What is Heaven? by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
I have been mulling over the subjects of Heaven and Hell for a few months now. The post was too long to put both topics together so it will be a two-part post – this week I am musing about Heaven and next week I will post about Hell. I do not propose that I have the answers, I actually have more questions than answers. This is just a conversation starter. Your thoughts?
Growing up in a fundamental conservative Christian community, I have been told so many different things about Heaven. The most obvious connection to heaven or hell was linked to sin.
1: Sin meant death and hell, salvation meant life and heaven.
As a child I was taught to pray this prayer each night.
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Kind of spooky when I think about it now. Scary for a little girl to think that it was possible each night to die.
I was taught that the good people who love Jesus go to heaven to be with Him and that the bad people go to hell with the devil. Simple right?
This got pretty confusing as a child when the supposed ‘good’ people, the church leaders, were the ones who were using and manipulating you. Apparently it’s okay for them, they have special powers.
This set up a great inconsistency for me as to who was good and who was bad and who was going to tell the difference.
So heaven became a place linked with death, inequality and confusion. Were my dead relatives watching over me in heaven or were they rotting in hell? Were they praying for me? Were they waiting for me? Were their different levels of authority in Heaven. I was told that there were different glories. Some of us would shine like the stars, some like the moon and the really good people would shine like the sun. So obviously there must be hierarchies in heaven just as there was in our church.
You could be good, better or best. The trouble was it was always pretty difficult to understand the scaling system and where you sat in this training for goodness because the goals kept moving.
Then I began to really understand the nature and love of Jesus Christ.
This Jesus who loved everyone, even the ones who weren’t considered even close to being good who were in fact cast aside by the religious people of the day. Jesus who said to the thief hanging on the cross next to him, that he would see him this very day in Heaven. What! This didn’t make sense. How could a thief be good? He hadn’t led a life time of sacrifice and obedience to the rule book and yet what….. he just slides on in to Heaven, just like that? I began to see that this gift of eternal life wasn’t as prescriptive as I was led to believe.
Who defines goodness? Who defines kindness and mercy and grace? Who holds the measuring tape to determine who gets in and who gets kept out?
You see my theology was completely upside down. Gods love is so great, so encompassing, that He desires for everyone to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus simply said that anyone who believes that Jesus is the son of God would not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). He said that we have ALL sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
I began to realise that it was man not God who had set up a series of hoops for people to jump through. Goodness hoops. Also many, many, rules designed to exclude those who didn’t rate on the goodness measuring tape. These same people then condemn those who don’t conform.
2: Condemnation isn’t Jesus’ style.
“I have not come to condemn the world, but to save it.” John 3:17 ESV “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”- John 8:11
‘When we examine the teachings and life of Jesus, we find him not only befriending, loving, and affirming some of his societies most despised and vile people, but chastising the religious leaders who condemned them for their sin.
Whether it is Jesus’ conversation with Rabbi Nicodemus in John 3 where Christ explains that it is his mission to redeem the world and not to condemn it or the instance where a woman is caught in the act of adultery and is taken outside to be stoned by the religious officials (as the law required) and Jesus steps in to stop the condemnation and proclaim freedom and forgiveness to the broken woman, it is clear that Jesus is not in the condemning business.
Instead, it seems Christ is in the business of restoring humanity to the most broken and wicked of people.
It seems that His passion is to see the weak, sick, and broken become strong, healthy, and whole in his Kingdom. It seems that he spends very little time (almost none) telling sinners why they’re wrong or speaking words of condemnation over them, but rather practically loving and extending grace to the most screwed up of individuals. Maybe we Evangelicals, who are known for our condemnation of entire people groups with whom we disagree, could learn something from Jesus on this point (Brandon Robertson)’.
3: Jesus not only cares about restoring humanity but he also has plans to restore the earth.
According to N.T.Wright, there are two basic questions that frame our theology on this topic.
1: What is the ultimate Christian hope?
2: What hope is there for this world?
If we believe that we die and go to heaven – away from the world, then these two questions are unrelated. If however we believe that there will be a new heaven and a new earth then they are totally related.
Jesus never refers to a post-mortem destiny or to an escape plan, but to Gods sovereign rule on earth as it is in heaven. Dualistic thinking believes in an elevator God who is up in the sky somewhere. We pray to God up there. We pray and our prayers go up and the answers may or may not come down. If we do the wrong thing we go down. This is medieval thinking. It is also dualistic thinking.
We must detour here for a minute and have a look at the impact that dualistic thinking has on our lives, our society and our theology. It influences that way that we live, the way that we treat people and the way that we see God.
4: Dualism effects how we view Heaven and Hell
What is Dualistic Thinking?
Dualistic thinking simply put is black and white thinking. It believes in the equal powers of good and evil. Dualistic thinking looks for evil, errors, mistakes, sin and hates it, rejects it and then eliminates it (Rohr). Good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is punished. Dualistic thinking sees suffering as opposed to the will of God. If you are good you are rewarded and therefore should live a good and blessed life. The dualistic mind rejects suffering. Dualism assumes that we live and act in two separate domains, the “sacred sphere” and a “secular sphere.” Christian activities are the sacred sphere and worldly activities are the secular sphere, which is of no eternal significance. Dualism is a destructive way of thinking.
“When you are always concerned with defending, attacking, rejecting, resisting, when you are preoccupied with enemies you are always dualistic”.
Dualistic people use knowledge for the purposes of shaming and control. Non dualistic thinking uses knowledge for formation and change.
Love and suffering are the only things that crush dualistic thinking which is why Christ said that love is the greatest command. Love supersedes everything else. It allows us to love neighbour, God and ourselves at the same time. This is the mind of Christ.
The dualistic mind gives us sanity and safety and that is good enough. But to address our religious and social problems in any creative or finally helpful way, we also need something more, something bigger, and something much better. We need the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:16 Rohr
Non dualistic thinking, or the mind of Christ, does not eliminate everything that is negative. Non dualistic thinking is able to sit with contradiction and paradox, it is able to hold tension. The contemplative mind understands the concept that mercy is greater than sacrifice, that forgiveness is an ongoing discipline and that it is suffering that overcomes evil. Jesus overcame evil through suffering. Those who follow Jesus in persecution and faith and who identify in his suffering are those who have overcome. They overcome evil through suffering not in spite of it.
Our first images of Heaven and Hell came from the middle ages where heaven and hell were seen as places of reward and punishment.
Heaven in the New Testament is not primarily a future destiny, it is the hidden dimension of our very ordinary life. God dwells within us. Christ is in us, His anointing dwells within us. Which is why we are called to BE the presence of God in our communities. Communities meaning: in the world, where we work, live and play.
Whilst its natural to think of heaven as a future entity, the apostle Paul appears to embrace heaven as both a future reality and a spiritual realm which coexists with our material world of space and time now. Therefore it is both an eternal spiritual home and a present reality. God made heaven and earth and the picture painted in the book of Revelation is not of disembodied souls floating up to a disembodied heaven but of a New Jerusalem coming down to earth. The reconciliation of all things.
“To hope for a better future in this world, for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry the homeless for he abused the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, wounded world – is not something else or something extra, or something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope.. is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism…it is a central and essential, vital and life-giving part of it”.
N.T. Wright, pg 191 Surprised by Hope
What Jesus did whilst he was here, healing, delivering, freeing etc…. was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity… but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is. It was a demonstration then of the wholeness for all of creation in the future.
“What we do now by teaching, digging wells, painting, preaching, singing, helping the disabled, writing poems, caring for the needy. What we do now in the present will last into the future”.
N.T.Wright, pg 191 Surprised by Hope
As Wright says, the question ought to be: “How will Gods New Creation come and then how will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in His new world”?
5: There is a new world and it has already begun.
Jesus said the kingdom of God is here, it is within you. The new world works by loving, healing, forgiveness and by new starts and by second chances and by creativity. The kingdom of God is here now. It is a way of thinking, a way of living in the ‘world without human kingdoms, ethnic communities, national boundaries, or social identifications’ (Rohr, The Naked Now).
“Love is not our duty it is our destiny. It is the language that Jesus spoke and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with him. …It is the music that God has written for all his creatures to sing and we are called to learn it and practice it not so as to be ready when the conductor rings down his baton”. N.T.Wright.
I think that we have very little idea about heaven and who will be there. We see through a glass darkly. The minute we proclaim that we know we minimise the supernatural nature of who God is. Jesus, although very human, was also very divine. This paradox, these mysteries are just that – a mystery and its okay to hold these tensions lightly.
I hope that this has helped a little. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
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Thanks for considering.
Christian Theology by Alistere McGrath
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, top-selling author and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright tackles the biblical question of what happens after we die and shows how most Christians get it wrong. We do not “go to” heaven; we are resurrected and heaven comes down to earth–a difference that makes all of the difference to how we live on earth.
Beginning to see as the mystics see by Richard Rohr