Who will go to Heaven?
1 Thessalonians 4:
13. But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.
14. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
15. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
16. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
17. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
I have been to heaven, but I did not see any dead people. Maybe the blessed dead dislike the airspace between Asheville and Charlotte, or Charlotte and Phoenix, or D.C. and San Francisco, or Portland and Las Vegas, or… I am not the only living person to go to heaven. Thousands go every day; it’s called flying. Heaven is just a fancy way of saying “sky.”
Sky, or realms above. There is more than one. Paul wrote of a “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12. So perhaps the Heaven where the dead in Christ dwell is somewhere above the realm where commercial airliners fly. Problem is: explorers have been up higher, in orbit and even out to the moon, and still no sightings of the dead in Christ. Maybe they are way out in outer space, beyond our solar system. But Paul wrote of meeting the Lord in the air, of coming together in the clouds, which is where commercial airliners now fly.
Maybe the dead in Christ are invisible, ethereal beings, made up of a different set of particles which have little interaction with the protons, neutrons and electrons of which we are made. This is possible: we are mostly empty space, ethereal beings ourselves(!) Many realms could overlap ours with only the rarest of particle collisions. No need for in offset in some higher dimension – although an offset in a higher dimension is also possible. Either possibility could explain the rare appearances of angels noted in the Bible. But neither possibility explains why you don’t see the ghosts of the blessed outside your airplane window. For the dead in Christ are not yet in Heaven!
The dead sleep — even the dead in Christ. Reread the quote above carefully. Those already dead in Christ will precede those still alive in the End Times, but that does not mean they are already in Heaven now. Verse 16 says the Lord shall descend from heaven with a shout and then with a trump the dead in Christ shall rise.
Shall rise. The dead in Christ shall rise sometime after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. Moreover, they shall rise after the Lord comes down from heaven. (This heaven is somewhere above the sky.) The Lord will descend publicly; i.e., with a shout. No such event has happened yet. The dead will arise to the tune of an archangel blasting away with a trumpet – yet another public future event.
The dead will rise to the clouds, not to the “heaven” described above. The Lord will descend from “heaven” to meet the dead in Christ in the clouds. From then on, the dead in Christ will be with the Lord forever. But they will not be with the Lord forever in the clouds, for at that time the Lord will proceed further to the ground to set up his Kingdom on earth as we will see later in this chapter.
So the answer to the question, “Who will go to Heaven?” is no one, if by “Heaven” we mean the heaven where Christ dwells now. (On the other hand, if we ask “Who has gone to Heaven?” the answer may be: a few Old Testament saints. Maybe. When Jesus was resurrected, a few saints arose for the event and were seen walking about Jerusalem [Matthew 27:52-53]. Where they went afterwards is not recorded explicitly. Revelations speaks of elders surrounding the throne [Rev. 4:4]. Maybe these elders are those early resurrection saints, but they could also be angels or some other type of being. We are now way out in the realm of speculation; it is time to get back to what the Bible tells us more clearly.)
The question, “Who will go to Heaven?” was a bit of a trick question. A better question would be: “Who will dwell with the Lord forever?” or “Who will be rewarded in the next life?” Another good question would be: “How will the dead in Christ be rewarded?” The Bible gives us more information on these questions, but it still takes some close reading to find the answers, and we will have to deal with that most cryptic of books, Revelations. For our reward, we will discover some surprising answers, very different answers from those taught in most Sunday schools.
The First Resurrection
1 Corinthians 15
12. Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13. But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
14. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
15. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
16. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:
17. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
18. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
19. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
20. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
32. If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.
In the previous section, I asked if it really matters whether the dead sleep today or not. Well, Paul considered the matter of resurrection extremely important! He said that being a Christian is pointless if there is no resurrection. Without a resurrection of the dead, ‘tis better to be a hedonist. Paul clearly did not believe in afterlife rewards before the resurrection.
Paul gives his fullest account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. I highly recommend you read the entire chapter, preferably in more than one translation. Then come back here as we focus on a few more passages from this chapter and relate them to passages in other books of the Bible.
1 Corinthians 15:
22. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
23. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.
24. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.
25. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.
26. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
Christ rose first. Later, those who are Christ’s shall rise. Then comes the end when death is abolished – the second resurrection when everyone else rises as we’ll see later. Paul is speaking of two resurrections to come. And note the timing: those who are Christ’s will rise at His coming. Last I checked, the second coming of Christ has yet to occur. The dead in Christ thus have yet to rise.
Recall the trumpet blast that shall announce the Lord coming down from heaven in 1 Thessalonians. Paul refers to the trumpet blast in 1 Corinthians 15 as well, and gives a bit more detail:
1 Corinthians 15
49. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
50. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
51. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
52. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
53. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
Verse 52 states that the dead shall be raised incorruptible at the last trump. For the preceding trumps we must turn to the book of Revelations. In chapter 8 of Revelations we read about seven angels with seven trumpets [8:2] which are blown in sequence resulting in:
- Hail and fire mingled with blood burning a third of the earth [8:7].
- A mountain cast into the sea destroying a third of sea life [8:8].
- A star from heaven burning and poisoning a third of the rivers [8:9].
- A third of the sun, moon, and stars smitten [8:12].
- Stinging insects rising out of a bottomless pit [9:1-12].
- Death of a third of mankind at the hands of 200 million horsemen [9:14-18].
- Beginning of the reign of Christ [11:15].
These events have yet to occur. The dead still sleep.
And they will sleep through the first six trumps. Therefore, surviving Christians will endure these and other unpleasant events! If you have one of those “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned” bumper stickers, take it off. It’s bad outreach. Besides, you probably won’t be able to find gas for your car long before the Rapture happens. The Christian Way is not a free pass to get out of this unpleasantness – save for the stinging insects. The early parts of Revelations emphasize enduring till the end. Christians have work to do.
1. And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.
2. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
3. And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
4. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
5. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
6. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
And after the Rapture does come, Christians will still have work to do. Though the dead in Christ will meet him in the clouds, this does not imply they will stay in the clouds. Jesus is coming down to rule the earth, and those in the first resurrection will rule with him.
Revelations 20 tells the story. The Devil is to be cast down into a bottomless pit and chained for a thousand years. During this time those who had not worshipped the beast will rule with Christ. The remaining dead continue to sleep during this millennium.
The saints will reign, not retire. They shall be kings and priests. The clouds will be an assembly point for an army to take over the world, not a cottony country club. We who strive to follow Christ’s instructions are training for future leadership positions. I’ll have more to say on this matter in the next chapter. For now, let’s continue our study of the last chapters of Revelations.
A Description of the Devil
Before moving on to the fate of unbelievers, let’s have a bit of fun with some trivia. Revelations 20:2 has a description of the devil, and it isn’t a red humanoid with horns, cloven hooves and a forked tail. The red guy is a caricature of the Greek god Pan, a minor deity worshipped by rural folk resistant to the rise of Christianity. The early church tried to equate this minor deity to the Devil in order to suppress local pagan religions.
The Bible describes the devil as a dragon or serpent. He is called the “prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2:2 – not the king of a fiery underworld. Matthew 4 implies that the devil ruled over the kingdoms of the world, this world.
And if dragons are the sign of the devil, the devil has followers to this day. Dragons are grandly celebrated in China; people parade down the streets holding up hundred foot long dragon puppets. Dragon jewelry is common at renaissance fairs and other New Agey venues. Dragons have become positive creatures in many works of fantasy fiction. (Though not in Tolkien’s works, where they are portrayed as exceedingly malevolent.)
This may all be coincidence and trivial. But it makes me wonder sometimes…
The Second Resurrection
7. And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,
8. And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.
9. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.
10. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
11. And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
12. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
13. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Hades] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
14. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
At the end of a thousand years of peace, Satan will be released to resume his acts of deception. And many will fall for it, forming a huge army to attack the camp of the saints. Camp! Once again, the risen saints will not dwell in the clouds.
Then, fire from heaven will destroy this army, and Satan will be thrown into a lake of fire to experience eternal torment. Satan is to be tormented, not be the tormentor.
But yes, the souls of humans will also go into this lake, that is, those not found in the book of life. For them, this is the “second death.” Does “second death” mean they get burned up in the lake of fire? I don’t know.
Verse 6 states that the second death has no power over those who rise up in the first resurrection. I assume this means that they do not face Judgment Day. Verse 15 implies that a subset of those who face Judgment Day will not experience the second death. Who?
Jesus had this to say on the subject:
31. When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
32. And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33. And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35. For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36. Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38. When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39. Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40. And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
42. For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43. I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45. Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
46. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
Charity is a very important factor, apparently. Verse 32 says the Son of Man will sort out the nations. I read this to mean include gentiles. If we consider that Christians are grafted onto the family tree of Abraham [Romans 11:17], then this implies nonbelievers. If so, then Jesus is saying above that charitable unbelievers will pass Judgment. Note how those who passed are ignorant as to why. They unwittingly served the Lord. This fits with what I said in earlier sections about nonbelievers being judged to a lower standard.
There is hope for reasonably righteous nonbelievers. They may live. But they will live under the rule of those who serve Christ.
The Heavenly City
1. And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
2. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
Chapter 21 of Revelation describes a new heaven and a new earth. Here you will find the pearly gates, so often described as being in heaven. Indeed, these gates may be in heaven now. But people will not enter until after Judgment Day. And the city will come down to earth. The eternal afterlife takes place on earth.
But this earth is most likely much bigger than the one we live on today. The heavenly city by itself is to be 1500 miles on a side. And it seems that some will live outside:
24. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.
25. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there.
26. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it.
27. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life.
If I read this correctly, there will be kings of the earth, who will come to the city to pay tribute. Meanwhile, we still find civil servants in the heavenly kingdom:
3. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him:
4. And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.
This is the reward of those who are called, and follow through. The Call is a gift, but it is not a free ticket to an eternal amusement park. It is a job offer. It is a reward of rank that lasts not just through the millennium, but into eternity.
But to qualify for this job requires getting through the internship. To this we turn next. How does the Christian Way train people for such important future leadership positions?