Heaven: What on Earth Do We Mean When We Use the Word?
In today’s world, so much nonsense is spoken or implied when we use the word ‘heaven’ or make reference to it, either physically or verbally. In Western society, the idea or ideas of heaven is often construed in sentimental terms both in the church and in general society. People say such thing in reference to the departed as ‘he is up there looking down on us,’ or ‘she making heaven shine brighter with her presence.’ At sports matches, sportsmen or women will point to the heavens when they have scored a goal or made a ton or seek to remember some departed team member. I recognise the need to find expression and comfort, particularly in times of grief but is there any biblical or theological basis for such words or actions. Certainly, the Bible says very little and concerning the place or state of the departed prior to Christ’s return and the consummation of the kingdom of God and even then we are dealing with high levels of ambiguity.
I would suggest that we do not go to heaven when we die rather we await the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4). The Bible offers little or no basis for the belief in Paradise or a holding place for the dead prior to the resurrection. Certainly, our hope is in Christ and of our resurrection from the grave at his return. So what happens when we die? Here, I am purely speculating and I may be spectacularly wrong, but I believe it may be something like this. When we die and are buried or cremated or whatever, it is like when we have an operation and have a general anaesthetic. One moment we are awake and the next moment or so it seems we wake up and there seems to be no time lapse. I say this because we live and dwell in this thing called time, yet God is not subject to time. God is the ‘I am,’ and for God, it is always the eternal now. God in Christ is the Alpha, and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and God operates beyond time yet in Christ he has entered time. So for those who die in Christ, one moment we die and the next moment we are resurrected as Paul may imply in 1Thess, 4:13-18, especially verses 15-17:
“15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
This to me makes more sense than some vague holding place for which there is little biblical evidence.
Moving on, one of the problems we face with this whole concept of heaven is that we are confronted with a great deal of ambiguity. I think it is better to think of heaven as a dimension instead of a physical place located somewhere up there in the sky or universe. Heaven is the place where God is; it is another dimension or dimensions beyond the physical world and dimensions that we inhabit on earth. So, we struggle to find the words to describe it. Thus, words such ‘up’ or ‘down’ and ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ or the location of heaven up there in the ‘sky’ or the ‘heavens’ belies our inability to express the inexpressible. So if heaven is the dimension of God, which God indwells, then it may be much closer than we imagine. We may have a glimpse of the heavenly dimension in those moments when heaven in-breaks into our world and experience as it occasionally does.
Surely, when Christ comes to consummate his kingdom and establish the new heavens and new earth bringing God’s dimension together with the earthly dimension we are dealing with something immensely wonderful but something that is almost beyond our feeble minds ability to comprehend. Words cannot fully articulate the mystery of that long-awaited event for which we long. In rambling on, as I have I recognise that what I have been trying to express is so inadequate for how can we express the inexpressible mystery that we call heaven. All words are simply grossly inadequate. Yet, we are confident that in Jesus Christ we shall participate in the new heavens and new earth at the consummation of the kingdom.
Please treat this scribble as speculative and understand it as so in the areas that I have indicated. Recognise that in dealing with these areas of theology we may only understand them fully in retrospect when our feeble attempts at understanding these things will not matter that much for we will be taken up with the reality of the King and the glory of the Triune God.