Imagine There’s a Heaven

Heaven has fallen on hard times. In Christian thinking, looking forward to heaven is no longer fashionable. Jeffrey Burton Russell observes in his book Paradise Mislaid, “Heaven has been shut away in a closet by the dominant intellectual trends of the past few centuries.”[1] There are a number of reasons for this. To some, the idea of looking forward to going to heaven seems frivolous. They feel that it is an exercise in self-absorbed indulgence. A quest for “pie in the sky by and by.” For others, notions of heaven are too abstract. It seems too wispy. Not the kind of place that those who have only ever known flesh and blood would feel comfortable, let alone happy. Mark Twain speculated in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.” Twain’s skepticism has uncovered the root of the problem. Either our imagination is too small to truly grasp the things that occupy our time and attention in heaven, or our nature must be radically changed before we can even endure the experience, let alone enjoy it. It seems likely that both are probably the case.

Admittedly, the few passages of Scripture that do speak of heaven are spare in detail, but those that exist suggest that their intent is not to provide us with a detailed travel brochure. They give the impression that a different order of things operates in heaven than the one that exists on earth. “Heaven is a wonderful place filled with glory and grace,” the children used to sing in Sunday school. Yet some of the Bible’s descriptions of heaven seem more unnerving than they do appealing with their winged many-eyed creatures (Rev. 4:8). Yet we should not be surprised that the biblical snapshots of heaven seem so alien to us. “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:12). If even the most basic aspects of heavenly reality are beyond us, how can we expect to grasp its full nature, except by faith?

Scripture speaks of heaven using the language of signs. The images seem fantastic. Yet they refer to things we know. They describe animals, rivers, seas, and cities. There is an obvious reason for this, according to C. S. Lewis. “Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience” he writes.[2] This is the way of all analogies. They use the known to explain the unknown.

Scripture speaks of heaven using the language of signs.

But this does not mean that Scripture merely employs spiritual baby talk about these things. It is no accident that nature often evokes a sense of God in us. God has not made heaven like the earth so that we will be comfortable there. Rather, in making earth, God has vested it with a kind of beauty and glory that is an echo of his own. Just as God made Adam and Eve in his image, He has also put a reflection of himself in creation. Heaven is not the earth. Based on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, we can be sure that it is much more. Yet whatever beauty heaven may hold, it is certainly not less than the beauty of earth.

Heaven is a Place

Heaven is a location, not a mystical abstraction. The children’s Sunday school song was right. Although “heaven” sometimes serves as a synonym for God in Scripture, it is also spoken of as a place. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught the disciples to ask that God’s will would be done “on earth” as it was “in heaven.” In his speech in Acts 3:21, Peter describes heaven as a location when he says that heaven “must receive” Jesus “until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Likewise, in Galatians 1:8, Paul gives this warning: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” In Paul’s statement, heaven and God are clearly not synonymous. The angel comes “from heaven” but not from God. Likewise, in John 3:13, Jesus asserts that He “came from heaven.”

An old cliché complains that some people are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good. But perhaps our problem is actually the opposite. We are not heavenly-minded enough. In the opening of his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis observed that our problem is that “We are far too easily pleased.”

A second reason heaven is no longer of interest to us is that we have grown impatient. A focus on kingdom theology has replaced an earlier generation’s emphasis on the hope of heaven because it seems to have more practical value for the present. To dwell on heaven seems selfish, while “working for the kingdom” feels more missional. When Christians talk about heaven, they speak of “going.” When they talk about the kingdom they speak of “building.” “You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site,” N. T. Wright explains in his book Surprised by Hope. “You are–strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself– accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.”[3] He is not wrong in saying this. The earthly analogies Scripture uses to describe the life to come indicate that it involves both continuity and reconstitution. Life on earth continues but on a new earth and in a greater city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Yet, despite what Wright says, the garden is about to be dug up so that something else can be put in its place (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

Not Heavenly Minded Enough

The problem we have with being heavenly-minded is not that it is too removed from the concerns of earth. In a way, it is the opposite. Our idea of heaven is too vague to be of much use at all. Yet the Scriptures, as sparing as they are on the subject, do speak of heaven and in concrete terms. For example, Scripture indicates that heaven can be seen. John’s description of heaven in the book of Revelation begins with an open door, a throne, and someone seated upon it (Rev. 4:2). This language may be figurative, but it is concrete. Even if one is reluctant to take such things in their literal sense, the material quality of these images leaves us with a concrete impression. John goes on to speak of heaven in earthly terms when he writes of crowns, gates, walls, and in the final battle, even animals. At the center of it all, of course, is God. He is unseen, except in the person of Jesus Christ, who appears in John’s vision, not as the familiar but undescribed Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels but instead as a lamb. Or, earlier in the book, Jesus appears in human but terrifying form (Rev. 1:14–16).

It seems clear that there is more to what John depicts than a photographic image. But once again, while the image as a whole may seem strange, its individual parts are not. We have seen and heard all these things. We know the color of bronze and the heat of a furnace. We have heard the sound of waves as they crash upon the shore. We have seen the stars high overhead and know a sharp sword’s intended use. The language does not need to be literal to leave us with an impression of the heavenly reality.

This is the key to laying hold of the Bible’s idea of heaven. We do not need a travel brochure with pictures and maps. A more literal description might capture the sights and sounds and still fall far short of the true nature of the experience. It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to thoughts of heaven, we are more easily captivated by the words of poets and storytellers than the theologians. A sermon may make us ponder, but a golden sunset will make us weep with longing. We think we would prefer prose so that we might understand what heaven will be like. But what we really need is something more akin to fantasy. I am not saying that heaven is a fantasy. It is as real and literal as a chair. But its reality is so fantastic that the literal does not seem to be able to do it justice, at least not on this side of eternity.

Heaven and Earth

But now comes the really strange thing. If the biblical writers are an example of how we must talk about heaven, it seems that the figures and terms of the literal world are essential to conveying its fantastic nature. It is no accident that those who speak of heaven, even in the Scriptures, more often than not describe it in earthly terms. They speak of the people and things we know.

It would seem, then, that we are not earthly-minded enough. Or rather, it might be better to say, our problem is that we are not thinking about earthly things in the right way. Like the door which stood open in Heaven for John in the Apocalypse, the natural world is often a gateway to anticipating the world to come. Not because the two are identical but because the latter’s imprint is upon the former. John Lennon famously sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” But Scripture admonishes us to do the opposite and employs earthly images to help us understand its nature and long for it.

In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of a girl who had been blind since birth until an operation restored her sight. After her doctor removed the bandages, he led her into a garden where the girl stood in speechless wonder before a tree which she could only describe as “the tree with the lights in it.” Dillard writes that she sought to capture this same vision for herself as she walked along Tinker Creek. Then one day, when she wasn’t even trying, she suddenly came upon it. Or rather, I should say, it suddenly came upon her since she was not really thinking about it at the time. Dillard gazed at a cedar tree in the backyard, and suddenly everything was transfigured. “I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed,” Dillard writes. “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.”[4]

This is what it is like to imagine heaven. It is not so much a matter of seeing as it is one of being seen. We become aware of something far greater through sensible signs and veiled images. It is not the shape of heaven or the specifics of what awaits us there that we apprehend. But the real presence of the One who fills both heaven and earth. When Jesus asked the blind man he healed what he could see, the answer was that he saw men as trees, walking (Mark 8:24). But when we capture a glimpse of heaven in the earthly images presented to us in Scripture and through the reflected glory of what has been created, we see God walking. Not like the trees of the garden, but among them (Gen. 3:8).

[1] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It, (New York: Oxford, 2006), 1.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, (Grand Rapids: HarperCollins, 1980), 33.

[3] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 208.

[4] Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 33.

Do Dogs go to Heaven?

Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not? In this podcast, I reflect on grief, pets, and the nature of heaven.

What Not to Say on Your Next Job Interview

A while back I got a call from someone who was starting an alternative school. They thought I might be a good candidate for their faculty. I thought it couldn’t hurt to hear their pitch but it turned out that they were expecting the pitch to come from me. Details about the project were a little vague. They seemed more interested in listening than in talking and I could tell that they wanted to ascertain whether I was a good “fit” before getting into the specifics.

“So tell me,  what are you passionate about?” the interviewer asked. It had not been a stellar week and I wasn’t feeling passionate about much of anything. “Uhm…I like to write and I like to teach” I began, sensing that I wasn’t quite hitting the desired mark. I could soon tell that I was turning out to be a disappointment. I wasn’t that interested in changing jobs but I didn’t want to be rejected either. I floundered a bit more, trying in vain to think of something to say that would make an impression.

By the time the interviewer asked me about my career goals, I’d had enough. “To tell you the truth, I’ve reached that stage in my life where my next major career move is probably death” I replied. It made an impression. The interviewer’s eyebrows shot up. There was a long pause. “Well…let’s just let this sit for a while,” she said. “I’ll give you a call in a few weeks to see where we are at.” The call never came. Not that I was expecting it.

If there is a pithy lesson here, perhaps it is this, “Don’t go for a job interview when you are having a bad day.” Or maybe it is, “Don’t be such a smart aleck.” Still, while the interviewer was sincere, so was I. I meant what I said. At the time of our conversation, I really couldn’t see a rising vocational trajectory in my future. I still don’t. My career is in its descent phase not in ascent. Ecclesiastes 1:4 says, “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” It is just the nature of things for careers to come to an end and for one generation to give way to another. Now that I am in my mid 60’s, I no longer have the same perspective that I did in my 20’s and 30’s when I believed that the possibilities before me were limitless. If it feels like I am running out of road, it is partly because I am.

Yet, if what the Bible says about eternity is true, this is also an optical illusion. My career may indeed be in descent but my life is in ascent. The bulk of my life till lies before me. It is only the details that are vague. 1 John 3:2 says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”


About Time

I had a dream about my boys the other night. They really aren’t boys anymore. My two sons are young men in their late 20’s and early 30’s. But when I dream about them, they almost always appear as little boys. I, on the other hand, am ageless in my dreams. Not so much when I wake up. Within seconds the weight of my years settles upon me and I feel as old as I am. When the dream was over, I lay in the dark listening to my wife’s quiet breathing, the ticking of the clock in the other room, and wondering if age is a characteristic of the soul.

My soul had a beginning but it has no end. There was a time when my soul did not exist. Now that it does, it will exist for eternity. Since the soul is the undying self, it seems that it must have a certain ageless quality to it. My soul exists in time but is not debilitated by it in the same way that the body is. Yet the soul does not seem to be static. If the soul is the essence of the true self and that self is subject to change, should not the soul change as well? My sons are not the boys they once were. They have changed with time and experience, as have I. To put it another way, does the soul mature?

Augustine once observed that just as the human body changes with the passing ages of life and is changed with the changes of place and time, so also does the soul. “It varies by countless changes and thoughts” Augustine said. “It is altered by countless pleasures. By how many desires is it cleaved apart and distended!” In her book Once Out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body, Andrea Nightingale explains that this statement reflects Augustine’s belief that when humanity fell into sin, we lost our sense of the divine presence. We also lost our sense of self-presence. As a result, we are distended in time, living in the present but ranging in our thinking from the past to the future. The present is not a dwelling place but a barely noted way station. We give it little regard because we are distracted by our memories or inflamed by our expectation of what is to come. Meanwhile the swiftly passing present is squandered.

Our basic problem is not really the passing away of the present. It is, as Augustine observes, an absence of the sense of God’s presence. Our awareness of God gives meaning to the present.  His presence sanctifies our boredom and redeems our discomfort. As long as we are aware of God, the present is more than a staging ground for the future. It is a moment of fellowship.

Jesus said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living (Luke 20:38). This makes Him the God of our past and our future as much as He is the God of our present. He is the guarantee of all He has promised to those he has called. His grace is the remedy for all our regret and His assurance is our hope for the future. Does the soul age? I do not think so. At least, I do not think it ages in the same way that the body does. But I do believe that the soul develops. We are not what we once were. We are not yet what we will be. But for now, we are children of the living God and that is enough.