While I was attending a class at church in my twenties, we took up the topic of heaven — what it will be like and why we would want to go there. I distinctly remember that one of the class leaders said, in all seriousness, “I can’t wait to have my mansion and my Maserati!”
Now, given how little I knew of this man (and how careless I myself can be at times with words), I will not assume his statement captured the whole of his deepest longings for heaven. However, it did have an immediate and lasting effect on me. As I pondered a vague mental image of a celestial mansion with a luxury sports car parked outside, it filled me with a profound sense of emptiness. This was not because big houses and expensive cars never held much appeal for me, but because the clearest, most passionate expression of someone’s anticipation of the joy of heaven that morning didn’t mention God.
I don’t know how well I could have articulated it back then, but intuitively I knew that if God wasn’t, far and away, the greatest joy of heaven, if the eternal reward for Christians was essentially enhanced forms of the earthly things we enjoy most now, it would be no heaven at all — at least not a heaven I wanted. The idea had the ring of Ecclesiastes-like vanity. It left me with an aftertaste of despair.
That class was a moment of clarity for me. I began to see that I didn’t so much long for eternal life as I longed for the One Thing that would make eternal life worth living. I didn’t so much want the created delights of heaven as I wanted the One Thing that made those delights delightful. At bottom, what I really wanted was, in the words of the old hymn, the “wellspring of the joy of living,” the very thing that made heaven heavenly. I wanted God.
Heaven on Every Page
In referring to “heaven,” I’m just using the common shorthand term for everything a Christian experiences after the death of our fallen bodies, from the intermediate state (2 Corinthians 5:8) to the resurrection of our bodies (John 5:28–29) and the new creation (Romans 8:18–21) — everything we anticipate in “the age to come” (Luke 18:29–30).
“Our unquenchable thirst, our unappeasable want, is a desire for God.”
In one sense, the Bible tells us relatively little about the specifics of heaven. Descriptions of heaven are often analogical or symbolic, framed in archaic images we might find strange. In another sense, however, the Bible speaks of heaven all over the place, and in ways very relevant to us. The Bible, on almost every page, speaks not so much of the mansions and Maseratis that may come, but of the great Satisfaction for which our souls deeply long.
C.S. Lewis put it this way: “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else” (The Problem of Pain, 150). What he’s talking about is the desire at the core of all our desiring, the thirst that is never quenched by anything we find in this world: our desire for God.
Our Unappeasable Want
Lewis calls this core desire “the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work” (152).
This “unappeasable want” is a daily experience for us to lesser or greater degrees. Its presence is pervasive in our pursuits. Yet quenching this thirst eludes us in every earthly well we drink from. And no heavenly mansion or Maserati will satisfy it either. Only One Thing will. As Randy Alcorn says,
We may imagine we want a thousand different things, but God is the one we really long for. His presence brings satisfaction; his absence brings thirst and longing. Our longing for Heaven is a longing for God. (Heaven, 165)
God himself is “the fountain of living waters”; apart from him every other cistern we dig will leave us dry (Jeremiah 2:13). Only he can give us the drink that will forever end our deepest thirst (John 4:14). Our unquenchable thirst, our unappeasable want, is a desire for God (Psalm 63:1–2). This is what the Bible reveals from cover to cover.
Heaven of Heavens
We hear this desire for God throughout the Psalms, especially ones that express the broken emptiness of earthly cisterns:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25–26)
We hear this in their declarations that “a day in [God’s] courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10) and that God was their “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4).
We see this desire in the prophet Moses, who “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26) — the only reward he really desired: God (Exodus 33:18).
We see this desire in the apostle Paul, who “count[ed] everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord” and “suffered the loss of all things . . . count[ing] them as rubbish, in order that [he] may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8) — the one prize he really valued (Philippians 3:14).
And we hear this desire on the very lips of the Lord Jesus himself: “this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). God does not merely give us eternal life, he is the life, the very source and essence of eternal life (John 11:25–26).
“God himself is our ultimate gain, our great reward, our exceeding joy, and our eternal home.”
In this sense, the Bible is very much a book about heaven. For at the center of redemptive history, the apex of biblical revelation, we discover that the very reason Jesus came to earth, the reason he “suffered [on the brutal cross] once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous,” was in order “that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And in giving us God, he is giving us heaven. God, in his Trinitarian wholeness, is himself our life, our ultimate gain, our great reward, our exceeding joy, our portion forever, and our eternal home. He is the very Heaven of heaven.
Substance, Sun, Ocean
Few have seen the Heaven of heavens as clearly from Scripture as Jonathan Edwards:
The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows, but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the ocean.
This does not devalue the shadows, the scattered beams, the streams of this world. Every good gift comes from God (James 1:17). The gift of himself, however, is what gives every other gift its inestimable value in the first place. They only devalue when separated from the Substance, the Sun, the Ocean.
And every good and perfect gift we receive from God in the age to come, whether mansions and Maseratis or whatever else he has prepared for us, will be far better than those we’ve received and experienced in this life (1 Corinthians 2:9). But still, they will never compare with the Joy of joys, the Love of loves, the Light of light, the Life of life, the Heaven of heavens. For God will always be, as Lewis says in Till We Have Faces, the one satisfying “place where all the beauty came from.”