This post was originally published in July 2018. –ed.
Why is it important to know the truth about heaven? With all the contradicting theories and theologies, you can imagine that some Christians would prefer to live in blithe ignorance about what awaits beyond the grave. But knowing the truth about heaven is not just about being right for the sake of being right.
God’s people need to know the truth about heaven because it fixes our eyes on God, His kingdom, and the work He has called us to accomplish in the meantime. But knowing the truth also equips us to defend against the wide array of false teaching about heaven and eternal life. Already this week we have discussed unbiblical doctrines about heaven, including soul sleep and purgatory. Today we’ll consider some biblical texts that give us ammunition in the fight against these and other Satanic lies.
Christ Is Sufficient
We’ll begin with the lie that undergirds the false doctrine of purgatory: that believers need to attain more merit to achieve justification. As I said last time, none of this is taught in Scripture. The sufferings of Christ were fully sufficient to atone for our sins. Our own sufferings can add nothing to the merit of Christ. As the writer of Hebrews says, there is no efficacious sacrifice for sin other than what Christ has provided. If Christ’s sacrifice is not sufficient, or if we willfully turn away from it, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26–27).
For all believers, because we are fully justified, there can be no condemnation. No postmortem suffering is necessary to atone for remaining sin; all our sins are covered by the blood of Christ. No merit is lacking that must be made up. Every believer will be able to say with the prophet Isaiah,
I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)
Some claim that 1 Corinthians 3 describes purgatory, where the believer is put through a fiery judgment to purge out the dross of sin. But read that passage again. It describes the judgment of the believer’s works, to see if they are “wood, hay, straw,” or “gold, silver, precious stones” (1 Corinthians 3:12). At issue is whether our works endure or are burned up. And it is the works, not the saints themselves, that are tested in the purging fire. This is the judgment that will take place in the eschatological future, not an ongoing state of purgatory that believers pass through on their way to heaven:
Each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:13–15, emphasis added)
Notice again that only the works, not the believers themselves, must go through the fire. Also note that rewards are what is at issue—not entrance to heaven.
Everything in Scripture indicates that the believer’s entrance to heaven occurs immediately upon death. Let’s examine a few key passages:
Here we find the psalmist hopeful even as he faced death: “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:10–11). The psalmist anticipated that when he left this world, he would enter the presence of God, finding eternal pleasure and fullness of joy. He had no fear of purgatorial sufferings. And he left no place for the notion of soul sleep.
The final verse of this familiar psalm says, “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David was certain that once his life was over, he would dwell for all eternity in the house of the Lord forever (which in this context can refer only to heaven). Notice that he goes immediately from “all the days of my life” to “dwell[ing] in the house of the Lord.” The hope he expresses here is exactly the same as Paul’s: “to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
When the beggar Lazarus died, Jesus says he “was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). As we noted earlier, some think this expression “Abraham’s bosom” describes a sort of holding tank where Old Testament saints went while awaiting heaven. That seems an unnecessary imposition on the text. Based on the psalmist’s statements, there is no reason to doubt that Old Testament saints went directly to heaven. I believe both Abraham and Lazarus were in the presence of God. In any case, this account rules out both soul sleep and purgatory.
To shed light on the expression “Abraham’s bosom,” we turn to a parallel expression that occurs in John 13. This is part of the apostle John’s description of that final Passover celebration in the upper room. He writes, “There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). The scene is a low table, where guests had to recline. Verse 25 says that the disciple, “leaning back thus on Jesus’ bosom,” asked who the betrayer would be. This disciple (who we know was John himself—John 21:20, 24) was clearly in a position so that his head was near Jesus’ side. Tables in that culture were very low, and reclining was a typical position for people who were sharing a meal.
So when Jesus says Lazarus was carried to “Abraham’s bosom” He indicates that the former beggar was reclining at a banquet table in a celebration of joy, next to Abraham, the father of the faithful. In other words, Lazarus was in the guest of honor’s place. Imagine the dismay of the Pharisees when Jesus portrayed an ordinary beggar reclining at the table next to the greatest of the Jewish Fathers!
Again, I am convinced we are supposed to understand this as heaven, not some kind of holding chamber remote from God’s celestial throne and adjacent to hell. Scripture never suggests Old Testament believers went to temporary quarters in the realm of the dead to wait for Christ to carry them into glory. In fact, the evidence points to a different conclusion.
For example, when Christ was transfigured, Moses and Elijah appeared with Him (Matthew 17:3). Remember, Elijah had been caught up bodily to heaven (2 Kings 2:1, 11). Moses and Elijah were summoned from there to the Mount of Transfiguration, where they conversed with Jesus about “His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). Obviously, Christ’s death and resurrection hadn’t yet occurred, so if Old Testament saints were being kept in a place of confinement, that is where Moses would have needed to be brought from.
It seems obvious that Moses had not been shut away for ages in some intermediate compartment of Hades. He was intimately familiar with Christ, a partaker of His glory, and knowledgeable enough about His earthly work to discuss the details of what He was about to do. This is an amazing passage, a clear window into the kind of close fellowship we will share with Christ in eternity.
This familiar text describes that touching moment during the crucifixion when one of the thieves next to Jesus repented. “He was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’ And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:42–43).
The word translated “Paradise” in the Greek text is exactly the same word the apostle Paul uses to describe the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:4. Paradise is a synonym for heaven. It cannot be a reference to purgatory. And the promise of Paradise today rules out not only purgatory, but soul sleep as well.
If anyone were a candidate for purgatory, this thief certainly would have been. Moments before, he had taunted Christ along with the unrepentant thief (Mark 15:32). His repentance was a last-minute change—while he was literally in his death throes. Yet Jesus promised to see him that very day in Paradise.
The point is clear: God’s people ought to live in the perpetual anticipation of the eternal home He has prepared for us. And next week we will consider two key passages of Scripture that give us vivid descriptions of what heaven will be like.
(Adapted from The Glory of Heaven.)