Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”
Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.
This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.
In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.
But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
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
Trouble is Heaven’s goad. God applies it to good purpose in the life of the believer and unbeliever alike. For the unbeliever suffering often serves as God’s rude awakening, a sharp slap intended to bring the sinner to his senses. It is a measure of the deceitfulness of sin that this aim cannot be achieved unless suffering is also accompanied by the grace of God. When suffering enters the believer’s life, it functions like the potter’s hand that shapes the clay. Distress is the discipline which proves that God is treating us as his children.
This means that those who seek the pastor are usually hurting. Alexandre Vinet notes: “the principle occasion of religion and the ministry is suffering.” The pastor is exposed to the difficulties of the church more than anyone else. Many who come to him are suffering from self inflicted wounds. Often they expect the pastor to repair in a few minutes what has taken years to tear down. The nature of the difficulties the pastor must deal with run the entire gamut from physical to emotional to moral problems. The pastor sees people at their worst and is aware of the church’s deepest flaws, exposure that can lead to depression or disillusionment. There is no “magic bullet” that will eliminate distress from the lives of those to whom we minister. More often than not our place is not to offer a quick fix but to exercise the ministry of presence. It is enough to be with people in their distress and serve as a reminder of God’s presence with them. Even if we could make the trouble disappear, we might not be doing them a favor.
But the natural discomfort we feel over their discomfort makes us especially vulnerable to what Jeremy Begbie has called “the pathology of sentimentality.” The sentimentalist, Begbie points out, cannot engage in another’s pain as pain or face up to another’s negative features. Those who sentimentalize the distress of the congregation are compelled to “keep on the sunny side of life.” Begbie is writing about the effect of this pathology on worship and notes how music in the contemporary church has sometimes been “deployed as a narcotic, blurring the jagged memories of the day-to-day world, rather than as a means by which the Holy Spirit can engage those memories and begin to heal them.” In the same way, the pastor is tempted to speak when he ought to be silent, offering up platitudes in the face of distress. Such words, though well meant, can blunt the sharp edged lesson God intends to teach through distress. In such cases it would be better if we were silent.
Perhaps it is time that we crossed over from the sunny side and joined God in the shadows.