I was going through my old boxes in the attic recently and came across this gift my mum knitted for me many years ago. Can you recognise it? Just like the Time Lord, Dr Who, today I’m going to take you on a journey through time and space to a place shrouded in mystery. In our second Bible reading, we heard about a vision of what heaven is like. I’d like to look briefly at four ways we can explore this question: What actually is heaven and what is it like? As Christians, what we believe about heaven is as much about what is happening now. It is not just about some vague hope that might happen to us in the future, it’s about a certainty and a challenge that we have both for today and what is to come.
If you were to google the word ‘heaven’ you are likely to see a lot of images that look like this. And for many, this is the classic idea of heaven – a place in the sky where we will all enjoy playing the harp on our personalised clouds. As a harpist, I find it quite appealing. But for many this isn’t a helpful image!
But what is heaven like? Last week I was in Israel with more than 100 work colleagues from over 30 countries and I used this opportunity to do my own research on asking them this question: What do you think heaven is like? Now, in some places of work if you did that you might be quickly categorised as a bit strange, but being fortunate to work in a Christian charity, they took pity on me and tried to give an honest answer. I’ll use some of their responses this morning as we look at these four approaches to heaven.
- In the thin places
There are people who find it helpful to see glimpses of heaven in the natural world around them. My colleague Melinda from Hungary believes heaven is a place of calm and beauty whilst Emma from Chile, said heaven is a place of flowers, trees and spices. Perhaps there is some place you have visited that’s left you amazed and moved: the view from the top of a mountain, a deserted beach, or even a local walk by the Thames. For me, last week’s sunrise over the Sea of Galilee was one of those special places. Not only is it a beautiful location, but there’s also an almost tangible sense of God’s presence, two thousand years on from when Jesus spent much of his time in Galilee, living alongside the local people.
The early Celtic Christians had a saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places, this distance is even smaller. Christians have found this to be true for them in places like Lindisfarne or Iona, where centuries of prayer and natural beauty combine to give us a sense that heaven is here among us, that we can almost sense the closeness between earth and heaven.
Too often in the past, Christians have used a theology of a future heaven to neglect the world we live in today. But this world is not something temporary that can be cast off as we look towards some future existence. If as Christians we see glimpses of God’s presence in nature, then it becomes even more important that we work as stewards of this fragile world to retain its beauty so that Noah and his children and grandchildren can see these glimpses for themselves. This world is the place where we learn to live as we live for eternity.
- Music – the language of heaven
One of my colleagues, Zeth from Indonesia, described heaven in these words: ‘Heaven is about happiness, joy and peace in our hearts.’ In popular songs, heaven is often associated with the emotion of sheer happiness, usually about being in love. Depending on your age or what musical preference, you may have come across Bruno Mars’ song Locked out of heaven, Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a place on earth, or perhaps remember Fred Astaire dancing along to the words, ‘Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…’ Or occasionally popular songs can express a yearning for us to be with those we have lost, such as in Eric Clapton’s beautiful Tears in Heaven.
Music can have the power to lift us beyond ourselves, to sense something greater, to gain a glimpse of heaven. Last week when I was in Bethlehem, we visited the Shepherd’s field, where the angels are said to have brought the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. It was fascinating from a historical perspective, but I found it difficult to relate the ruins and reconstructed caves to any spiritual reality. Next to these caves was a small church, where a group of Indian Catholics were singing those well-known carols, ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ and ‘Angels from the realms of glory’. The sincerity of their worship and the simplicity of the songs as they echoed around the church made me feel this was one of those thin places, to almost sense heaven. Music has been described as the language of heaven. From the psalms of the Bible, to African American spirituals and modern hymns and choruses, music is used as a way to recognise and honour the heavenly presence of God with us. When we gather in church to sing songs, we are joining our voices with millions of others in heaven and earth in worship to God.
- To boldly go…
There is another more modern image though that can help us understand the nature of heaven and it comes from a more unlikely source. My colleague Janet from Scotland described how heaven for her is an opportunity to tour the universe, to explore strange new worlds, to boldly go where no-one has gone before.
In recent times, the interest in science fiction and fantasy gives us a new language in which we can visualise heaven. You might recognise this image from Harry Potter. In the Harry Potter books and films, the imagined world is one where the ordinary world, or the world of the Muggles, co-exists side by side with the magic world of the wizards: a reality that exists alongside our own, just outside our grasp.
C.S. Lewis in his book Surprised by Joy explains how he stumbled across the idea of these co-existing worlds. ‘Now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might only be a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology.’ In his sci-fi and fantasy books C.S. Lewis was able to explore these huge realms. Most famous of all is his series about Narnia and the lion, the witch and the wardrobe. At the very end of the final book, the main characters discover they have died and passed into the co-existing heavenly realm which is the same world, but more real and more substantial than before. C.S. Lewis concludes the Narnia books with the words:
“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
In Christianity, heaven is viewed not only as a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. And in the Bible, the whole of the life of Jesus is suffused with accounts of communication between heaven and earth – at Jesus’ birth and baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and beyond. Throughout the Bible, heaven and earth are intrinsically linked together. Heaven is not simply a destination after death but here among us now.
- The new city of Jerusalem
And so we come to our final glimpse of heaven, in the words of today’s Bible reading. Here John in his old age, on the island of Patmos, sees a vision of what heaven and earth will be like in the future:
‘There will be no more death, no more grief or crying, or pain. The old things have disappeared.’ You may recognise these words, as they are some of the most popular to be used at a funeral service. We often talk about how those we have loved have passed away. This beautiful reading turns that on its head and talks about how death itself will pass away. All the hateful things that have damaged us and those we love are taken away and will no longer exist.
When I was in Ramallah, I met a Palestinian Christian called Juma. I asked her what heaven would be like and for her it was an absence of violence, and the end of war and suffering. Similarly, when I spoke to my colleague Mishek from Zambia he said that for many in his country heaven is an end to hunger, poverty and need. All that destroys what is good will pass away and death itself will die. But it is more than that: there’s not only an absence, but also a presence. As my colleague Arun from Cambodia said, it’s not just about a Buddhist-like journey towards peaceful nothingness, but heaven is also about a presence. It’s about the presence of a loving, caring God who will wipe away all the tears from our eyes.
Another thing you might have noticed from the reading is that heaven is described here as a city full of people. Heaven is not about being isolated somewhere on our personalised clouds, it’s a place teeming with the abundance of life, including a whole community of people: It says in the Bible passage: ‘I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: “Now God’s home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God.’
Heaven and earth, God and people reconciled and reunited at last.
So what do you think heaven is like? Do you glimpse heaven in the natural world around us, in the music and worship, through creative human imagination, or in the people around us? Whichever it is, the more we understand about heaven, the more it challenges us to re-imagine who we are and what the world might be like. To see a world shaped not solely by the things of earth and humanity, but by heaven and the love and compassion of a God in whom absolute righteousness, justice and mercy reside. Believing in heaven introduces a new dimension into how we live today.
So what do you think heaven is like?
Hamish Bruce: 18/05/19