Some years ago I served as a chaplain for a Hospice agency, which often required me to visit what was known as the “TLC” (Tender, Love, and Care) unit at the local nursing home. The TLC unit was a locked-down room that housed people with Alzheimers and Dementia.
It was always an interesting experience at the TLC unit. Some mistook me for their long lost nephew, while others wanted me to hire them to paint a fence. One time a lady told me she loved me, even though it was the first time she had ever met me. As I spent time with her I learned she did this with everyone.
Christians sometimes think heaven will be a lot like this TLC unit--a locked down room that houses people who do not remember their past; maybe even a place where we spasmadically tell one another “I love you.” This mindset comes from the thought that our time on earth is riddled with grief, and since heaven is a place where grief cannot exist, then it seems reasonable that we won’t remember any of it. The most common verses for this are Isaiah 65:17 and Revelation 21:4:
For I will create a new heaven and a new earth; the past events will not be remembered or come to mind (Is 65:17).
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away (Rev 21:4).
It’s important to note the context of both of these verses has to do with the “new creation,” the final stage of history. Answers on Heaven teaches heaven is best understood as occurring in seven epochs throughout history. The new creation is the seventh and final epoch of heaven, and this is important because it’s the epoch of heaven where all sin is accounted for, and where all people are living in their glorified, incorruptible states. In this epoch heaven and earth are essentially combined into a "new creation." Other epochs of heaven occur while earth is still unfolding, and therefore while sin and its consequences are still transpiring.
This has a direct impact on the answer to the question on whether or not we will remember our time on earth, or, as we will see, how we will remember our time on earth. Therefore, it is best to detail how the scriptures detail how we will remember our time on earth in both the present version of creation, as well as in the future version of creation.
Remembering Earth in the Present Creation
That believers remember their time on earth in the past and present epochs of heaven is something unquestionably illustrated throughout the scriptures.
Consider the Parable of the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31, which paints the picture of what heaven was like prior to Jesus’ resurrection (namely during the Old Testament and Gospels). Many call this “Paradise” or “Abraham’s Bosom.” During this epoch of heaven believers didn’t go to the current heaven, which is the abode of God, because Jesus had not yet paid the price for our sins (Jn 14:6). This parable paints the clearest picture available in the scriptures of what heaven looked like during this time, and it shows that the rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham are all cognizant of their time on earth: “Remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things,” says Abraham (Lk 16:25).
This is also demonstrated in 1 Samuel 28:5-19, where Saul converses with a semi-resurrected Samuel, who seems to remember his time on earth. Saul wanted to consult with Samuel regarding his status as king, so he summoned him from the grave via a medium. Samuel’s response to Saul shows a keen awareness of his past life on earth, as well as earth’s current happenings, even though he was deceased throughout the course of the events.
There are several other evidences that could be cited to support the notion that the Old Testament saints remembered their time on earth while in “Paradise/Abraham's Bosom,” such as David’s avowal that he will see his baby in heaven, which indicates that he will remember him from earth (2 Sam 12:23).
Upon Jesus’ resurrection believers now enter into what scholars call the “Intermediate Heaven,” which is the heaven Jesus describes in John 14:1-6. This is God's abode, the place in which he has dwelled since creation, while "Paradise/Abraham's Bosom" was more of a righteous compartment to the place of the dead (called "Sheol" in Hebrew and "Hades" in Greek). Jesus emptied this place during his resurrection and took all of the righteous believers to be with the Father in the intermediate heaven (Eph 4:8). The intermediate heaven extends from the present age until the second coming of Jesus, when he brings us back to earth from heaven to establish his Millennial Kingdom on earth (Rev 19:11-16).
Like the past epochs of heaven, the scriptures show that people in the intermediate heaven are aware of earth’s happenings. Revelation 6:9-11 for example shows martyrs in heaven who are aware of their past suffering on earth. This is buttressed with the idea that believers will experience a judgment of rewards in heaven, meaning we will remain cognizant of our past (Rom 14:1-12; 1 Cor 9:4-27; 2 Cor 5:10; Heb 4:13). These rewards have a direct impact during the Millennium, a future epoch of heaven that would be meaningless without remembrance of our earthly lives, because it's the very thing we are left on earth to prepare for.
The immediate reaction to this is that it seems to undermine the nature of heaven to remember our hurtful experiences on earth, like David’s loss of a baby or martyrdom in Revelation 6, and this is where Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21 come in.
Remembering Earth in the New Creation
Isaiah 65’s context specifically has to with consequences for sins, particularly Israel’s consequences for disobeying God. In one preceding verse, for example, Isaiah quotes God as saying,
I will destine you for the sword, and all of you will kneel down to be slaughtered, because I called and you did not answer, I spoke and you did not hear; you did what was evil in my sight and chose what I did not delight in (Is 65:12).
As the chapter continues to unfold, God details how he intends to redeem Israel. In verse sixteen Isaiah relates how God will “hide” the “former troubles” from his sight, and verse seventeen shows how this will ultimately happen in the creation of a “new heaven and a new earth,” where the “past events” will not “come to mind.”
Thus, the “former troubles” (v 16) or “past events” (v 17) have to do with sin and its consequences, which will be “hidden” from God’s sight (v 16) or “not remembered” (v 17) in the “new heaven and new earth,” namely because it will no longer be possible to sin in new creation, and moreover, that all of the consequences of sin will have been consummated. This happens at the end of the Millennium (where sin is still possible), when God throws the enemy and his followers into the lake of fire (Rev 20). Isaiah is therefore not stating that past sin will be entirely forgotten in heaven so much as he's stating that sin and its consequences will be completed.
The adage, “Hindsight is 20/20” is apt here, because the message is that we'll have a heavenly understanding of our earthly lives; a "new creation" perspective of the "former things."
This leaves space to suggest it is possible that we will remember our “former troubles” or “past events” in the new creation, even if they are sorrowful. The difference is that we will no longer have to worry about our former troubles hamstringing us in the new creation the way they do in the present creation, which is usually by sadness and grief and crying and pain. This is what John means when he writes that these things will no longer exist in the new creation, because the present creation has “passed away” (Rev 21:1).
It's not that the events themselves "pass away," as if they never happened. It's that the old creation passes away, meaning that we will no longer have to worry about experiencing them again.
Therefore, the answer to our question is that we will remember our time on earth, and that we won’t be saddened or disheartened by it because we'll be in the "new earth." This is buttressed in the overall context of John’s statement in Revelation 21:4, “grief and crying will be no more,” which is preceded by the statement that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4). Mac Brunson, Pastor of First Baptist Jacksonville, Florida, says the Greek is written in such a way that God will wipe away every individual tear with his finger. This is much different than merely “no more crying"; it's a healing.
"No more crying" has nothing to do with remembering or not remembering our time on earth, and everything to do God healing the brokenhearted, and binding up their wounds (Ps 147:3). Our minds will be healed by a heavenly perspective that sees God’s victory over the Fall that has caused our present creation to groan (Rom 8:22).
To suggest that we will not remember our time on earth undermines our time on earth. God cares about our lives on earth, and he wants that to be a part of the new creation. The beauty of this is that the new creation will afford us something the present creation is incapable of offering, and that is a heavenly perspective of our seemingly arbitrary trials and tribulations, and even sin’s laudable consequences.
A great illustration for this is the crucifixion, the world’s greatest tragedy. To suggest that it would be un-heavenly to remember the trials of earth would mean that we would forget the very thing that allowed us in to heaven to begin with! And that Jesus himself forgot what he did on the cross! The scriptures are clear that when Jesus received his heavenly body his scars from the cross remained in his hands and on his feet. This shows that our time on earth—both good and bad—has a place in heaven. We won’t look at his scars and cry; we’ll look at his scars and be reminded that he paid our price with his blood, and we’ll be joyful.
We sometimes think it will be sad to remember our trials and tribulations in heaven, but I believe it would be much sadder to forget them. The last thing God wants is a heavenly TLC unit filled with dementia-laden Christians.
Revelation 15:3 indicates we will sing the song of the Lamb and of Moses in heaven, which is a song about past history. This illustrates how we can remember our past without being handcuffed by it in the future. As Paul writes, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).
Thank God for the past, because it helps us rejoice in the future!