Heaven: It's Closer Than You Think!
By Neil Earle
The other day I was rereading one of my favorite authors, the respected scholar F.F. Bruce and his commentary on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Discussing the Holy Spirit chapter (Romans 8) Bruce commented: “The Spirit-controlled life, the Christ-centered life, the God-focused life is daily coming nearer heaven even when it is still on earth. It is a life which is such a steady progress to God that the final transition of death is only a natural and inevitable stage on the way. It is like Enoch who walked with God and God took him. As the child said, ‘Enoch was a man who went walks with God – and one day he didn’t come back’” (page 104).
The Gospel is indeed good news and for those who grasp what Bruce is saying this is a nice slice of it. As we get older we wonder more and more about the future, the afterlife, eternity or all the ways we have to phrase it. And the Bible encourages us in that reflection. “Set your heart on things above not on things on the earth,” Paul advised his Colossian church.
Heaven is one of the most popular subjects in the Christian belief system. The variety of opinions on the theme stem from one clear fact – “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has prepared for those that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). This is from Paul who was allowed to ascend to heaven in a vision but was forbidden to report on it (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).
Thus language can fail us on such an “out of this world” subject. Bible writers were not necessarily all flat earth adherents but some of them seem to have held the ancient 3-tiered worldview. The ancient 3-tiered view was 1. God(s) above 2. Man Below 3. Dark Forces beneath.
This view sometimes colored their writings (note the earth’s “pillars” in Job 9:6) though it does not take away from the spiritual lessons being portrayed. The whole creation is the stage set for the drama of redemption and important for that reason. But we are to read with deeper awareness Biblical terms such as “up” or “down” or expressions such as “the four corners of the earth.”
We now know we are on a round earth in an immense cosmos and that allows us to focus on the spiritual message more than twisting ourselves into knots trying to read 21st Century views into Iron Age writings.
In short, the Bible is so charged with the supernatural revelation of the Great God that it often points beyond itself. Bible verses intimate that there is often more going on than meets the eye in the sacred text. Some deeper teaching eluded people then – and now. In 1 Kings 8:27-30, for example, Solomon prays to heaven yet he knows the heavens cannot contain God. This is not a contradiction but an admission of human frailty when contemplating the God who calls all the stars by name. It also intimates how far ahead of our modern world some ancient thinkers were.
Even admitting all this we are not to be perturbed because Acts 17:28 says “God is not far from every one of us.” Through the marvelous Presence of God the Holy Spirit we have contact with God, we are never far from him, and he is just a prayer away. Sometimes even closer than that. “Before you call I will answer” God told Isaiah in 65:24.
In essence heaven is wherever God is and wherever he pleases to dwell. He is bigger than heaven and earth yet able to penetrate into the nooks and crannies of the human heart and imagination (Psalm 139). Heaven is the shorthand Bible term for being in God’s presence.
New Heavens the Goal
The Bible expositor John Calvin understood that the way heaven is conceived by many well-meaning people doesn’t quite do the subject full justice. He saw that God promises to shake the present heaven and the earth in the future (Haggai 2:6). This implies that heaven is real but only the temporary abode of the righteous dead right now. Note two clear passages:
Philippians 1:23: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ.”
2 Corinthians 5:8: “We would rather be away from the body and be at home with the Lord.”
Highly colorfully and visionary books such as Revelation depict saints in heaven with full reasoning faculties conversing with God and singing (Rev. 6:9-11; 14:3). This echoes Hebrews 11: 23 which details quickly how we here on earth if we walk in the Spirit are brought into close contact with “the heavenly Jerusalem, the spiritual Zion” and have communion with “the spirits of just men” being made perfect and who are right now being refreshed in heaven.
Yes, heaven seems to be the temporary abode of the righteous dead, a time of refreshing and perfecting as they await their final great resurrection (Revelation 14:13). It was a firm teaching by leading Reformers in the 1500s that each of the righteous dead will be resurrected to a glorious state – as Jesus was – for we shall be like him (1 John 3:2). At that time our raised bodies and our spirit in heaven (which return with Jesus – see 1 Thessalonians 4: 14) will be reunited. Then we will serve God forever in a New Heaven and a new Earth.
“And so shall we be ever with the Lord” Paul encouraged his church in Thesslaonica.
“The Upward Call”
Heaven really is a grand and glorious subject, as these references show:
John 17:24: “Father I want those you gave me to be with me so they may see my glory.”
Ephesians 2:6 shows that through our union with Christ we already enter the heavenly realms at conversion, even now, before we die.
Philippians 3:14 mentions the goal of the “upward call of God in Jesus Christ.”
Hebrews 10:19 – Christ opened the way for us to enter the true sanctuary in heaven entering our Rest until the resurrection of the body.
Maybe we pastors should preach this great hope a lot lot more.