In our culture, heaven is typically shown as a place where people sit around all day on clouds, playing harps, wearing white robes and golden halos. This is not how the Bible describes heaven, and I believe that this popular cultural description has led to people being apathetic about heaven, instead of looking forward to it. There are some people who say that heaven is going to be so boring that they would rather go to hell and party with the devil all day. In this article, I would like to discuss what the Bible says about heaven, so that you can see that heaven is going to be really cool, and we should be excited about it! If you are interested, the book "Heaven" by Randy Alcorn  goes into much more detail on all aspects of heaven as discussed in the Bible than I can cover here. His book is very well written and I would highly recommend it.
No eye has seen...
The most commonly referred to description of heaven in the Bible is this: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him." (1 Corinthians 2:9). So basically, heaven is going to be better anyone has ever imagined, so don't worry about it being boring or not as good as your expectations or hopes. But for those who want more details, this verse does seem to be a cop-out. Instead of just saying what heaven will be like, it just says that it's better than anything we can imagine. However this verse is useful because to counter people who say heaven will be boring or like one huge church service.
Certain people have had visions of heaven (such as John who wrote the book of Revelation, others in the Bible, and certain people who have had near death experiences), however I believe that they have only seen small glimpses, not every aspect of heaven. There will certainly be many surprises when we get to heaven which are probably indescribable in our language today. God's creativity is unlimited, so why should we expect a boring heaven? Even though we cannot know everything about heaven, there are some descriptions given in the Bible which hint at what it will be like. It is important to note that heaven (as it is currently) is only temporary and God will make a new heaven and earth. So we will investigate both heaven as it is currently, and what God promises heaven will be like in the future.
What is heaven like now?
In the Old Testament, the people who believed in God and tried to live right did not actually go to heaven. They went to "The Bosom of Abraham" which is one of the two sides of "Sheol" - a Jewish word meaning "the place of the dead" . The Jews believed Sheol was split into two sides, with a large gap in between where no one could cross form one side to the other. The "Bosom of Abraham" side was also sometimes called "paradise". This is described in the story of Lazarus and the Rich man in Luke 16:19-31. The rich man went to the side called "Gehenna" which is described as a place where the rich man is suffering in a hot fire. Lazarus went to the paradise side and was happy. Also, Jesus is believed to have gone to the paradise side of Sheol when he died, as he told one thief on the cross "I promise that today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43). There, Jesus preached his message of salvation to the people on the paradise side. The people in paradise were not just "good people" - they had faith in God, but had died before Jesus was born and did not know that Jesus had finished paying for sin. After Jesus had paid for sin, they could now enter heaven where God and the angels live. This is described in 1 Peter 4:6 "The good news has even been preached to the dead, so that after they have been judged for what they have done in this life, their spirits will live with God." and Ephesians 4:8: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train.". It is interesting to note that before Jesus was crucified, he said "No one has gone up to heaven except the Son of Man, who came down from there." (John 3:13). This is more proof that only after Jesus' death did the people's souls in Abraham's bosom go up to heaven.
Many believe now that the paradise side of Sheol is empty, although the Gehenna side is still full of people waiting for their final judgement . Now, Christians who die go directly to heaven to be with God and Jesus, as in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8: "As long as we are in these bodies, we are away from the Lord. But we live by faith, not by what we see. We should be cheerful, because we would rather leave these bodies and be at home with the Lord.". So if your soul is not in your body (i.e. you are dead), as a Christian, you are with Jesus in heaven. Heaven is described as a place where God is worshipped day and night (Revelation 4:8), where Jesus sits at the right hand side of God (Matthew 26:64), and the angels also live there.
The New Heaven and New Earth, and the New Jerusalem
The current heaven and earth are not going to last forever. In Revelation chapters 21 and 22, John sees a vision of what the future world will be like. "I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and first earth had disappeared, and so had the sea." (Revelation 21:1). John says "God's home is now with his people. He will live with them and they will be his own....He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever." (Revelation 21:3-4). Then there is a description of God's city, "New Jerusalem" which comes down from heaven to earth. It is described as being a cube-shape, nearly 1500 miles high, and 1500 miles wide. For reference, the space shuttle orbits at an altitude of 100 miles above earth .
This city is described as being built on twelve huge foundation stones made of precious gems (jasper, sapphire, emerald, onyx, etc.). It has a wall with 12 gates (3 on each side) named after the 12 tribes of Israel, and the wall is made of jasper. The city is described as made of gold, but crystal clear. The roads are also made of this same material. I am not sure if this is meant as a literal description, or is a metaphor which describes how elaborate and beautiful the city will be. Currently, it is impossible to have clear gold, so perhaps this description is metaphorical, or maybe God will create such a new material. But this could just as easily be a literal description, because God could make this city however He wants to. The New Jerusalem will not need lights, because God and Jesus will be its source of light, and they will be so bright that night will never appear in that city. There are no churches or temples in this city, because God will live there himself and thus the city is like one large temple. A crystal clear river will flow from God's throne through the middle of the main street. On either side of the river there will be fruit trees that grow different fruit each month.
Who will live in New Jerusalem
The people who live in New Jerusalem are also described. These people will have their names written in God's book of life. They will see God face to face, and God's name will be written on their foreheads. They will rule forever (Revelation 22:5). This is repeated in Hebrews 12:22-24 which says "You have now come to Mount Zion and to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the city of the living God, where thousands and thousands of angels have come to celebrate. Here you will find all of God's dearest children, whose names are written in heaven. And you will find God himself, who judges everyone. Here also are the spirits of those good people who have been made perfect. And Jesus is here! He is the one who makes God's new agreement with us...".
Christians will be Rulers
A promise to the Church and Tribulation Saints is that we will rule with Jesus during the Millennium and continuing into eternity. This is shown in the following verses:
- "If we died with Christ, we will live with him. If we don't give up, we will rule with him." (2 Timothy 2:12).
- "I saw thrones, and sitting on those thrones were the ones who had been given the right to judge ... They will come to life and rule with Christ for a thousand years" (Revelation 20: 4-5).
- "They will be priests for God and Christ and will rule with them for a thousand years" (Revelation 20:5-6).
- "The Lord God will be their light, and they will rule forever" (Revelation 22:5).
Other Christian writers speculate over who the Church and Tribulation Saints will rule. Some suggestions are "ruling" over nature (perhaps as the children in C.S Lewis' fictional Narnia books rule over the talking animal kingdom), or ruling each other in varying levels of authority, or that we will rule over the angels. Also, it seems to be that only the "Church" and the "Tribulation Saints" will be the ones to form a ruling government. Then anyone born during the Millennium (the 1000 years after Jesus returns to rule Earth) and who follows Christ will be the ones who are "ruled" by the Church and the Tribulation Saints. In the ideal conditions of the Millennium, with reduced disease and predators, and longer lifespans, people may easily be able to repopulate the earth to the level of several billion by the end of the Millennium.One theory I heard is that after the Great White Throne judgment (where God will judge all the people who did not accept Jesus as savior - see Revelation 20:11-13), not everyone will be thrown into the lake of fire. Only those whose names are not written in the book of life, which seems to indicate that some people may still live even though they will not be as blessed as the people who believed in Jesus, and will not have the right to rule. This makes sense to me, and solves the "what about people who never heard about Jesus" dilemma. I don't believe that God would go through a judgement of all people only to throw them all in hell. Otherwise, why not skip the judgement and send them all there directly, as God did with the Antichrist and False Prophet in Revelation 19:20? So I believe some of these people will be saved by God's mercy, and will populate the new Earth and be ruled by Christians.
Note that "ruling" will not be the same as it is in our flawed world today. Here our rulers usually do things to only benefit themselves. However, Jesus clearly says that "The most important one of you should be like the least important, and your leader should be like a servant. Who do people think is the greatest, a person who is served or one who serves? Isn't it the one who is served? But I have been with you as a servant. You have stayed with me in all my troubles. So I will give you the right to rule as kings, just as my Father has given me the right to rule as a king. You will eat and drink with me in my kingdom, and you will each sit on a throne to judge the twelve tribes of Israel." (Luke 22:26-30). So Jesus says that the leaders and rulers will be as servants - to serve the interests of those being ruled, not to serve themselves.
The Bible says that Christians will receive new bodies. We do not need bodies while in the temporary heaven, but we will need them for living on the New Earth where we will live forever. We need new bodies because "our bodies of flesh and blood will decay. This means that they cannot share in God's kingdom, which lasts forever." (1 Corinthians 15:50). This is believed to happen at the Rapture, when all dead Christians (and Old Testament saints) will have their bodies resurrected and transformed, their spirit will be placed back in their bodies, and they will rise to meet Jesus in the clouds. Christians who are alive when this happens will instantly be transformed to have a new immortal body. Paul said: "Not every one of us will die, but we will all be changed. It will happen suddenly, quicker than the blink of an eye. At the sound of the last trumpet the dead will be raised. We will all be changed so that we will never die again. Our dead and decaying bodies will be changed into bodies that won't die or decay. The bodies we have now are weak and can die. But they will be changed into bodies that are eternal." (1 Corinthians 51-54). This is repeated in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4. Tribulation Saints (those who believe in Jesus after the Rapture) will probably be resurrected and receive new bodies when Jesus returns after the Tribulation (Rev. 20:4-6), and those who live during the Millennium will also be resurrected and given new bodies probably after the Great White Throne judgment (Rev. 20:6 and 20:13).
The Bible gives more details on what these new bodies will be like: "These (current) bodies will die, but the bodies that are raised will live forever. These ugly and weak bodies will become beautiful and strong. As surely as there are physical bodies, there are spiritual bodies. And our physical bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies." (1 Corinthians 15:42-45). We can expect to have a body like Jesus had after he was resurrected: "Just as we are like the one who was made out of earth (Adam) we will be like the one who came from heaven (Jesus)." (1 Corinthians 15:49 - brackets added). Jesus was described after the resurrection as being able to appear/disappear at will (Luke 24:31, 24:36) and even teleport through walls! There will be no disabilities, as stated in Isaiah 35:5-6: "The blind will see, and the ears of the deaf will be healed. Those who were lame will leap around like deer, tongues once silent will begin to shout.". No one will need glasses , or braces, or acne cream in heaven.
One last interesting question people might ask is "Will people be married in heaven?" Jesus answered this question when he was asked about it, and said "When God raises people to life, they won't marry. They will be like the angels in heaven." (Matthew 22:30). All the wedding vows we take are "until death do us part", so we are not committed to our previous marriages in the afterlife, although people who were married will no doubt be close friends in heaven. Even if there is no marriage, we will probably retain our sexual identities, since that is a fundamental part of who God made us. People will not have kids, since everyone who God has ever wanted to create will have been created, judged, and rewarded accordingly.
God has promised rewards to the Christians who follow him. A parable told by Jesus emphasizes that what we do in this life will affect our rewards in heaven. In the story of the 10 servants in Luke 19:11-27, the king assigns money to each of his servants, and then goes away for a while and tells them to use this money to make more money. When the king comes back, he asks for an account of what the servants did with his money. One was able to earn 10 times as much money as he was given, so the king says "Since you have shown that you can be trusted with a small amount, you will be given ten cities to rule.". The next servant comes in and was able to earn 5 times as much money, so the king gives him 5 cities. This principle will probably be used when assigning rewards in heaven. The people who used what God gave them (abilities, money, time, etc.) will be rewarded for using these to serve God. People who served more or better than others will be rewarded more by God, perhaps with higher status or importance.
We will also be rewarded according to all we have done in our lives: "But we must each be careful how we build, because Christ is the only foundation. Whatever we build on that foundation will be tested by fire on the day of judgement. Then everyone will find out if we have used gold, silver, and precious stones, or wood, hay, and straw. We will be rewarded if our building is left standing. But if it is destroyed by the fire, we will lose everything. Yet we ourselves will be saved, like someone escaping from flames." (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). This can be combined with Matthew 6:19-21 which says "Don't store up treasures on earth! Moths and rust can destroy them, and thieves can break in and steal them. Instead, store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them and thieves cannot break in and steal them. Your heart will always be where your treasure is.". Some people believe this can be interpreted to mean that all the things we have done for Jesus or God in our lives will be like the "treasure" stored up in heaven, and that all the extra non-Godly activities will be like the straw and hay that are burnt up and don't matter. However, only God knows exactly what will be counted as precious jewels and what is straw, and what the reward may be. These treasures are only secondary when compared to being given eternal life and living in heaven forever with God and Jesus. We don't make it into heaven based on our amount of heavenly treasure - even the person whose whole life was worthless is still saved and given eternal life if they believed in Jesus.
Additionally, there are various "crowns" promised to Christians. When John sees a vision of the 24 Elders (representing the church) in heaven, they each have a golden crown (Rev. 4:4). The Bible mentions some specific crowns, such as:
- A crown of righteousness: for those who look forward to the return of Jesus. "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:8, KJV). Those who look forward to Jesus returning at any moment will try to live righteously, and are rewarded with this crown.
- An incorruptible crown: for those who overcome sin and their sinful natures. "And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible." (1 Corinthians 9:25, KJV)
- A crown of life: for those who have faced temptation, trials, and sufferings. "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him." (James 1:12, KJV). Also "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." (Rev. 2:10, KJV).
- A crown of glory: for faithful pastors and church leaders. "Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away." (1 Peter 5:4, KJV)
- A crown of joy and rejoicing: for people who spread the gospel so others become Christians. "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?" (1 Thess. 2:19, KJV) and "Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved." (Philippians 4:1, KJV)
I'm sure some would say these are only metaphorical crowns, and just represent attributes of Christians that we can have in this life. For example, a "crown of righteousness" might just mean a gift of righteous living which comes from remembering that Jesus could come at any moment. A "crown of joy" is just the happiness of seeing loved ones come to Christ. But I believe we will probably get real crowns from Jesus in heaven. Paul looks for the crown of righteousness that Jesus will give him on that day which clearly shows Paul did not yet have this crown even though he tried to live righteously day by day. Some people might think a real crown is pretentious, but when we will be given new perfect glorious bodies, made co-inheritors of all creation with Jesus (Romans 8:17, Galatians 4:7), and will rule with Jesus forever, I think a crown is totally appropriate. We will have real physical bodies, so why not a real physical crown? God made us and knows that people like symbols of achievements (e.g. a trophy, a ribbon, a medal), and so a crown is certainly a good reward to motivate us to strive our best for God in this life. I suspect all Christians will receive at least one of these crowns.
The idea that we will each get a mansion in heaven is popular in some circles of Christianity. It comes from the old KJV version which says "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."(John 14:2). Some say that the "mansion" only refers to the new body we will receive, because in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 our current bodies are described metaphorically as "tents" - not permanent, fragile, weak, and ugly, but the new bodies we will get are a "building" - permanent, strong, and beautiful. They claim that the weather will be perfect so no houses are needed.
However, I believe this interpretation is lacking. In more correct translations John 14:2 says "There are many rooms in my Father's house. I wouldn't tell you this, unless it was true. I am going there to prepare a place for each of you.". So no promise of a mansion per se, just a special room or place in God's house. I believe the human desire for shelter is more than just to meet physical requirements. People (especially introverts) need a place of their own, where we can decorate it how we like, have privacy and enjoy being alone and relaxing, and invite friends to come visit. I don't think God is going to convert us all into extroverts in heaven who never need any privacy or alone time, and that the New Jerusalem will be only public buildings. A city is made up mostly of private dwellings - condos, townhouses, and houses, along with some public areas where people can celebrate and do activities together. I don't think the New Jerusalem will be any different. I believe God will actually give us a special place of our own in the New Jerusalem - whether it's a full mansion, or a condo, or even just a private garden somewhere, depending on the preferences of the individual. Personally, I'd like a golden condo in one of the towers of the New Jerusalem, to be able to look out over the city and be right in the middle of it all. Since God knows exactly what we like, he will custom build each place to suit us perfectly. I don't think anyone will be disappointed with their space in the New Jerusalem, and the New Jerusalem will certainly be big enough for us all to live there.
So in conclusion - heaven as described in the Bible is nothing like the traditional idea of clouds and harps. It will be much more interesting than that, and better than we can ever imagine. We will receive new perfect bodies, a new earth, a new glorious city, and positions of authority to rule with Jesus. We may be rewarded with real crowns and a special place of our own in the New Jerusalem, whether it's a mansion, condo, or other space which suits us perfectly. And this does not include all the surprises which "no eye has seen and no ear has heard.". I hope the descriptions given here will encourage you to look forward to heaven. If you are not a Christian, I hope the descriptions here will motivate you to consider accepting Jesus death as payment for your sins, because then you will be given eternal life and also have all the rewards promised to those who follow him.
Alcorn, R (2004) "Heaven", Tyndale House Publishers