From the beginning of Christianity, until about the last century, it has been Christian canon that the resurrected Christ, the Corpus Christi, ascended to Heaven. That made sense, that Christ, as part of the Trinity, should be in physical form. Additionally, Yahweh of early Judaism was also seen as a physical God that was “riding on the clouds,” and “reached out His mighty hand,” and took other physical actions. However, in Church today, pastors speak of Jesus being “in our hearts.” The issue of Heaven being a physical place in the clouds is not discussed. Is there some unspoken shift in canon that reconciles the lack of a physical Heaven with the ascension of Christ?
Is Heaven Real
This is definitely the most nuanced question I received, and I am here for it.
Now, do not be overwhelmed by this question. I know there is a lot here and it may seem weighty. What I want to focus on for this message is this question on the physicality of heaven. To answer this, I want to begin by naming how we get to where we are theologically as a religion. This will hopefully give insight into what the questioner identifies as a “shift in canon.”
Does Canon “Shift?”
We remember that what we believe is both steadfast and fluid. It is steadfast in consideration that the nature of God through Christ does not change. God has always been God and will continue to be God. However, how we understand that nature can evolve over time.
Why is this?
The events of scripture happen at a particular time in history.
In much of the same way we discussed why viewing scripture as inerrant can be problematic when we view all of theology as wholly steadfast and unchanging, we miss out on how human evolution can teach us more about God.
We often talk about how theology evolves, as we unpack what we know more. It is not the inherent nature of God that changes. Rather as our experience of God develops so does our theological understanding, becoming deeper theological beings (at least we hope). We thought we could rule out certain things and experiences because we did not understand them. Now, in a lot of ways as our human brains have developed so has our ability to understand things that are happening around us.
When it comes to this idea of a physical heaven, the way our theology has evolved is in how we reconcile the already/not yet relationship of heaven. While the passage that spoke to me for this sermon is from Revelation (and we will get there in a moment), I could have chosen any collection of parables that Jesus offers on the Kin-dom of Heaven.
I believe that we are assured of the physical manifestation of heaven in our eternal salvation. However, we believe in another level of that as we consider the spiritual experience of heaven throughout our lives and beyond. When we talk about God’s Kin-dom as already/not yet, we identify with Christ’s teaching of “going to prepare a place for us” (John 14:3).
When we believe in a physical heaven or the physicality of heaven, we proclaim the assurance of our own salvation, even extended to the salvation of all humankind. This is the promise we get here in Revelation 21. However, reading deeper into this passage helps us to also understand the evolution of our understanding of heaven and even the end times.
The Book of Revelation: A Quick Intro
The Book of Revelation is always an interesting read, but it is another one of those that must be read carefully.
As we read this book 2000 years later and think about what we learn and take away from it, we can learn about this Kin-dom of God that Jesus preaches so much about, and the work of God both now and in the future. The beautiful images of we get of heaven we get in the later verses of this chapter of Revelation are meant to be a stark contrast to the vision of Rome. Rome was seen as a place that created very little room for the grace of God to be welcomed. As Christians were vilified by the Roman government more and more, so was the nature of love and grace exiled.
We want it to be a book about the end times, but in reality, within its context, it is a book of assurance. It was written for a Christian audience under the oppression of Rome, and it was the promise of freedom from the evils of the empire. Much of the imagery (especially the darker, more demonically perceived parts) are metaphorical references to the Roman Empire.
We must recognize this as we look towards what heaven will be like. While it is nice to imagine the streets of gold and the pearly gates, it is more the nature of perfection in which heaven exists that is what we hold onto. The ascension of Jesus offers assurance that Jesus being seated at God’s right hand is making a place that is free from the hatefulness and suffering that has come to plague creation.
So then why do we preach a physical heaven?
Because we inherently believe in a physical resurrection. However, my response for folks who are getting caught up in the physical heaven understanding have lost sight of what is happening here and now. The evolving of theology on the physical heaven has not been to argue against heaven as a physical place but to place our faith journey within the grand narrative of creation.
Let’s dissect those first four verses of chapter 21,
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’”Revelation 21:1-4
as we talk about heaven we talk about the already and not yet. Therefore, when we read this writing from Peter, how can we receive this in this already and not yet news of the work God is doing?
Verse three points us to heaven being a land among mortals, dwelling with us and among us. It seems over the past few centuries, that we have begun to latch onto this language and see the way we look towards our physical resurrection and the ascension to perfection in that time, but that we can also see the work of God present among us, and as I often say the bits of heaven, we see among us today.
God and The Physical
The physical language we use to describe Godly experiences is still there. However, we attach it to the feeling of God in a more spiritual way than early generations who had a direct connection to Christ as a human. When we observe how late first century Christians interacted with the physical nature of heaven and their lived experiences of faith, it was relying on the assurance of what this passage in revelation promises. The physicality of heaven is at the end of time, heaven and earth becoming one.
The question we are left with is:
What does this mean for us now, and this then speaks to how we talk about God and Jesus, and why we do in fact talk less about physical heaven (or at least should)?
Because we are assured our salvation by grace, we are left to help others experience the understanding of heaven we have received. We are called to live in the spiritual. Just because none of us can point to heaven doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but it calls us to describe heaven using the spiritual language we do have. I can paint a beautiful picture of heaven all day, but how does the assurance that one day I will be there impact the life I am living now?
I often reflect on why we as Christians are so focused on getting into heaven (or more accurately staying out of hell), that we have lost the inherent nature that our lives in faith are not about what awaits us in the afterlife. We can both believe in a physical heaven and the the literal God in Christ ascended there, and we only need to know it is what we believe.
However, much more pressing for us is the here-and-now experience of heaven we often forget about. Our theology hasn’t shifted, it has evolved, because the physicality of heaven has been assured. We look at the story from Luke, and even its counterpart in Acts, and we see how once Jesus ascends it is time for those who saw and were with Jesus to get to work.
I believe in a physical heaven, but I also want to live up to God’s promise of bringing heaven to earth. When we talk about holding Jesus in our hearts we do so as an invitation for the Spirit to dwell within us, to have our experience of God reflected through our daily life.
WHAT IF we imagined a world without hunger, without war, without hatred, without evil?
WHAT IF redemption, reconciliation, and life affirmation were all a possibility? To in part, that is heaven!
We have seen many books written reflecting on what heaven may look like. We have jokes built around Peter and the Pearly Gates, comics in the same vain, and literary works of art that talk about heavenly experiences. However, what if the physical image of heaven, is in the same vain as our physical image of God?
We are all created in God’s image, God’s spiritual image, and when we are resurrected, even in our bodily resurrection, what is the face we think we will see staring at us? Do we know?
In the same way, God is not an old man with a big bushy beard, we cannot presume heaven is a certain way because for many heavens is the concept of ultimate perfection.
Remember, Peter’s recording of heaven was done to show the contrast between the holy city against the city that was causing pain, heartache, and suffering to Christians in the biblical world. Just as Jerusalem was meant to be a holy city of safety and perfection for the Jews, we have been shown a new holy city, that embodies all that God has imagined for this earth. I promise you it does not look like Rome, it does not look like Washington, D.C., or even the United States. God’s holy city is not of this world, because it is of God’s making.
That which God created here on earth has been tarnished by humanity and its brokenness, but God will make it perfect in heaven.
It is in our recognition of the people God has called us to be that we live into this heavenly ideology, and in the time when the holy city descends upon this earth, and heaven and earth become one we will truly see, feel, and experience the nature of heaven that the earth was meant to be in creation.