Heidelberg 58: Bored By Heaven? (1)

Open Quote 4 lines58. What comfort do we have from the article of “life everlasting”?

That, inasmuch as I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, I shall after this life possess complete bliss, such as eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, therein to praise God forever.—Heidelberg Catechism 58

It is surprising how often I have heard Christians say that they hope heaven is busy and that it is more than worship or else they fear that they will be bored. This sentiment is not only quintessentially American, where we seem to value busy-ness over all else, and it reflects also an impoverished understanding of the nature of eternal life with Christ.

The Cultural Problem
We Americans are like the Romans. We build things. Then we tear them down (especially in Southern California where a 30-year old building qualifies for historic status) and build something new. We are a restless people who seem to value movement over reflection. This is particularly true among evangelicals, whose heritage is rooted in the lay preachers of the so-called Second Great Awakening, who had no time for education, who “burned over” Western and Central New York and who wandered across the American West holding innumerable revivals. Among evangelicals restlessness is regarded as a virtue, the next big event is always just over the horizon, degrees and certificates substitute for learning, and the number of pages is more important than the quality of the work. For Christians emerging from such a secular and religious culture, the very idea of heaven is almost unpleasant, especially if heaven is antithetical to much of what is held dear.

Cult Or Culture?
There is a second source of difficulty. For some there is an overly strong notion of continuity between life as we know it now and life in the new heavens and the new earth. One writer says,

The new heavens and the new earth the Lord has promised will be a continuation, purified by fire, of the creation we now know. There is no reason to believe that the cultural dimensions of earthly reality (except insofar as they are involved in sin) will be absent from the new, glorified earth that is promised. In fact, John writes that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it… The glory and the honor of the nations will be brought into it” (Rev. 21:24, 26). This very likely refers to the cultural treasures of mankind which will be purified by passing through the fires of judgment, light gold in a crucible.1

What Scripture Says
To be sure there will be continuity between this existence and the new heavens and the new earth. After all, they are the new heavens and the new earth. That expression, from 2 Peter 3:13, indicates a degree of continuity. Christians will be glorified humans. If we read that language in its immediate context (2 Pet 3:8–13) it is a promise that Christ is coming, that there will be a judgment, there will be a purification of this world. It seems likely that Peter was using a degree of hyperbole to describe the coming judgment and renewal of all things. He was making an analogy with the Noahic flood, in which “the world that then was” (vv. 5–7). After the flood, the world continued to exist but it was purified, in a relative way. It was not utterly destroyed and re-made. The only folk left were the righteous, i.e., those few who believed and to whom Christ’s righteousness was imputed and in whom the Lord had gracious worked a degree of sanctity. That’s the analogy he uses to describe the coming world just as our Lord Jesus had done when he said

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.  They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all (Luke 17:26–27; ESV).

The judgment will be swift and surprising. So, clearly, there is continuity and discontinuity between this present existence and the next.

Our author, however, argues for high degree of continuity between the cultural endeavors of this world and glorified life on the basis of an appeal to Revelation 21. Let’s consider the passage in its context:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:22–22:1; ESV).

Remember, the Revelation (or the Apocalypse) is not a linear roadmap to the future but rather a cycle of visions to explain to believers (e.g., those in the 7 churches) the nature of the Christian life between the ascension of Christ and his return. It is a deliberately and highly symbolic narrative and of heaven and earth. Whenever we interpret the Revelation we must account for the symbolic, figurative language. This is perhaps the major reason the 1,000 years described in Revelation 20:6 is not to be taken literally since, after chapter 3, virtually nothing in the Revelation is intended to be taken literally. It is passing strange to interpret the seven historic churches of the prologue figuratively and the 1,000 years literally.2

Chapter 21 is a figurative account of the “new heavens and the new earth” (21:1). Immediately in ch. 21 we see “the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (v.1). The narrative begins with discontinuity between this existence and the new. A heavenly Jerusalem descends. That is clearly figurative language. The throne in v.5 is, of course, royal imagery and he who is seated on it declares “Behold, I am making all things new.” That signals renewal. The angels are likely actual beings but the bowls they carry are surely figurative (v.9). The heavenly city, its measurements, its jewels, and its glassy and golden streets (vv. 16–21) are surely meant to be taken figuratively as symbolic.

It is most significant for our understanding of the relations between cult (worship) and culture (broadly, ordinary human endeavor) that v. 22 turns to the heavenly “temple,” which, of course is not a “temple” at all but “the Lamb.” Jesus had promised, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). He was speaking about his resurrection. This is why Christians ought not to be anticipating a re-built temple in Jerusalem. The Lord Jesus is temple. The Jersusalem temple twice destroyed was a shadowy picture of him. He is the holy place where God meets his people. Does this passage really say the things that our author infers from it?

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:23–27); ESV).

v. 23 signals strong discontinuity between our present existence and the new heavens and the new earth. The narrative is a renewal of the creation and, as in creation, there is light without sun or moon. There are nations. There are kings. They bring treasures. The imagery is drawn from the Exodus and other places. It is figurative. It seems difficult, however, to assign it to cultural endeavors without being arbitrary. It seems as if one would have to know that a priori, before one got to the passage itself. The imagery suggests a comprehensive acknowledgement of Christ as Lord and King of all. To say much more than that seems speculative. Remember, the immediate setting is cultic, i.e., religious (the temple). It concerns worship, not cultural endeavors. Of course the two are linked, even as the very words cult and culture themselves are linked but they are also distinct. By cult (cultus) we refer to outward acts of religious devotion such as prayer and praise. By culture we refer to ordinary, daily endeavors such as farming where crops are cultivated. The point of v. 27 is that all who are to enter must be cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.

In short, when we look at these passages that reflect directly on the new heavens and the new earth, read in context, it seems difficult to sustain the strong note of cultural continuity that it is sometimes sounded in circles. Yes, there is continuity between this existence and our glorified existence but the imagery of the Revelation has a strong cultic, religious theme. Temple imagery is very prominent through the entire book (e.g., chapters 11, 14, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22). When we are given a symbolic glimpse of heaven now what we see is not cultural activity but cultic. Does this mean there will be no cultural activity in the new heavens and the new earth? No but it means that when Christians make claims about cultural activities in the new heavens and new earth they are drawing inferences that may or may not be true. They are speculative, i.e., they are conclusions drawn from premises but not unequivocally indicated by Scripture itself.

A more profound question, however, awaits us. Why on earth, if you will, would a Christian worry about being bored in heaven?

Next time: Why Heaven Isn’t Boring.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2nd edition, 2005), 47.

2. See Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Sheffield: JSOT, 1986).

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