he phone rang. I looked at the clock and saw it was 3:25 a.m.

When I answered the call, I heard the voice of a mother in our congregation whose daughter had been battling cancer. As a pastor, you never expect a good phone call in the middle of the night, so I was braced for bad news.

The mother told me that her daughter, Heather, who was just 12 years old, had passed away. I immediately began to give my typical pastoral response when she interrupted and told me a story that forever changed my perspective on heaven.

Heather was on heavy medication as a result of her cancer treatments. When the doctors knew she would die, they warned her family that she might begin to hallucinate.

During the night, Heather woke up and told her mother, “Mom, it’s beautiful there!”

Heather’s mom comforted her and told her to go back to sleep, thinking back to what the doctors said. But then Heather spoke up again, “No, Mom, it’s beautiful and I saw Jesus.”

She continued, “Mom there are so many kids there and they have swings.”

Then Heather said, “I want to go there, Mom. Can I go?”

As tears streamed down her face, Heather’s mother simply replied, “Yes, you can go there.”

Heather closed her eyes to spend eternity in that beautiful place with the swings.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine heaven as anything other than the cartoons we’ve seen all of our lives, with angels bouncing from cloud to cloud. But the Bible tells us heaven is a very real place, just as real as the world around us now; and, yes, it is beautiful.

What is heaven really like?

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (NLT). In your wildest imagination, you have never thought about anything that comes close to what God has prepared for people who love Him.

The first thing we usually hear about heaven is what it looks like. Scriptural references to gorgeous rivers, streets of gold, and gates of pearl tell us heaven will be a beautiful place of awe and wonder. It will be something like we have never seen. I believe that when we see it, it will take our breath away.

In the Bible, heaven is sometimes symbolically referred to as a city. This is not referring to a cityscape with neon signs, curbs, gutters, buildings, and parking spaces. When Scripture uses the concept of a city to describe heaven, it is teaching us that heaven is a community of people where there are relationships built on genuine love.

Think of a time when you were together with a group of people and wished it would never end, or the best relational experience you have ever had. Then multiply by a thousand and you will get a foretaste of what Scripture refers to when it talks about heaven.

The Bible also uses symbols to tell us about heaven. One symbol is a mansion, which represents safety and security. Everyone will be protected there. Another symbol is white robes, and those mean you will be able to walk without shame, remorse, or any lingering sense of defeat due to sin or hang-ups.

Finally, Scripture tells us heaven is a prepared place. It’s not a state of mind or some kind of higher way of thinking. It is a physical space God has been preparing for His people since the beginning of the world. And it’s a place where we will live together with God. Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3 NIV).

However, the Book of Revelation teaches us more about heaven by telling us what it is not, as opposed to what it is. “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (21:4 NLT).

“He will wipe away every tear” means there will be no sadness in heaven.  No more broken hearts. No more rejection. No more loneliness. There will never be a split second in the billions and trillions of years you’ll live that you’ll have sadness or grief or depression.

The Book of Revelation teaches us more about heaven by telling us what it is not, as opposed to what it is.

There will also be no sickness or suffering. You are going to get a new body, and it’s going to be free of asthma, arthritis, cataracts, and cancer. You will not need any Goody’s Headache Powder™ or IcyHot™ cream. In heaven, you will be completely healed.

Heaven is a perfect place with no sin. But you and I know we are not perfect people, so how will we be welcomed there? When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, He made the way for us to enter heaven. By putting our faith in Him, which God’s grace enables us to do, we are “saved” from sin (Ephesians 2:8). We will go to heaven innocent of all our sin.

John wrote, “We are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2 NASB). Your character and mine will be instantly perfected to be like His. You will still be you, but you will be like Him.

Finally, in heaven, there will be no more death. Funeral homes and mortuaries will be out of business. Life will be everlasting.

How does our future in heaven impact our life on earth?

Knowing we are headed for a perfect, glorious eternity with no death or suffering, how, then, should we live? I think the Bible teaches us three things we should do.

First, don’t be distracted by the things in this world. We all struggle with the lure of power, pleasure, fame, and fortune. The Enemy paints the world and all of its beauty as the ultimate prize, but Scripture tells us this world will pass away. There is a temptation to focus only on what we see, but we must realize there is a better day coming. God has a plan for each of our lives, and it is beyond this world.

Second, don’t get discouraged by trouble. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).

You are an overcomer through faith in God. Whatever you’re going through did not come to stay, it came to pass. In fact, God promises He can turn it around and use it for good in your life. He will help you get through it if you respond the right way.

Third, focus your energy on things that will last. At the end of this life, there is not only a judgment of unbelievers for their sins, but also a judgment of believers for their righteous acts. It’s where you find out what God will give you for all that you have given to Him. Every kindness and every good deed will count, along with every mission trip you went on and every neighbor you invited to church. God will reward you for all of eternity, and you will be wishing you had done even more.

There is a heaven, it is real, and it is beyond your wildest dreams. But while we look forward to our reward, there is still much work to be done in this life until God calls us to our eternal home.

Marty Baker, D.Min, is lead pastor of Stevens Creek Church of God in Augusta, Georgia.