The Most Important Question on Earth
Dr. Jim Denison
A dear friend sent me this story. A man says, “I’ve been married 25 years. I took a look at my wife one day and said, ‘Honey, 25 years ago we had a cheap apartment, a cheap car, slept on a sofa bed and watched a 10-inch black and white TV, but I got to live with a hot 25 year old blonde. Now we have a nice house, nice car, big bed and plasma screen TV, but I’m living with a 50 year old woman. It seems to me that you are not holding up your side of things.’
“My wife is a very reasonable woman. She told me to go out and find a hot 25 year old blonde, and she would make sure that I would once again be living in a cheap apartment.”
Some discussions are just not worth having. We should declare victory and go home, because we’re going to lose, anyway. Other discussions are crucial to our lives, families, and future.
We learned this week that North Korea is close to testing a long-range ballistic missile launch. South Dakota voters this fall will decide the fate of a law which would ban most abortions in the state; other states will be watching closely. Iran is being urged to suspend its uranium enrichment program. We could go on.
But none of these issues, as vital as they are, is as significant as the discussion we need to have this morning. We’re going to talk today about the most important question on earth. I need to ask it with you, and show you why it is so vital to your life today.
What is heaven like?
Let’s set out the context and parameters for our discussion. Our text talks about heaven. We’ve been watching Jesus reveal himself to us through the Revelation, not as The DaVinci Code’s human prophet but as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Today he wants to show us his home.
First, his word says that heaven is a real place. John said, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). He didn’t feel it, or dream of it, or hear about it. He saw it, and we only see things which are. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14.2).
Heaven is a real place.
Second, heaven is a blessed place (v. 4). Because God is there, all that is perfect is there as well. There will be no death in heaven, thus no mourning or crying or pain. Our greatest enemy will trouble us no more. You’ll be glad you’re there.
Third, heaven is a place of great reward. Jesus told us to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). The psalmist testified, “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11). Our reward is forever, “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).
Is heaven real?
Now, let’s see if we believe everything we’ve learned thus far. Raise your hand if you believe in heaven. But I’m afraid there’s a “but.” In the back of your mind, is there ever a glimmer of doubt that maybe it’s not really true? That those you love who have died are really just dead? That this is all there is, and heaven is what we hope for but aren’t sure really exists?
I was in Houston a few months ago, and stopped at my father’s grave. The greatest tragedy of my life is that my father never met my sons. My spiritual side is sure he’s in heaven. My human side hopes so. I want there to be more than this. I want to see him again. I want him to meet my sons one day. I hope it’s true.
I’ve spoken with several people in recent weeks who tell me that they do not believe in an afterlife. Most of us are sophisticated, scientific people. It’s hard for many of us to believe what we cannot understand or verify through our experience, science, or logic. It’s hard to believe what we cannot prove.
Freud said that God is a projection of our need for an ideal father. By extension, heaven is a projection of our need to live forever. We conjure up the concept to make ourselves feel better about our finite time on earth.
Marx called religion the “opiate of the people.” Unfortunately, he’s sometimes right. During the horrific days of slavery, a slaveowner was happy for his slaves to believe that they would be rewarded in heaven if they were obedient on earth.
When I’ve thought about this issue in the past, it’s always comforted me to remember that every culture known to history has a sense of something beyond this world.
It’s impossible to find a civilization which doesn’t believe in life beyond this life. Pascal said that there’s a “God-shaped emptiness” inside us all; Augustine observed that our hearts are restless until they rest in him.
But what if that’s because we all share the same need to believe that there’s something more, the same horror at the idea that this is all there is? When we stand at the grave of someone we love, our hearts break at the thought that we’ll never see them again. So we believe in heaven because we need to believe in heaven, the same way we believe in peace even though our world is always at war. What if that’s all it is–a belief?
We can say that even if heaven isn’t real, believing in it is a good thing. It gives us hope, something to look forward to, a way to be comforted. The people I know who don’t believe in heaven don’t mind if I do. “Whatever gets you through the day.” Believe what you need to believe. So let’s move on, hoping that heaven is real. If we’re right, we’ll rejoice forever. If we’re wrong, we’ll never know it. What have we got to lose?
Here’s the problem: if heaven isn’t real, Jesus was wrong. His word was wrong. Heaven isn’t a peripheral subject in Scripture. The NIV uses the word “heaven” 427 times. If it isn’t real, God’s word isn’t true. And everything I believe based on his word is in doubt this morning.
How do we know?
I gave myself permission to wrestle with this issue in preparing for this message, and go wherever it takes me. I’ve landed on two reasons to believe that heaven is real, two reasons to have absolute assurance that heaven is a real, blessed place of reward. And one reason why this fact matters so much today, why the question of heaven is the most important question on earth.
Why do I believe in heaven this morning? First, because Jesus believed in heaven, and I believe in him.
I know from the ancient historian Thallus the Samaritan that Jesus existed, from Tacitus that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, from Josephus that his followers thought him raised from the dead, and from Pliny the Younger that they worshiped him as God.
I know that his followers would not steal the body and then die for a lie. They didn’t go to the wrong tomb, for the authorities were guarding the right tomb. Jesus didn’t swoon on the cross, then convince 500 people he had heavenly powers and ascend back into heaven. I know from first-century records that opponents of the resurrection had no answer to the claim that he was risen from the grave.
If he is resurrected, he is God. If he is God, his word is true. And his word says that “he who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26). He promised us, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).
I cannot go to heaven, and cannot meet those who have. By definition it is a realm which transcends my earthly ability to verify its existence. But Jesus came from there, and returned there. I know that he walked my planet, breathed my air, faced my sin, died on my cross, rose from my grave. I believe in heaven because Jesus believed in heaven. And because I believe in him.
Second, I believe in heaven because I’ve learned to trust what I cannot prove. Of course I cannot prove that heaven exists. By definition, the “supernatural” transcends the “natural.” Heaven transcends earth. I cannot use earthly experience to verify its existence. But I believe much which I cannot verify empirically. So do you.
Is there more beyond this present world of our senses and experience? Of course there is. Solipsism is the philosophical belief that reality exists only when you experience it. This sanctuary exists only when you enter it. You exist only when I preach to you.
It’s an appealing thought. The NBA Finals didn’t exist, because I refuse to think about them. I don’t have to pay for Ryan’s tuition at Baylor because Baylor doesn’t exist while I’m in Dallas. I bet they’ll find a way to change my mind.
The problem with the philosophy is that it doesn’t work. Start a fire in your fireplace, then leave the room for several hours. You’ll return to discover that the logs burned down. How is that possible? We all know that solipsism is silly. Of course things exist beyond our experience of them. Of course television and radio waves exist in this room, whether we can see them or not. I assume the choir is still behind me, that they didn’t sneak out during the sermon. And that my car’s still in the garage where I left it. And that someone is cooking lunch at the restaurant we’ll choose after church.
Just because we cannot see heaven makes it no less real. I cannot see the walls behind me, but I assume they’re still there. I cannot see into the next room, but that makes the people there no less present. If I could use earthly experience to verify heaven, by definition it wouldn’t really be heaven. If I could use physical methods to measure the God who is Spirit (John 4:24), by definition he wouldn’t be God.
So I’m going to believe in what I cannot prove, because nothing worth proving can be proven. I cannot prove that my family loves me. I cannot prove that the Bible is true, or that God is love, or that I will go to heaven when I die. I cannot prove that they are not, either.
All relationships transcend the evidence and are self-validating. If I were to wait until I could prove I could be a good pastor, I would never have become a pastor. If I were to wait until I could prove that I would be a good husband and father, I’d still be single. You could not prove the validity of a single relationship in your life to me. You may say that your spouse loves you, or your friends appreciate you, or your employees are loyal to you, but they may be lying or you may be deceived. I couldn’t know that you were right unless I experienced what you have experienced.
So we examine the evidence: Jesus is real and he said heaven is real. Then we take a step into relationship with him. And that relationship becomes self-validating. I’m willing to stake my eternity on him, not on me. On his truth, not my doubts. On his power, not my limitations. Because I believe in Jesus, I believe in heaven. I invite you to join me.
Let’s close with this question: why does any of this matter to your soul today? What about the problems and fears you’re facing this morning? What about the North Korean missile launch test, or the battle over abortion, or the Iranian nuclear program? What about the economy, and the time and money pressures you’re facing? What about your guilt over the past and fear over the future? One day there will be a new heaven and a new earth; but what about the earth you inhabit this morning? Why is heaven the only question which matters on earth?
Let’s think about that question for a moment. It’s a fact that future reward makes present obedience worthwhile. You go to class, or the office, or whatever you’ll do this week, because you believe the future reward is worth the present cost.
It’s the same way in living passionately and fully for Jesus, in seeking first the Kingdom of God, in being crucified with Christ, in presenting our bodies a living sacrifice, in selling out for God. I read a quote this week which stopped me in my tracks: “Your job is the passionate pursuit of who God made you to be. Anything else is sin.” My problem is the “anything else.” It’s hard for me to obey God beyond what this world rewards now.
We live in the Bible belt, where church attendance is socially accepted and often rewarded. We live in a culture which rewards those who are faithful to their spouses and love their children, those who live with a basically accepted morality.
But why go beyond that standard? Why refuse sexual immorality on a date when your culture affirms it? Why refuse personal, private sins no one knows about? Secret anger and bitterness toward those who have hurt you, online pornography, private alcohol abuse, personal agendas and pride you hide from the rest of us?
Why serve God beyond the socially acceptable? Why share your faith at the risk of offending others? Why give more than you can spare of your money and time? Why seek the “passionate pursuit of who God made you to be,” whatever it costs?
Because heaven guarantees that earthly obedience is the best investment of your life.
Long after this planet is gone and those who made fun of your faith and misunderstood your sacrifice don’t matter, your reward in paradise is sure. God never wastes a hurt.
Everything you do for him during these few years on earth is noted in heaven and will be rewarded forever. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make.
And because living for heaven is the best way to live on earth. The future rewards only that which is best in the present. Being godly with your secret thoughts is the healthiest way to live now, for your happiness depends on the quality of your thoughts. What you think is what you become. Being sacrificial with your witness, time and money is the most satisfying, significant, joyful way to live today.
Living for heaven is the best way to live on earth.
So I’m going to live for heaven from now on. I’m going to care more for people’s eternal souls than their temporal approval. I’m going to use my gifts and resources to build God’s Kingdom more than my own. I’m going to ask God to use my suffering more than solve it. I’m going to remember that this life is the car and not the house, the road and not the destination. I’m going to make sure every day that I’m ready to die, because one day I will. I’m going to live for heaven while I’m on earth. I invite you to do the same.
The payoff is for now. A life well lived is its own reward. But the payoff is also for eternity. On the day when I take the Lord’s Supper from nail-scarred hands, and step into the heaven of the One I love and serve on earth, whatever it costs me today to live for heaven will be worth it forever. I want that for my soul and for yours. So let’s live for heaven together. Will you join me?