Do you believe in a place called heaven? If you were raised in a Christian household like me, from a young age you heard that when someone passed away, they had “died and gone to heaven.” But where is heaven? And how does one get there?
If you read the gospels of the Bible, you might come away with two very different interpretations of the nature of heaven and how one gains admittance. In a nutshell, one heaven is tough to get into—the other, well, not so much. It breaks down like this:
- In the Gospel of Mark, the doorway into heaven is narrow. Jesus mentions specific criteria for getting into “the kingdom” and it’s safe to say that many of us (myself included) could have trouble getting past the doorman.
- In the Gospel of Luke, there’s a very different take on heaven and it runs counter to traditional notions. Luke says that heaven is not located in the clouds but is a place here on earth. More on that to come.
Heaven #1: According to the Gospel of Mark
You may know the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that states when it comes to entering heaven, “many are called, but few are chosen.” And if you read the Gospel of Mark, it’s easy to see why. The eligibility requirements to get into heaven are tough, about as difficult as a high schooler trying to gain admittance into an Ivy League college.
When looking at Mark, I used a recent, fresh translation by Thomas Moore in his book Gospel–the Book of Mark. Moore goes beyond the words found in the Bible to put some context around the criteria. What you’ll find below are the words of Jesus as translated by Moore, followed by edited insights from the author.
Criteria #1. You must be like a child.
“Let the children come to me. Don’t stand in their way. They are natural citizens in the kingdom of God. Anyone who can’t be like a child can’t enter the kingdom.” ~ Mark, Chapter 10
Jesus tells many stories about outsiders and misfits being more likely to merit inclusion in the kingdom than people who think of themselves as virtuous. Children belong because they do not fit into the adult world. They have different ways of thinking and relating to others and the world.
Criteria #2. You must give to the poor.
“There’s one thing you haven’t done. Go, sell everything you own and give it to the poor. Then your treasure will be up there. Then you can come and join me. It isn’t easy for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.” ~Mark, Chapter 10
You have to create a radical sense of community and step back from pure self-advancement. It is difficult, if not impossible, for someone to pursue financial wealth as the main goal in life and still be part of the kingdom. That’s not say that wealth is automatically an obstacle, but it is if interferes with your responsibility to respect everyone and live a life of compassion and healing.
Criteria #3. You must be awake to life.
“Be alert. You don’t know when the master of the house will come—in the evening, at midnight, at dawn, or in the later morning. Don’t risk him coming and finding you asleep. I can say only this to one and all: Stay awake.” ~Mark, Chapter 13
To quote William Blake, “you have to stay awake and not slip into old, lazy habits.” Ordinary life, lived according to the ways of the world, is a condition of sleep. The kingdom requires an alert mind. You have to know what is going on in your world and resist the tendency to slide and drift on currents that flow away from the kingdom.
Heaven #2: According to the Gospel of Luke
While the Gospel of Mark seems to fit the traditional concept of heaven being “up there” in the clouds, a different picture is painted in the Gospel of Luke. In that book, Jesus leaves a clue that seems to indicate heaven is a lot closer than we imagine—and can even be accessed prior to our death. Check out this passage from Luke 17:20-21:
Asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The Kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
The Kingdom of God, synonymous with the kingdom of heaven, is “in the midst of you.” It’s a phrase that has also been translated as “already among you” and “already within you.” Which seems to raise the prospect that heaven can be experienced here on this earth, right now, prior to our death.
In the Bible, heaven is sometimes referred to as a distinct place, as in “on earth as it in heaven” in Mark 6:10. You might also recall the passage from the Apostle’s Creed that says “Jesus ascended into heaven; and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Which makes the idea of heaven being on Earth, as found in Luke, pretty radical.
Luke is not the only place where the idea of “heaven on earth” is found.
There’s a similar passage that appears in what some call the fifth Gospel, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. It’s the closest in form and content to the 4 gospels included in the Bible. Like Luke, Thomas raises the enticing prospect that heaven is in our midst, if only we are alert enough to realize it.
Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you.
Two different gospels that date to the first century, Luke and Thomas, carrying a nearly identical message from Jesus. Heaven is here right now, just out of our range of vision, perhaps not visible to the naked eye. They paint a very different picture of heaven than what is found in Mark, and raise the questions: Which heaven do you believe in? Is it possible to believe in both at the same time?