Almost two decades ago I went through a crisis in my faith. The conservative Christianity of my early training had left me dry, empty, and wondering if I had made a huge mistake with my life.
Surprisingly, an evangelical philosopher and theologian helped me weather this season of my life. Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperOne, 1998) prompted me to rethink my views about salvation, the kingdom of God (which was the central theme in Jesus’ preaching and teaching), discipleship and the spiritual life, the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, and the reality of heaven.
While I don’t agree with everything Willard teaches—such as his view that the Bible is inerrant, for instance—he helped me to realize that heaven is not just up there somewhere, but is, rather, right here and now. He writes:
The Old Testament experience of God is one of the direct presence of God’s person, knowledge, and power to those who trust and serve him. Nothing – no human being or institution, no time, no space, no spiritual being, no event – stands between God and those who trust him. The “heavens” [he noted that heaven in the Greek is usually plural] are always there with you no matter what, and the “first heaven,” in biblical terms, is precisely the atmosphere or air that surrounds your body. (p. 67)
Willard references biblical stories of how God spoke and appeared to human beings “out of heaven,” noting that “in such passages ‘heaven’ is never thought of as far away—in the clouds perhaps, or by the moon. It is always right here, at hand.” Willard emphasizes that God is not up there, but right here, and therefore constantly accessible and available.
The damage done to our practical faith in Christ and in his government-at-hand by confusing heaven with a place in distant or outer space, or even beyond space, is incalculable. Of course God is there too. But instead of heaven and God also being always present with us, as Jesus shows them to be, we invariably take them to be located far away and, most likely, at a much later time – not here and not now. And we should then be surprised to feel ourselves alone? (p. 71)
Such words from Willard came to me as living water when I was in a dry, parched land. At the time I desperately needed to know that God was that close. That the world is immersed in the Divine and the Divine pervades the world came to me as very, very good news.
Today, I would attribute to words like “heaven” and “hell” more symbolical and metaphorical applications, but this idea of heaven being right here all around us and in us is mighty helpful. In Falling Upward the progressive Franciscan priest and mystic Richard Rohr expresses the symbolic meaning of heaven this way:
Heaven is the state of union both here and later. As now, so will it be then. No one is in heaven unless he or she wants to be, and all are in heaven as soon as they live in union. Everyone is in heaven when he or she has plenty of room for communion and no need for exclusion. The more room you have to include, the bigger heaven will be.
Heaven is up, down, and all around. Heaven is where God is, and God is the very Spirit in whom “we live, move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28). Heaven is now as well as later. It is where we experience conscious union with God and all of God’s creation.
It’s when and where we recognize that we all belong, that we are all connected.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward.