In my 20 years of preaching I have never written a sermon on heaven nor have I heard one from a colleague. My suspicion is that the dearth of sermons on this topic is more widespread than my experience of two main stream Protestant denominations. This is surprising since the most used Christian prayer is the Lord’s prayer which posits “Our Father in heaven” and prays that “your (God’s) will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. The absence of talk about heaven poses the question as to what Christians mean when they prayer as their Lord has instructed them.
The church is divided between those who know too much about heaven and those who are uncomfortable with it. While the former would give us a tour the latter are embarrassed by its seeming naiveté.
While belief in heaven as the abode of the righteous dead is common in world religions we must beware of smearing them into a generic “one size fits all” concept. This is very much like the mistake many make when they say that all the religions of the world worship the one God. That is, we start with the one concept that we all agree on - God - and then work from there. While this may appear enlightened and tolerant all it achieves is a homogenised world religion that can say nothing specific.
The heaven and the God that Christians speak of have a particular history not shared with the other religions of the world. Therefore we can’t begin where we are all in agreement, instead we must begin with particular concepts associated with a particular people exactly in the place where we are most in disagreement. This is at its sharpest when the Christian, talking of God with a Muslim, must point to the nation of Israel.
I was stimulated to write on heaven after re-reading what has now become a Christian classic, Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth. This was a series of lectures given in the ruins of a German university immediately after World War II. Barth takes the Apostles’ Creed as his guide and begins with “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth”. From this he concludes that heaven, like earth, is a part of the creation and as such is creaturely and exists in time.
This is surprising since if heaven is part of the creation why do we have no evidence of its existence? Were the Russian astronauts right in proclaiming its absence from their vantage point above the earth? Barth goes on to resolve this dilemma by saying that heaven is the sphere incomprehensible to man while the earth is the sphere comprehensible. It is not that heaven is like the inner workings of the atom or the outer reaches of space that will become known in time, but that there is no human path by which heaven may be comprehended, thus flying in the face of human scientific triumphalism that proclaims the limitlessness of human knowledge.
Since heaven is part of the creation it may not be worshiped, it is not God. This understanding is a corrective to the popular hope in heaven, the hope that one will not cease to be in death but survive and continue “in heaven”. Rather than being faith in God this is faith in heaven and a failure to grasp that we are creatures and that we go the way of all creatures.
Heaven is separated from earth not spatially but by its nature as the realm of God unapproachable by man. However, heaven is above the earth. God looks “down from heaven” and according to the gospel of John, Jesus came down from heaven. Jesus’ ascension into heaven is part of the gospel according to the gospel of Luke. A literal understanding of these spatial references produces absurd conclusions. Heaven is above earth in that it is the sphere in which God’s will is done and in which Jesus sits in session with the Father. The earth is beneath heaven in that it is the sphere separated from God and therefore deficient or below.
Both the Priestly account of creation (Gen 1:1-2:4a) and the Yahwist (Gen 2:4b-3:24) mention that God created the heavens and the earth. It is clear from the Priestly account that “the heavens” does not refer to the sky but neither accounts give any other information apart from them being a part of creation. It is almost as though an editor has hastily added “the heavens” to the introduction to both accounts and then left it at that. This brevity belies the importance of heaven in both the Old and New Testament as the abode of God and is inversely related to the embarrassing imaginative projection that heaven has had to sustain down through the ages.
The problem with the popular account of heaven as the abode of the righteous dead in eternity is that it is completely static, as the word eternity denotes. Heaven is thus timeless and unchangeable, and definitely not creaturely. Body-soul dualism is translated to earth-heaven dualism, the one material, earthly and changeable, and the other spiritual eternal and unchangeable.
These two spheres are understood to exist as parallel spheres that never interact. This is in opposition to the biblical account in which the two spheres interact in the God-man Jesus. In him the ways of heaven become the ways of earth. In him the will of the Father is done on earth as it is in heaven. In him God reaches out to man and brings him to heaven, but man in this remains a creature and lives his life.
The Christian promise of a renewed heaven and earth rests on the intersection between the two. When the separation between heaven and earth is breached the reign of God on earth is inaugurated. In the New Testament the kingdom of God is the kingdom of heaven, the two phrases are interchangeable. It is that reality that breaks into the earthly sphere whenever peace overcomes war and love overcomes violence. It is encountered before its time in the celebration of the Eucharist as the heavenly banquet prepared for all humankind.
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