Heaven & Eternal Life: Same Thing or Different?
“Do you know if you’ll go to heaven when you die? Where will you spend eternity?”
These are questions that sometimes a minister or an evangelist will pose to their audience. Or that a Christian will ask of a loved one, a friend, or even a stranger. In part it is a challenge designed to stimulate some serious self-examination; but mostly, it’s is a genuine heartfelt concern for the eternal destiny of someone who does not know the Lord. As believers in Christ, we want those who are dear to us, even those who may be hostile to us, to be forever with the Lord and with the host of heaven.
But did you know that even some Christians don’t understand that there is a difference between heaven and eternal life? For sure, one goes with the other, but they’re not exactly the same thing. For example: What do you think of when someone mentions everlasting life? Usually, the first thing that comes to mind is Heaven. As well it should, because the very idea of eternal life is practically synonymous with never-ending existence in glory. But the fact remains: Every person is eternal. Every soul will continue into and throughout eternity.
According to Scripture, every person was born (created) to live forever. That is what is meant when God breathed life into Adam (and Eve) and they became a “living soul.” (Genesis 2:7, KJV). Other translations read, “A living person” or “a living being.” Soul, person, being … all convey the idea of infinity, of time without end. That’s one reason we’ve conceived the expression human being. We don’t say that about animals, i.e. animal being. But a human is a being, made in the image of God. Part of that image is the eternity breathed into us by our Great God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. Shakespeare’s statement of, “To be or not to be; that is the question,” is, indeed, a profound reflection. A living soul will always “be.” To be born is to be, and be, and be….
However, there is a dissimilarity where someone will spend that eternal existence … heaven or hell. Thus, there is a distinction whether a person will experience eternity in life or eternity in death. Indeed, there is an existence of eternal life and the equally clear Biblical teaching of eternal death, which is not an oxymoron. Death means departure—the body from the soul at physical death and subsequent separation from God forever, which is called the second death in Scripture.
We are all born spiritually dead. The only way we can pass from that spiritual death to life is to be born-again, which is accomplished when we believe and receive Christ Jesus, who IS life. “And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life” (I John 5:11-12, italics for emphasis). Please take special notice of the italicized possessive present tense verbs in this remarkable passage, as we will elaborate on this concept shortly.
The Word of God teaches us that everyone who has been redeemed by the sacrificial atonement of Jesus on the Cross will live forever (in heaven). Although the Right to Life comes from God alone, because God is the author of life itself (creator of every person ever born), God does give each person the right to choose where he or she will spend eternity. Thus, if a person rejects God’s invitation to believe and receive the pardon purchased by Jesus, they have chosen (eternal) death … to remain forever separated from God. But even that death is a continuation of existence.
This is more than just semantics. Meaning that everlasting separation from God is not really (any kind of) life at all. It is miserable perpetual existence in darkness … literally and figuratively. When we read passages in Scripture that guarantee eternal life to those to believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah, the Son of God, we think, say, and mean that the believer will live forever in heaven. Likewise, the unbeliever will live forever, but not in heaven. But, as indicated, it’s not really life at all. It’s a death-like absence from all that is right and good and beautiful.
So, then: What is the difference between everlasting life and heaven? And then: What are some of the things that we will never see in heaven?
Even though we think of heaven and eternal life as being one and the same thing—in principle they are interwoven—let’s take a look at Scripture to see the fundamental difference between the two. When we do that, I believe you’ll see that:
Everlasting Life is a possession. Heaven is a place.
The Possession of Eternal Life
The Bible contains several passages of promises that confirm the awesome gift of eternal life to all who accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. One is the very authority of God’s Word commensurate with the awesome fact that every promise ever made by God is true. What he says will happen, happens. What he says he will do, he does. For example: The Lord assures us through the apostle John, “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (I John 5:13, italics for emphasis).
There is no doubt whatsoever. We never need to wonder or question or be uncertain that our salvation might be lost or otherwise jeopardized by things we do or don’t do. Because salvation is not contingent on our performance either before or after we’re saved. Rather, it is based on the finished work of Christ and on God’s promises that salvation is a permanent possession of the believer. We can no more keep our salvation than we could gain salvation by good works or self-worth or any other religious system. The apostle Paul wrote an entire epistle on this subject. (See the Book of Galatians, but for a condensed version, Galatians 3:1-14).
According to the Bible, it is a done deal! We can know that we know! Once we believe in Christ, we HAVE eternal life … all-inclusive forgiveness of our sins—past, present, and future. Complete assurance of eternal life is such a permanent condition for believers that Jesus, himself, used the analogy of being born-again. I repeat: Christians didn’t coin the term, born-again. Jesus did!
Said Jesus to Nicodemus: “…I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Even a well-educated man and religious leader like Nicodemus couldn’t get a handle on this one. Thus, he replied: “What do you mean? … How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (John 3:4). So, Jesus explained in more detail that he was talking about a spiritual birth, from above. That this phenomenal rebirth was possible only by believing/receiving Jesus himself. “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
No wonder this verse is the all-time favorite of so many Christians. In one verse we are told:
- How much the true and living God of the universe loves each one of us (the world, which is comprised of every person ever born). Enough to give the precious gift of his Son as the required offering and solution for sin.
- The means of receiving God’s pardon … simply believe in the Son.
- The result of that belief and acceptance: Will not perish (eternal death/life in hell); rather eternal life is the immediate result of believing in Christ.
One of the reasons Jesus compares the spiritual birth to the physical birth is to demonstrate the finality of both births. Once a person is born physically, there’s no retroactive process that can return the person to the mother’s womb or otherwise alter the fact that a brand new human being has entered the world. Think about it: Once you’re born nothing can cause you to be unborn. Furthermore, you will always be a child of your parents, even if they disown you for bad behavior or whatever. Same thing with the spiritual birth: Once born from above, there’s no way you can ever be unborn. Birth is birth. Whether physical or spiritual, it is quite permanent. However, God will never disown his children. Once a child of God, always a child of God. Even more: his heirs!
“So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’ For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs….” (Romans 8:15-17).
Everlasting Life … Present Tense Possession
These and other passages explain the fact that everlasting life is freely given by God, a wonderful gift that can never be taken from one who has placed their complete faith/trust in Christ. One that is the exact opposite of everlasting death (which is existence but not really … for what kind of life is it that spends eternity in hell separated from God).
So, the Lord gives us life, then he gives us life again … everlasting life. We are born, then we can be born again. Eternal existence without Christ is no existence at all. In fact, it’s (literally) hell. Do we really realize what we’re saying when we tell someone, “Oh, the hell with you.” Or worse, “He can go to hell.” A cause for pause, don’t you think?
But the most incredible feature of these and other passages that speak of eternal life is what also clarifies the variance between everlasting life and heaven. Both eternity with the Lord and heaven are virtually inseparable; however, the distinction is when and where they begin.
As indicated, Everlasting Life is a Possession! What is meant by that or when is it possessed?
I’m glad you asked, because here is where we sometimes get a little confused and equate heaven with eternal life. Meaning we think everlasting life begins when we get to heaven. Not so! Here’s why.
We could use either one of the previously quoted verses in John or I John, but let’s select another verse just to show how God, through his Word, validates that eternal life is a God-given gift that the believer possesses the very moment of the second birth. Listen to the words of Jesus: “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life” (John 5:24, italics for emphasis).
The message of Christ is clearly explained by Jesus himself, and by the New Testament epistles; indeed, even from passages in the Old Testament pertaining to the Messiah. As summarized in I Corinthians 15:3-4, “…Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.”
The italicized emphasis in the earlier verse from John Chapter 5, clearly states that we HAVE eternal life and will never be condemned for our sins if we believe in Christ. Unbelievers (most of whom do believe in an afterlife, per various polls taken) normally think that eternal life begins only after death; furthermore, that they need to earn or merit or become worthy of that life by doing good, at least more good than bad things they do.
Christians know the difference between good works and salvation through grace by faith alone as the means to salvation; but they, too, sometimes equate the commencement of eternal life with entrance into heaven after death. As indicated, among other things, this has led to lack of trust or confidence in what Christians call eternal security. Through a system of legalism—essentially defined as doing or not doing things to merit God’s favor—they unfortunately believe that their salvation can be lost or entrance into heaven revoked if they don’t perform well as a Christian or if they fail (deliberately or inadvertently) to confess any given sin or sins.
The first chapter of I John clearly shows us that confession of sin for the believer is a means of restoring broken fellowship with the Lord, not to reinstate or otherwise keep or regain our salvation.
As alluded earlier, the Bible tells us that we possess eternal life the moment we accept Jesus as our Savior, through the use of present tense verbs … has or have. Right then and there we hold everlasting life, even while we await our passing from this earth either through death or the Rapture. Everlasting life is a present tense possession that can never be taken away from us by another or even by ourselves. We immediately have eternal life because we have Christ and he has us in his possession. Jesus IS eternal life. If we are “in Christ,” we have eternal life.
Speaking of Jesus, the apostle John states: “This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life….” (I John 1:2).
Then, Jesus speaking about his sheep (believers who have been born again by faith in Christ): “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me … No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
Both the English word, “give,” and the Greek word from which it is translated mean a present tense ongoing possession (eternal life). The text doesn’t say that Jesus will (someday … maybe) give eternal life to his sheep. Rather, eternal life is given the instant we believe in him.
“And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life….” (John 3:36). Once again, we read the present tense word has in this incredible promise. Thus, eternal life is not something we wait for until we die and go to heaven. Instead, it is an immediate present tense, right here and now gift from God the instant we place our personal trust in Jesus Christ as the only one who can save us from eternal death.
Eternal Life is a Possession … Heaven is a Place
“After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said. ‘Why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!’” (Acts 1:7-8).
Before his crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension back to heaven, Jesus told his disciples and all future believers: “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3, NASB).
Not only does the Lord assure us that heaven will be the perpetual home of the believer, he even tells us that each one will have a specific dwelling place prepared just for us … and prepare a place for you.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: “It just doesn’t get any better than that.” First, we have present tense (right now on this earth) eternal life the nanosecond that we place our faith in Jesus’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross. No one, including ourselves by way of wrong behavior, mistakes, failures, or anything that we think may jeopardize our eternal security, can take away or change our new birth and the God-given gift of everlasting life. Next, we are guaranteed a dwelling place in heaven prepared by our Awesome Lord and Savior, ready to be occupied the moment we leave this earth. Thus, the eternal life we have right now will continue after our address change from earth to heaven. But with a far superior, resurrected body to enable us to live in God’s presence forever.
I trust that this little study exercise will enable us to better understand both the similarities and the contrast between eternal life and heaven. With the goal of helping all, but especially believers (and unbelievers) who may doubt or not fully understand their destiny. At birth, we all began our eternal existence separated from God. When we accept Christ as Savior, we pass from everlasting death to everlasting life. When a person dies who has Christ, that person goes to heaven (a place of perfect peace where God dwells). When a person dies who does not have Christ, they go to hell (a place of terrible torment where God does not dwell).
Speaking of heaven, the Bible tells us a little of what we we’ll see and experience when we get there. Such as the very presence of Jesus and God, reunion with believer family and friends who have gone before us, and other wonderful blessings.
Heaven is a Place, but Not for Some Things!
Have you ever thought about what we won’t need in heaven? Yes? No? Let’s take a look at some things that will never be seen in heaven. No need to leave a forwarding address from earth to heaven, as there will be no postal service or freight lines to heaven.
“…He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Revelation 21:4). Which means there will be:
- No more undertakers, funeral homes, coffins, crematoriums, or cemeteries.
- No more facial tissue, sympathy cards, condolences, get-well greetings, or grieving.
- No more back or knee braces, moans or groans, spills or chills or pain killing pills.
“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2). Which means there will be:
- No more hospitals, old-folks homes, doctors, nurses, pharmacies, drugs, or faith healers … the fruit of the month and leaves from the trees are more than enough!
“And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). And, “On that day the sources of light will no longer shine, yet there will be continuous day! Only the Lord knows how this could happen. There will be no normal day and night, for at evening time it will still be light!” (Zechariah 14:6-7). Which means there will be:
- No need for the sun or for lamps and light bulbs. (Isn’t that what it says!)?
- No more tyrannical or terroristic oppression, suppression, or even hostility towards God’s people. Instead, we will, “reign forever and ever.”
“Then he said to the woman, ‘I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth. And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.’ And to the man he said, ‘Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat, the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it … By the sweat of your brow you will have food to eat until you return to the ground….’” (Genesis 3:16-19). But in heaven:
“No longer will there be a curse upon anything….” (Revelation 22:3). Which means there will be:
- No more farmers, construction workers, factory assembly lines, ditch diggers, or any other back-breaking labor; or even a woman’s painful labor to give birth (or birth at all!).
- No more male chauvinism trying to put women in their place! Likewise, no need for a man to listen to his wife! Seriously, there will no longer be a battle of the sexes. There will be perfect harmony between men and women. Now that’s something to look forward to!
“And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshipped” (Zechariah 14:9). Which means there will be:
- No more religious leaders who deceive or religious differences to dispute; because there will be no more religions. Only one Lord, one Name—the Name above all names. Jesus Christ is Lord!
“Its gates (the New Jerusalem) will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there … Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Revelation 21:25-27). Which means there will be:
- No more police officers, judges, prisons, because there will be no more crime, whatsoever, in heaven. Thus, no more locks or even closed doors.
On the earth there will still be those who will turn against the Lord, but not in heaven. Because only those who have been redeemed (born-again), whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will inherit heaven and dwell there.
Things to Ponder
More proof of a permanent relationship with God through Christ: “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners (spiritually dead). And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation” (Romans 5:8-9).
Is your name in the Lamb’s Book of Life?