What is Heaven?

By Mo Johnson

A debate (hopefully friendly), very much related to the gospel debate is ongoing about the nature of heaven. In fact, it is the cover story, by Jon Meacham, in the April 16, 2012 Time Magazine. The title is Rethinking Heaven Could Improve the World.

The essential debate is which view of heaven is correct: the traditional "blue sky" view of heaven as a place far removed from earth where we hope to go when we die or the "heaven on earth" view that says that in the end, the earth we live on now will be heaven. This is how New Testament scholar NT Wright explains what seems to be the emergeing consensus of heaven as most bible scholars see it:

Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life -- God's dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.

Wright notes that even in the climactic images in Revelation 21 and 22 "we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace."

When first century Jews spoke about eternal life, they weren't thinking of going to heaven in the way we normally imagine it. Eternal life meant the age to come, the tiem when God would bring heaven and earth together, the time when God's kingdom would come adn his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In later centuries, artists and poets like Dante and Michelangelo created images of heaven and hell that have "stuck" and to a degree defined heaven in our culture. Those images are based on some passages in Revelation -- however, those passages are highly metaphorical and difficult to understand to say the least. There are many different ways to interpret the book of Revelation and, in fact, many Christian scholars, including Martin Luther at one point, have disputed the authenticity of Revelation and thought it should not be included in the canon.

I certainly don't go as far as Luther, but I do think one should be very careful not to base one's view of heaven entirely on what one thinks the book of Revelation says about it. Outside of Revelation -- most other biblical references to heaven are consistent with NT Wrights view of heaven.

Obviously, how one views heaven could have implications for how one lives on earth. If God's intent is to fully realize His Kingdom here on earth -- then we best be careful how we treat everything and everyone on this earth. We should be intent on doing things to make our world, God's Kingdom, more Godly and just -- here and now. After all, God is working through us to make His Kingdom a reality here and now.

As Jon Meacham says:

For me, the scholarly redefinition of heaven as a manifestation of God's love on earth has been illuminating, for it at once puts believers in closer proximity to the intent of the New Testament authors and should inspire the religious to open their arms more often than they point fingers. Heaven thus becomes, for now, the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the oppressed. It is not paradise in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring God's sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy until, in theological terms, the unknown hour when the world we struggle to piece together is made whole again. We could do worse than think in such terms.

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