“Heaven” in the Bible and My Imagination

“Heaven” in the Bible is never used to talk about “where we go when we die.” It usually means either “the heavens” (“the skies”) or it means something like “where God is most present.” Sometimes, because of this, it is used as a roundabout way of saying “God,” as in “kingdom of heaven” meaning “kingdom of God,” kind of like how we might say, “Thank heavens!” when we mean “Thank God!”

But still, when we talk about “heaven” we typically mean “where we go after death.” So, here’s how I think about “heaven” in this way, what happens after we die.

The Old Testament moves from basically no belief in life after death, to a belief in she’ol (a kind of shadowy existence without any substance or colour), to a belief in a future resurrection of the body (e.g. Daniel 12:2, 13). The New Testament picks up on this “resurrection” idea and fleshes it out in a pretty consistent way, even if the details vary from passage to passage.

The consistent New Testament expectation is this: immediately after death, we are with Jesus; and then, at some point, we are bodily resurrected to live in a renewed earthly creation. So, you could say, as N.T. Wright puts it, first there’s “life after death” with Jesus, and then there’s “life after life after death” in a new creation.

“Jesus, remember me…” Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

Immediately after death, we are with Jesus. In Luke 23:43 Jesus promises the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (“Paradise” is a Persian word that has the idea of a beautiful garden—it’s a place of bliss.) In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul says that when we are “away from the body” we will be “at home with the Lord.” And in Philippians 1:23 Paul talks about “departing from this flesh” and “being with Christ.”

Other New Testament passages give the same consistent message: after death we are with Jesus. There’s no more detail given than this (Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 and the vision in Revelation 6:9-11 are probably not to be taken literally as descriptions of what this actually looks like), but for Christians this is intended to be enough: after death we are with Jesus, and by extension with all those who have died “in Jesus” before us.

The ultimate end, however, is being bodily resurrected to live in a renewed earthly creation. The idea is a return to the way God originally created us to be: people with both a soul and a body, living in an earthly creation, enjoying that good creation and caring for it even as it provides for us (that’s Genesis 2:7-15). The New Testament is consistent in looking forward to this, even if it gives different depictions of exactly that might look like. This is what’s behind every future “resurrection” passage (e.g. Romans 8:18-30; 1 Corinthians 15:35-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20:4-6).

So much for the biblical, basic Christian expectation of life after death (and then life after this life after death!). How do I myself actually imagine this to look like?

I believe that when I die (when my body and brain stop functioning), my “spirit” or “soul” will continue to exist. I imagine feeling a kind of “painless peace” at that moment. I imagine, maybe, a feeling of motion to another place, where I will experience a kind of “waking” in a place suffused with light, as if the light oozes out of everything around me. That feeling of “painless peace” continues, but now is added a feeling of being deeply, perfectly loved, and being intimately connected to everything around me. I imagine, then, in this “place” being reunited with my loved ones who have died—a joyful reunion!—and seeing Jesus for the first time face to face—like coming home after being away for a very long time.

At some point—it might feel immediate, it might feel like time has passed—I believe that God will complete the renewal of creation that Jesus has begun and we have continued. Exactly what this looks like, I’m not sure, but I imagine this same world, this very earth, within this universe—yet without the pollution, the overcrowding, the disease, the war, the disasters, and all the greed and pride and abuse of power and more that has caused all that. It’s a pristine earth, with clear streams and clean air, beautiful flowers and grass and mountains and valleys and prairies and sunsets and twinkling stars.

Jan Richardson, The Best Supper

And at some point—again, not exactly sure what this looks like—I believe that God will resurrect us, bodily. We will live as we do now, as God intended us to live, but with bodies untouched by sin and death. We will plant gardens and make music and share meals and tell stories and live together in harmony—all peoples, every tribe and language and nation—with all creation, as God originally intended us to live.

Much of this imagining I get from stories of people who have had “near-death” experiences and from some of our poets and storytellers in the Christian tradition. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have been especially influential for me in my imagination of life after death and life after life after death.

I think, for example of Tolkien’s description of Frodo waking up in Minas Tirith after destroying the ring in Mount Doom—that’s how I imagine what happens immediately after death, waking up in Jesus’ presence. And then I imagine the new creation being like Frodo and Sam being back in the Shire, enjoying again the simple pleasures of tilled earth and good companions, but without the threat of evil from the East. Or, I’ve always had a soft spot for Lewis’ description of “heaven” in The Last Battle: just like this earth, only brighter, the colours purer, and with worlds upon worlds to explore “further up and further in!”

Maybe this is too many words. Or maybe it’s too much speculation. But the biblical descriptions of what happens after death do lend themselves to using our imaginations—always remembering, of course, that God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), and that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love God” (1 Corinthians 2:9). This is in many ways the basis for my hope for “heaven”—that God has given us deep desires to live, to flourish in life here on this good earth, and so God will fulfill those desires beyond our best dreams.

“Remember Me”

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The words of a thief on a cross.

“Thief” isn’t really the right word, though—he was no pickpocket, no petty thief. He was a violent bandit who had, by his own admission, been “condemned justly.” He was a sinner, and he knew it. He was, as Luke puts it, a “criminal.”

He was right where he was supposed to be, hanging on a cross.

But he also knew that Jesus was not where he was supposed to be. Jesus was not a violent bandit, he was not a criminal, he was not a sinner. He had done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve a cross.

Titian - Christ and the Good TheifAnd so he came to Jesus’ defence when the other criminal on the cross began to mock Jesus, to scorn him. “This man has done nothing wrong,” he rebuked the other bandit. “We deserve what we’re getting, but Jesus doesn’t!”

He knew something was different about Jesus. Could it be true, what they said, that he was the King of the Jews? Could he really be the Messiah, bringing about God’s kingdom? But if so, what was he doing dying on a Roman cross? It made no sense—but still he believed.

And so he called out to Jesus, one crucified man to another: “Jesus! Jesus! When you come into your kingdom, remember me!”

“Jesus, remember me.”

Isn’t this the most basic cry of faith?

“Jesus, I don’t completely understand who you are, I don’t really understand what you are doing, but there is something about you, Jesus, something that points beyond the harsh realities of life and death. Please, remember me!”

Even more, isn’t this the most basic longing of human existence?

When we strip away all our pretence, all the collected debris of our lives, isn’t this what we long for, deep in our souls? To not be forgotten? To be remembered?

Don’t we all, when we breathe our final breaths, want to be assured that someone, somewhere, will remember us? Our names, our stories, our hopes and dreams—that these will not be forgotten, but will live on? Don’t we all, when it comes right down to it, want our lives to matter to someone?

At the deepest level, each one of us is that thief on the cross: we are broken sinners who have broken others, we are desperately in need of mercy, desperately wanting to matter.

And the crucified Jesus looks us right in the eye and says the same words to us that he said to that condemned criminal: “Not only will I remember you—you will be with me.”

We want to be forgiven. Jesus gives us paradise.

We want to be remembered. Jesus gives us his presence.

This post is excerpted from a sermon I preached on November 20, 2016, at Morden Mennonite Church, for Eternity Sunday. Image: Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

The Horrors of the Apocalypse

Revelation 6, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: domination, war, economic injustice, and death.

Revelation 8-9, the Seven Trumpets and Three Woes: volcanoes, earthquakes, plagues of insects and disease, and war, always more war.

Revelation 12-13, the Dragon and his Two Beasts: persecution, suffering, martyrdom for those who follow Jesus.

Revelation 15-16, the Seven Bowls of Wrath: the earth, the rivers, the seas, the skies, all touched with degradation and devastation, and death, always more death.

Awful, terrible, horrific things. Things almost too monstrous to mention.

War. Poverty. Drought. Famine. Disease. Climate catastrophes. Natural disasters. Religious persecution. Overwhelming death.

It’s only in the White West where we have had the luxury of being able to imagine these horrors as something still future, some future seven-year tribulation. But tell that to the 40 million who died in ancient China’s Three Kingdoms War, or the tens of millions—half Europe’s population—who succumbed to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or the millions of indigenous persons swept under the first waves of conquering Europeans, or the millions who perished in the Bengal Famine of 1770, or the tens of thousands of Christians killed for their faith each year around the world.

There is no need to imagine all this as some future tribulation. This has been the human experience throughout our history. It was, it is, and it is to come.

This can be hard to accept on its own, but there’s something else that makes all this even more difficult to accept for us as Christians: Revelation, and indeed several passages in the Bible, describe many of these horrific realities as divine judgment.

But does God, in righteous wrath against sin, actually employ violence and destruction and death to exact judgment, to bring about justice? If so, how do we reconcile that with Jesus’ call to nonviolence, to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times? And if not, how do we make sense of this kind of language in Revelation, or even elsewhere in the Bible?

There are several things in Revelation that suggest that all this is more complex than it first seems, and that notions of God seeking “retributive justice” or using “redemptive violence” are missing the point of Revelation’s language of divine judgment.

Yes, God judges human sin—but not by zapping us with lightning bolts of violence, not by doling out destruction with one hand and death with the other.

Lion-Lamb 2Let’s start with the first major vision of Revelation, Revelation 4-5. This vision sets the stage for everything else that follows in Revelation. It sets the tone for how we should imagine Jesus and God. And there God reigns through Jesus, and Jesus is the Lion of Judah—Israel’s Messiah—who reigns as the Lamb who has been slain.

Jesus does not reign as a tyrant, as a bully, as a cruel and violent despot. Jesus reigns as the one who is willing to die rather than kill, who rejects violence and coercion as the path to justice and peace.

This should sit like a burr in our brain, making us uncomfortable with connecting all these horrific things on earth with God’s reign from heaven.

Then look ahead to one of the last major visions of Revelation, the judgment scene in Revelation 20. There we have another clue that things are not as they seem. There, at the end of God’s judgment of all things, we are told that “Death and Hades” are themselves condemned and eradicated. To put this into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

God does not deal in death; God is out to destroy it.

In short, both the first major vision of Revelation and one of the last visions highlight one crucial fact: violence and injustice and suffering and death are not the way of God, but they are the very enemies of God which God is seeking to eliminate.

So how do we make sense of all the visions in between that seem to say the opposite?

Think of those Four Horsemen of Revelation 6: domination, war, economic injustice, and death. Although these are portrayed as coming at the call of heaven, they are thoroughly human evils, originating in our own human greed and cruelty and reflecting a pattern seen throughout human history.

The same assessment could be made of all the expressions of “God’s wrath” in Revelation. Not just the killing and wars, but even the famines and diseases and degradations of the earth, the sea, and the skies—these are caused by human action, human harm, human sin. These are not “God directly inflicting punishment,” but rather “God giving people up to the consequences of their sinful actions.”

This is exactly how Paul describes “God’s wrath” in Romans 1. Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” And how is that “wrath of God” revealed? Paul goes on: by God “giving us over” to our sins, to experience the full impact of our own destructive attitudes and actions.

No wonder Revelation repeatedly calls on humans to repent.

Then take a look at the two beasts of Revelation 13. Revelation scholars agree that these beasts do not represent specific human leaders (e.g. Nicolae Carpathia) but rather the Roman empire and its imperial cult. These beasts, in other words, are human structures and systems of power gone wrong.

Our human structures for organizing society—our political structures, our economic systems, our religious structures—these can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. At that point, these “powers that be” become “evil powers.” They become beasts.

These beasts, then, and the diabolical ethos that animates them, are not God’s creation. God does not make them. They are not God’s instruments. God does not use them. They are God’s enemies. In fact, we discover by the end of Revelation that the devil and his beasts, all these evil “powers that be,” face the same fate as “Death and Hades”: they are condemned and eradicated.

Evil is not God’s instrument; it is God’s enemy.

God does not deal in death and destruction. God does not stand behind oppressive governments and unjust economic systems. All these things—all the horrors depicted in Revelation, all the horrors experienced in human history—all these things are the very things God condemns, the very things Jesus came to deliver us from.

This way of understanding Revelation is both comforting and disturbing.

It is comforting to know that God does not use violence and destruction and death at all, even to bring about good. As John 10 says, it is the thief who seeks to steal and kill and destroy, not Jesus—Jesus brings life. If there is anything that brings hurt or harm, damage or devastation or death, that thing is decidedly not-God.

SeraphAnd this means there is more than meets the eye in Revelation. All those depictions of God’s judgment being a sort of violent vengeance, a kind of retribution, cannot mean what we think they mean at first glance. God is out to eliminate human sin, evil powers, even death itself—but not human persons. As Ephesians 6 puts it, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

Yet in another way, all this is very disturbing. For it means that we are our own worst enemy. Our selfishness, our self-indulgence, our unbridled aggression, our prejudice, our capacity for cruelty, our political oppression, our corporate greed—this is what lies behind so much of the violence and death our world experiences, the degradation and devastation even of the earth itself.

This is the judgment of God. This is God’s assessment of the human predicament.

Hear, then, what the Spirit is saying to us. Hear the call of God for us to repent, to “come out of Babylon and not take part in her sins,” to resist the lure of our world’s “powers that be” gone wrong, to say a firm “No!” to the corruption and injustice and oppression of human structures of power gone bad. Hear the call of Jesus the Lamb to follow him in his cross-shaped footsteps, his footsteps of selfless self-giving for the good of the other, for the good of all, even in the face of death.

In this is the salvation of God. This is the path to the kingdom of God, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The (S)Word-Wielder”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 17, 2016. The first image is a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. All other images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.