In March of 2021, something happened that we did not expect: My wife Ashley found out she was pregnant again. We were scared and stressed. We looked at our financial situation, what we would need to sacrifice to bring another baby into our family so soon after our year-old son. Pregnancy is not kind to my wife, so we spent hours talking about how to handle her being pregnant while caring for an infant.
A few days passed and our fear and stress turned to excitement. We were excited that our kids would be so close in age, we felt supported by our close friends and knew that if other couples could have kids so close together, we could too. We worked out our budget so that we could handle the strain of more hospital visits. We were not completely ready, but our joy gave us the confidence we could press forward with God leading us.
The day after we created this plan and became excited, we learned my wife was losing the baby. Many doctors’ visits ensued, and my optimism remained high. But it became clear that the process that had started would not be reversed. On March 20, 2021, just five days after learning Ashley was pregnant, we knew this baby wouldn’t make it. It was a rollercoaster, fear to joy to grief. All in a week. We relied heavily on our small group and support system during that time of sorrow and loss.
[E]very time we experience death in our lives, death reminds us of our longing for heaven.
We decided to name the baby we lost Jesse, which means “God’s gift,” or “God exists.” But one meaning we found resonated with us the most: Jesse means “one who sees God.”
It is clear when King David lost his own son, he believed his son was in heaven and would one day be rejoined with him (2 Sam 12:23). This was a deep comfort to us during great sorrow.
Realities and misconceptions
We all see and experience death in this world, especially during the last couple of years. Death brings us to the door of the afterlife, a door we often would rather turn away from; but a door that remains all the same. As Christians, we have a unique view of this door because of the hope that exists on the other side: Jesus promised to go make a place for us and to usher the Church into a kingdom where, “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him” (Matt 25:34, Rev 22:3). The more we mature in the hope of Jesus the less we fear the door of death.
But every time we experience death in our lives, death reminds us of our longing for heaven.
Death is the great enemy of humanity. Since Jesus died on the cross, He enacted an already-and-not-yet victory over death. His resurrection, as the Apostle Paul tells us, served as the template for how we will be resurrected and given new bodies at the beginning of the new heavens and new earth (1 Cor 15). We look back at his triumphant victory over death and look forward to when God will perform the same work in us. Until then, all of us wait with this expectation in a broken world.
About a month after we lost the baby, I will never forget what God did while I was sitting in my office at church. I closed my eyes and began to imagine the conversations I would never get to have with my unborn child. My imagination took me and my child (presumably a son, in my imagination) to a mountain lake on a cool day where we were both fishing. I imagined talking to my son about what heaven is like.
I started typing as if I were writing a children’s book. I never aspired to write a children’s book nor did I fully understand why I was writing in this way, but I sensed the Spirit of God working in my imagination as I wrote down what I wished I could have taught my child. The result was a now-published book called What Is Heaven Like? where I invite young readers and adults to reimagine what heaven is like by tackling two common misconceptions: that heaven is dream-like and that heaven will be boring.
Misconception #1: Heaven is dream-like
I grew up watching movies like All Dogs Go to Heaven. How was heaven portrayed in that movie? Filled with clouds, bright, shining, foggy and kept at a perfect 72 degrees. Everyone is floating around while singing. In essence, it is “dream-like.” In a dream state, it’s difficult to discern what is happening. Things don’t make sense, and when you wake up you say, “What was that?”
Stories make theology meaningful when they transport readers into another world.
Images of heaven like this leave us walking away with a similar reaction. Not only, “What was that?” but, “What is so great about that?” The next time you see an artistic expression of heaven, pay attention to how dream-like it is. This gives the impression that heaven is somehow less real than this life.
Misconception #2: Heaven will be boring
A recent TV show, called The Good Place, directed by Michael Shur, I believe perfectly captured what Americans imagine heaven is like. During one uniquely poignant exchange, the newly arrived main character asked a long-time resident of heaven what it is like to be there. As this resident drank presumably her 10,000th milkshake that appeared out of nowhere, she went on to describe how nightmarish eternity is. She described the dreary reality that any pleasurable thing became dull after indulging in it repeatedly for thousands of years. All residents of heaven were pleasure-zombies: bored to death after receiving all they could ever want. Heaven became the party that would just. Not. End.
Our minds cannot comprehend “endless.” We may believe on paper that heaven is endless, but we don’t know what it means to be inside a place that is endless. Eternity, when considered, can bring about fear. But both of these, that heaven is dream-like and heaven will be boring are false ideas that require a response. We need to not just respond to misconceptions, but actively build a theology of the afterlife— the new heavens and new earth.
On using children’s stories to build theology
Stories make theology meaningful when they transport readers into another world. C.S. Lewis talked about this in his essay, “On Stories:” “This excursion... sends us back with a renewed pleasure for the actual.”
Upon returning, our world becomes clearer. Not all stories need talking animals, mythical creatures and land floating in an ocean that tastes sweet: sometimes all children need is to be transported into a mountain lake where they can be a fly on the wall, listening to a conversation they did not realize they had so many questions about.
It is one thing to talk about Heaven, it is another to imagine it properly. Cloudy, boring and bright do not ignite the longings of children. But a place where Jesus is, a more real kind of place, a place where we enter into good work that God made us for— that makes the heart light. That is the kind of place we long to be. That is the kind of place children long to be. And that longing, when tugged upon, reorders our hearts. We find we want to begin to enter God’s purpose for work while on this earth.
We long to be with Jesus, even in a faint way, before we are united with Him in Heaven.
Why go through the process of writing a children’s book? I asked myself the same question many times. This book is, in part, a dedication to the child we lost. Perhaps that is a good enough reason by itself. Yet my passion for teaching the next generation about our historic faith found a home in writing this resource. It quickly became apparent to me how useful it could be to other pastors and ministry leaders, as well as parents, who want to see their children grow up to love and trust in God, following Him all the days of their lives. May the Lord use this book to aid the church in training children in the way they should go (Prov 22:6).
Will heaven be dream-like? Will heaven be boring? Follow Jesse, a 6-year-old boy, as he talks to his dad about what heaven will be like. Fresh metaphors and vivid illustrations guide kids and parents to a biblical and beautiful theology of heaven. What Is Heaven Like? is available on all major online retailers. You can also order directly from the publisher here. And download the free digital resource, Reimagining Heaven: 10 Day Devotional, the adult companion to What Is Heaven Like? available at richardreng.com/newsletter.
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