Will I recognize my loved ones in Heaven?

By Andrew Belt

“Pastor? Will I recognize my loved ones in Heaven?”

A good question and a common question. Though my time as a pastor has been short, just over a year, I have been asked this question at least three different times. People are truly worried about the answer. For some who ask, I have to wonder: What was the quality of their relationship with the person they are thinking of that prompted this?

There are several options:

  • Perhaps their relationship was strained, and they fear their loved one will recognize them and remember all the sour notes.
  • Perhaps they are worried their spouse of nearly 50 years will go by them in the age to come without so much as a passing glance.
  • Perhaps they hope to be able to pick up right where they left off?

As with all pastoral and theological questions it is not so much the question itself but the reason why the question is asked which needs to be addressed. How Jesus answers questions throughout the Gospels provides a good insight into this. If not careful, a young pastor or new Christian is just as likely to strike a land mine rather than a foundation.

With that in mind, may I be so bold as to conjecture the following: What makes you think you know your loved ones now? As time-bound creatures we are good at treating eternity as a moment and a moment as eternity.   So really, we have it backwards. I will contend you don’t know your loved ones now, but you will finally recognize them when Christ comes again.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it best in his book Life Together, when he writes, “We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.” Only through Christ do we know each other. The reason why Peter, James, and John recognize Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration is because Jesus Christ is the one true mediator between God and men. “And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only” (Mark 9:8).

Currently, our relationships are marred by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault. I am terrible at loving people as I should. I watch with horror as even the good and pious deeds I do become avenues to proclaim my own glory and are used for my own self-justification. “What a wretched man I am! Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ my Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25) We use each other to make ourselves shine. The truth is this: you don’t know your loved ones, not yet.

Right now, our own ego blocks us from knowing one another. A pastor sees his congregation as a place to serve his growing influence. Fellow workers see each other only as a steppingstone on the way to that big promotion. Parents see their children as a mark of status to parade around before others. It is one huge dumpster fire.

You will not recognize your loved ones in the coming Age of the Ages because of the time you spend with them now; whether long or short, good or bad. Rather, the good news is you will finally recognize your loved ones, your neighbors—and even the saints of days long passed and the saints of time yet to come—because you will see them rightly through Christ. The Father has made us One Body with the purchase of His Son’s own blood. This is the joy that was set before Jesus so He endured the cross and despised the shame.   The blessing of Paradise is I will finally love you as I ought. This is from Christ.

It is not only about recognizing others though. Colossians 3 reminds us of a great mystery concerning our identity and who we are. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4). You don’t even know who you are yet! Your identity is with Christ now.

Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life! Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) This is also the capstone point of Paul’s entire letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 2 he writes:

For through Christ we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together grows into a holy temple to the Lord. In him, you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

God’s work among us during worship then becomes crucial. In the waters of Baptism, as you are attached with God’s own name it means your identity is revealed to me even while it is still hidden with Christ now. Receiving the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins in the Sacrament means you now also have your brother and your sister wholly in Christ. Even those who are long dead, even those who are not yet to be, we recognize them right now in the Sacraments!

Through His Word, the Word made Flesh, we finally have peace with each other. This is the reason why you should haul yourself to church during the wee hours of the morning, just so we can all catch glimpses of each other in Christ. We get a foretaste of recognizing our loved ones, all in Christ, in the here and now!

So, “No,” you won’t recognize your loved ones simply because you have been hanging out with them. But, “Yes,” you will finally recognize them and know them fully because you will truly have them in Christ. You will have them forgiven, washed, and restored. Christ Jesus is the only reason we can have access to each other.

In the end, when someone comes up to you and asks, “Will I recognize my loved ones in Heaven?” we should offer up a clear and confident, “Yes.” And then qualify it by saying, “You will recognize all of them in Christ.”

Amen! Let it be so now, O Lord our God!