Will We Recognize Our Loved Ones in Heaven?

In Blogs by Cameron Joyner15 Comments

Whenever I pass through the historical accounts of the Kings of Judah and Israel in the Bible, I am always amazed at that point in Judah’s history when the Book of the Law (or Torah) had been buried and forgotten in the Land (2 Kings 22).

Unfortunately, the situation is not much different in our time. I am equally amazed at the high rate of biblical illiteracy in the American church today. Although the Bible is within reach of every American, it is virtually buried in many homes and churches. Nevertheless, it is because of biblical illiteracy and a few peripheral factors that we have misunderstandings over many aspects of our faith. 

I want to take a moment to address just one specific aspect of our faith that is sorely misunderstood. Does the Bible say that we will know everyone from our former lives once we are in heaven? This is important because it affects our hope for the future. Will I recognize my wife, Amber, as only another sister in Christ, or will I remember that she was my wife in my former life? Will I recognize that my sister, Chelsea, is not only my sister in Christ but my sister by blood in my former life?  Many Christians are wrestling with this because we all wonder if we will get to genuinely be reunited in heaven with those of our former lives. Answers vary depending on who you ask. Misunderstandings over the afterlife are not by-products of biblical illiteracy alone; it’s also because the afterlife is NOT being preached anymore. In fact, heaven is ignored almost as much as hell in many pulpits.

Misunderstandings over the afterlife are not by-products of biblical illiteracy alone; it’s also because the afterlife is NOT being preached anymore. In fact, heaven is ignored almost as much as hell in many pulpits.

I firmly believe Scripture teaches that we will be able to recognize those we knew in this life once in heaven. However, there are also sincere, born-again believers in Christ who know the Bible well and would disagree with me, not because of biblical illiteracy or ignorance, but because they fear robbing God of His glory. Therefore, my purpose here is to lovingly reason from Scripture against that notion by articulating three objections from the opposing side and then answering them from Scripture.

The first objection is that if we knew everyone in heaven, we would know our former spouses, which contradicts Jesus in Matthew 22:30 saying that “in the resurrection [we] neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (ESV). Therefore, God will have to permanently remove the distraction of recognizing our former spouses from memory. In response to this, let me first acknowledge the truth that our marriage covenants (even the happiest of marriages) are declared to be absolved upon death elsewhere in Scripture. First Corinthians 7:39 states that a “wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (see also Rom. 7:2). However, saying anything more than this involves inserting an idea into Scripture that is not there. Clearly, the purpose for marriage covenants will end. In Ephesians 5 marriage is a picture of our Lord’s love for His Redeemed. This picture becomes unnecessary once Christ’s Bride is with Him in glory. Furthermore, procreation will not be necessary either. 

None of this indicates a divine memory wipe! I see no indication in Scripture that Adam will not recognize Eve. I cannot find where God’s Word says Abraham will not know who Sarah was. Without sin natures, these relationships are guaranteed to be improved in the Kingdom. I have no doubt that Jacob, Rachel, and Leah now have power from on high to love each other with a pure and holy love; with marriage obsolete they are no longer burdened with jealousy, bitterness, and resentment. If Adam and Eve could recognize each other prior to the Fall without diminishing God or sinning, I see no reason to believe that this is impossible with Paradise restored.

This debate really involves whether the saints retain their personal identities in the afterlife. Consequently, the second objection from the opposing side speculates that we should be so consumed with meeting the Lord Jesus that we are wrong in hoping to recognize anyone from our former lives because it robs God of His glory. My initial reaction to this objection is that Scripture itself indicates that personal identities are retained after death. King Saul was able to recognize Samuel by unlawfully consulting the medium at Endor (1 Sam. 28:3-25). King David no longer mourned the loss of his infant son knowing that they would one day be reunited. After his child died, David said, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). This is especially comforting to me because Amber and I had a miscarriage six years ago. Thankfully, Scripture is chock-full of examples of saints being recognized after death. The pinnacle of examples would be that Jesus Himself was recognizable after His resurrection. Consider that Elijah and Moses were recognized at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt. 17). Furthermore, Paul comforted the Thessalonians with the hope of being “caught up together with them [those who died before us]” at the Rapture (1 Thess. 4:17). 

Does retaining personal, recognizable identities somehow rob God of His glory? No! First, in our glorified bodies, our ability to idolize someone else over God will be impossible. Second, consider that for eternity God Himself will memorialize men like the apostles and the twelve sons of Israel by inscribing their names on the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:12-14). Also, Jesus clearly declared that many will “come from east and west, [to] recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11, HCSB). Without being robbed of glory, God will reward faithful saints like the patriarchs and the apostles with the privilege of fellowshipping with the whole host of heaven while they in no way will commit idolatry against the Lord.

The last objection to my position is the idea of a divine memory wipe itself. The opposing side cannot envision God wiping away every tear from our eyes in heaven (Rev. 21:4) without first preventing us from remembering the sins, pains, and sorrows of this life, and since our earthly relationships in this life inevitably involved sin and pain, we shouldn’t expect to remember this life, or anyone in it, at all. In answering this objection, we would be more at risk of robbing God of glory if we did not remember what He redeemed us from! Jesus Himself retained the markings of crucifixion in His body, after the resurrection (John 20:27)! I believe we will have the ability to know what we were redeemed from in our former lives while having the power to not remember it in a way that causes grief. This mirrors how God does not wipe His memory and forget His great story of redemption, yet He has the power to “remember [our] sins no more” (Heb. 8:12, ESV). Also, Scripture indicates that being forgotten by losing our personal identities is a punishment that God inflicts on the wicked of hell and not the saints of heaven. Psalm 9:5-6 says, God has “blotted out their names forever and ever . . . the very memory of them [the wicked] has perished.” Indeed, it seems the only people we won’t remember in heaven are those who are in hell. It’s quite possible that we will know they are there, but we will have the power to forget them in righteousness. Notice that in the story of Lazarus, Abraham, and the rich man, we are not told the name of the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Could it be that it’s because his name is blotted out?

In closing, my hope with this article is that no one in Christ’s church has their joy stolen from them by misunderstanding Scripture. I said in my last article that God is relational, and He created us to be relational beings. It is much more in harmony with Scripture for the saints to view life after death as a blessed reunion where our relationships with God and with each other are perfected, something we can all look forward to.

About the Author
Cameron Joyner

Cameron Joyner

Cameron Joyner and his wife, Amber, are Church Ministry Representatives with The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry in Atlanta, GA. If you would like to learn more or partner with Cameron’s ministry, you can contact him at cjoyner@foi.org or call our headquarters at 800-257-7843 and speak with someone in North American Ministries. You can also support their ministry online here.

Comments 15

  1. I think your death might be wiped from your mind for a bit. There are easy deaths and horrible deaths. If the lord didn’t wipe those memories you might end up catatonic upon arrival. We will know the mind of God. Thats a powerful statement. I just think my wife is my best friend and she will be my friend in heaven. But she will no longer be my wife. We will be beyond husband and wife. More like brothers and sisters is best I can put it into words. My opinion of course. As for the Lord, We are created in his image and by that I mean his spiritual image. We know he gets angry and he is happy and I think is quite capable of laughter. Because we are. Heaven is going to blow our minds. Again just my opinion!

  2. Very well said. The problem you’ve pointed out is oddly pervasive; it’s seems to be an over-correction rooted in Romaphobia rather than scripture. We want to avoid the issue with saints so we then develop an almost frail and powerless entrant into heaven; upon us getting there God must be even more protective, in effect He must lobotomize us, promoting this oddly weakened state.

    But this is such a sad version where death is given far, far too much powerful. It is no better to say “they’ll be thinking of God so much they won’t think of us.” because God Himself said in the garden that He desired more for Man. And how charitable would it be for them to forget us?

    I would marvel at how our Lord spoke of the rich man burning in hades – and that man, that un-redeemed man, begged for mercy for his family. So are we saying that the unsaved man cared more for his family than would a redeemed saint? I think not.

    I would rather think that like a sponge we soak in God when we arrive in heaven. That we see more through His eyes than our own. That we see clearly instead of through the imperfect glass.

  3. Thank you for your clearly stated clarification on the subject of recognizing those we love in heaven! That has always been my understanding. And, you’re right, not much is taught on heaven these days – which is a mystery! Since heaven will be our home for eternity, the more we learn about it, the more we should be looking forward to spending eternity with our Lord and those we love!

  4. There are things that we will never fully understand in scripture. There are many mysteries of the scripture
    that are revealed to us through the Holy Spirit. Just knowing there is a Heaven and that God has told us that no ear hath heard nor eye has seen nor mind of man can comprehend things God has prepared for us.

  5. You’re amazing! I believe the same as you and am so thankful to God Almighty, that you shared this with us. Praise His Name for we live for His honor and glory and not our own!

  6. I found this article very comforting and heart warming. I was saved at 21 years of age and now pushing 69. I have known so many brothers and sister in Christ, but with my increasing age, my thoughts are not always clear on faces and names. I do feel that our new body’s will allow us to remember those we have fellowship with throughout the decades of our years. To rejoice together and celebrate our new eternals days with our Lord and Savior in the new heaven and new earth. To walk with Paul, Peter and other biblical greats is to wonderful to truly comprehend. To look into the eyes of Christ and feel his love and hear his voice is pure heaven. Seeing his scars will always reminds the saved of the sacrifice that was for us and stir praises of thanks to the glory of God.

    1. I love how in the transfiguration of Christ the disciples knew immediately that it was Moses and Elijah that spoke with our Lord. We are not told that Jesus looked over His shoulders to inform His disciples, nor does it seem that Moses or Elijah were wearing a tag “Hello, my name is …”
      Rather the two men were so MUCH who they were, they were ALL that God had intended, that they were instantly recognized to people who’d never seen them.

  7. When Paul said that he was the chief of all sinners, I can relate. I have some dirty laundry stuffed in my closet that I don’t want my wife, my friends, or the world to know. I hope to have this totally erased from my history. If God has a different plan for me and my past sins, so be it. I am just so overjoyed to be redeemed from all that by my Savior Jesus Christ.

  8. I just want to thank all of you for taking an interest in this article regardless of where you stand on the issue. I want to encourage you to share the Friends of Israel’s Blog and magazine, Israel My Glory with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Blessings to you in His Great Name!

    1. Yes, just as the article proposes that Jacob, Rachel, and Leah will not lose any knowledge regarding their former marital arrangement; however, their relationship is guaranteed to improve in a glorified, holy state.

  9. Without our memory we are not us. If we were we could just say when I die I will be John Jones. I will never die as long as people are on earth because that last person could be me if my memory doesn’t count. Our soul and memory are not separable.

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