“So what does your heaven offer me?” the man asked with a grin. Recently having heard about the promises of Allah’s heaven, and being an avid admirer of women’s company, he thought a heaven containing virgins a pretty appealing incentive. Knowing I was a Christian, he continued, “Will there be physical intimacy every several thousand years when you pause from the eternal church service?”
He seemed to know few pleasures, if any, higher than perpetual fornication. So, my response must have been unintelligible: “There won’t be any sex in heaven.”
“How could heaven not have sex?” he blurted out louder than even he anticipated. He wracked his brain for the logic. Should the ocean not have raindrops? The banquet, no food? The body, its chief delight? Next, I was to tell him that no one smiled or laughed in heaven either. He could not imagine a heaven with less pleasure than earth.
“How can you believe in such a heaven?”
I admit that I too have scratched my head at Jesus’s teaching, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34–35). In the resurrection, God’s people will be like the angels in heaven — without spouse or sex (Matthew 22:30).
With this man, I too have wondered at this omission. Not because I could not imagine something more satisfying to live for than sex, but because lifelong commitment to a spouse in marriage is also one of the greatest joys to be had in this world. Why would it not endure into the next?
Then I married, and the nagging question increased. The thought of going from oneness with her to a more general relationship with all the saints felt like a move from tailor-made to assembly line; unique to generic. To take my spouse from me and place her in the crowd felt like unweaving a rainbow, separating me from my choicest companion, indeed, from a part of myself. Removing the rib of man a second time.
Sex and Chocolate
I stumbled upon a quote in Lewis that has helped the tension. I was troubled, as Lewis memorably puts it, not because the future reality is wanting, but because my imagination and faith are weak. He writes,
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer “No,” he might regard [the] absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in heaven, will leave no room for it.
Those of us who know (or at least can imagine) marital bliss and sexual pleasure may be tempted to think heaven the duller for excluding them. The perpetual sexual fast, the augment of relational depth with your spouse — “How can a world of bliss forbid such chocolates?” What does God have against chocolate? Nothing, he reminds us. He invented them.
Instead of thinking heaven the less interesting, we wonder, as the boy in Lewis’s analogy, what kind of happiness does God have in store for those who love God when the highest pleasures on earth stand as a distant and forgotten memory? What light renders the flickering candle irrelevant? This heaven, the man couldn’t understand, is the only one worthy of the name. We do not have earth’s joys 2.0 with the absence of pain. The God who joyfully invented such ecstasies, eclipses them to make room for something more.
To sigh at heaven because we lose something of earth, to cling to earth’s most brilliant shadows with trembling grip as they give way to the substance, is to forget what is coming. Even now, we can remind ourselves: heaven’s pleasures threaten to overwhelm earth’s best delights — delights so intoxicating that the passing of them seems an irreplaceable loss, a dimming of heaven. We need not stuff our pockets with Butterfingers and Hershey bars as we step into the marriage supper of the Lamb. God’s proclamation at the end of the story, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5), contains a “new” that we on earth can’t quite comprehend.
The Bible tells us plainly that fullness of joy is in the presence of the Lord (Psalm 16:11). Eternal life is to know him (John 17:3). The new heaven and new earth descend with Christ when he returns, not before. Already God’s kingdom spreads over the face of the earth; already the gates of hell bend at the barrage of the church (Matthew 16:18); already, with every passing day, God transfers new sinners from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:13); yet our lives arrive fully only with the second advent (Colossians 3:4). Heaven gallops towards earth — with fullness of joy, the end of death, the vanquishing of sin, and the glory of God — seated on a white horse.
Faith unhesitatingly holds that God alone can architect the best heaven. Faith reminds us that God does not bury his best joys in a fallen world. Faith is assured that the country still ahead is best (Hebrews 11:16). We groan, not because we go to rule in that city of everlasting day without a few of earth’s favorite candy bars; we groan inwardly and wait eagerly because we long for the fullness of our adoption as sons (Romans 8:23). We enjoy chocolate, but hunger for steak. Faith teaches us to enjoy the things of earth mindful of God during the day, and to pray at night, with childlike anticipation, “One day nearer, my Lord. One day nearer!”
What Heaven Offers
When Christ returns, faith will not say, as I once heard a comedian crudely joke, “Just give me twenty more minutes.” When I heard it, I cringed because I’ve said the equivalent.
- Jesus, give me some time to make my mark on the world — and then return!
- Jesus, let me get married and grow old and gray — and then return!
- Jesus, feel free to take your time — I know there won’t be my favorite chocolate bars in heaven!
I have need to remind myself: All that is sweet in human marriage to my coheir on this earth will not be ultimately lost but transformed. The new depth of intimacy I will have with my Lord — and every other saint, including my spouse — will look back on the caterpillar of earthly joys with fondness but not longing. And this makes marriage, and the intoxication of sexual intimacy, all the sweeter now.
My life with my spouse, no matter how precious, will be a shadow of what I, and the rest of God’s children, will have in perfect communion with our Lord and each other. Marriage with a believer can be one of the greatest relationships of earth — but the least relationship in heaven will be greater than it.
Jesus’s return in his glory — the climax of all human history — will not be an intrusion. We cannot allow unbelief to put up a “Do not disturb” sign above even the most excellent gifts from our heavenly Father. We enjoy our candy now, and as we do, we grow in our trust in the Father who knows how to give good — the best gifts — to his children. Our heaven does not offer sexual pleasure, but it offers that which makes sexual pleasure obsolete. It offers fullness of joy. It offers us God himself.