Do we keep our identity in Heaven?
This past week I had a very fascinating lunch with two sisters whose mother passed away recently from cancer. At one stage, the doctors had given their mum 24 hours to live as she was in a very bad state. However, she survived and even came back home. She shared a story to her family of how, when she lay dying, she went to heaven and was asked if she wanted to stay or to go back. She chose to go back and spend a little bit more time with her family. That experience renewed the faith of this lady but, more importantly, it triggered a spiritual search in her two daughters.
One of the daughters shared with me how she had a dream of her mother when she finally died. She was so beautiful and radiant with no sign of aging. She was a picture of perfection. I believe God gave this daughter this dream to reassure her that her mum is now free from the pain and suffering of this world and is now in this beautiful place we call heaven.
What happens to you when you get to heaven? Does the person you knew on earth become someone different when they die? Would that person recognise us when we meet them in heaven? (Of course, to meet our loved ones in heaven we need to also trust in Jesus Christ as our saviour and Lord here on earth). The answer is simple. You will continue being you when you get to heaven. So, if you are “Joe” on earth, you continue to be “Joe” in Heaven. The only difference is that you have left your earthly body on earth.
When Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, they both recognised each other after they had died (Luke 6: 19-31). Later, when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, He remained who He was when He died. Jesus came to his disciples after His resurrection, He told them “It is I Myself!” (Luke 24:39). The disciples all recognised Him. Jesus continued being who he was after His ascension.
This is where Christianity differs from Buddhism or Hinduism. We do not believe in reincarnation which teaches that we changing who we are till we achieve perfection. Theologian Bruce Milne writes, “We can banish all fear of being absorbed into the ‘All’ which Buddhism holds before us, or reincarnated in some other life form as in the post-mortem prospect of Hinduism…The self with which we were endowed by the Creator is His gift of life to us, the self whose worth was secured forever in the self-substitution of God for us on the cross, that self will endure into eternity. Death cannot destroy us.” (Bruce Milne, The Message of Heaven and Hell. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002. 194.)
In Isaiah 66: 2 we read, “‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,’ declares the Lord, ‘so will your name and descendants endure’”. In other words, our own personal history and identity will remain as we move from the present earth to the new heaven and earth.
The Bible tells us that the names of those who place their trust in Jesus are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 20: 15; 21: 27). I am pretty certain that the names that are written in that Book of Life would be our earthly names. However, the Bible also tells us that we will receive a new name in Heaven (Isaiah 62: 2; 66: 15; Revelation 2: 17; 3:12). This new name, however, does not invalidate your old name or your identity.
Why is it important that we keep our identity after we die and leave this earth? It is because, unlike reincarnation, we have only one life to live after which we have to give an account to God on how we have lived that life (Hebrews 9: 27-28; 2 Corinthians 5:10). If our identity changes after we die, then we can’t be rewarded or held accountable for anything we did before we died. The doctrine of judgment and eternal rewards depends on people retaining their unique identities from one life to the next.
So, for us as followers of Christ, this is good news. Firstly, our names will be written in the Book of Life and we will be with God forever. Secondly, all our loved ones who have also believed in Christ will be with us forever. We will recognise them as their identities will remain the same. Finally, having lived our lives for the glory of God here on earth, we will receive our eternal rewards for all the good works we did on earth as our identity goes with us into eternity.