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Decoding the Bible

What is heaven?

By Thomas Reynolds

For most Christians, the word “heaven” conjures images of a peaceful place beyond the clouds where our spirits go upon death to reside eternally with God, a choir of angels and long-lost relatives (at least those we got along with).

Yet there is no theological consensus on what heaven actually is. Inherited from Jewish roots, heaven has been portrayed variously as everlasting repose, a blissful paradise, a city or kingdom of God, or a perpetual liturgy of the communion of saints, to name a few. All of these images are metaphors for a profoundly close connection to the Divine, occurring somehow beyond the realm of time and space.

In both the Bible and in literature, the term “heaven” often connotes the firmaments, the endless expanse of the physical heavens (Psalm 19:1). The highest heaven is the dwelling place of God (Deuteronomy 26:15; Psalm 115:16), and this place is paradise (Luke 23:43), a heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22) full of light and goodness. Our human spirits “rise” to meet the Divine as if via an opening in the sky — as Dante famously suggests in The Divine Comedy — through radiant and concentric heavenly spheres. It is understandable, then, that like a reflex, we lift our eyes and hands to the heavens to address God.

This way of thinking, however, can cause problems. The notion that heaven is “up there” or outside our ordinary experiences in life can give the impression that God is also distant and removed from human and creaturely affairs. Not only is this unbiblical (Psalm 139:8), but it may also lead to conceiving spiritual matters in terms that deny or degrade our physical bodies, which God has created and blessed. It may lead to a theology that says the real payoff lies in another, non-earthly world. As though getting a ticket to heaven is the goal of spirituality, the ultimate retirement package.

True, experiences of suffering and injustice can cause us to wonder where God is. We feel distant from the Divine and long for a resolution to the difficulties, perhaps hoping for something better in the next life. So the idea of heaven offers comfort amid sorrow and promises something more.

Yet if human beings are seen as spirits temporarily trapped in a body only to be released upon death, the goodness of creation gets denied. This view was considered heresy by the early church because of its depiction of the material world as bad, even going so far as undervaluing the Incarnation. For God loves the world so much that God enters into it fully in Christ, embracing it into the divine life and affirming life beyond tragedy and injustice through resurrection.

The crucial implication is that human beings don’t just have a body; we are our bodies — spirit and flesh together. Earthly stuff is what God fashions us to be. Indeed, justice and love are fleshly in nature. The Christian faith calls us not to abandon our embodied life on earth, but to rethink it in ways that embolden our capacities for right relationships with each other and creation as God’s gift.

So if we take the goodness of creation and our embodied human lives seriously, we may need to imagine heaven differently. This does not mean we need to deny the afterlife, for it is difficult to conceive that the beauty and preciousness of personal existence is simply snuffed out in the end. The very fabric of love suggests something more than its tragic demise in death.

However, heaven is not “up there” or outside earthly life. Rather, it is a state of being, an ideal way of being in immediate loving relation with God, neighbour and creation. We hope for it, because our lives now are incomplete and often broken, hungry for justice and love. It is a realm or “kingdom” yet to come, a “new creation” promised in Scriptures that makes whole and brings shalom to the entire cosmos within God’s enfolding embrace. The symbol of resurrection carries such promise, pointing to a new embodied life that awaits us beyond tragedy and death. Heaven is an ultimate future.

Yet its possibility lies within the lives we live. We catch glimpses of heaven now and then in what Celtic writers call “thin places,” where the mysterious and extraordinary reaches into the ordinary to touch us with new life. Experiences of beauty, goodness and grace signal God’s heavenly presence, a presence also made palpable by living in right relationships with others and creation.

Heaven is nearness to God in an abiding communion of reconciled relationships with others and with creation. It is not so much a “location” as a state of being that we long for. Because this often seems far off, we imagine it metaphorically in hope. And in the hoping, open the here and now to God’s shalom.

Thomas E. Reynolds is an associate professor of theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto.
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