Heaven – Closer Than We Think
By Neil Earle
A few years ago a book took many Christians by storm, “Heaven is for Real” – the memoir of a four year old boy named Colton Burpo, a Methodist’s pastor’s little son. Colton claimed to have visited heaven for three minutes while being operated upon for a major appendectomy. The movie soon followed.
Colton matter-of-factly related to his dad over time that he had learned that God is three persons, that Jesus loves kids, and that he had a sister in heaven. That last part startled, shook up and eventually healed his mother who had indeed had a miscarriage which Colton had known nothing about!
This success followed on the heels of Mitch Albon’s 95 week bestseller The Five People You Meet in Heaven where a carnival maintenance man has his life’s ups and downs explained to him by people he reconnects with “up there.”
The former editor of Newsweek authored a Time cover story on this always engrossing subject. Like Meacham, I will not pass judgments on these pop culture expressions. Meacham himself quickly moved on to someone from the scholarly Christian world, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope argued that heaven is not some future pie-in-the-sky but “the other hidden dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension if you like.”
Says Bishop Wright: “God made heaven and earth, at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” He concludes: “The Bible makes it clear that the two overlap and interlock.”
A Biblical Overview
Let’s gather a few Biblical data on heaven as summarized by the Oxford Bible Dictionary. These are based on such texts as Psalm 115:3, Psalm 68:5, and 1 Kings 8:27 and Isaiah 44:24.
“In the Bible as in the English language, heaven can refer to the regions of the atmosphere or also to a supernatural world. Birds fly in the heaven (Jeremiah 4:25) and the clouds are there (Proverbs 8:27-28). Heaven also refers to the firmament or celestial vault (Genesis 1:6) which divides the waters above form those beneath and is supported on pillars…
“The supernatural heaven is the dwelling place of God…The Hebrews spoke of the existence of several heavens, and Paul had a mystical experience of being taken up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians s 12:1). Christ ascended above all the heavens (Ephesians 4:10)…God’s throne is in heaven (Isaiah 66:1) and angels surround it (1 Kings 22:19) and this vision is developed in Revelation 4. In the highest heaven there is a tabernacle or true tent (Hebrews 8:2) exalted above the heavens (Hebrews 7:26), where Christ the true High Priest offer spiritual sacrifices and intercedes for faithful Christians…
“The names of the redeemed are recorded in heaven (Hebrews 12:23) which is a realm of joy Luke 15:7) and ‘peace” (Luke 19:38). The description of heaven in Revelation 4, 14 and 21 representing the ultimate triumph of God, have often provided the ground of hope for life after death and have been a fertile source of imagery in Christian hymns” (page 143).
Okay. That gives us our bearings.
The Place of Rest
Heaven is usually seen in Christian thought as the abode of the righteous dead and thinkers such as N.T. Wright accept that definition. He adds that heaven is not the ultimate reward of the saved – as is the popular view – but more a place of rest and refreshment. A gripping text in Revelation 6 shows the martyred saints freshly arriving in heaven and given white robes (symbol of righteousness) and told to “rest.” This is reaffirmed in Revelation 14:13, a favorite text for us at our funeral services: “Then I heard a voice from heaven, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
Bishop Wright has a clever phrase – “life after life after death.” He means that in God’s ultimate purposes there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth to be inaugurated at the end of this present age. This new order of things includes the resurrection of the faithful dead when their bodies are united again with their spirits which are presently at rest in heaven. This is hinted at in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 where Jesus “brings with him” those who have died in the faith.
Anglican Bishop Wright is only echoing what the respected Westminster Confession (Presbyterian) stated firmly in 1647: “The bodies of men after death return to dust and see corruption; but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, immediately return to God who gave them; the souls of the righteous, being made perfect in holiness, are received into highest heavens, where they behold the face of God waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.”
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer says much the same thing.
The Faithful Dead
These well-worked over conclusions of historic Christianity are supported by Hebrews 12:22-23. Here is mentioned the “church of the first born” presently in heaven. It has been also claimed, somewhat controversially, that the “spirits of just men made perfect” refers to the righteous patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament period. It is further claimed that these righteous forbears were led to Paradise by Jesus Himself at the time of his own resurrection! It was then that Jesus “led captivity captive” according to a reading of Ephesians 4:8-10 which seems to be describing Jesus’ ascension to heaven as the conquering Saviour. Psalm 24 was read by the early Christians this way.
Peter Toon accepts this idea in his noted seminary text Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview (page 78). Various Scriptures are cited in reference to this release of the faithful dead from their condition of non-physical existence. These include Ephesians 4:7-10 and Hebrews 10:10. These texts state that we, too, already went in spirit beyond the Veil into the heavenly realms with Jesus at the time he offered himself a perfect completed sacrifice to the Father in heaven.
These are powerful concepts. They help flesh out verses that say Jesus has destroyed death (2 Timothy 1:10), that believers already have eternal life through the life-giving Spirit (John 6:54) and explain Paul’s recorded desire to depart and be with the Lord. In funeral services I outline what some have summarized as a three-fold process for our lives with God. It comes under the rubric “Good, Better, Best.”
Good: “life in Christ” here and now (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Better: “life with Christ” in the heavenly realm of rest (Philippians 1: 23).
Best: Like Christ: when spirit and body are united at the resurrection and clothed with immortality (1 John 3:2).
The great expositor John Calvin referred to our life in heaven during this intermediary stage as “the beginning of our rest.” It is preparatory to our ultimate hope of inheriting our new glorified bodies at the resurrection of the Just when “this mortal puts on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). All of these texts point towards New Life in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Heaven on the Horizontal?
What of the popular view of heaven as “up there.” This is an understandable concept in light of the Bible’s “language of appearance” i.e. written from the human observer’s standpoint (Psalm 19:1-7; Genesis 1:16).
The Book of Hebrews can encourage us to think of heaven as horizontal, echoing Bishop Wright’s “overlap” comments. Paul said God is not far from every one of us (Acts 17:26) and if we look at all the references in Hebrews to Jesus going “through the veil” as our Forerunner (Hebrews 6:19-20) we may find it easier to grasp that fact. At Jesus’ death his passing ripped asunder the symbolic veil that once separated men from God in the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 27:51). Yet even more important things transpired in heaven: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living Way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body…let us draw near to God” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
We have gone with him through the curtain – already! So heaven as the resting place of the saved seems a logical conclusion, warranted by both scriptural and theological evidence. But what does that mean? What will we be doing in heaven? Can we know anything at all about this most intriguing of subjects?
What will it be like?
Peter Toon updated St. Augustine’s biblically-based thoughts on Heaven. Here are four of the conclusions offered, with relevant interjections.
We shall rest. Not stagnation or inertia but a “holy contentment” such as we have not known but have always longed for. This attitude moves us from strength to strength as we learn to love God more fully and learn of God’s purposes for our lives. We shall “know as we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). One of the attractive points about “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” was how the lead character, Eddie, had his own life slowly explained to him, how even crushing setbacks fitted into a grand design for his life. Psalm 139 would support this line of thinking.
We shall see God. Even Christians only see through a darkened glass right now but there we shall know him face to face. We will experience God without hindrance, distortion, or distractions. “Here below all our knowledge of God is mediated knowledge,” says theologian Colin Brown. But now we turn from the Copy to the Original. C.S. Lewis wrote that when we see God we shall know we always knew him. Why? Because he was in all our experiences of love here below – mother love, friendship, a teacher’s love, a counselor’s concern. “All that was true love in them was, even on earth, far more His than ours, and ours only because His” (The Four Loves, page 139).
We shall love. The Bible says it is God who first loved us and infused us with his zest and excitement for the things of the Spirit. God is the End-point of human love just as he is its starting-point, the Alpha and Omega. For all love is of God, John tells us (1 John 4:7). God’s love is an overflowing superabundance of concern for the Other. In heaven we come finally to the Source after a lifetime drinking further downstream. We imbibe it as preparation for whatever tasks God has for us in His New Creation.
We shall Praise. Living in the absence of evil, stress, agitation and distraction “even the tongue of the tuneless will learn to sing and the hesitant will join in the New Song.” Praise takes us out of ourselves. Praise will bubble forth from thanksgiving because…it is the only reaction a finite intelligence can have in contcat with the Infinite. The prophecy of Psalm 84:4 (and so many more) will be fulfilled: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house, they will praise you forever and ever.”
The Main Event
So what have we learned?
First, Heaven is a term whose meaning in Scripture very much depends on the context.
Second, God’s heaven is not far from us and not just future but near to us now with lots going on, though in another dimension.
Third, Heaven is a place of peace and rest (Luke 19:18) though populated by a busy civilization of spirit beings (Hebrews 12:22).
Fourth, heaven is temporary. It will be shaken in the cosmic upheaval at the End and swallowed up in God’s main event, “life after life after death,” the New Heavens and the New Earth. Armed with this dynamic life-giving hope we can carry on anew the Christian life.