Formation: Heavenly Creatures
Heaven is a difficult topic to talk about. It’s difficult because there are so many ideas about what it entails, and it’s difficult because despite all of these ideas, no-one really knows exactly what we’re dealing with. And the more you talk about it, the more it can start to sound like a science fiction movie and we end up sounding a bit delusional! Pearly gates. Clouds. Wings. An old white man playing God. Maybe some streets of gold. A mansion for you, and you and you. What do we do with all of this and where do all of these ideas come from?
In Christianity, heaven is often thought of as where Christians go after they’ve died and faced judgement. Their names are written in the Book of Life and so they get to enter into eternal paradise with God. An endless life of singing classic worship hits around the throne. Of course there are some ethical problems with who gets in; it seems like quite a narrow bunch when it is limited to those who prayed the correct prayer after responding to the gospel presentation.
And Christianity has often been seen as an escape plan. “Let’s get out of here, and take as many with us as possible.” This atttitude has fostered a disregard for our life here and now and the earth we inhabit. The idea that we’re just “passing through” on our way to heaven, a place to which God will call us “home” at some point in the future has had a profound impact on our level of comfort in our own (very human) skin, as well as engagement with environmental issues, and the approach of Christians to issues of social concern. If this all ultimately comes down to an endgame of who gets in to heaven out there in the future somewhere, then that sets the priorities very clearly.
But the scriptures are not really trying to offer us that story. Genesis 1 was one of the central framing mythic narratives for the nation of Israel and the story of creation does not paint an idea of two separate places: heaven and earth, but rather God creates the “heavens and the earth.” The heavens were simply all that existed above the ground and upwards towards the sky. And God would walk with Adam in the garden. There was harmony and shalom.
And the Old Testament has very little to say about a place of eternal destination when you die. When it comes to life after death in the Old Testament, there is a lot of ambiguity, although there are suggestions that we descend into sheol (the shadowy abode of the dead). But there is also a hope that sheol is not the end, and that somehow God will overcome sheol and rescue us from the grave. But none of that has to do with going to a place called “heaven” somewhere one day.
Heaven is better understood as referring to where God’s presence dwells and where God’s way of being “reigns”, but there is no sense of that specifically being a geographical ‘other place ‘that we go to when we die. The sacred spaces and rituals for the Hebrew people became places where heaven and earth would meet e.g. the tabernacle, the holy of holies in the temple, and later in the actual Torah itself. There were also glimpses of the closeness between 'heaven' and 'earth' in visions like that of Jacob and the ladder of ascending and descending angels.
So in light of this, Jewish expectations about the coming of the Messiah was the rescue of Israel and reigning on the throne of David. It was never an idea of disappearing off to a foreign and far away ethereal city in the clouds when we die. It was the idea that the Messiah would rise up to rescue and restore them on this earth, and that when that day comes, judgment would take place, and peace and shalom would be brought to the earth. The kingdom of God/heaven, would be established, thus heaven and earth would be one as they were always intended to be.
These ideas are really important for us to grasp when it comes to reading the New Testament. If we approach passages in the New Testament with a preconceived notion of heaven as a golden city in the sky, then we will impose that meaning upon the passages of scripture we read. So for example, when someone comes to Jesus and asks ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ we often assume that the question is essentially, what do I need to do to go to heaven when I die? But that’s not the question, and that’s not the question that Jesus answers. In fact, in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us that eternal life is to know God and to know the one that He has sent. In other words, eternal life is about relationship with and knowledge of God. This is not to say that the bible has nothing to say about where or what the future might be and what happens after all of this is done. It’s just that it’s not usually what the bible is talking about when it talks about “heaven”.
This is why when Jesus begins to minister, he brings forgiveness, healing, restoration etc and he is able to say “the kingdom of heaven has come upon you.
Jesus doesn’t preach:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will go to heaven when they die
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
So all of this is to say, that the biblical image of heaven is very material, physical, earthy and grounded.
Rev 21:1 -3
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
These ideas do have future implications; there is a beautiful image of all things being made new. And if we think about the Old Testament vision of God’s renewal - then we find that this is very much in tune with that ancient Jewish vision. It’s a vision of what the kingdom of God looks like when it is fully among us. And it is much less about us going up to heaven in the clouds, and much more of God dwelling with us on the earth made new.
The idea that comes through in the Apostle Paul’s thinking is that we follow Jesus as the ultimate example of what it means to be human, and that what happens to Jesus in the resurrection will happen to us too i.e. our spirits don’t just float off to heaven, but we experience a bodily resurrection. Not only that, but God in the incarnation of Jesus, enters into creation and so his resurrection doesn’t just foreshadow the uniqueness of what happens to humans, but what happens to the entire cosmos. This is why Paul can say in Romans that ‘all of creation groans with expectation’ as it waits for final redemption and renewal.
The lion lies down with the lamb. Tears are wiped away. There is no longer any sea (which is an Ancient Near Eastern image of chaos and danger).
There is still a sense of mystery to this. These images are not clear; they’re speculative. What the New Testament does suggest to us, however, is that we live with a hope that is firm, that there is something much bigger going on here, and that God is at work at the very heart of reality drawing it forward into something beautiful. Ultimately, heaven is not about place, but about shalom – relationship with God, self, others and creation; so that the lives we live and the relationships we build and nurture here in the present matter now and in the future.
In fact, every single time the New Testament talks about the ‘future’ it is to challenge, inspire and enliven the way we are living in the present. This all has implications for our relationships, the work we do, for the art we create, the things we do that give order and shape to God’s creation in the present. The idea of participating with God in being fruitful, multiplying and filling the earth wasn’t just so God could then throw it all away; it was so that it could become a part of what God wants to do with all of this!