In the faith section of our Kansas City Star this weekend was an interesting article asking local pastors to weigh in on their thoughts about heaven. The results were quite interesting. Surveys tell us that somewhere around 80% of Americans believe in a real place called heaven.
Where is Heaven?
The pastors from KC weighed in (you can see their answers at the bottom). Perhaps the most interesting commonality was that none of them were willing to give its location. This is actually a good thing.
I think the very best explanation on this comes from N.T. Wright. Wright’s historical work roots Jesus firmly within the Jewish tradition, much more than typical American folk theology. Thus his explanation of the theological concept of heaven is less tainted by American evangelicalism. Wright insists that the hope for the Christian is not that God will destroy the world & they’ll escape to heaven. But that heaven (which is the place where God dwells), will be remade and joined with earth into what Revelation calls “a new heaven and a new earth.” Wright’s characteristic way of explaining it is that “heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” The Christian hope is not for “heaven,” it is for “resurrection,” and the return of the world’s true king, Jesus Christ.
Wright’s understanding of what heaven is and what it’s for is not new or novel, although he is such a great communicator and writer, his explanations are more accessible than most theologians. His view represents the most common view of New Testament scholars on the subject of heaven. What is most striking is how much this view differs from the typical American Christian. The folk-theology of heaven is that our bodies unzip and the soul (true self), flies away to some undisclosed location where there are clouds and angels to live for eternity. This is neither the view of the KC area pastors, nor New Testament Scholars. Yet it remains the folk theology of many Christians, especially evangelicals. Wright says nothing could be further from the Jewish picture of heaven.
“Our picture, which we get from Dante and Michelangelo, particularly of a heaven and a hell, and perhaps of a purgatory as well, simply isn’t consonant with what we find in the New Testament,” Wright said. “A lot of these images of hellfire and damnation are actually pagan images which the Middle Ages picks up again and kind of wallows in.” (Find this article here)
Heaven as this spiritual realm that exists in some far off reaches in outer space somewhere is a pervasive, yet misleading part of the evangelical narrative according to Wright. The Jewish notion of heaven is connected to the kingdomof Godand the bodily resurrection of the dead. God’s kingdom work is at the center of the discussion about heaven. It’s known in Judaism as tikkun olam, (repairing the world). Wright says,
“And so it’s not a Platonic, timeless eternity, which is what we were all taught,” Wright said. “It is very definitely that there will come a time when God will utterly transform this world — that will be the age to come.” (citation)
Thinking about heaven is important, but Wright seems to point to the idea that it can be a real distraction. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” for a reason. Our focus should not be on getting all that is down here to go “up there.” Our focus should be getting all that is “up there” down here.
Is this challenging for you? What do you think?
Here’s a look at what the local KC church leaders said:
• Pastor Dan Wakefield of Abundant Life Assembly of God in Overland Park listed many biblical verses indicating heaven is a real place.
First, Jesus said it was a real place in John 14:2-3, he said. It states that “In my Father’s house are many mansions” and “I go to prepare a place for you.”
“So either Jesus and the apostles were lying to us or telling us the absolute truth, and I believe they were telling the absolute truth.”
• Snorgrass said heaven is a literal place “where God, angels of heaven and all who have been saved abide. This is the place of eternal life, joy, peace, contentment. …“Imagine no police, no military, never any wars, no dumps, everything is perfect, pure and clean. There is no discrimination, prejudices, no doctors, lawyers, hospitals, funerals, no disease of any kind.”
• Mormon spokesman Bruce Priday said his faith considers heaven an actual and “beautiful place where we will accordingly receive an eternal dwelling place in a specific kingdom of glory in heaven based on our faith and obedience.”
It’s harder to pin down where it is, he said, adding that Ezra Taft Benson, a former church president, taught that the spirits of those who have died are not far from us.
Another past president, David D. McKay, said: “It’s possible to make home a bit of heaven. Indeed, I picture heaven as a continuation of the ideal home,” Priday quoted.
• Rogers knocked down some old stereotypes. “Since heaven is outside our universe of time and space, it’s not ‘in the sky’ or ‘in space’ any more than it is any other place.
“Since being in the presence of God is far beyond our earthly human experience, we can no more imagine what heaven ‘looks like’ than an unborn child can understand what the outside world looks like — perhaps less so, if that’s possible.”
• The Rev. Rick Power ofCollegeChurchof the Nazarene inOlatheagreed: “We couldn’t travel there by spacecraft but the destination is very real.”
According to the Book of Revelation, God’s plan is to bring heaven to earth, he said, as a dwelling place for redeemed people. God said his creation was very good, he explained. “He’s not going to throw it away, but restore it at the end of time.”
This somewhat resembles the Islamic vision.
• Syed E. Hasan of the Midland Islamic Council said he has been researching the origins and end of the earth for nearly two years.
He said some verses in the Qur’an suggest that heaven will be on a “transformed earth, where the current laws of science will be very different from what we know, and this new world will be the everlasting place of rest for the faithful believers.”
Much agreement exists between the Qur’anic revelation and astrophysical discoveries, Hasan, a geoscientist, said. The universe is expanding but will slow down and then stop, which will cause it to collapse “to form a singular entity where the known laws of physics, chemistry and maths will not be valid.”
Hasan said the Qur’an states that “as We originated the first creation, so We shall bring it back again.”
It also says, “On the day when earth is changed into different earth and heavens into different heavens, mankind shall stand before God, who conquers all.”
• Anand Bhattacharyya, an active Hindu, noted how scriptures talk about heaven being somewhere in the cosmos.
“According to the theory of karma and reincarnation, heaven is the place where noble souls, who have performed good karma in their lives, go after death to enjoy the rewards of their good karma. After exhausting the rewards they are reborn again and start a new life. This process continues until the ultimate liberation is achieved.”
Rebirth is an element, as well, of Buddism, a faith of several heavens that are temporary.
• Gibbons said when she heard people of other faiths talk about heaven as a physical place, “it just sounded like a made-up fairy tale.”
“The existence of loved ones when they die is in our memories and the impact they had on the world,” she said. “We just don’t know where we are going when we die. What makes more sense to me is that consciousness ceases with our physical life.”
• The Talmud does not discuss heaven much.
Yanklowitz still believes “all righteous people from any faith have a place there.”
“If one has cultivated one’s eternal, spiritual self, then that part of the self will continue,” he said. “If one has not, when one’s body is finished, one’s whole self is finished.”