When you’ve taught catechism to the youth of the church for a few years, you start to know where questions will pop up. When you deal with Lord’s Day 18 and the subtle argument found there relating Christ’s ascension with his presence here on earth and the polemics with the Lutherans, you can reasonably expect that your catechism students won’t be asking any questions. But when it comes to Lord’s Day 22 and the doctrine of the last things (eschatology), you might want to slot in an extra class just to deal with their questions. It’s not just young church members who have questions — I’ve noticed that older church members do too. We all wonder what “perfect blessedness” in the hereafter really involves. One question that I’ve been asked and have often pondered is whether believers in glory are aware of goings-on here on earth, including the suffering and grief we might experience. I’ve always been inclined to say “no.” After all, how can “perfect blessedness” include concern and anxiety over what is happening with your loved ones who are not (yet) in glory?
In his book, Josiah’s Reformation, Richard Sibbes indirectly addresses this question. In the last chapter, this Puritan author exposits 2 Chronicles 34:28. Here God is addressing King Josiah through the prophetess Huldah: “Behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants.” Sibbes notes that one of the things to take away from this verse is a clear indication that the Roman Catholics are wrong in praying to Mary and other saints. After all, God promised this saint (Josiah) that he would be taken out of this world with the consequence that he would be unaware of the disaster that would come on the people of God after his lifetime. This consequence is not peculiar to Josiah, but is true of all human beings brought to glory. It was and is a blessing for saints to be relieved of their concerns for their loved ones. Sibbes goes a step further and notes the absurdity of the Roman Catholic view. He says, for the sake of argument let’s grant that saints in heaven are aware of what goes on down on earth and can hear the prayers of unglorified believers and extend help. But they are still finite creatures, aren’t they? Writes Sibbes, “How can one saint give a distinct answer and help to perhaps a thousand prayers, as the virgin Mary hath many thousand prayers offered her? How can she distinctly know and give a distinct answer to every prayer?” It’s only possible if she is no longer human.
For our purposes, however, we can note that Josiah was taken out of this world with the promise that he would be unaware of the miseries and trials to follow his death. Is there any indication in Scripture that this is not true of all believers? Does the Bible anywhere teach that Christians are taken to heaven but still weighed down with concerns over what takes place on earth?
What about Ecclesiastes 9:5-6?
5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.
These verses played a part in a controversy in the Netherlands over the doctrine of soul sleep. Some (e.g. Telder) taught that “the dead know nothing” means that when you die you have no conscious awareness of anything on earth or in heaven. Your soul essentially falls asleep. Two comments: 1) It is dangerous to hang a doctrine on a passage from a difficult book like Ecclesiastes. This type of wisdom writing can easily be misused. 2) The context here demonstrates that the Preacher’s perspective is related to “all that is done under the sun.” If anything, you can only restrict what is said here to life on the earth.
In Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The parable shows the rich man looking down on earth after death and having concern for his five brothers left behind. However: 1) The rich man is not in glory, but in hell. If this is indicative of something of the after-life, it’s only telling us that the damned continue to be aware of the miseries and trials of this earth. 2) But, this is a parable and again care needs to be taken in interpreting this as definite doctrine about the hereafter. Our Saviour often worked within the understanding of his listeners about these things. If what’s said here can be confirmed from other passages in Scripture, we can be more dogmatic about accepting it as divine revelation concerning the hereafter.
If there’s one passage that comes close to leading us to believe that saints in heaven are aware of the trials of saints on earth, it would have to be Revelation 6:10-11. When the sixth seal was opened, John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar. We then read in Rev. 6:10-11,
10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Doesn’t this seem to suggest that at least some saints (the martyrs) in heaven are aware of the travails of some of the saints on earth? These verses need to be read carefully. The glorified martyrs’ cry of “how long?” is related to the avenging of their blood shed while they were on earth. In response to that, they are told to wait until the number of the martyrs is complete. This suggests at most a general knowledge that the final judgment has not yet come, but not necessarily an awareness of the particulars of everything going on in the world left behind. Moreover, the genre here also has to be taken into consideration. This is apocalyptic literature and vivid imagery is used that’s not always intended to be understood literally. The classic example is Satan’s chain in Revelation 20:1. Satan is an angel, a spiritual being, so he obviously cannot be bound with a literal physical chain. Similarly here, in Revelation 6, the language may simply be trying to convey the eagerness that heaven and its inhabitants have for final justice at the last day. But that doesn’t mean that Oma looks down from heaven and sadly sees me getting grumpy and irritable with my family here (for example!).
When all the biblical evidence is considered, we have to conclude that “perfect blessedness” in heaven involves being unaware of the particular trials and struggles that saints on earth continue to experience. We can expect that when we are graciously brought to glory, we will not have our eyes directed back from whence we came, but to Christ, to our God and Saviour. We will be perfectly living in communion with him — and he will take care of looking out for our loved ones left behind, he will continue to be aware of their sufferings, temptations, and trials. And as all-powerful God, he is the one who can actually do something about all of it. In heaven, we will be content to leave it all to him — that’s perfect blessedness.