Heaven is, in fact, one of the most misused religious words around today, with the possible exception of the word God itself. The biblical notion of heaven is not of a place far away way beyond the blue. Nor is it simply, as some have said in reaction to that older notion, a state of mind or heart which some people can attain here and now.
Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary earthly reality and interlocking with it. That is, heaven is God’s space which intersects with our space – earth [the earthly dimension of which we learn in Scripture such as in Re] – but which transcends it. Heaven is God’s dimension of present reality. It is, if you like, a further dimension of our world, not a place far removed at one extreme of our world. Heaven and earth are not millions of miles apart (which is Epicureanism).
Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (‘earthly’) reality and interlocking with it. One day heaven and earth will be joined together for ever (Re 21), and the true state of affairs, at present out of sight, will be unveiled. After all, v 5 says that the meek will inherit the earth, and that can hardly happen in a disembodied heaven after death.
Heaven is all around us, glimpsed in the mystery of every Eucharist and every act of generous human love. We are reminded of it by the beauty of the created order, which in its very transiency points beyond itself to the fuller beauty which is God’s own beauty, a beauty which God will one day bring to rebirth and renewal, as we say so frequently such as we do in our Lord’s Prayer, on earth as it is in heaven and as we say in concluding the Nicene Creed, and the life of the world to come. The life of heaven the life of the realm where God is already king is to become the life of the world now, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now. For instance, that’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount and its ‘beatitudes’ in particular.
The two dimensions / realities in which we live are:[Symbol] the earthly dimension here on earth, the world of recorded time, what we can see now, where God is working out his purposes here on earth [Symbol] the divine, heavenly dimension, God’s space, what we call heaven, what we cannot see, the divine, supernatural order, what’s behind the scenes, where God is in control, where God is all-in-all (which will one day be evident with power), the abode of God where Christ reigns as king at the right hand of God and from where Christ will soon come again to renew all things. Heaven is the present but unseen reality.
Earth is the world of space, time and matter that we know whereas heaven is God’s dimension of the created order (Ge 1 1; Ps 115 16; Mt 6 9). Heaven as such sometimes stands, reverentially, for God as we see in Matthew’s use of the phrase kingdom of heaven.
Heaven is normally hidden from human sight but it is occasionally revealed or unveiled so that people can see God’s dimension of ordinary life (e.g. 2 Ki 6 17; Re 1, 45, etc.).
From the perspective of the Bible heaven is not simply a spiritual, in the sense of nonphysical, dimension. Instead, heaven is God’s space, God’s realm which interlocks with our realm, our world (earth) in all sorts of ways. In the Bible heaven and earth sort of intermingle. Further, as a focus and expression of this reality the Israelites believed that the Temple in Jerusalem was the place above all where heaven and earth literally met. When you were in the temple or when you were reading or studying Torah, God and humans were somehow getting it together. That is, when you went into the Temple, especially when you went into the holy of Holies in the middle of the Temple, you were actually going into heaven – God’s space – itself.
Then in the NT Jesus and the Spirit together do what temple and Torah did in ancient Israelite culture. Jesus and the Spirit are the means by which heaven and earth get together. For example, the way the Greek Orthodox do their liturgy. You have heaven and earth meeting with this thin screen … And then the gospel and the sacrament come from heaven to earth.
Heaven in the NT understanding is the place where the souls of God’s people go after death. That is, heaven is the “intermediate state” for the departed souls found in faith. See Ro 8 24 notes for intermediate state. Then, at Christ’s second coming, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth, joining the two dimensions – the earthly dimension and the heavenly dimension – forever. We see this in Is 65 17; Is 66 22; and in Re 21-22.
‘Entering the kingdom of heaven‘ does not mean going to heaven after death. Instead, it means belonging in the present to the people[Symbol] who steer their earthly course by the standards and purposes of heaven (cf. the Lord’s Prayer: “on earth as in heaven” in Mt 6 10) and [Symbol] who are assured of membership, of being found in faith in the age to come.
‘Heaven’ and ‘earth’ are the two interlocking arenas of God’s good Creation. Heaven is God’s space, where God’s written order operates and God’s future purposes are waiting in the wings. Earth is our world, our space. Think of the “new heavens and the new earth” and of the vision of the “new Jerusalem” in Re 21-22. The existence of humans and their earthly end – death – is not about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven. “The Holy City, new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth.” God’s space and ours are finally married and integrated at last. That is what we pray for when we pray your Kingdom come in our Lord’s Prayer and when we close the Nicene Creed with and the life of the world to come.
The Christian hope is not, then, despite popular impressions, that we will simply go to heaven when we die. In fact, as far as it goes, that statement is correct because biblically-speaking after death the spirits (the souls) of those who love God will be with God, will be in his (heavenly) dimension, will be in God’s space, heaven. But the final Christian hope and, in fact, the divine promise is that the two dimensions, heaven and earth, which at present are separated by a veil of invisibility caused by human rebellion, … heaven and earth will be united together, so that there will be new heavens and a new earth (Is 65 17; Is 66 22; Re 21-22).
Heaven isn’t, therefore, an escapist dream, to be held out as a carrot to make people better behaved. In the same manner God isn’t just an absentee landlord who looks down from a great height to see what his tenants are doing and to tell them they must stop what they are doing (although God does do that – but not only that).
Heaven is the extra dimension, the Goddimension, of all our present reality. There in heaven God lives and is present to us and present with us, sharing our joys and our sorrows, longing as we are longing for the day when his whole Creation, heaven and earth together, will perfectly reflect his love, his wisdom, his justice, and his peace – longing for the day when God can again send his Son to bring all things to fulfillment and consummation.
Marana tha! Now. Today. In this moment. Marana tha!