By Roger A. Peters
Christians take comfort in knowing that after death we will spend eternity with our Lord and Savior. We know that all the difficulties of this life, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, will be overcome and gone forever. We look forward to a wonderful eternity.
Many Christians, however, hold misconceptions about eternity and our eternal life. These eternal misconceptions are usually well-intended to comfort those who mourn their loved ones. Nevertheless, when we examine these eternal misconceptions in light of Scripture, we find them lacking. The best and surest comfort comes from the Word of God alone. The comfort we receive from God’s Word far surpasses any human invention, including these eternal misconceptions. Therefore, let us examine just a few of these misconceptions in light of that precious Word to receive comfort from it.
MISCONCEPTION ONE: Going to heaven when we die is the Christian’s final goal.
This first eternal misconception leads to many of the others, and it is the idea that when a Christian dies he goes to heaven to be with the Lord and that is it. That is the Christian’s ultimate goal, the “final resting place.” This idea makes sense when Jesus speaks to the thief who was crucified next to Him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). To go to heaven when we die, to be with Jesus in paradise is a blessed hope and comfort for Christians, but there is more.
This may seem obvious to many Lutherans who confess nearly every week in church, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” in the Nicene Creed, or “I believe in … the resurrection of the body,” in the Apostles’ Creed. But it is not obvious to everyone, especially to those who attend churches that do not confess the creeds weekly.
Christians do go to heaven to be with Jesus when they die and are in a state of peace, comfort and joy there. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We also take comfort in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. … My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:21, 23). To “depart” this life is to be with Christ, which is far better than to remain in this world of sin and suffering. These and many other passages throughout Scripture comfort us in the knowledge that we will be with Jesus in heaven when we die.
Scripture, however, also points us beyond this to the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. Paul writes earlier in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Here, he is referring to the Last Day, and the good work that Christ brings to completion is our redemption. This work of redemption includes our bodies, which will be fully perfected in the resurrection. Jesus points forward to this also: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Paul writes extensively about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 where he argues, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:16–17). But we know that Christ has been raised, so there is a resurrection of the body. To die and to be with Christ is better than this life by far, but the best comes in the resurrection of the body.
MISCONCEPTION TWO: We become angels when we die.
The second eternal misconception is the common notion that those who die and go to heaven become angels. This is reflected in statements like, “God needed another angel.” People sometimes say this when a loved one dies. While they intend these statements for comfort, this idea is not biblical. This can be seen by looking briefly at what angels are according to Scripture.
Hebrews says, “And to which of the angels has he ever said, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’? Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:13–14). In Greek, that second question expects an affirmative answer. Just like in English, “Are they not … ?” expects, “Yes, they are!” Angels are ministering spirits.
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word for “messenger” and is a title, not a kind of creature. Just as humans can be messengers, so the spiritual creatures called angels are spirits who hold the office of messenger.
As spirits, the angels are a different sort of creature from humans entirely. Humans have a physical nature, possessing flesh and blood, but “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). Although angels have often appeared in bodily form, they are spiritual and not physical. When Christians die, they are “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), but they are not spiritual creatures by nature. Rather, we look forward to being “further clothed” (2 Cor. 5:4) in the resurrection. The angels do not need or experience the resurrection. Rather, they are ministering spirits who “serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.”
It may seem comforting to imagine ourselves as angels in heaven, but it is a far greater comfort to know that our loved ones are with Christ, eagerly awaiting the resurrection of the body.
MISCONCEPTION THREE: Heaven is all about enjoying my favorite hobbies forever.
The third eternal misconception attempts to answer the question, “What will we do in heaven?” Many people imagine themselves doing all their favorite things forever in eternity, maybe playing golf or football. Others imagine eating their favorite foods. Pick your favorite hobby and imagine enjoying it for eternity.
This idea of heaven sounds like fun, but notice who is missing from this picture: God. This idea of heaven is self-centered rather than Christ-centered. It focuses on personal fulfillment based on what we in our current, fallen state find fulfilling. Scripture does not describe in great detail what we will do in heaven, but one thing is clear: It is all about Jesus.
One brief glimpse of this is in Revelation 7:9–17. Here John sees a vision of a great, innumerable multitude from all over the world who stand before the Lamb who sits on the throne, and they sing His praise. One of the elders explains that “these are the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14), a picture of the saints in heaven. He continues with beautiful words:
Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:15–17)
The saints in heaven receive supreme comfort and joy, which centers around God and the worship of the Lamb.
Revelation later pictures the resurrection as the new Jerusalem that has no temple because God is the new temple (Rev. 21:22), and a voice declares, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). John does not describe everything people will do in the new Jerusalem. What makes it great is not a list of activities to choose from but God’s presence: “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3–4). How could playing golf for eternity possibly compare to seeing the face of God and being called His own?
MISCONCEPTION FOUR: Our loved ones send us help and messages from heaven.
A fourth misconception is the idea that our loved ones in heaven send us help or messages when we are in need. Someone might find her mother’s favorite flower on a particularly bad day and interpret it as a sign that her mother is watching over her, or have a strong feeling that a beloved grandparent is helping her during a tough competition. While it can be comforting to think of our loved ones and remember how they supported us in life, we have no word from Scripture that they are able to communicate from heaven.
Whether or not the saints in heaven are able to see the saints on earth is uncertain, but many theologians believe that they can. John Kleinig, in his Concordia Commentary on Hebrews, interprets Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” to indicate that the saints in heaven testify to the saints on earth through the Scriptures, and also that they encourage Christians who run the race of faith like spectators in a stadium. The cloud hides the witnesses from sight so Christians cannot see or hear them, but they are there.[i]
In good times or in bad, Christians do not look for hope in signs or help from departed loved ones; this risks turning them into idols. Rather, God would have us find comfort in His Word and Sacraments, which are His precious gifts to the church. God’s Word tells us of the saving work of Jesus that He accomplished for us by His death on the cross, and the Sacraments deliver His grace along with the assurance that it is for you. There is no more sure and certain comfort than God’s Word.
Comfort in Christ
When we examine each of these misconceptions under the guiding light of God’s Word, we find that the comfort that they might give pales in comparison to the sure and certain comfort we have in Christ and His Word. The Bible teaches us to look to the resurrection, where there will be a new heaven and a new earth and we will see God’s face. The Bible teaches us that the angels are God’s ministering servants who serve us, and that although we do not get angel wings when we die, we do experience the joy of the resurrection. Jesus is at the center of everything in heaven, and He will comfort the saints who will sing His praise. Finally, the Bible teaches us that all of this is possible because of what Jesus has done for us by dying on the cross and rising in victory to make us His own. This is the greatest comfort.
[i] John W. Kleinig, Hebrews, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017), 598.
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness.