Devotional 8: What is Life Like in the Present Heaven?
(Excerpted from Heaven by Randy Alcorn, pp.65-73)
We learn a great deal about the present Heaven from three key verses in Revelation: "When [the Lamb] opened a fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, 'How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?' Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed" (6:9-11).
I offer here twenty-one brief observations concerning this passage:
1. When these people died on Earth, they relocated to Heaven (v.9).
2. These people in Heaven were the same ones killed for Christ while on Earth (v.9). This demonstrates direct continuity between our identity on Earth and our identity in Heaven. The martyrs' personal history extends directly back to their lives on Earth. Those in the present Heaven are not different people; they are the same people relocated -- "righteous men made perfect" (Hebrews 12:23).
3. People in Heaven will be remembered for their lives on Earth. These were known and identified as ones slain "because of . . . the testimony they had maintained" (v.9).
4. "They called out" (v.10) means they are able to express themselves audibly. This could suggest they exist in physical form, with vocal cords or other tangible means to express themselves.
5. People in the present Heaven can raise their voices (v.10). This indicates that they are rational, communicative, and emotional -- even passionate -- beings, like people on Earth.
6. They called out in "a loud voice," not "loud voices." Individuals speaking with one voice indicate that Heaven is a place of unity and shared perspective.
7. The martyrs are fully conscious, rational, and aware of each other, God and the situation on Earth.
8. They ask God to intervene on Earth and to act on their behalf: "How long . . . until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (v.10).
9. Those in Heaven are free to ask God questions, which means they have an audience with God. It also means they need to learn. In Heaven, people desire understanding and pursue it.
10. People in the present Heaven know what's happening on Earth (v.10). The martyrs know enough to realize that those who killed them have not yet been judged.
"When [the Lamb] opened a fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, 'How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?' Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed" (6:9-11).
11. Heaven dwellers have a deep concern for justice and retribution (v.10). When we go to Heaven, we won't adopt a passive disinterest in what happens on the earth. On the contrary, our concerns will be more passionate and our thirst for justice greater. Neither God nor we will be satisfied until his enemies are judged, our bodies raised, sin and Satan defeated, Earth restored, and Christ exalted over all.
12. The martyrs clearly remember their lives on Earth (v.10). They even remember that they weremurdered.
13. The martyrs in Heaven pray for judgment on their persecutors who are still at work hurting others. They are acting in solidarity with, and in effect interceding for, the suffering of the saints on Earth. This suggests that saints in Heaven are both seeing and praying for saints on Earth.
14. Those in Heaven see God's attributes ("Sovereign...holy and true") in a way that makes his judgment of sin more understandable.
15. Those in Heaven are distinct individuals: "Then each of them was given a white robe" (v.11). There isn't one merged identity that obliterates uniqueness, but a distinct "each of them."
16. The martyrs' wearing white robes suggests the possibility of actual physical forms, because disembodied spirits presumably don't wear robes. The robes may well have symbolic meaning, but it doesn't mean they couldn't also be physical. The martyrs appear to have physical forms that John could actually see.
17. God answers their question (v.11), indicating communication and process in Heaven. It also demonstrates that we won't know everything in Heaven -- if we did, we would have no more questions. The martyrs knew more after God answered their question than before they asked it. There is learning in the present Heaven.
18. God promises to fulfill the martyrs' requests, but says they will have to "wait a little longer" (v.11). Those in the present Heaven live in anticipation of the future fulfillment of God's promises. Unlike the eternal Heaven -- where there will be no more sin, Curse, or suffering on the New Earth (Revelation 21:4) -- the present Heaven coexists with and watches over an Earth under sin, the Curse, and suffering.
19. There is time in the present Heaven (vv.10-11). The white-robed martyrs ask God a time-dependent question: "How long, Sovereign Lord... until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (v.10). They are aware of time's passing and are eager for the coming day of the Lord's judgment. God answers that they must "wait a little longer" until certain events transpire on Earth. Waiting requires the passing of time.
20. The people of God in Heaven have a strong familial connection with those on Earth, who are called their "fellow servants and brothers" (v.11). We share the same Father, "from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named" (Ephesians 3:15, ESV). There is not a wall of separation within the bride of Christ. We are one family with those who've gone to Heaven ahead of us. After we go to Heaven, we'll still be one family with those yet on Earth. These verses demonstrate a vital connection between the events and people in Heaven and the events and people on Earth.
21. Our sovereign God knows down to the last detail all that is happening and will happen on Earth (v.11), including every drop of blood shed and every bit of suffering undergone by his children. Voice of the Martyrs estimates that more than 150,000 people die for Christ each year, an average of more than four hundred per day. God knows the name and story of each one. He knows exactly how many martyrs there will be, and he is prepared to return and set up his Kingdom when the final martyr dies.
I've made these observations on the present Heaven based on only three verses. Unless there is some reason to believe that the realities of this passage apply only to one group of martyrs and to no one else in Heaven -- and I see no such indication -- then we should assume that what is true of them is also true of our loved ones already there, and will be true of us when we die.
DO HEAVEN'S INHABITANTS REMEMBER LIFE ON EARTH?
. . . After we die, we will give an account of our lives on Earth, down to specific actions and words (2 Corinthians 5:10; Matthew 12:36). Given our improved minds and clear thinking, our memory should be more -- not less -- acute concerning our life on Earth. Certainly, we must remember the things we'll give an account for. Because we'll be held accountable for more than we presently remember, presumably our memory will be far better. . .
DO PEOPLE IN THE PRESENT HEAVEN SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING ON EARTH?
If the martyrs in Heaven know that God hasn't yet brought judgment on the persecutors (Revelations 6:9-11), it seems evident that the inhabitants of the present Heaven can see what's happening on Earth, at least to some extent. When Babylon is brought down, an angel points to events happening on Earth and says, "Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you" (Revelation 18:20). Then the angel specifically addresses people living in Heaven indicates they're aware of what's happening on Earth.
Further, there is "the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: Hallelujah!" and praising God for specific events of judgment that have just taken place on Earth (Revelation 19:1-5). Again, the saints in Heaven are clearly observing what is happening on Earth.
. . . In the Old Testament account of King Saul wrongly appealing to the witch of Endor to call upon Samuel to come back from the afterlife, the medium was terrified when God actually sent Samuel. Interestingly, Samuel remembered what Saul had done before Samuel died, and he was aware of what had happened since he died (1 Samuel 28:16-19). Though God could have briefed Samuel on all this, it seems likely that prophet knew simply because those in Heaven are aware of what happens on Earth. . .
. . . Christ said, "There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent" (Luke 15:7). Similarly, "there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner wwho repents" (Luke 15:10). Notice it does not speak of rejoicing bythe angels but in the presence of angels. Who is doing this rejoicing in Heaven? I believe it logically includes not only God but also the saints in Heaven, who would so deeply appreciate the wonder of human conversion -- especially the conversion of those they knew and loved on Earth. If they rejoiced over conversions happening on Earth, then obviously they must be aware of what is happening on Earth -- and not just generally, but specifically, down to the details of individuals coming to faith in Christ.
CAN IT BE HEAVEN IF PEOPLE ARE AWARE OF ANYTHING BAD ON EARTH?
. . . We must also keep in mind that Revelation 21:4, the verse most often quoted on the subject of sorrow in Heaven, refers specifically to the eternal Heaven, the New Earth. "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." Christ's promise of no more tears or pain comes after the end of the old Earth, after the Great White Throne Judgment, after "the old order of things has passed away" and there's no more suffering on Earth.
The present Heaven and the eternal Heaven are not the same. We can be assured there will be no sorrow on the New Earth, our eternal home. But though the present Heaven is a far happier place than Earth under the Curse, Scripture doesn't state there can be no sorrow there. At the same time, people in Heaven are not frail beings whose joy can only be preserved by shielding them from what's really going on in the universe. Happiness in Heaven is not based on ignorance but on perspective. Those who live in the presence of Christ find great joy in worshipping God and living as righteous beings in rich fellowship in a sinless environment. And because God is continuously at work on Earth, the saints watching from Heaven have a great deal to praise him for, including God's drawing people on Earth to himself (Luke 15:7,10). But those in the present Heaven are also looking forward to Christ's return, their bodily resurrection, the final judgment, and the fashioning of the New Earth from the ruins of the old. Only then and there, in our eternal home, will all evil and suffering and sorrow be washed away by the hand of God. Only then and there will we experience the fullness of joy intended by God and purchased for us by Christ at an unfathomable cost.
Meanwhile, we on this dying Earth can relax and rejoice for our loved ones who are in the presence of Christ. As the apostle Paul tells us, though we naturally grieve at losing loved ones, we are not "to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our parting is not the end of our relationship, only an interruption. We have not "lost" them, because we know where they are. They are experiencing the joy of Christ's presence in a place so wonderful that Christ called it Paradise. And one day, we're told, in a magnificent reunion, they and we "will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18).