This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
I have been asking questions about my next life in heaven with the Lord and have yet to find a pastor or Sunday school teacher willing to discuss the issues I want to talk about. Take for instance the question of will heaven be an extension of our earthly life? Will we have interactions with our family members and earthly friends? Do you believe we will be walking on "streets of gold"? If so, why will that be such a big deal? Will we be living in luxurious mansions? If we liked playing Gin Rummy on earth, will we play Gin in heaven? You get the idea. In other words, will the heavenly Bob be the same earthly Bob?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
It may be that the reason your Sunday school teachers and pastor have been reluctant to discuss your questions with you, Bob, is because we know so little about the afterlife that such speculation is fruitless. Better to just wait and see!
That being said, I do think we can say with confidence that the “heavenly Bob” will most certainly not be “the same earthly Bob”! Oh, to be sure, you’ll be the same person, but that person will undergo a vast change. For the earthly Bob is riddled with sin, plagued with weakness, faltering and failing in his best efforts to live his life for the glory of God. But the heavenly Bob will be set free from sin, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and fully pleasing to God in all that he desires and does. The fact that evil will be banished from the new heavens and the new Earth requires a transformation in our character that we can scarcely imagine!
Your assumption that we’ll be able, at least, to do things like play cards or inhabit buildings shows that you have correctly grasped that the afterlife is not a disembodied existence, such as Plato envisioned, but an embodied life. Your next life will not be “in heaven” but on the new Earth that God will usher in after the close of human history and the dissolution of this universe. We shall have resurrection bodies that Paul describes as glorious, powerful, immortal, and supernatural (I Corinthians 15.42-44), inhabiting a new universe which has undergone a resurrection of its own (Romans 8.21), free of decay and death.
Jesus Christ in his risen state gives us the best clue to what our lives will be like, for he is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I Corinthians 15.20). In him we have a sneak preview of what we shall be like in the afterlife. On this basis, I would say that the afterlife will, indeed, be “an extension of our earthly life.” For Jesus knew his own when he appeared to them, and his wounds were mementos of what he had suffered for them in his earthly life. The resurrection life is not just a prolongation of the earthly life, since it involves a radical transformation such as Paul describes, but it is not as though the earthly life is discarded and forgotten.
“Will we have interactions with our family members and earthly friends?” Jesus did. He appeared to his brother James (I Corinthians 15.7) and interacted with his disciples. So I expect that we shall, too. There will not be marriage in the afterlife, but that’s no reason to think that you will not know your earthly wife (or wives!) as your sister in heaven.
“Do you believe we will be walking on ‘street of gold’? If so why will that be such a big deal? Will we be living in luxurious mansions?” Here greater uncertainty is appropriate. The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which is known for its use of vivid symbolism. The descriptions of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21.9-27) may be vivid imagery to convey to us its dazzling beauty and worth. On the other hand a former colleague of mine, a prominent New Testament scholar, once remarked to me matter-of-factly that he thinks we shall be rich in heaven. After getting over my initial surprise, it occurred to me that since we shall have an embodied existence, we’ll have to live somewhere, and it would seem singularly inappropriate that the saints in glory should be living in squalor. Why wouldn’t God bestow luxurious mansions upon them? Why not pave the streets with gold? It would at least be beautiful!
“If we liked playing Gin Rummy on earth will we play Gin in Heaven?” Who knows? While such a pursuit strikes me as numbingly trivial, who am I to say that, say, a Beethoven will not continue to compose or a Rembrandt to paint? My greatest reservation about such earthly pursuits continuing is that it seems to me that the unadulterated vision of Christ, now no longer seen in a poor mirror, but face to face (I Corinthians 13.12), will be so overwhelming and all-consuming that no one would want to play gin rather than be singing his praises and worshiping him. If that sounds boring to you, then you have not yet grasped the incommensurable good that knowing God is. So I’m inclined to think that people who think that when they go to heaven they’ll spend endless time painting or playing golf may be very surprised at how their desires have changed once they are freed from sin and given an unadulterated vision of God. It’s going to be much better than they ever imagined.