“He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” —1 Thessalonians 5:10
The book of Romans presents the most systematic exposition of the Gospel, but it never mentions heaven other than to say, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven…” (Romans 1:18). For many people, this is something of a surprise, because their understanding of the Gospel is that it is primarily a rescue mission to get people into heaven when they die.
Heaven is a wonderful prospect, but Paul explains the Gospel not in terms of heaven, but in terms of reconciliation to God. We are by nature separated from God, spiritually dead in our trespasses and sin. The solution is reconciliation to God by the reception of spiritual life, which is the life of God Himself. When heaven is understood to be the goal of the Gospel, Christ is relegated to being the means rather than the end! The goal is that we are reconciled to God by being placed “in Christ”. When we are in Christ we enter into His history: crucified with Him, buried with Him and risen to new life with Him. It is His status we enter into before the Father and we are declared sons of God with all the rights, privileges and eternal nature of that sonship. Heaven is one of the privileges, but is not the objective of the Gospel.
Paul explained the purpose of Christ’s death: “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up…” (1 Thessalonians 5:10-11). Whether we are awake, which is to be alive, or asleep, which is to be dead, Christ died for us, not so that when we are dead we might go to live with Him, but that we are already living with Him. It is a continuous, ongoing relationship we have with Jesus Christ, which is the grounds for our hope and confidence. as our union with Christ is both now on earth and in heaven.
Heaven is a place, a piece of cosmic geography. When we arrive, our union with Christ is already intact and we will look around, realizing we have never been there before. It will be an astounding new place; one in which we will love Christ more deeply, reflect Him more accurately and be free of the fallen nature that has plagued us on earth. Heaven is a wonderful consequence of the Gospel, but the substance of our Christian lives will be seen in our knowledge of Christ and the depth of our love for Him here on earth, which is what will reap eternal treasures in heaven.