“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.

Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing

I have been teaching the Bible and writing about Christian theology in various ways, in a variety of settings, for over twenty years now. This has mostly been a rewarding task. I love learning new things or discovering new ways of seeing things, and I love seeing the same light bulb turn on for others. But this has also, at times, proven to be disheartening, even tremendously discouraging.

So why is it that I keep teaching and preaching? Why do I keep blogging and writing? Well, beyond the basic fascination I have with the Bible and theology, deeper than the enjoyment I get from interacting with others about these things, there is simply this: our world—including we who are Christians—desperately needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am convinced of this: the gospel is our only hope. Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

“Wait a minute, Michael. That sounds so exclusive, so fundamentalist even. I thought you were one of those progressives.”

Well, I don’t know what box I fit into, to be honest. I say a hearty “Amen!” to all the gospel texts—John 3:16, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” “There is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved,” “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” and more. Yet I’m convinced that many modern understandings of the gospel are in fact misunderstandings of the gospel.

While I would be delighted to have more and more people claiming to be followers of Jesus, I’m far more concerned about having more and more people actually following Jesus. While I would be thrilled to have crowds of people claiming the name of Jesus, I’m far more interested in seeing human beings—regardless of their religion—living out the way of Jesus. This is, in fact, the point of the Great Commission: not to make converts to a religion, but to make disciples of Jesus.

And when I hear key Bible words like “salvation” and “life,” I don’t hear these as “salvation from hell to heaven” or “living forever with God after death.” Yes, we have the promise of being “with the Lord” beyond death. But the biblical language of “salvation” is about rescue and restoration: rescuing us from all the ways we harm ourselves, others, and our world (our “sin,” in other words) and restoring us and all humanity and all creation to the way God originally intended things to be. This is why these words, “salvation” and “life,” are so often connected to other key words in the Bible: God’s “kingdom,” “new creation,” “justice,” “peace,” “liberation,” “reconciliation,” and more.

So here’s what I mean when I say “the gospel is our only hope” and that “Jesus offers us the only way to true life”: if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—salvation, in other words—the only way forward is to follow the way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” teaching can be summarized with the word “love”: we are to love God with every dimension of our being, and we are to love other persons as we love ourselves. These two loves are inseparable: our love for God is shown by our love for others. Jesus taught that loving others means giving ourselves for their good, even when this means sacrifice or suffering for us. He taught that those whom we are to love include not only persons who are like us, but also those who are different from us, even those who are opposed to us, who may even wish us harm.

Jesus’ gospel teaching on love included the way of peace. This way of peace is the difficult path of nonviolent resistance to sin and evil powers: resisting harmful attitudes, words, and actions both within ourselves individually and among us collectively, in order to effect positive change; but doing so in creative, nonviolent ways that seek restoration and reconciliation and not retribution, ways that may involve the voluntary suffering of oneself in order to bring about a greater good for all.

Jesus’ way of love and peace requires a devoted faith in God: freely committing ourselves to the God who is love, whatever may come. It also requires a resilient hope in God: persistently trusting in God to bring about good even, potentially, through our own suffering and death.

All this Jesus not only taught, he lived it out: forgiving sinners, welcoming outcasts, showing compassion, healing freely, standing up to oppressive powers-that-be, even enduring suffering and death because of sin and evil, ultimately experiencing true justice and peace and flourishing life through death, having been resurrected by God. Jesus taught the gospel, and he lived out the gospel—and so he modeled the gospel and planted the seed of the gospel in the world.

If we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—true salvation—the only way forward is to follow this way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus: loving God through loving others, nonviolently resisting sin and evil both in ourselves and in the world, trusting in God to bring about good among us and in the world through this way of Jesus.

This is what I mean when I say that the gospel is our only hope. This is what I mean when I say that Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

And this is why I do not cease teaching and writing. This is what motivates me to keep on keeping on, even when I get discouraged, even in the face of opposition. Our world is filled with too much bigotry, cruelty, injustice, and oppression, for me to stop speaking the gospel. There are too many different being excluded, too many vulnerable being exploited, too many sick who are dying and poor who are trampled on for me to stop teaching the way of Jesus. There is too much guilt and shame and ignorance and fear for me to stop proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

menno-simonsAll you Mennonite history buffs will know that I’ve pilfered the title of this blog post from Menno Simons himself. He wrote a tract with this title, and some of the themes of my blog post are echoes of the original Menno Simons tract (other themes from his tract I’m happy to leave aside). Let me conclude with a couple of my favourite quotes from the very Menno in Mennonite:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

And then Simons’ concluding words:

Beloved sisters and brothers, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.

Amen, brother Menno. Amen.