When we say “heaven,” which heaven are we talking about? My personal favourite is the one from Revelation 22, a beautiful garden on the banks of the river of life. But then there’s that funeral favourite from John 14: a kind of country inn at the end of life’s long and dusty road (“My father’s house has many dwelling places”). Jesus often spoke of the life to come as a feast, sometimes as a wedding feast. And Isaiah 25:6-8 portrays a sort of outdoor family reunion and mountaintop picnic with tables full of the finest foods and wines, a place for everyone at the table. In its own way, each one is appealing.
My least favourite biblical image of heaven is the one we know through countless jokes and cartoons — an eternal city with gates of pearl and streets of gold (Revelation 21:21). So familiar is this image that it can be tempting to think of it as the real heaven, the one we’re supposed to believe in.
But consider the Bible’s description of the eternal city, which is said to descend from heaven to earth. It is perfectly square, 2,400 kilometres to a side. In North American terms, it would stretch from Vancouver to Thunder Bay, Ont., and south to Monterrey, Mexico. I’m probably not alone in thinking that being stuck in a metropolis that size for all eternity sounds less like heaven and more like a place we expect to be a whole lot hotter than Mexico.
And that’s not all. The city is a cube, so it’s also 2,400 kilometres high. If you lived a good enough life to be given a penthouse in this version of heaven, you would find yourself six times higher than the International Space Station. Even with a special dispensation to provide things like oxygen and gravity, let’s just say it would be a long wait for the elevator.
But we already know that the Bible is not a science text and that it’s all too easy to poke fun at biblical literalists. Setting aside pointless arguments about what heaven looks like, we can agree that biblical descriptions of the afterlife offer an overall sense of peace, plenty, security and justice. To an overworked, overtaxed and oppressed peasantry, the promise of lots of food and an endless rest must have sounded, well, heavenly.
Sadly, powerful interests in the church and elsewhere have glossed over the bit about the eternal city coming to earth. They’ve taught the suffering poor to put up with hardship and injustice because God will put everything right in the sweet by and by. Don’t believe it. We should be doing everything we can to eliminate suffering in the here and now.
I’ve heard it said that heaven is our home, the place where we belong. But heaven is not our home. Earth is our home. Our creation story is that God made the world and made us to live in it. The Bible teaches that God intends that we have a long, good life in the world God created for us (Isaiah 65:20).
The city of God, the new Jerusalem, is not going to be up in the clouds, as the cartoons show it. Instead, it will come down from heaven to earth. Heaven is when God lives with us down here, where we are intended to live.
The old saying is true: Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Heaven holds a lot of promise for us, but also a lot of uncertainty. Perhaps that’s why we’re not hurrying to get there. In the end, the most reliable biblical description of the afterlife comes from Romans 8: Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus. Yes, it’s more vague than a garden or a city or a feast, but it will do just fine — for now and for then.
Rev. Michael Webster is a minister at St. Martin’s United in Saskatoon.
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