In March 1997 the people of the United States were shocked to hear of the largest mass suicide in the nation's history. Thirty-nine members of the religious group Heaven's Gate were found in a California mansion, each dressed in black pants, black shirt and new athletic shoes, after killing themselves with a mixture of drugs, alcohol and asphyxiation.
Police were surprised by the obvious lack of trepidation-and, according to videotapes and letters left behind, even elation-the sect's members experienced as they prepared to leave this world.
Brought together by a smorgasbord of Christianity, New Age beliefs, paganism and science fiction, and spurred by a belief that the Hale-Bopp comet was an apocalyptic sign, these people died thinking they would travel to a better state of existence.
At first the suicide of healthy people who want to die to transition to a better life seems unfathomable. It's much easier to understand the death wish of someone who is terminally ill or otherwise suffering.
Yet most people hope for an afterlife, a consciousness void of suffering and grief. Many Christians believe that when a person dies he goes to heaven, and over the centuries people have held many views of what heaven is like.
Heaven often refers to the realm where God dwells. There has been much speculation on what happens to those who supposedly go there, from spending eternity gazing into the face of God to an actual place where the saints interact with the Supreme Being and His angels. Mostly it's thought of as a nebulous hereafter where good people go to experience eternal bliss.
The 1998 movie What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams, presents heaven as a place in which the departed create their own egocentric universe. It paints a lonely, imperfect picture of eternity. Curiously, in this movie version of heaven God was nowhere to be found.
Heaven and God's throne
When we go to the Bible we find descriptions of heaven as the location of the throne of God. The apostle John describes a vision in which he saw heaven. He writes in the book of Revelation about his experience: "After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, 'Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this'" (Revelation 4:1).
John continues in verses 2-6: "Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads.
"And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back."
Is this the realm of the promised afterlife for those who believe in the God of the Bible?
More than one heaven
Jesus makes a startling statement about heaven in John 3:13. He says in reference to Himself as the Messiah, "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man" (emphasis added throughout).
Jesus claims He is the only one who has ascended into heaven. If Jesus is the only one to go to heaven, what happened to all the great men and women of faith throughout history?
To answer that we must look at often-misunderstood biblical concepts of heaven. Have you ever noticed that many biblical references to heaven are plural-"heavens"? In Scripture heaven can refer to earth's atmosphere, where we see the "birds of heaven" or where the "windows of heaven" open to bring rain.
Heaven can also refer to what we call outer space-the realm of the moon, planets, galaxies and the whole physical universe.
Heaven can also mean the location of the throne of God. In 2 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul writes about a vision he says showed him the "third heaven." The heaven of which Jesus spoke is this third heaven, the location of the very throne of God.
John also records a discourse by Jesus Christ in which He explains why He came to earth from heaven in the first place. "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:38-40).
The hope of the resurrection
What does Jesus mean when He says He will raise someone up at the last day?
The resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is essential to the Christian faith. In fact, the concept of Christianity is meaningless without the belief that Jesus rose from the grave, was seen by His disciples and ascended to the throne of God. The Scriptures demand Christians to accept that Jesus died and experienced a bodily resurrection three days and three nights later.
Let's look at what Paul writes to Christians in ancient Corinth in 1 Corinthians 15:22-24: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power."
Notice that Paul says that "all shall be made alive ... each one in his own order." Jesus Christ is the first to be raised from the dead to eternal life. Then "afterwards those who are Christ's at His coming" will also be resurrected.
Many times in his writings Paul, as do other biblical writers, refers to death as sleep. How do we reconcile what Paul wrote with the traditional idea about heaven? Is it possible that the common belief that people go to heaven after they die is not what the Bible really teaches?
With Christ on earth
Jesus made important comments to His disciples on the night before His death, as recorded in John 14:1-4: "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know."
It is important to note where Jesus will be after His return. He will reign as king of the world for 1,000 years while the resurrected saints will rule with Him here on earth (Revelation 5:10; 20:4-6).
So Christ promises to return to earth for His disciples, both living and dead. He nowhere says we will be off with Him in heaven.
Paul tells us about the resurrection of the dead at Christ's return in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18: "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
"For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words."
The resurrection of which Paul wrote and Jesus spoke isn't a theory of an ethereal, nebulous existence as a disembodied ghost. It is the sure promise of a bodily resurrection to a spirit-composed life of eternal energy, eternal creativity and eternal goodness as the children of God.
This resurrection takes place not at death, as these scriptures make clear, but when Christ returns to establish His Father's kingdom on earth. The Christian future is far more spectacular than the view of heaven as a place of eternal repose without concrete meaning or personal purpose.
Why were you born? If you want to have a part in this glorious resurrection to fulfill the future God offers you, the choice is up to you. GN