My little dog died last week. Her name was Gidget. The end
was sudden. That is to say, it was unexpected by me. Looking back I can see
that my pup’s health had been in decline for a few
weeks, perhaps even for months, but I was unable to recognize the signs. We took
her to the vet hoping for an easy fix. There was treatment available but the
cost was prohibitive and the overall outcome uncertain. We chose to put her to
sleep. This is the second dog I have lost. I was hoping that the experience
would be easier. It wasn’t.
Picturing a world without my beloved pet is hard. There are moments when I forget that she is gone. I think that I can hear the jingle of her tags or the sound of her paws as they pad across the floor. I listen for her quiet breathing at night. Then with a stab of sorrow, I remember that she is gone. I am alternately impatient with God and irritated with myself. Is this an example of the goodness of God we read so much about in the Bible? Wasn’t there something he could have done? Should I have done more? I am an adult and not a child. I am a person of faith. I have experienced losses in my life that were far more serious than this. I should just get over it. But I don’t.
I can’t decide if the grief that I feel is for myself or for my pet. I suppose it is both. 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?
When I examine the question through more detached eyes, it
seems foolish to me. What would heaven be like for dogs? When I look back on my
dog’s short life, I realize that it consisted mostly of sleeping, eating, and
sitting on my lap. She did not read books or think deep thoughts. She did not
even watch television. She did not have a job or contribute to the greater good
of society. Indeed, she did not have a regard for society at all. Only for the
squirrels who sometimes strayed into our yard.
The prospect of a heaven which includes dogs raises any number of theological questions for me. What would they do? To whom would they belong? Some dogs have had more than one owner in their lifetime. Some have no owner at all. The Pharisees once asked a similar question about wives. Jesus was impatient with them. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” he said. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 29:30-31).
Might not the same be true when it comes to our pets? Perhaps in eternity the need we feel for their companionship disappears along with the rest of the old creation. Or is it possible that at the end of all things when the world is made new they too will be changed along with us? C. S. Lewis seems to suggest that such a thing is possible. As Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, “…the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master, and in knowing him, will be itself.” Lewis later admitted that he was on speculative ground when making this statement. He was not stating a fact: “All that we can say for certain is that if God is good (and I think we have grounds for saying that He is) then the appearance of divine cruelty must be a false appearance.”
When we cannot understand God’s actions or the reasons behind them, we must cling to what we do know. Jesus is right, of course. My doubts, as well as my questions, are born of ignorance. I do not really grasp the extent of God’s power: “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). The eye that sees the sparrow fall sees the falling tear as well. I do not think God will answer my questions. But his word does assure me that my pup’s life was in his hand. Just as mine is.
The day after the funeral dawns fresh, like the first day after creation. Black crows taunt one another and dart in and out in a game of tag. A breeze casts about, tumbling the bees and making the flowers turn their heads. In the distance, a mourning dove on a wire calls out to me, “Who?” “Who?” It almost seems as if yesterday’s brush with death has somehow rejuvenated everything so that the old world is made young again.
Yet to me it feels as if the world is emptying. I know this is not true. One generation goes and another comes. If the world is divesting itself of old souls, it is also filling up with new ones. But the day after the funeral, I feel the absence of the departed more than the presence of those who remain. In my mind, I run through the list of names I know of those who are already gone. Some are friends, some are family, and some are merely acquaintances. In this roll call of the dead, their absence presses upon me like a crowd.
People like to think that the dearly departed are somewhere nearby, hovering above our lives like a bird that is ghosting on a sea breeze. The silent dead watch benevolently as we go about our business, like invisible guests at our meals, weddings, and family reunions. I do not believe that this is true. Such affairs are tedious enough for the living. It is hard to see how the dead would derive much pleasure from them.
Yet there are times when the absence of someone who was once close to me presses in hard. There is no sight or sound. Only a sense of real presence, like the way it once felt to be in the same room with my father or to sit in comfortable silence with an old friend.
Taking note of the dead puts me in a calculating frame of mind. So I count up the number of years that I have worked and try to estimate how many years I might have left before I make my own exit. Could the ten-year smoke alarm I bought outlast me? It occurs to me that the house I am sitting in has seen generations come and go. The more I do the math, the shorter time seems. We are all hurrying toward the exit.
As a Christian, I believe that there is a life beyond this life. But I do not really know what form it takes. At least, not in detail. There must be some continuity with the life I now live in this world of earth and trees. When Jesus met the disciples on the road after His resurrection, His appearance was so ordinary that they could not recognize Him. It was only after the fact that they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
What I do know is that for now at least, this old earth is not a final destination. It is a point of departure. Those of us who remain watch as others leave, their lips pursed in the determined features of the dead. We bid them farewell as they set out on that journey to a distant shore. But if they return our wave, we do not see it. The sight of it is lost in the mist. On the day of the funeral, we are left with our memories and with the task of caring for the house they have left behind.
But the day after the funeral dawns fresh. As if the world has already moved on and I have moved with it. That is when it occurs to me, I am not really standing on the shore bidding farewell. I am standing in line.
Newsweek’s cover story last week asked the question, “Is heaven real?” Inside, neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander describes the near-death experience that convinced him the answer must be yes. I could not help being interested in Dr. Alexander’s account. I’ve been thinking a lot about heaven lately—ever since the doctor told me I had prostate cancer.
After the doctor gave me the diagnosis, he went on for several minutes describing various treatment options. I nodded my head to signal that I understood. But not much of what he said actually registered. I was too busy thinking about death. Samuel Johnson once said, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.” My diagnosis had the same effect. In the weeks that followed I thought about death a lot. As I wrestled with my fears, I concluded that the best remedy was to think about something else. I determined instead to focus on heaven.
It was harder than I expected. Heaven as we have traditionally pictured it is an uninspiring place, a subject of clichés and the butt of jokes. Heaven is the green space where our loved ones go after they die, not unlike the cemetery itself. It is a quiet and comfortable spot from which our deceased parents and grandparents view significant events like graduations, weddings, family reunions, and presumably their own funerals. Like spectators on a hill who watch from a great distance, they “look down upon us” but cannot do much else.
Such affairs are tedious enough for the living. One can only wonder what they would be like for souls who were permitted to watch but not participate. Would they find our small talk about yesterday’s game or our employer’s irritating behavior to be interesting? Would they enjoy knowing that we miss them? Would they be distressed at the sight of our troubles? If this is heaven, then its inhabitants are more like Marley’s ghost than the angels. They might seek to interfere for good, but lack the power to do so.
If heaven is only a distant gallery from which the departed observe affairs as they unfold on earth, then it is a dull place indeed. It is more like that boring relative’s house your parents forced you to visit when you were a kid—the one without Nintendo or any children your own age—than the place where God’s throne dwells. This popular view of heaven pictures a realm so removed that our voice will not carry to its shores. It is close enough for the departed to watch us but too far away to have any real effect on earth. It is too removed from our present experience to sustain our interest and too far in the future to be of help in the present. We are afraid that when we finally arrive on its shores, it will be less than we had expected.
In Heaven as It Is on Earth
John Lennon sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.” Although there is little in his song that agrees with what the Bible has to say about heaven, Lennon got it right on one point. It is easier to imagine that heaven does not exist than it is to imagine heaven as it does exist. There are many good reasons we find it difficult to “get a handle” on heaven.
For one thing, heaven is hard to put into words. It contains that which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived (1 Cor. 2:9). Earth is the only frame of reference we have this side of eternity. If we cannot understand heaven in terms of earth then we cannot understand it at all. It is not surprising, then, that we would try to imagine heaven in earthly terms. What is more, there is some biblical warrant for doing so. The Bible itself often uses earthly analogies to describe heavenly realities. The old clichés which characterize heaven as a place where the streets are paved with gold and the city walls are made of jewels come from biblical descriptions of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10–21).
There are good theological reasons for seeing heaven through the lens of earth. Heaven is not the earth, but there is continuity between the two. Jesus distinguished heaven from earth when he taught the church to pray for God’s will to be done in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:10). At the same time, his petition clearly acknowledges that both heaven and earth are the rightful domain of God. To use the imagery of Scripture, heaven is where God’s “throne” is and the earth is his “footstool” (Ps. 123:1; Isa. 66:1).
Does this mean that there is literally a chair in heaven where God sits? This may actually be true for Christ, who now resides in bodily form in heaven. But in general, it seems better to understand such language as a reference to divine power and authority rather than a description of the furniture of heaven. We certainly do not believe that Isaiah was being literal when he spoke of the earth as God’s footstool. God is not floating on a cloud and resting his feet on our planet.
Heaven Is a Wonderful Place
However, if we take the Bible’s language at face value when it speaks of heaven, we must also acknowledge that heaven is a real place. Heaven does not appear on any map. It cannot be seen with our most powerful telescopes. But it is a true location. The Bible may sometimes use metaphors and similes to describe what heaven is like, but heaven itself is not merely a figure of speech, spiritual concept, or state of mind. The Bible describes heaven as a location. God speaks “from heaven” (Gen. 21:17; 22:11, 15; Ex. 20:22; Deut. 4:36; 2 Sam. 22:14; Neh. 9:13). He also hears prayer “from heaven,” which is his “dwelling place” (1 Kings 8:34, 36, 39, 43, 45, 49; Neh. 9:27). Angels come “from heaven” (Dan. 4:13, 23; cf. Rev. 18:1). Jesus said he was the one who had “come down from heaven” to do the Father’s will (John 6:38). He told Nicodemus: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man” (John 3:13).
At the same time, the Bible’s use of directional language when speaking of heaven should not be taken too literally. When the Bible speaks of Jesus or the angels “going up” or “coming down” from heaven, we should not think that the writer is attempting to describe heaven’s location in geographic terms. If God is omnipresent, he is no farther from earth than he is from heaven.
But if heaven is not, as an old Sunday school song told us, “somewhere in outer space,” why does the Bible use language that sounds both directional and spatial to describe it? The answer is that such language is not meant to plot heaven’s position relative to the points on a compass (or on an altimeter); it is intended to orient heaven and earth in terms of their relationship to one another and to God.
When the Bible speaks of heaven as God’s throne and the earth as his footstool, it describes earth in relation to divine authority. Heaven is the realm where divine authority reigns supreme. It is the place where the Father’s “will” is always done and where his authority goes unchallenged. Earth is also the Father’s domain, but because of the entrance of sin into this realm, it is a place where God’s authority is challenged. It is on earth that “[t]he kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One” (Ps. 2:2). Earth is the dominion of Christ as much as is heaven, but it is a realm where we do not presently “see everything subject to him.” Heaven, on the other hand, is the realm where Jesus is “now crowned with glory and honor” (Heb. 2:9).
Our Father in Heaven
When the Bible uses spatial language to speak of heaven, it also emphasizes the proximity of heaven and earth. Earth is not heaven. But the earth upon which we live and worship is never beyond heaven’s view nor is it ever out of heaven’s view. When Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father in heaven,” he used a form of address which implicitly promised that we would be seen and heard by the one to whom we pray. The Father who sees all that occurs knows what is done in secret (Matt. 6:4, 6). He hears our every word and knows what we need even before we ask (Matt. 6:8). We live constantly within his sight and are always within earshot.
What is more, because of Christ’s victory over sin, we also live under the authority of heaven. This is the gospel of the kingdom. It is the good news that through Christ, the Father has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col. 1:13). We are under new management and are subject to a greater power than the power of sin that once ruled our thoughts and actions. This new state of affairs was anticipated by Christ in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, which says: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
The kingdom petition looks forward to the day when “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). But it also asks the Father to act in the present. The request for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven has as much immediate significance as the petitions for daily bread, forgiveness, protection from temptation, and deliverance from evil.
Living in Between
Despite Jesus’ encouragement to pray these words, the kingdom does not seem to “stick.” It is all too apparent that the earth is not magically transformed into heaven because we utter these words. We see the proof all around us. Nation rises against nation as famines, pestilences, and earthquakes stalk their inhabitants. Jesus warned that these were merely “the beginnings of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8; Mark 13:8). Beyond these great events are all the little tidal waves that wash over our personal lives and scatter our hopes. Our marriage falters. The child we nurtured to adulthood treats us like a stranger. We lose our job. We agonize over our continuing personal struggle with sin. The doctor diagnoses us with cancer.
Experiences like these serve as blunt reminders that for now we must inhabit these two realms simultaneously. For a time we must live in a world that continues to be scarred by the collateral damage of sin. It is a world that “groans” as it waits for liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:21–22). On the other hand, the Scriptures also assure us that we have been mysteriously moved into the kingdom of the Father’s beloved son (Col. 1:13). We live “on earth” but we are also seated in the heavenly realms by virtue of being “in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). We live at the intersection of two distinct but related kingdoms. One is a kingdom of entropy and the other of eternity. One is perpetually winding down and in a state of decay. The other is continually renewed. One is a kingdom of dusk and growing darkness. The other is a kingdom of approaching dawn and eternal light.
On this side of eternity we must live with the tension between these two realms, proclaiming the gospel of grace and announcing the approach of Christ and his kingdom. This involves both action and waiting. As we act on Christ’s behalf, we announce the good news of forgiveness through Christ and pray for him to reveal the reality of his dominion in our daily experience. These prayers combined with our own Spirit-empowered effort create points of entry where our experience on earth correlates with the order of heaven. God’s will is done in us and around us. But this good effort does not and cannot fundamentally change the nature of the fallen world. We are not trying to draw heaven down to earth by sheer effort. Nor are we attempting to renovate the earth and turn it into heaven. Redemption is not merely rehabilitation. Jesus meant it when he told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). The world as we know it is passing away and will one day dissolve in fire and heat (1 John 2:17; 2 Pet. 3:10–12). We are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pet. 3:13).
The Marriage of Heaven and Earth
Here, then, is the ultimate remedy for my fear. The Bible promises that one day the division between heaven and earth will finally be removed. The result will not be the elimination of one or the other but a marriage between the two. The book of Revelation pictures a day when heaven and earth will be made new and the city of God will descend from heaven “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 21:1–2).
In this new creation the old distinction between heaven and earth will no longer be meaningful. Earth will be the dwelling place of God as much as is heaven. Intimacy with God, which was previously only symbolized in the tabernacle and later embodied in the incarnation of our Savior, will be experienced by all who dwell there. God will be “with us” and will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:3–4). What will this experience be like? The information which the Bible provides is not specific enough to paint a picture in detail. Yet we do know some things.
We know that our experience will be an embodied one (Job 19:26; 1 Cor. 15:42–49; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2). We will not float about like ghosts. Our experience will also be personal and relational. We will not lose our identity or be absorbed into a divine “Other,” but each of us will continue to possess our individual consciousness and soul. If the scenes described in the early chapters of the book of Revelation are any indication, we will recall our past experience and will worship in community with other believers (Rev. 6:9–10; 7:9–10).
Out of the ashes of the old world a new and better paradise will be created. It will have some of the features of the old. For example, the tree of life will be there (Rev. 2:7; 22:2, 14). But there will also be significant differences. There will no longer be any night. The light of the sun will not be necessary in this new world. God’s servants will reign forever (Rev. 22:5). Our relationships will continue but they will change, since we will no longer marry “but will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). Beyond this, relatively little is known. We can guess, perhaps, but we cannot know for certain what our experience will be like.
However, if heavenly experience surpasses earthly, as Jesus implied in his remark to Nicodemus in John 3:12, then we can be certain that it will be far better than anything we can hope or dream. If “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18), then neither are our present joys or pleasures.
Note: This post was originally published on ChristianityToday.com on October 18, 2012
Hell is not the only doctrine that has fallen out of favor in our day. Heaven has fallen on hard times as well. We used to sing, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.” But these days Evangelicals are more likely to speak of the kingdom than of heaven. Justice is more important to them than the hope of heaven.
To many the notion that heaven might be an actual place seems about as awkward as the thought of a literal Hell. N. T. Wright seems typical of this thinking when he asks what the ultimate Christian hope is and what hope there is for change, rescue, transformation and new possibilities within the world in the present. “As long as we see Christian hope in terms of going to heaven,” Wright claims, “of a salvation that is essentially away from this world the two questions are bound to appear unrelated.” No, Christians today don’t want to go to heaven. We want our heaven on earth and we want it now.
It seems to me that these two things are linked. The church’s neglect of the doctrine of hell springs from the same root that has prompted us to marginalize the hope of heaven. It is a result of being worldly-minded. This is a major cause of all our disappointment with God. We are disappointed because we are primarily interested in the comforts of earthly life and troubled by earthly sorrows. We have forgotten Jesus’ warning that there are other worse sorrows yet to come as well as better joys that cannot be described in earthly terms.
The often quoted observation of C. S. Lewis was right. We are too easily satisfied: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
Our distaste for the old doctrine of hell reflects a similar lack of vision. We clamor for justice but what we really want is a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. We want a heavenly bureaucracy which makes sure that everyone is serviced. We do not really want justice. How could we? If a blameless and upright man like Job, someone who feared God and shunned evil, withered under the faintest breath of God’s justice, what makes us think that we could survive its full blast?
I never thought of myself as much of a dog person. I grew up with cats, disagreeable ones at that. But several years ago one of my wife’s colleagues gave us a small Yorkshire terrier that she had named Luigi. Yorkshire terriers, as any owner can tell you, are notoriously co–dependent. They crave human companionship and physical touch. Our dog was no exception. He hated being alone. It was not enough for him to be in the same room with us. He wanted to be as close as possible, preferably on someone’s lap. When my wife Jane sat on the couch, Luigi was right there with her, his head on her lap as he gazed worshipfully into her eyes.
This trait endeared him to my wife, the person Luigi correctly identified as the true Alpha human in the house. Jane was the center of his universe. He followed her when she was home and pined for her when she was away. If she left the house, he stationed himself near the door so that he could watch for her return. I would do in a pinch. But only in an emergency. Jane was the real love of his life, as she is in mine.
This dynamic, as you can imagine, was a recipe for a love triangle that would be the envy of any soap opera. And my dog knew he had me at a disadvantage. True, between the two of us, I was the one with the larger brain, a fact that my wife may sometimes have doubted. But I am less portable and not nearly as cute. What is more, I am more easily distracted, given to alternating fits of work and television.
In the evening when our little dog was snuggled next to my wife, I sometimes caught him watching me out of the corner of his eye, as if he were plotting my demise. But as soon as my wife left the room, Luigi would make his way over to my side of the couch and plop down with a sigh. Content as Lazarus when the Angels laid him in the bosom of Abraham.
Over the years, my dog’s capacity for canine devotion captured my heart too. Watching him age and become infirm was difficult. I found myself drawing uncomfortable parallels to my own journey through mid–life and pondering the kind of theological questions one usually hears from small children. Do dogs go to heaven? I knew the correct answer and did not like it.
If I find it hard to imagine a heaven without my dog, it is even harder to picture a heaven in which I am not married to my wife Jane. We have enjoyed so many things on earth together it only seems natural that we would explore the undiscovered country hand in hand. It disturbs me to read Matthew 22:30, where Jesus says, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
Perhaps this is why I found my dog’s descent into old age so disconcerting. Like a sudden chill at dusk, it seemed to herald the coming night and an unwelcome separation. But Jesus’ words were meant to be positive not negative, displaying the power of God. In heaven our earthly relationships are changed, not eliminated. If the love we experience in heaven transcends the greatest love we have known on earth, then heaven must be a wonderful place indeed.