coming. Jesus is preparing a place – not for us to go to when we die, but to bring with him when he comes. John saw that place coming down from the sky. So will we.
- Billy Graham, The Heaven Answer Book. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 109.
- John 14:3 ESV.
- Billy Graham, Unto the Hills: A Daily Devotional. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 2.
- Billy Graham, Hope for the Troubled Heart: Finding God in the Midst of Pain. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000),
- Revelation 21:1-5 ESV
- John 1:14 ESV.
- G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,2004).
- 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14.
- Exodus 25:8 ESV.
- Exodus 29:45 ESV.
- 1 Kings 6:13 ESV.
- Ezekiel 43:9 ESV.
- Zechariah 2:10 ESV.
- Zechariah 2:11 ESV.
- Zechariah 8:3 ESV.
- Numbers 35:34.
- 1 Kings 8:27.
- John 1:14.
- Revelation 21:3.
- Ezekiel 40-48.
- Mark 14:58; John 2:19.
- 2 Corinthians 6:16.
- Matt. 6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43; Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14f, 23ff; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43; Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10; 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62; 10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:18, 20, 28f; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20f; 18:16f, 24f, 29; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51; John 3:3, 5; Acts 1:3; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 28:23, 31; Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 4:20; 6:9f; 15:50; Gal. 5:21; Col. 4:11; 2 Thess. 1:5.
- Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 5:3, 10, 19f; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11f; 13:11, 24, 31, 33, 44f, 47, 52; 16:19; 18:1, 3f, 23; 19:12, 14, 23; 20:1; 22:2; 23:13; 25:1.
- Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4.
- Genesis 14:19, 22.
- Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 31:28.
- Genesis 1:1; Exodus 31:17; 2 Chronicles 2:12; Psalm 115:15; 121:2; 134:3.
- Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21; Acts 17:24.
- Exodus 20:11; Psalm 69:34; 146:6; Revelation 14:7.
- Matthew 5:18;24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33.
- For more evidence that the destiny of believers is resurrection at Christ’s return, not heaven at death, see my Kindle e-book An Advent Christian Systematic Theology, chapters 19, 21, 24, 61, 66, and appendices C and D.