Some years before he died, the media mogul Kerry Packer almost died of a heart attack. After his recovery he declared that he’d been to the “other side,” and there was “nothing there”.
Yuri Gagarin, the first man to circle the earth from space, was reported to have said when he returned, “I looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.” Those words are now known to have been falsely attributed to him, by the then-President of the then-Soviet Union, Nikita Kruschev. Gagarin himself was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, and as such might possibly have agreed with the words the American astronaut Frank Borman radioed back to earth – the Bible’s opening sentence: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
We know what the earth is – the third rock from the sun. But what about the heavens? Are they the same as heaven? Is heaven real? If it’s real, where is it and who gets to enjoy it?
An exasperated mother, whose son was always getting into mischief, finally said to him, “How do you expect to get into heaven?” The boy thought it over and said, “I’ll run in and out, and in and out, and keep slamming the door, until St. Peter says, “For heaven’s sake, Dylan, either come in, or stay out!'”
There we have the common idea of heaven as a place we go to after we die, if we’ve been good. We might even get in without having to be too good. That’s not really how the word’s used in the Bible, although we can see how the popular idea evolved from what we do find there.
One way the word ‘heaven’, or ‘heavens’, is used is for the part of the created world that’s above us – what we might call the sky – as in the Bible’s opening sentence, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Heaven and earth together make up the universe – as in the phrase Jesus used when he said God’s commands will remain until ‘heaven and earth disappear.’ In John’s vision at the end of the Bible he saw a new heaven and earth, created when the first heaven and earth had passed away.
The word ‘heaven’ is also used for God’s dwelling-place, as in the prayer, Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling-place, and bless your people. Jesus taught us to pray, Our Father in heaven.
God isn’t alone there. Nehemiah spoke of the multitudes in heaven, all worshipping God. Jesus told his disciples there are many rooms in his Father’s house, and he was going there to prepare a place for them. Peter praised God for his great mercy in providing, through Christ’s resurrection from the dead, new birth into a living hope, and into an inheritance, kept in heaven.
Heaven in that sense is normally hidden from human sight, although glimpses of it have sometimes been granted so people could see something of God’s perspective – as in Elijah’s vision of an army of horsemen and chariots surrounding God’s people to protect them – or in John’s visions in the book of Revelation.
The word ‘heaven’ is also used in the Bible to refer to God without using his name. When the prodigal son says, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven,’ he means he’s sinned against God. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, he uses the phrase, ‘the kingdom of heaven,’ to refer to God’s reign, which Jesus came to bring about.
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven was within his followers. He said people who acknowledge their spiritual poverty, or who who are persecuted for standing up for what’s right, are blessed, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
To have the kingdom of heaven is to experience the great good of God’s presence, his peace and his power – as well as the good of belonging to the people who, in the words of Bishop Tom Wright, ‘steer their earthly course by God’s purposes and standards – spurred into action by the hope of his new creation.’
So ‘entering the kingdom of heaven’ doesn’t primarily mean ‘going to heaven when we die.’ It means recognizing, rejoicing in, trusting and obeying God’s authority. That’s very different from the way we naturally are – wanting to decide for ourselves what’s good – and more often than not defining good as what’s good for us – rather than what honours God and is good for others.
Jesus said we can’t enter God’s kingdom unless we’re spiritually reborn, by water and the Spirit – that is, cleansed by trusting his death was for us, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit he gives those who trust him. That new way of living won’t be perfected until God’s new creation is revealed in all its glory. In the meantime, by having God’s forgiveness and his Spirit with us, we’re already in the kingdom of heaven. We’re living under his authority and increasingly that’s how we really want to be.
H.G. Wells said: “The doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was the main teaching of Jesus, was certainly one of the most revolutionary doctrines that ever stirred and changed human thought.”
It’s not clear that H.G. Wells was thinking of the kingdom of heaven as God’s reign, revealed already in this world in the lives of believers in Christ. He may have been thinking of heaven as the perfect afterlife, the hope of which motivates us to live better lives now. Either way, entering the kingdom of heaven means accepting God’s authority over us, and that is revolutionary. God’s great mercy and love, seen in Jesus, draws people one by one to enjoy living under his authority. That’s revolutionary, because it turns upside down other ideas about how to change the world – like using force, or trusting the march of ‘progress’ to change human nature.
Admittedly, God’s way of changing the world seems very slow and long-drawn-out. But it respects our God-given freedom to choose, so it’s the way that works.
Frida is a Rwandan who, at fourteen years old, lost her parents, all her siblings, her grandparents and other relatives, in the genocide in that country. She herself was attacked and thrown into a mass grave to die, but somehow she survived.
For some years she lived in emotional turmoil. But then she came to real belief in Christ. At first she was taken aback to find the enjoyment of her new life depended on her forgiving the people who’d killed her whole family, but finally she chose to submit to Christ’s authority. The ability she found through him to forgive her family’s killers had profound effects on all who witnessed it. Later she wrote this:
From the time I really believed in Jesus as Saviour and Lord I was a different person. I could sleep. I could smile. I could sing. I began to relate to people as friends. Something deep within me had changed. I had found hope.
The closing chapters of the Bible are about the vision given to John of God’s people coming from God out of heaven to a renewed universe. That’s inexpressibly better than the unattractive caricatures of heaven, which sceptics rightly dismiss – such as disembodied spirits floating around on clouds. Jesus’ ascension to heaven in a physical body speaks against the idea that a spiritually alive place is a place of spirits.
There are other perceptions of heaven worth thinking through. Various sources, including the Bible’s picture-language, have led to the idea that heaven is up above, and hell somewhere below, the earth we now inhabit. To hold to that idea, you have to make literal what isn’t. We know that when we talk about ‘moving up in the world’ we’re not talking about changing our physical location. We don’t take that expression literally. When we take picture-language about heaven literally, we ought not to be surprised if people respond sceptically.
Another very human idea about heaven can be traced back to the social and economic changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The changes were certainly needed and very welcome. But then people got carried away by the rate of material progress. Some began to think we don’t need the hope of God’s heaven, because we can make our own heaven, right here. There were some attempts to do that – like the several Utopian movements, and Marx’s atheistic materialist philosophy, that gave rise to Communism. They failed, when human nature again and again fell short of the love we need, if we’re to live in harmony with each other, and meet everyone’s needs.
But there’ve always been people who have recognized that humankind can’t save itself, and who’ve called on the Creator-God they instinctively know is there, to do something. Christians believe he has done something, and that he will do for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus at that first Easter, when he raised him to new, indestructible life. He gives this new life to everyone who recognizes they need it and asks for it. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
One mark of heaven is the honouring of each other, the way the three-Persons-in-one-God honour each other – and even honour some of us, if the first martyr Stephen’s experience is anything to go by. As Luke relates it, Stephen, crumpling to the ground under a hail of stones, cried out, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” In fact, Luke tells us twice that Stephen saw Jesus standing. Jesus’ position in heaven is usually described as ‘seated at God’s right hand’ – the seat of authority. It seems that on this occasion, in order to welcome Stephen as he died for his sake, Jesus stood. If that was so, how amazing is such grace – that the Creator and Lord of the universe would stand, for a servant entering his presence!
We’d like to know more of what lies beyond death, but there are three certainties, based on the facts of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. For everyone there’ll be resurrection to a time of judgement on whatever’s been done in this life. For those who’ve trusted in Christ for forgiveness, there’ll be a new kind of life. There will be a new creation in which to live that life. Other things aren’t so clear – like the order of events, and where any time that might be between them will be spent. Such unknowns we can trust to the God who didn’t spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.
C. S. Lewis considered the idea of heaven as evidence that we’re intended for life with God. He wrote:
Our longing to be reunited with something from which we now feel cut off, is no mere neurotic fancy. It’s the truest index of our real situation. To be in our true home will be glory and honour beyond all our merits.
Amen to that.