The words “heaven” and “forever” are usually synonymous, and so it seems strange to ask whether or not we will live in heaven forever. However, the answer is a bit more complex than merely saying “yes” or “no,” because the answer is both “yes” and “no,” depending on how you define “heaven.”
The answer is one that greatly depends on how heaven is understood, and so this post will outline how the scriptures portray heaven.
Scripture shows that heaven exists in epochs, or periods of time marked by distinctive features. Specifically, there are seven epochs of heaven. Each epoch is demarcated by Jesus, particularly how his heavenly life relates to his earthly life, meaning that each epoch exists with relation to a significant Christological event. These epochs are not explicitly outlined in the Bible anymore than the Trinity is explicitly outlined, but like the doctrine of the Trinity, the Bible offers enough content by which we can outline these seven epochs.
These epochs show that heaven has been (and will be) somewhat altered over the years. Some may scoff at this, but heaven is created by God, and is therefore subject to change. Only God is incapable of change. It’s best to think of heaven’s alteration like an alteration of a pair of pants. The pants remain the same during an alteration, but they experience necessary changes to fit a person’s needs and desires. The same is true of heaven, which essentially stays the same during an alteration, namely by serving as God’s abode, but experiences necessary changes that fit God’s needs and desires.
As Daniel notes, “It is he who changes the times and the epochs” (Dan 2:21).
Understanding the nature of each of these epochs helps to answer the question as to whether or not we will live in heaven forever. The general idea is that followers of Jesus will certainly live forever with God, but it won’t be in the heaven they currently go to when they die. The Bible shows that heaven will one day come to earth, and moreover, that there will one day be a new heaven.
Epoch One: Pre-Creation Eternity to Creation
Heaven’s first epoch is its existence prior to creation. This is the abode of God that existed prior to Genesis 1, which is when it culminates and evolves into a second epoch. This epoch is based upon God’s eternal nature.
The general consensus of scholarship states that Revelation 1:4 and 8 express God, which includes Jesus, as incontrovertibly, divinely eternal. Scholars particularly argue that Jesus’ post-creation ability to be involved with creation requires his pre-creation eternal nature, which is the primary factor of this particular epoch. This is what John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1, and Philippians 2 all declare.
Both Paul (Col 1:16) and John (Jn 1:3) specifically state that all things were created through Jesus, which is how and when this first epoch of heaven concluded. After creation, heaven was altered insofar as it now related to creation, and Jesus was inimitably involved.
Epoch Two: Creation to the Fall
The Garden of Eden (Gen 2:4-25) serves as the setting for the immediate post-creation epoch of heaven—the second epoch. This epoch is sandwiched between Genesis 1, which details God’s construction of creation, and Genesis 3, which details the Fall of creation. This setting allows a platform by which heaven’s post-creation relationship with earth can be observed. The Fall is described as being intimately acquainted with Jesus, and so this particular epoch is fashioned by how sin affected Jesus’ relationship with creation, particularly that of man (Gen 3:15).
One outstanding verse for this particular epoch is Genesis 3:8, which describes Adam and Eve hearing “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” While this verse is found within the context of the narrative of the Fall, it offers significant insights into the kind of relationship God had with man before the Fall. Wenham (2014:76) writes, “The description of Eden with its trees, rivers, gold, and so on emphasized God’s presence there. Therefore it seems likely that it was not unusual for him to be heard walking in the garden … a daily chat between the Almighty and his creatures was customary.” Hamilton (1990:192) shares a similar opinion, writing, “The verb used here to describe the divine movement (mithallēk) … suggests habitual aspects.”
This shows that the nature of heaven’s relationship with earth immediately following creation is that of perfect harmony between God and man, and thus heaven and earth. Sin had not yet impacted creation, and so heaven was essentially present on earth, particularly in Eden. Genesis 2:17 shows that man could not die prior to the Fall, and so the nature of heaven was entirely different than it was post-Fall: “… for in the day that you eat from [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will surely die.” This is reiterated in Romans 5:12.
This epoch therefore ends with the Fall of man.
Epoch Three: Fall of Creation to First Incarnation of Christ
The first sin brought an immediate break in God’s fellowship with man, and therefore a new epoch of heaven. God would no longer freely walk among man, and an evident separation would now exist between heaven and earth. Moreover, death now existed, and so there is the issue as to what would happen with man’s soul after it left the body.
Thus, the question with which this epoch is concerned is: In this particular epoch, did a deceased follower of God enter into the abode of heaven? How can this be possible if the only way to the Father is through the Son, and the Son hadn’t yet died on the cross or risen from the grave (Jn 14)?
One helpful Scripture is Luke’s Parable of the Rich Man (Lk 16:19-31), a parable that includes significant deliberations on the subject of the afterlife. This is the only parable from Jesus that transcends everyday reality to focus on the afterlife. This parable tells the story of a rich man’s death and entrance into hades, which is juxtaposed with Lazarus’ death and entrance into “Abraham’s bosom.” The question is how hades and Abraham’s bosom might relate to one another in a post-Fall, pre-resurrection context (the third epoch of heaven). The answer might be, as several scholars have noted, that Jesus’ description of the afterlife presents hades as having two sections, a paradise section called “Abraham’s bosom,” and a separate section reserved for the wicked. Wiersbe notes, “It is believed by many theologians that our Lord emptied the paradise part of hades when he arose from the dead and returned to the Father (Jn 20:17; Eph 4:8-10). Today ‘paradise’ is in heaven, where Jesus reigns in glory (Lk 23:43; 2 Cor 12:1-4).”
This particular epoch of heaven therefore persisted from the Fall of man to the first incarnation of Christ, particularly his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave.
Epoch Four: Jesus’ Incarnation to the Rapture
Jesus established a new epoch of heaven through his death and resurrection. Upon death man was separated from God prior to this redemptive work, even if his sins were temporarily atoned for by animal sacrifices. It took the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead to allow man the ability to stand before God in heaven (2 Cor 5:8). Jesus says, “no one comes to the Father but through me,” (Jn 14:6) a statement which is spoken within the context of his impending death (Jn 13). This shows that it was not possible to enter the presence of the Father in heaven until after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the principal event that inaugurated the fourth epoch of heaven.
Several call this the “intermediate heaven” or “intermediate state.” Randy Alcorn (2004:42), perhaps the most notable contemporary scholar on heaven, describes this state of heaven as “temporary,” and, therefore, “not our final destination.” He moreover writes, “Though it will be a wonderful place, the intermediate heaven is not the place we are made for—the place God promises to refashion for us to live in forever. God’s children are destined for life as resurrected beings on a resurrected earth.”
While Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated the fourth epoch of heaven, his glorification of the believer concludes it and begins another epoch.
Epoch Five: Heaven During the Great Tribulation
The next significant Christological event is the rapture of the living and resurrection of the dead, otherwise known as the glorification of the believer. This establishes a new, fifth epoch of heaven that is different in nature from the previous epoch. The difference is that all believers are now in God’s abode and that they have glorified, incorruptible bodies (1 Cor 15:51-52).
The principle text for this event is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. This event is not to be confused with the Second Coming, an event that transpires after the Tribulation, and one that inaugurates the sixth epoch of heaven.
Epoch Six: Heaven During the Millennium
The Millennium is intrinsic to the doctrine of heaven. It is the realization of God’s heavenly kingdom present on earth. It begins with the Second Coming of Jesus, which inaugurates a sixth epoch of heaven.
The major shift from epoch five (heaven during the Great Tribulation) to epoch six (heaven during the Millennium), is that Jesus leaves his heavenly throne to dwell on his earthly throne, and that his kingdom will be filled with both resurrected and non-resurrected believers (Rev 19:11-16; 20:4). Revelation shows that believers depart the current heaven with Jesus in order to come back to earth, where they will reign and rule with him.
While several believers will have experienced glorification for several years (namely, those who experienced the rapture and resurrection prior to the Great Tribulation), said glorification is one of the preeminent features of this particular epoch of heaven because believers will now dwell on earth in Jesus’ kingdom. The most preeminent feature is the resurrected and reigning Christ, whose own resurrection serves as a template for the believer’s resurrection.
While there will be several glorified believers dwelling in the earthly kingdom, there will also be non-glorified believers, too, namely those who were not martyred during the Great Tribulation (Rev 20:4). These will physically inhabit the earth and have the ability to procreate in order to repopulate Jesus’ kingdom (Patterson 2012:41). Zechariah prophesies that a large number of these believers will be Jews who will turn to Jesus upon his second coming, a prophecy which encourages the notion that the Millennium is largely about restoring the kingdom to Israel (Zech 12:10-14; 13:9; 14; Acts 1:6-8).
Epoch Seven: The Eternal Heaven
The Bible shows that the Millennium lasts for one thousand years (Rev 20). The final judgment occurs after this, and then a new heaven and a new earth are created, which inaugurates the seventh and final epoch of heaven. This heaven is eternal.
Revelation 21-22 conveys significant features to the eternal heaven. The two major aspects of this particular epoch that differentiate it from the previous epoch is, first, that the curse is purged from all of creation. Thomas (1995:440) notes how there are seven evils that John says will no longer exist in the eternal heaven, including the sea (which symbolizes separation) (21:1), death, mourning, weeping, pain (21:4), the curse (22:3), and night (21:25; 22:5).
The second and most important characteristic of the eternal heaven is that God and man will dwell in perfect, unimpeded harmony. John says that man will be able to “see God’s face,” (Rev 22:4) which captions the unmatched nature of the epoch.
The overall idea is that the curse, which deemed man unworthy, is absolutely destroyed, and man and God can dwell together in perfect harmony for eternity because heaven and earth are now one. The narrative of Exodus 33:18-23 summarizes the historical statute that man “cannot see God’s face … and live” (Ex 33:20), something also imposed in John 1:18, yet, when “all things are made new,” (Rev 21:5) God and man will dwell together on earth in unobstructed communion. This is unique even to the Millennium, because of the final rebellion in Revelation 20:7-10, as well as the presence of the Father, who might physically still reside in a heavenly abode distinct from earth during the Millennium (Rev 22:3).
Viewing heaven through the scope of epochs helps to answer the question on whether or not we will live forever in heaven. The answer is both “no” and “yes.” The answer is “no” insofar as believers will not dwell in the current version of heaven forever. God himself doesn’t dwell in this heaven forever, and Jesus departs it in order to reign on earth during the Millennium.
The answer is “yes,” however, insofar as we will live in a future heaven forever. But this will be a new heaven and a new earth, one that will be filled with men and women who are incapable of ever sinning again.
Author's Note: All scholarly references made in this article are available at request, and will be published in a forthcoming book on heaven.