Many Christians often think of the place called heaven as their ultimate destiny. This is a correct understanding in one sense. However, there are distinctions in biblical history—even the history of the end times—that must be understood so that the Christian looks ahead with clarity about his own individual future.
To begin with, one must understand that the Bible uses the word heaven in three different ways. First, it is used to describe the atmosphere of the earth. In this sense, the term refers to the space or firmament where the eagles soar (Lamentations 4:19), birds fly (Genesis 2:19; 7:3, 23) and clouds move (Daniel 7:13; Acts 1:9–10; Revelation 1:7). In some passages, the term is translated air or sky. One extremely clear statement is given in Genesis 1:20—“and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.” Second, the word heaven at times refers to cosmic space. Here the term refers to the space where the sun, moon, planets, and stars exist (Genesis 22:17; Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 17:3; Matthew 24:29). Third, the term heaven points to the abode of God, which the Bible calls the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:3). By the abode of God, we mean the place where God lives—His home. This sometimes seems strange to Christians since we believe that God is omnipresent and everywhere all the time. How can He have a home?
Some Christians believe that when they die, they will go to heaven and everything will continue that way forever. But God’s plan is more robust and detailed.
In order to communicate to men, God has localized His presence in many ways throughout history: a burning bush, pillar of fire, Tabernacle, Temple, incarnation of Jesus, and the hearts of Church Age believers. But God has established a special, localized place called heaven where He lives and points believers to in prayer (Matthew 6:9). It is called the Father’s house (John 14:2–3) and is tied to the believer’s destiny.
However, some Christians believe that when they die, they will go to heaven and everything will continue that way forever. But God’s plan is more robust and detailed. Therefore, we need to review the Church Age believer’s experience of heaven in four time periods: the Church Age itself, Tribulation, Millennium, and the eternal state.
Heaven and the Church Age
If a believer in Jesus dies during the Church Age, his body decays in the grave, while waiting for the resurrection at the Rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). The believer’s soul, however, departs at death to be with Jesus. The Bible teaches us that to die and depart is to “be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). Further, God’s Word reminds us that “to be absent from the body” is “to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). It is apparently true that a believer’s soul in heaven will be able to experience sensation (Luke 16:19–31). However, the believer’s experience of heaven at that time will be without his physical body, although his more direct experience of God and Jesus will make his life there better than it is on Earth below. No believer who dies ever wants to come back to life as it was.
Heaven and the Tribulation Period
The Church Age ends when Christ comes to rapture the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). At that time, Jesus reunites the souls of Church Age believers from heaven with their bodies which are raised from the grave. Both those who have died and those who are alive when Christ comes will be glorified in body and soul and taken up in the air to be with the Lord. It is at this time that Jesus takes all Christian believers to the Father’s house in heaven. These believers experience heaven somewhat differently. They live with both body and soul glorified. One of the major events during this time in heaven is the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10). There, Christians will be judged for how well they performed in the Christian life on Earth. Rewards will be established, which will be implemented later during the Millennium.
Heaven and the Millennium
At the end of the Tribulation, when Christ returns to set up His earthly Kingdom, He will bring with Him all Christian believers (still glorified in body and soul) who will reign with Him on Earth (Luke 19:11–27). Their experience of God is somewhat different than what it was in heaven during the Tribulation. In the Millennium, the believers will continue to be with Christ and relate to Him on the earth as they rule with Him. However, the Father is still in heaven, the abode of God, which is not yet on the earth.
In the Millennium, the believers will continue to be with Christ and relate to Him on the earth as they rule with Him.
In addition, these believers will experience the presence of unglorified people who enter the Millennium after surviving the Tribulation. According to the Bible, there is still death in this phase of God’s earthly Kingdom, and children are born from unglorified parents (Isaiah 65:20–23). Of course, the Church Age believers as glorified beings will not be touched by death and will not propagate. However, they will see death and children born around them. Sin and the curse has not yet been eliminated. Their experience at this point is an earthly one and not a heavenly one.
Heaven and the Eternal State
At the end of the Millennium, God ushers in a new heaven and new earth which we call the eternal state (Revelation 21:1). This is a continuation of God’s forever earthly Kingdom. However, dramatic changes take place. God sends down a New Jerusalem, holy and beautiful, to be experienced as the home of the bride (vv. 2, 9–10). This is the Father’s house, His abode, coming down to the new earth (v. 3). While the Father remained in heaven during the Millennium in terms of His special localized abode (remember He is omnipresent nonetheless), He now comes to dwell with His people. This means that the fullness of the triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—can be experienced by the saints who remain glorified forever in body and soul. This will be unlike anything that believers have ever seen and heard. The best description of their lives is found in what can be called God’s greatest promise: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (v. 4).