Revelation 21:1-6; 10, 22—22:5
The story is told of a husband and wife who loved to golf. They golfed just as often as they were able. Both died and went to heaven. To their great surprise, heaven was filled with golf courses, and again, they play just as often as they can.
One day Ethel says to her husband, Fred, “Oh Fred, isn’t heaven filled with the most beautiful golf courses you have ever seen?”
And Fred replies, “Yes. And we’d have been here a lot sooner if you hadn’t insisted on us eating your bran muffins every day.”
Folks – we all know that heaven is the hoped for destination of every Christian. But have you ever wondered what heaven is going to be like? Ever wondered that? Would you like me to tell you? I wish I could. But right now I’ll bet you’re thinking fluffy white clouds, angels strumming harps, you know, those sorts of things.
A number of you have told me of a book that you have read. Just last Sunday, Shirley Willman asked me if I had read it. She and her husband Pastor Don were both impressed with it. So when I saw that one of our texts for this weekend was from the book of Revelation – I decided to get it and read it for myself. The book is called Proof of Heaven by Dr. Eben Alexander. I picked it up on Tuesday afternoon, and had it read by that evening. Another popular book from last year along the same lines is Heaven Is For Real. I’ve read that one as well. Both books are about the experience of people who have died, gone to heaven, and come back. Heaven Is For Real is the story of what a four year old boy experienced, and Proof of Heaven is by Dr. Alexander’s experience of heaven. I found both books intriguing.
Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurobiologist. As such, he has knowledge about the brain and how it works – how it operates. “That's one reason why his book, Proof of Heaven, is so interesting. He wrote it after returning from a trip into a coma from which his colleagues thought he'd never return. But he did. His story blends in well with our reading from revelation in which John, in a vision, not a coma, sees a new heaven and a new earth. Listen again to what John has to say:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4).
This passage is sometimes read at funerals, but probably not often enough. Both Nancy and I have written instructions that all of chapter 21 and the first portion of chapter 22 from the book of Revelation are to be read at our funerals. These words are wonderfully comforting, and give us an idea of what is waiting for us on the other side.
Now there are some who would want to tell you that all this talk of heaven is nonsense – skeptics, atheists, agnostics, and the like – who would want us to believe that this world is all there is. That death is the end of life. No life beyond the grave.
Well – that’s why I find books like Heaven Is for Real and Proof of Heaven intriguing. Dr. Eben Alexander’s story at least needs to be examined. Again, he’s a neurobiologist – a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon, who was also a religious skeptic. But on November 10, 2008, he woke up with splitting headaches that instantly devolved into seizures. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital – the same hospital where he worked. E. coli had attacked his brain in an ultra-rare form of bacterial meningitis. He fell into a coma, and his colleagues gave him a near-zero chance of survival. If he did survive, he'd be a brain-damaged shell of his former self, for life.
The happy ending to this tragedy is that Alexander made a full recovery from his coma – something all of his colleagues admitted was an impossible medical miracle. An afterlife experience during that coma turned a skeptic into a faithful Episcopalian, and a man compelled to offer the world his conversion story through the unique lens of neurobiology.
Proof of Heaven is his account not only of his medical miracle, but of the shocking afterlife experience of heaven he had while in his coma.
His brain activity and brain scans fell dark and silent. But in his brain-dead coma, he claims he was in heaven. He describes lights and sights and sounds like this: “Below me was countryside. It was green, lush and earthlike. It was earth ... but at the same time it wasn't.” And here I think of John’s revelation where he saw a new heaven and a new earth.
While there, Dr. Alexander heard these words spoken to him:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
These images and words have some overlap with John's heavenly vision in Revelation 21-22. But prior to his coma, Alexander had no real knowledge of this text from Revelation – or any need for it. Heaven was a place he previously dismissed as religious nonsense. He would explain other people’s near-death experience reports as subconscious hallucinations created by the neocortex based on memories of what the person had previously heard or imagined about the afterlife.
But here’s what I find so intriguing. In Alexander's extreme case, the E. coli infection was spread across his entire cortex – the outermost layer of the brain responsible for all of our higher functioning. Brain scans during his coma showed zero electrical activity in the cortical areas that could access memories, create dreams, or imagine visual and audio sensations.
In other words, Alexander claims that all previous medical explanations for his experience could not apply in his case. Alexander believes that his vision of heaven could not have happened within his physical brain.
His scientifically unexplainable afterlife experience convinced him of the existence of heaven and of a loving, personal God.
While the neurobiology stuff was somewhat over my head, the message is this: Science can't explain Alexander's heaven. His afterlife experience is what he calls the Proof of Heaven.
I’ll leave it up to you to read either of these books, and allow you to draw your own conclusion as to what heaven is like. All of the descriptions – as well as what we read here in the book of Revelation – are word pictures that are – well – they’re like things that we know here on earth – but they are fantastically different. You might even say otherworldly.
But you know what? I don’t need books like these to tell me that and that heaven is for real. Even though I have little reason to doubt that what these books say is true – God’s word is enough for me to confirm that God is, that God loves you – God loves me – and that someday by God’s grace – we will be with God forever.
So what is heaven like? I don’t know. I don’t know if there are golf courses or not. But what I will tell you is this. I Corinthians 2:9 says, “…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Of one thing I am certain. Heaven will bring us a reunion with our rescuer. Let me share with you a story. Little Lisa Greene was three years old when she was rescued from the smoke and flames that engulfed her family's home in Brooklyn, New York, in 1975. A city firefighter named Marvin Bunch arrived at the scene to find three women on the porch of the flaming house screaming that children were trapped upstairs. Bunch crawled upstairs at the risk of his life and brought Lisa Greene out in his arms, unconscious. Two other children were also rescued.
Fourteen years later, Lisa phoned the New York City Fire Department and learned that the person who had saved her life was a retired fire captain living in Las Vegas. Her family brought the Bunch family to New York as guests of honor for Lisa's high school graduation and for a luncheon afterward. Bunch said of his taking her to the hospital, unconscious, fourteen years before, ‘I was up all night until I got the report’ that she was alive.
Lisa was ecstatic to be in the presence of the one who had saved her life and to thank him profusely and honor him gratefully.
In Heaven, by God's grace, we shall have the privilege of living forever in the presence of our divine rescuer, as we thank him profusely and honor him gratefully.
Folks, I don’t know what heaven is like, but let me say this. I say this at almost every funeral I preside over. Death does not have the final word. Jesus has the final word, and that final word is life – resurrection life – in a place – in a home with no more sorrow – no more tears – no more pain.
Our time here on earth is merely the introduction to the story, not the story itself. Philippians 3:20 says that our citizenship is in heaven. Please catch the present tense of the verb. Our citizenship IS in heaven.
So let us live with expectation – with joyful hope and expectation – that the Kingdom is already ours – won for us – given to us – through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And perhaps for right now – that is enough for us to know.