The thought of heaven and especially the second coming used to unsettle me. I can remember growing up with a certain measure of fear associated with the end of this life (whether occasioned by the conclusion of this age with the coming of Christ or the conclusion of my physical life and entrance into heaven). Part of this unsettling was in response to the unknown, and surely part had to do with the unpleasantness associated with 'passing through the stormy river,' an oft-used metaphor for death. Further still, I think my apprehension could be traced to some rather immature thoughts about this life. I can vividly recall having some paranoid thought that Christ would return just as I reached the age where certain privileges were afforded, thus depriving me of their joy (I worried that Jesus would come back just as I passed my driver's license exam). Such apprehension stemmed from an unhealthy (and unholy) attitude towards this present life. I valued the pleasures of this life more than those of the life to come.
But perhaps the greatest source of my unsettled feelings could be traced directly to a lack of consideration about heaven itself. I did not think about heaven enough, or when I did, those thoughts were vague and general. While I certainly have not attained the admirable goal of daily consideration of the bliss of heaven (one of Jonathan Edwards' famous resolutions), I do think that intentional reflection can serve to alleviate some apprehension about the hereafter.
But what to think of heaven? Take a moment to consider that question. When you think about heaven, what comes to mind - clouds and harps, some vague notion of bliss, or complimentary Starbucks on every street corner? Let me suggest a few 'heavenly thoughts' to get us started.
1. Heaven will be a place where we work and rest. Dressed in robes and floating on clouds, entertained by the soothing melodies of a harp is hardly the Bible's idea. Work became a curse only with the advent of sin, and in eternity, work returns to its pre-fall status as a good thing. But heaven will also be rest - rest from the weariness of this life, rest from pain and sorrow, rest from the trouble which is common to this life, rest which we get a taste of each Lord's Day. When you think about heaven, think about work and rest.
2. While there are obvious (and glorious) differences between this life and the next, the two are not unrelated. Heaven is not a 'do over' or a mulligan to the life we experience now. Things that we know in this life do not cease at our death (or at Christ's return).
3. There is a lot of physicality to heaven. Eternity is described as the 'new heavens and new earth.' To be human is to be both body and soul, and though the immediate destiny of our souls at death may be separation from our bodies, that is an unnatural condition for human existence and is only temporary. Our perfected bodies have a relationship to the bodies we know in this life, and in eternity we will once again be body and soul.
4. The experience of eternity will not be uniform. Equality is not a divine mandate in the next life any more than it is in this one. God gives talents and resources and opportunities in varying amounts in this life, and there are rewards in the next which are not all alike (the Bible uses this teaching as one motivation for living godly lives).
5. When Jesus comes again, eternity 'begins.' Whatever the exact experiences are of believers who die before the coming of the Lord (those who are 'in heaven'), it is not until Jesus returns that the dead are raised, the final judgment occurs with the ensuing new heavens and new earth. Even the saints in glory now join us in saying, 'Even so, Lord, quickly come!'