THEOLOGY & APOLOGETICS
Relationships in Heaven
By Christopher Schwinger
I recently got a question asking whether heaven will be painless and have perfect reconciliation of relationships with others who belong to Christ. The simple answer has to be yes, but there are complexities which are troubling. I have heard it said that all of God's wrath was poured out on Christ, so Christians who are unkind still are good in their ultimate standing with God. Does that really mean there is no such thing as God "disliking" a Christian who is unkind? That sounds like our painful experiences with other Christians are invalidated. An equal source of concern is whether everyone will get to have equal rewards in heaven even if they were ungracious to other people, as long as they believed in Jesus. I've often thought about whether we are supposed to expect the past to be nonexistent in our relationships when we get to heaven, because even though it's unhealthy to want other people to suffer like we have, it just doesn't seem fair that everyone would be on the same degree of perfection in heaven, from those who got only a little progress made (the thief on the cross by Jesus), to those who went backward or became stagnant, to someone who suffered because of other Christians' lack of mercy.
Some people think it undermines the fullness of what Christ accomplished if we desire to have all our pain understood by the people who caused the pain, and I think that depends on whether they are trying to reconcile or trying to use pain in a vengeful way. The only way for that to feel right is if the Christians who are more obedient get more privileges in eternity than those who are more selfish. But as Jesus said to Peter in John 21:21-22, don't worry about how God wants to bless someone else, or who is more or less deserving.
A further source of anxiety about heaven is whether our sins will be publicly exposed if we don't confess them between our conversion to Christ and our death. Being ashamed for our previous spiritual immaturity can only be a factor in heaven if we didn't heed the warnings God gave to us in our lives. For those who struggle with "feeling" clean after confessing their sins to God throughout their lives, that shame will be gone.
As a lot of our hope about the afterlife is just hope, not something we can know in a carefully defined way, it's almost like we have to make heaven a philosophy more than a precise theology. Even the term is philosophical, because characteristics of God are evident in the cosmos and it's the opposite direction of where people get buried. I used to try to visually imagine heaven and how it could be better than my current life, and I always wound up unsatisfied with the courtroom and music concert imagery, and that was probably because I missed that the emphasis in the Book of Revelation is that every group of people finds unity under God. It's not the luxurious description of heaven which should inspire us, but the relational healing.
I have 3 sources of comfort about heaven:
1. What has convinced me that heaven even exists, besides Jesus' fulfillment of specific Old Testament prophecies, is the poetic and wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The Old Testament passages in Job and the psalms which express hope about eternal life after death, with no more pain, happen after the writers have experienced sufferings and reflected on the meaning of it all, and God gives them hope as they continue to do the right thing. I have learned from this to not expect faith about a better hereafter to be something I can force on myself. Faith can't be just forced, but is partially the natural outcome of making good choices. Another way of putting it: God gives hope/faith as a gift to those who pursue virtue.
2. The story of Jesus and Lazarus in John 11, from the most personal of the four Gospels, is important to me because Jesus actually identifies with the sorrow as they're going through it, even though He knows it's not going to continue after He raises Lazarus from the dead — until Lazarus eventually dies again, that is. Jesus felt their pain and cried even though He knew it would be short-lived pain. Until the amazing restoration actually happens, there is going to be pain, but somehow even the pain feels meaningful when we know God is feeling the pain with us. Gaining the confidence that He feels the pain is a difficult thing, though. Sorrow is not something to hide from, even if we hate it, because it actually is meaningful in its own way when we know God feels the pain.
3. The Apostle Paul's expectation about the 2nd Coming, based on Jewish apocalyptic literature about Judgment Day, was that everyone who belongs to Christ, even from before the time of Christ in the first century, would be reunited and forever be together. It's hard to know how much of the imagery we have of the End Times is symbolic and how much will really come true in the exact way described, but the Biblical writers are convinced that heaven is not just an idea we hope for, but a reality which Jesus already made possible.
Reconciliation of hurts in heaven does not mean the past never happened, but the fundamental relationship problems we have with other Christians will be gone in heaven because the atonement of Christ will be complete then. The atonement of Christ helps us become free from sin during our lives, but it's still a struggle because we have our "sin nature" which we're born with, what Paul calls "the flesh." But when we make it to the next life, which you can call heaven, God's transformation of us will be complete and we'll have new bodies. The reason I can believe this is because the Holy Spirit's work in my life right now is proof that there is more to come, what Paul called a pledge, like a deposit which proves there's more where that came from. The Holy Spirit's work in our hearts, when we sense it going on in ourselves, proves to us that we're not being defrauded by God, but are given a trustworthy deposit, with the promise that the deposit will be completed later. The Holy Spirit didn't just give me hope in my struggles only for it to all end in nothingness. Thus I can view even death as a gateway to a brighter future if I belong to Christ.
Image Credit: Chad Madden; "Lula Lake Land Trust"; Creative Commons
Tags: Biblical-Truth | Christian-Life | Eternity-Forever | God-Father | Personal-Relationships
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