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Monday, January 4, 2010

Visions of heaven?

In Sunday School in about third grade we were assigned the task of drawing a picture of what we thought heaven looked like. I drew a giant triangular something-or-other with a cross on it and a doorway underneath, clouds all around, and scrounged a yellow crayon to somehow include my impression that the light from the throne of God was leaking out. Even at the time the picture underwhelmed me.

I think that's what we so often do with this idea of heaven. We make it about a place, a nice place, a place we all want to go because it's so nice, and we imagine it to be just like Minnesota but without winter or mosquitoes. And the Scandinavians will all be happy.


But the Bible doesn't say that God created heaven. It says he created "the heavens and the earth." Then the text goes on in great -- GREAT -- detail about the earth, but we don't talk much about the heavens. A little bit with creating stars and birds and stuff that flies above our heads. But we don't get much detail, only a wistful sense that there's something good -- heavenly, even -- that is out of our reach.

In ancient Hebrew culture, or in any culture prior to the Wright Brothers or Sputnik, it was easy to imagine God "up there somewhere" and to make "heaven" -- the place where God lived -- synonymous with "the heavens" by which we meant whatever is above the sky.

Is that what the Bible is talking about? The Bible doesn't seem interested in revealing some otherworldly place where God has set up shop. Rather, the Bible seems quite interested in helping us see that God is present here, and we just fail to see. (Read Isaiah 6:1-9, for example.)

What if "the heavens" is referring not to some separate abode of God, such that God has to leave home to come to earth, but what if "the heavens" is referring to a spiritual realm that exists alongside but hidden from our physical reality? So that "the heavens" is the abode of God not separate from the physical creation, but simply hidden from it? If you do a Bible search and look at the term "heavens" throughout the Bible, you'll find initially that in most places early on in the Bible, it sounds like "heavens" is just another word for sky. The Bible refers many times to the "birds of the heavens," for example, and doesn't seem to mean some strange kind of spiritual birds. But watch later on -- starting with Ezekiel and some of the other later prophets, and especially in the New Testament -- and you begin to hear about God "opening the heavens" to reveal spiritual things to his people. In fact, when Jesus was baptized, "the heavens were opened" and God was in some sense revealed in Jesus.

That would make sense of a lot of the Bible. When Ephesians 2:6 says that we are seated with Christ "in the heavens" it doesn't mean that we have a spot reserved in that great picnic shelter in the sky, but rather that the spiritual reality of our lives has changed in a way that is at least partly hidden from us but is potent and important nonetheless.

So if this is true, God is not bound by the spiritual world, but he created that as well. He created both the spiritual and the physical. He is not limited by his nature as a spiritual being any more than he is limited by Jesus taking on physical flesh. And especially if you take 2 Peter seriously, when God decides to redo all of creation, it will mean a total recreation of not only the physical world but the spiritual realms as well.

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