Heaven: A Letter to a Loved One

I have been thinking about your questions about heaven some more and I have some other things I want to say. First, as I have stated already, all of the language we have regarding ‘heaven’ is poetic imagery. It would be like trying to describe the sky to a person born blind. When people talk about ‘heaven’ and what ‘it will be like’ they are on the edge of words, on the very precipice of conversation. The problem comes, however, from those of us who, when reading those great poetic words, read them in a wooden literal way. That is, as I’m sure you have heard of the ‘streets of gold’, some people think that ‘heaven’ has literal, material streets made of gold. When the symbolism is more surely pointing to purity rather than the actual material of the streets. Second, some things need to be established before we can, with any kind of certainty, talk about ‘heaven’. In the biblical imagery, there are two different things going on that a lot of people lump up into one thing – the place of the dead and the realm of God.

But, actually, these concepts were later additions. The Jewish people of the Old Testament (sometimes called ‘Israel’), like a lot of ancient people (and a lot of people still today) just thought that when you died, that was it. There was nothing else – ‘For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return’ (Genesis 3.19). But, because of the relationship between Israel and the Creator God, Yahweh, they started to believe that those who had been faithful to God would somehow be alive, even though they were dead – ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’, stated the writer of Wisdom (Wisdom 3.1). Later, this developed into a waiting place for all the dead but with different ‘compartments’ for the ‘righteous’ (those who had be faithful to the relationship with God) and the ‘unrighteous’ (those who had not been faithful). These holding places were separated by a crevasse or chasm. Chapter 22 of 1Enoch, a book that was popular in the time of Jesus, talks of this separation between the righteous and the unrighteous. It was to this book that Jesus alluded when he told the story of the ‘rich man’ and ‘Lazarus’ as recorded in Luke 16.19ff (ff means ‘following’ to the end of the section or chapter). Here is a snippet:

‘The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried...“Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us” ’ (Luke 16.22, 26).

This ‘holding place’ for the righteous became known as ‘Abraham’s Bosom’ or ‘Paradise’ (see Luke 23.43). In the Revelation to John, it is pictured as being ‘under the altar’ in God’s realm (Revelation 6.9).

One thing that became consistent was the idea of some kind of existence after physical death. In the story Jesus told, Abraham and Lazarus were talking with the rich man. The ‘souls under the altar’ in Revelation are asking how long they must wait before the resurrection.

So, the Jews developed this idea that people died and went to holding places. This then developed into the righteous being ‘resurrected’. This means that the ‘souls’ of the people would be given some kind of bodily existence in God’s new world. A world were they would be delivered from evil once and for all. This came from their understanding of God’s love for them and all of creation – of God finally fulfilling the promise to Abraham (Genesis 15) about fixing everything that was broken (Genesis 3) through Abraham and his family, the Jews.

However, some didn’t believe this. I don’t want you to get that impression. By the time of Jesus, there were different view of what happens when one dies. One group held to the resurrection and others didn’t. In fact, some of those who didn’t asked Jesus what he thought of the subject. He stated that their scriptures do teach the resurrection, ‘ . . . [A]s for the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read what God told you, I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? [God] isn’t the God of the dead but of the living.’ (Matthew 22.31-32).

So why have I gone to all of this trouble? Simply to state that the Bible is not concerned about going to ‘heaven’. It is concerned with rescuing all of creation – of fixing what is broken. What has happened is that the concept of the ‘holding place’, ‘Paradise’, has become ‘heaven’ and it’s looked at as the goal for the followers of God. But the Bible paints a very different picture. It shows us that ‘Paradise’ is just a temporary place. The goal is resurrection in God’s New Heaven and Earth. That is, the realm of God becoming one with the realm of humanity. We see this in a number of passages – passages that people wrongly look to as pictures of ‘heaven’. We will now look at some of these passages.

In the Jewish Scriptures book of Isaiah, chapter 65, Isaiah, speaking for God, wrote that God would create a ‘new heavens and new earth’ and that life would be very similar to life here. There will be people living, homes, vineyards, people and animals will be vegetarians, and there won’t be any more violence!

In chapter 66, Isaiah (still speaking for God) wrote that ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ will be connected as one place. There will be healing waters and trees for all of creation in need. All the evil of the world will be completely gone!

This same theme is picked up in the New Testament. In the second letter attributed to Peter, the writer stated that Christians were patiently waiting for this promise of New Heavens and New Earth to be fulfilled.

One of the concepts that the New Testament is trying to figure out is this New Creation Project. That is, the Jewish belief (and, remember, most of the first Christians were Jews) was that the resurrection and God’s New Creation Project would take place at the end of time. However, for the Christian, this all changed with the resurrection of Jesus. That event changed the way the understood those events. In other words, they came to believe that God’s New Creation Project started at the resurrection of Jesus! All of Jesus’ stories about the realm (‘kingdom’) of God starting in the middle of creation – the yeast in the dough before it’s finished, the wheat and the weeds planted at the same time and growing together, etc. – all pointed to the hidden reality that God’s New Creation Project would be started in the middle of history and be centered around Jesus. What we see in the letters of the New Testament (the ‘epistles’) is how those early followers of Jesus were working out that concept. That is why there is so much encouragement for doing ‘good deeds’ – acts of kindness and social justice – in helping to implement God’s New Creation Project now, within history.

There’s a great passage that points to that very thing. In Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth he wrote:

So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!

All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.

So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. (2Corinthians 5.17-21, CEB)

Every time a person decides to follow the Way of Jesus, to join in this ‘ministry of reconciliation’, that person becomes a part of the New Creation Project. Here. Now.

Finally we come to the Revelation to John. John is given visions of things that happened in the past and the ultimate future of all creation. It is in the Revelation to John where we find most of the poetic images used to describe ‘heaven’. And actually, what John described is the ‘holy city, the new Jerusalem’. He sees it having twelve doors with each door being a single pearl and filled with giant jewels making up it’s walls, and streets of such pure gold that they are transparent. But, the point of this city is the next few verses.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring. Those who emerge victorious will inherit these things. I will be their God, and they will be my sons and daughters.

Notice that the city, that is, God’s realm, comes down to our realm to remain forever. Also note that there is the idea of God rescuing and restoring (called ‘redeeming’ or ‘redemption’) everything – of ‘making all things new’! Not ‘making all new things’; i.e., not everything being destroyed and God starting over. If that was God’s plan, God could have done that a long time ago. No, God’s plan has been to rescue and restore all of creation. And the great thing about that is people get to be part of that project! And then, at the ‘end’, there will be a great out-pouring of God’s grace, the cap-stone if you will, of the whole thing when God’s realm and our realm become one place. This, then, is the final goal of the whole story. It’s not about going to ‘heaven’ but about ‘heaven’ coming down to earth and the two becoming one!

I hope this hasn’t been too long and boring or over the top. I have tried to take a complex issue (several actually) and make them simple. Please, let’s continue this conversation.

I love you deeply.



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Jack+, LC

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