It is so easy to place God in a box. But again and again we find that God cannot be confined to our little categories. One large way we have managed to push God’s penetrating presence out of our world is by the way we think of and imagine Heaven. I think Heaven can be thought of in at least three different ways: a presence, a time, and a place.
A. First, Heaven is wherever the PRESENCE of God dwells and where His will is perfectly accomplished. That is why we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done here on earth as it already is in Heaven.” Ask any Third Grader “where God lives”, and they will probably say, “In Heaven.” True enough; but this raises the bigger question of “And where is Heaven?” Here our neat little categories break down. Is Heaven here on earth? No. Well, is Heaven somewhere else? I think so. But that means that God lives somewhere other than here. And that goes squarely against what the Bible says about where God resides. The Bible says:
“Where could I go to escape from you? Where could I get away from your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there; if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there. If I flew away beyond the east or lived in the farthest place in the west, you would be there to lead me, you would be there to help me” (Psa 139:7-12).
Or, again the Bible says:
“I am a God who is everywhere and not in one place only. No one can hide where I cannot see them. Do you not know that I am everywhere in heaven and on earth” (Jer 23:23-24)?
I think we tend to think of reality in very simple, concrete, inflexible ways. We like “either-or” categories. But it seems like the Bible forces us to see Heaven or “Where God’s presence dwells” in a more dynamic way. Here’s some of my thoughts. On the one hand, God is omnipresent. He is everywhere. He cannot be pinned down to Fourth St. and Washington Avenue, for instance. Yet, he is indeed there, too.
On the other hand, God has chosen to dwell more intensely, in a more penetrating way at different earthly locations throughout history. He chose to be present in the cloud by day and the fire by night with the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. He chose to have His glory—his Shekina—dwell in the tabernacle during their time in the wilderness. Then in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, His overpowering presence was concentrated in a special way behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies.
Then the Eternal, Invisible, All-Powerful God of the Heavens became flesh and “dwelled (or tabernacled) among us” (John 1) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Most remarkable of all, is that the New Testament then proclaims that Jesus followers, “the church”, is now the new Temple where God’s presence is most visible and active. Awesome!
B. Second, Heaven is A TIME in the future when all things are again as God desires them to be. The Jewish way of thinking about these things is to break history into two ages: (1) the Present Evil Age & (2) the Age to Come or Messianic Age. They saw themselves living in the present evil age where things are not as God desires them, where evil, death, suffering and brokenness are at home. Yet, they looked forward to the promised Coming Age when, as the prophets continually reminded them, God would send a Messiah to usher in His the Glorious renewal of everything, when God would again be King and the nations (and the entire created order) would again live peaceably together under His benevolent rule.
The Old Testament talks very little about the afterlife, and when it does it quite vague. To put it quite bluntly: Jews didn’t walk around wondering who was going to heaven or hell when they died. They were quite confident that God would provide for them in the Age to Come. All who were part of the family of Abraham were quite secure in their covenant relationship.
So, while the people of God in the Old Testament times or in Jesus’ day were typically not speculating about a place called heaven where they might go after they breathed their last, they instead spent most of their time and energy trying to live out their covenant vows (their faith) here and now. They were living on tip-toes, always looking forward to when and how God would act within history to bring his world back into proper order. That is, they were awaiting the arrival of his Messiah and God’s Kingdom!
The New Testament announces that that Glorious Age to Come was breaking into history in and through Jesus, but that the Present Evil Age was still not completely eradicated. In other words, today the church is living in the overlapping of the ages; God’s Kingdom is present already through the mission of the church, but it is not yet here in its entirety.
Likewise, the Present Evil Age and the powers of darkness have received its fatal blow with the Cross and Resurrection, but it is still not completely overthrown. We live in a strange “in-between” time where God’s Kingdom is working to destroy the Kingdom of Darkness. Whose side are you on?
C. Finally, Heaven is a future PLACE where the righteous will dwell for all eternity with in perfect harmony with God, neighbor and nature. So, where is it? Let me be clear that I really don’t know. But I tend to think that God is in the business of restoring (and not destroying) the present earth to its original glory, for humanity to live again in peace and harmony with nature, and to see us at last fulfilling the original purpose for which we were created in the first place. God works in mysterious ways, but it seems absurd to create something for a particular purpose, to have the plan fall through because of human sin and rebellion, and so to then ultimately destroy it completely and start over in another space and time universe. That makes God kind of weak (or even a failure) in my opinion.
I believe God’s original purpose was for humanity to live as His co-creators, as his divine image-bearers, wisely caring for his earth and cultivating communities of love and creativity that join in the dance of the Triune God. That is something we have yet to see, and something I believe God will in time bring to fruition. God’s original creation is too beautiful, to magnificent, and too perfect to throw away in the cosmic dump.
I’m joining God’s people of old, those who stood on tip-toe, in eager anticipation for that glorious Age to Come of which the prophets told. I’m awaiting a Savior from “heaven” who will come again to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). And so I get down on my knees and pray as Jesus taught us to pray:
“Our Father in the heavens,
Holy is Your Name,
Your Kingdom Come
Your will be done,
On earth as it already is in heaven…”
SUMMARY: I’m not going to pretend to know what/where/when Heaven is. Yet, as I immerse myself in the world, mindset, and writings of the Biblical prophets and apostles, I am led to believe that Heaven will not be some otherworldly cloudy place far removed from God’s good creation. Rather, I believe it will be a God’s creation restored in all its beauty and grandeur, with God’s beloved children living out their original purpose in their glorified, incorruptible, resurrected bodies! I believe heaven will have much in common with this present earth, but I leave plenty of room for there to be many wonderfully magnificent differences as well.
What do you think Heaven will be like?
For more check out this collection of VIDEOS featuring N.T. Wright on Heaven, Hell and the Resurrection.