Christianity is a life, not a doctrine … I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own.
-Marilynne Robinson, 20th century
Heaven means to be one with God.
-Confucius, 6th century BCE
Where is Heaven for you? Strange question perhaps, but this past Thursday was the Christian feast day of the Ascension of Jesus (not a highly celebrated holiday in most Protestant churches). It is the day, forty days after Easter, when the Church remembers the story told in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts of Jesus’ resurrected body leaving his disciples for good. After spending 40 days after Easter appearing to them several times and continuing to teach them, the story goes there came time when Jesus told them that the Holy Spirit was coming to them to fill them with the power they needed to serve as his witnesses. After he said this he was then taken up from them into the clouds and he left them.
So, where did Jesus go? The traditional view is that he went to Heaven to assume his place of rule at the right hand of God. As modern science, astronomy, space travel and the exploration of the universe has progressed in recent centuries, the idea of a “heaven” up above the earth has become increasingly problematic for thoughtful people. After all, just the concept of the earth as a globe raised the question of which direction from the earth is “up” to get to “heaven”?
As our scientific knowledge of the universe has advance, Biblical scholars have revisited the biblical texts to better understand what they teach about heaven. Biblical scholars all across the spectrum – from progressive Marcus Borg to moderate N.T. Wright to evangelical Rob Bell have questioned the centrality and importance of an emphasis on the afterlife for a sound understanding of Jesus’ teachings, and indeed the entire Biblical witness.
Yet the hope of heaven dies hard in the popular imagination. Polls show that nine out of ten Americans believe in heaven, regardless of religious affiliation, and 85 percent are persuaded that they “will personally go there.” These conflicting views illustrate that in sober moments of reflection, our culture may find talk of heaven implausible, but in moments of need, it finds the hope of heaven irresistible.
The recent work of theologian Christopher Morse in his monograph, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News, may help us with this dilemma. After a thorough, meticulous sifting of the biblical evidence, Morse observes that in the Gospels heaven is mainly “not about blue skies or life only after death.” Rather, heaven is the life that is now coming toward us from God, the life “of the world to come,” a life that overcomes our present age. The opposite of heaven is not hell, but instead the “world that is passing away.”
So, in Acts, when Jesus is “taken up to heaven,” this is not a spatial claim, but an announcement that Jesus has been taken up “into the very life that is now forthcoming toward us.” Heaven is God’s unbounded love breaking in to every situation, stronger than any loss, even death. We don’t go to heaven; heaven comes to us. Which corresponds to the great affirmation of faith that the apostle Paul penned to the Romans (which is read at every funeral) “We are sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul is not talking about us going to God after death so much as he is proclaiming that nothing, not even death, ever separates us from God.
“In sum,” Morse writes, “we are called to be on hand for that which is at hand but not in hand, an unprecedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask or imagine.” This offers us a hope that is not just for some distant, after-death, future. This offers us a hope for that future, but also for now and for the more immediate future of our lives and our world.
So for me Heaven is right here, right now, with loved ones and with those I live and work with in that community of new creation. That community includes the church.
R. Steven Hudder
Pastor, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ
Palmetto Bay, Florida