Of all the questions I get asked, this is probably the hardest to answer. Not least because ultimately the decision lies in the hands of the Lord Almighty who is judge of all and knows the secrets of all our hearts, and no human should ever presume to fully know the will of God. But I believe there are a few general answers I can give, and these I offer with all humility and with my own limited understanding.
First of all, it does seem that we will recognise people as they are when they are raised from the dead. The women and the disciples knew that the person standing before them was Jesus when He appeared after the resurrection. In the account of the transfiguration, Peter, John and James somehow know that it is Moses and Elijah who have appeared with Jesus (Luke 9:30). Of course this still begs the question of what form these men took. We so often imagine our loved ones at a particular age or a in a particular condition. But the resurrection life will be of a completely different order from what we know and experience on earth, without the changing of the years or the effects of decay and illness. As I said in a previous post, heaven will more wonderful and more different than we so often imagine.
Secondly, and I say this as sensitively as possible, we have to come to terms with the fact that heaven will not be the final destination for everyone. Now I cannot pronounce who will be there or who will not. But I do know that the offer of heaven lies open to anyone who chooses to believe and trust in Jesus Christ. He is the resurrection and the life who tells us that Whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:26). So if we ourselves want to claim eternal life we need to respond to Jesus Christ. If we want to be sure we will see our loved ones with us in heaven we need to pray that they respond to Jesus Christ.
Why? Because God has appointed a day when all of us will stand in judgement. Not because He is a cruel, vindictive God, but because He loves us. As our Heavenly Father He will ask us to give an account of the wonderful gift of life He has given us. And if we are to stand on that day it will be just so very important to know there is One who has borne the judgement that should have been ours, and that His name is Jesus.
And this leads on to a third point, that in heaven the focus won’t actually be on us. Our family and our friends may or may not be with us, and it’s quite likely we will recognise some familiar faces. But our gaze will be elsewhere. Listen to how John describes heaven in Revelation 7:8-10:
9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
The nearest parallel I can come up with, and it’s a totally inadequate one, is that it will be like being at a gig where your favourite band is playing. You may be with your family, but actually all your attention is fixed on the main stage. In heaven our attention will be fixed on Jesus, not just for a few hours, but for eternity. And if this sounds incredibly boring, then perhaps it would be good to reflect on just how wonderful is the salvation He has brought and the wonder of His love that He should die on a cross for you and for me. And it would be good to pray that all we know and love will be there with us, gathered round the throne, praising God who is maker and judge of all.