On 20 December 2019, the entire Oliver family and two friends were present for my son Joel’s final hours. Just a few months earlier, he had been cutting down trees on our land. Now his body was a shadow of its former strength. A number of medical staff stayed in the room with us, because they had never experienced a death like it. There were blessings over Joel’s children, prayers, and then, as his father, I had the privilege of declaring the last scriptures. As the last scripture left my lips, his last breath left his. There was the last holding of his rapidly cooling hands, the last kisses for the one we had all loved.
As I laid my head against his beard, still slightly warm, troubling questions were already forming: “Where did my 38-year-old son go? What is he doing? How did he get there?”
Why is there so little written about present heaven, and why do so few Christians want to talk about it? And when they do, why don’t they have much enthusiasm for the prospect of going there? I made a commitment to a friend to face these questions head on, and whatever the discoveries from the pages of scripture, I committed to write them down.
One of the complications that at first glance feels unhelpful is that when we die, we know we are immediately in the presence of Jesus, and yet that destination is not our final destination. In scripture, the word heaven is applied both to our destination at death, but also to our final destination, the eternal destination of the new earth and the new heaven. The present heaven is fantastic – the best we will have ever experienced – but is not the best we will ever experience. In other words, heaven will change over time and at a specific time.
We know that life after death, i.e. what happens immediately after we die is not all that there is. We could describe it by saying, there is a final destination and a stopover. I have travelled a good deal, often with Gill my wife, and one or more family members. On long-haul trips we often intentionally build in a stopover. The stopover often gets nearly as much attention – and there really are some great places to stopover – but you never forget that while this might be the best place you have visited so far, there is even better to come.
Jesus gave the dying thief a promise: “Today you will be with me in paradise” and in doing so a location and, by inference, a definition of this ‘Stopover’. Two thousand plus years later, and as you read this very sentence, the dying thief – I have no doubt – is still enjoying paradise. Paul, in describing what was probably a near-death experience or an out of body experience, uses the same Greek word for paradise to describe his visit to present heaven. In Revelation, 2:7 the apostle John uses the same word as he talks about “the paradise of God”, when he is clearly in present heaven.
“Paradise” and “at home with the Lord” are both phrases used to describe the intermediate state of the Christian who dies: the Stopover. Paradise comes from the Persian (Iranian) word that the Greeks modified into paradeisos, meaning ‘enclosed park’: a pleasure garden, a walled garden, a place of design, a place of beauty, a place of peace and a place of joy.
Interestingly, on a recent Songs of Praise, there was a 10-year-old boy, Jonathan Bryan, who had been damaged before birth in a car accident. His only means of communication is by blinking his eyes at letters on a board. He is a Christian and he has just ‘written’ his autobiography. His mother said that he had had a vision of heaven and in the vision he was able to run, walk, climb and speak. It will come as no surprise that he described heaven as “Jesus’ garden”. And when asked how he knew; his response was that he had simply asked someone and that was their answer. He can’t wait to go back!
Our final home
Jesus told his disciples; “In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Jesus deliberately chose everyday words, physical terms – house, rooms, place – to describe where he was going and what he was preparing for us. These words were his words, words of promise, words of practical paradise promise, giving his disciples and us today something tangible to look forward to – an actual place, a promised place and a carefully prepared place where they and we would go to be with him.
In a plethora of TV programmes, like Grand Designs or Love it or List It, the presenters go to great lengths to understand the life and lifestyle of the individual or families that want a change of location or a renewed version of their current home. Each programme is intent on ensuring that the finished outcome is especially tailored to the occupants. These reality TV shows trace the importance of a place called home and simply reflect the desire of the human heart for that home to “suit me”. In an even grander way, paradise has physical places prepared for us and they will be home. Not just any home, but a truly grand design tailored for each one of us, and the creator of the universe has taken personal responsibility for where they are and what they look like. There is no place like home, and there has never been a place so uniquely designed for you and me like this home.
This paradise stopover is not a fly-and-flop holiday destination, it’s where we serve a king, it’s a place of beauty, yes, but also a place of function, purpose and joy. It’s a place of work and reward and it’s a place of increase. And just like Jonathan Bryan, and tens of thousands of others I can’t wait to go there. Like the Apostle Paul I desire to “depart”, which is better by far
David Oliver is a Christian speaker and author. He is part of the Salt & Light UK team and a member of Basingstoke Community Church, England. His new book All about Heaven is available at davidoliverbooks.com
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