This is the first in a series of "Friday Q&A's", where I'll feature a question I've received through the week.
Q: What is Heaven?
A: This question is more interesting than it seems.
The Bible speaks of “heaven” in three ways: “heaven” is our immediate atmosphere, or it is the universe (or universes at large), or it is the place which occupies God’s throne. This is why Paul speaks of his ecstatic vision as that of “the third heaven” - that is, the third way “heaven” is meant (1 Cor. 12:2-4).
This question regards the “third” heaven. So what do we know about the place where God’s throne resides?
First, we must say it is really a place. It is the place to which Christ ascended (Acts 1:11), and it is the place to which he promised the thief on the cross residence (Luke 23:43). Isaiah 6 points to the worship of angels occurring in heaven, giving us a glimpse of heaven as a temporal reality, not merely an abstract concept regarding God’s Kingship (as some have taken it). Finally, since the fleshly, resurrected body of Christ resides in heaven, we must say it is a place.
But what kind of place could it be? It is not like any other place on earth. It is, for one, invisible to us. You might think of the way a dog can hear pitches above our capacity. The noise is no less real, but we are unattuned to it. So it is with heaven. You might also think of The Upside Down (of Stranger Things), or any other dimension which touches our world at every point, yet remains veiled. We see this in the story of Elisha, who prays for his servant, “and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17).
This is where we must dispel the idea that heaven is “up there” somewhere. The Bible encourages us to relate heaven and sky for pedagogical reasons: it is the place of enthronement. This is why the Son of Man is pictured “coming on the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13) - a well-known picture of kingly judgment. One can hardly picture looking down on a King, so the analogy is fitting. Yet we are not to relegate the third heaven to the second and first (the literal stars and sky). Heaven, as we see in 2 Kings 6, is a present reality intertwined with our own. This is why Paul may speak of heaven inhabiting God’s people, especially throughout Ephesians.
This is also why Christ continually speaks of the “kingdom of God” being among us, the “kingdom” being the very space in which heaven pervades the earth. It is the place where God’s revealed will is done. This is not a distant reality, but one for which we are called to pray (Matthew 6). The book of Revelation is meant to momentarily lift the veil, painting a vivid portrait of heaven’s activities interweaving the church’s early Greco-Roman history, culminating in the future, promised reality of heaven fully penetrating earth (Revelation 21).
The idea that heaven is present - indeed, that it is invading our world - is an essential point to grasp. In centuries past we have treated heaven and earth as oil and water, leaving us invariably to neglect one for the other. Yet Jesus’ vision of heaven is that of a wild, active movement of God’s Spirit, spreading as rapidly, expansively and unannounced as a gale of wind (John 3:8). Our call as Christians is to participate in this reality, as those who embody God’s rule through His Spirit. Eventually our world will cease its groaning (Romans 8), and the original vision of Eden will be restored - the earth will be cultivated by God’s rule, and those subject to it.
This leaves us with the question of what it can mean that we “go to heaven” when we die. The short answer is: we don’t know. The Bible does not necessarily use such language, but it does clearly indicate a period of time in which we will be “away from the body” and “with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Though heaven pervades earth, we see little evidence that deceased saints will have any part to play in its outworking.
Yet our limited knowledge of this state shouldn’t trouble us. For one, the Bible does not strictly call us to place our hope in “going to heaven”. Rather, both Old and New Testaments focus the loci of their vision on “the resurrection”, or “the new heaven and earth” (Revelation 21). When planning vacations, we spend little time dwelling on the finer points of airport terminals. These are temporary provisions on the path to our final destination. It should hardly surprise us, then, that the Bible does little dwelling on our time immediately following death, or what theologians commonly call “the intermediate state”.
It is the resurrection, then - not heaven itself - which occupies the minds of scripture’s authors. The rending of body from soul is unnatural - to see it otherwise is to fault God’s plan of creation, as well as concede to the early church heresy of gnosticism, which envisaged the body as the soul’s prison. The resurrection, rather, is the promise of the refashioning of our bodies, now indwelled by newly perfected souls. As such they will be more glorious, yet still fleshly. Jesus’ first act after the resurrection was to eat breakfast (John 21)! Paul compares this reuniting to seeds emerging fresh and alive from the ground, the wonder of the flower far outweighing its former glory, yet still retaining its essential DNA (1 Cor. 15).
What then, should we say of heaven? May it come! And may we participate in its coming each day, as we enact God’s new creation in body and soul - through work, pleasure, prayer and play. Amen.