Ghost-like figures strumming harps,
Floating on fluffy clouds,
Walking streets of gold...
I'm bored of heaven already.
Even singing the same phrase around the throne seems like it would get old after a few millennia, to this natural mind.
But I am personally convinced that heaven is a place of wonder that defies description using human language. It has to be; God paid much too high a price* for us to get there, for it to be anything less than these core characteristics:
Heaven is the ultimate experience in and expression of relationship (which is the essence of life*). The community of heaven is characterized by total transparency. Residents thereof know an intimacy with each other that far surpasses the physical intimacy lovers share on earth. In heaven, one gets to know the other person from the inside out, as opposed to the earthly “working one's way in.” When people meet for the first time, they immediately know the other person to the fullest extent.
And better still, they love and appreciate what they see! It’s as if the person has been completely emptied of every trace of annoyance, and the positive aspects of that personality have been condensed and magnified to make up the entire individual, so that people relate to each other as the unique individuals they were always meant to be. And they have an eternity to “discover” one another for the first time, and to enjoy them forever.
There's a reason we feel a certain "high" or sense of fulfillment after hanging out with interesting people and diving below the surface in conversation. It's a taste of heaven, which is more of a "space for relating" than "place for relocating."
And yet, at the same time, heaven is a very real place that's bustling with activity. With Jesus' physical, bodily resurrection from the dead as the cornerstone of the Christian faith, it follows that heaven will be occupied by resurrected ("glorified") physical bodies with sensory capabilities that make the five natural senses seem dull and useless. And those bodies have plenty to do beyond floating around ethereally inside pearly gates.
Heaven is a place where dreams are finally realized. Whatever talents went to waste on earth are maximized to the fullest potential in heaven. This should be a great comfort to anyone frustrated by lack of opportunity or inability. Take the full time caregiver who never has time to write, or paint, for instance. Heaven awaits with all the time and space to create. Or the scientist who dies a premature death on the brink of breakthrough; heaven is a place where one's lifework continues, and any stress thereof is replaced with the sheer pleasure God intended for us to find in our work.
But here's the thing: one's work and art have infinitely more meaning in heaven. They are directed toward relationship, which is, again, the hallmark of eternity. So it's not as though one's earthly career is extended in heaven, but rather one's natural "bent" is redirected, refined and redeemed in a way that glorifies God by enhancing relationship.
Word on the Biblical-scholarly street is that heaven involves levels of rulership and reward. This isn't my area of expertise and I haven't thoroughly studied it, but it's found in scripture, and it does seem to make sense. Salvation through the Cross might get all believers through heaven's gates, but how they spend their lives here on the earth determines the degree of responsibility they'll be given in heaven.
Residents of heaven fully experience God—the pure essence of love. People who have momentarily died and come back to life commonly tell of an incredible feeling of being enveloped in a love that warmed them beyond what human language can express. This is because God's presence permeates the atmosphere of heaven. You could say love is, quite literally, "in the air" there; it's the energy of heaven.
I have only barely scratched the surface of all I believe heaven involves. Surely it's a place of exploration; galaxies can be traveled without the constraints of time and space. It's a place to discover new sensations—colors, smells, sounds and textures that are unknown and nonexistent on the earth.
Finally, if the atmosphere of heaven is love, it's government is peace. Gone forever is all pain of any kind—no anger, strife, grief, or sorrow exists in heaven. The only tears are tears of joy.
What About Hell?
Hell is the antithesis of heaven. I define it as the total absence of God (and thus love). Here on earth, the worst infidels are still able to call on God, for His presence is accessible everywhere. Not so in hell. It is a place of utter abandonment—a loneliness unlike any ever experienced on earth. Some people joke and say, “At least I’ll be in good company in hell—we’ll party!” That won’t be the case.
Hell is a place where God respects one's wishes and grants free will by allowing them the fullest experience of what they always wanted on earth—for God to leave them alone. So those who lived for themselves will get just that—they will have their “selves” all to themselves.
Randy Alcorn writes of an individual who found himself in hell and soon heard a blood-curdling scream, at first thought to be a demon. He realized it was his own scream; the thing he loved too much to ever deny now turned on him to torment him for eternity. As will all those things some cling to—hate, fear, greed, envy, and so on. They are the only company one has in hell. They become all-consuming giants now feeding on the ones who used to feed on them.
Hell was created for Satan and his angels. God does not want any human to go there, and He provided us with a way out.*
How do I know all this? Here are just a few resources on the topic (do you know of any others? Leave a comment!)
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis (my absolute favorite book on heaven! A fun, short read)
Heaven by Randy Alcorn
* See this post
Revelation 3:21; 7: 9-12; 15-17; 20-22; Philippians 3:20-21; Psalm 16:11; John 14:1-7; I Corinthians 13:12; Jeremiah 23:24;