Merciful Heavens, Heaven Is Confusing
8 surprises about that "happy place in the sky."
At Vacation Bible School in 5th grade, I learned a song with a chirpy chorus that proclaimed “Heaven is a wonderful place … filled with glory and grace.” It was catchy—I still remember the tune—but I had no idea what it meant. And honestly, I still don’t. The lyrics are optimistic and encouraging but hard to visualize. Just like the Bible’s descriptions of Heaven.
Most of the heavenly biblical account seems to indicate we’ll spend our eternity in a place filled with the presence of God and lit by the dazzling brightness of his glory, a place where sickness has been banished, where sin is absent, where sorrow is no more. It’s a land of healing and eternal bliss and infinite goodness.
We are finite creatures. Knowing how to even begin thinking (or singing) about something infinite is a real problem. So at some point in our cultural history, we set aside the ethereal thinking and approached Heaven from a new angle. This direction was lots more accessible. We replaced the glory and light and divine presence with stuff borrowed from a 10 year-old girl’s bedroom: puffy white clouds, rainbows, twinkly music and blonde baby angels wearing white robes. We took the most profound idea in Western philosophy and turned it into the lamest place possible.
When it comes to heaven, we Christians have allowed our culture—which includes the Church—to really ruin our thinking.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about what the Bible really said about hell. Let’s turn the coin over. What does the Bible say about heaven? How close does it match what we think we know?
Eight Surprises about Heaven (with Help from N.T. Wright)
- “The heavens” aren’t always Heaven. In the Old Testament Hebrew, the word we translate “heaven” is samayim. It shows up more than 300 times in the Old Testament, including the first verse of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Samayim is generally used to indicate the part of the natural world that exists in contrast to the ground (the “earth”). Which is why many uses of samayim are most accurately translated “the heavens.” It’s not necessarily the home of harps and apple-cheeked angels, but of birds and stars and rain. In these situations, samayim is just a longer, churchier word for sky.
- But sometime samayim IS Heaven. We shouldn’t make a blanket statement above, though, because to some Old Testament authors, “the heavens” clearly are more than just the sky. Certain uses of samayim speak of it as the place where God lives (see Deuteronomy 26:15 or 2 Chronicles 30:27). The book of Job describes God holding court in the “heights of heaven” (Job 22:12). The Psalmist tells of the glory of the Almighty having been set “above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1) and proclaims that God is to be “exalted above the heavens” (Psalm 108:5). So the samayim—the heavens—weren’t only a place where the moon and the stars shine, but a created place where God dwells, where he spreads out his glory, and where he is to be worshiped. (Still nothing about harps, though.)
- The New Testament picture is no clearer. The New Testament word for heaven is the Greek word ouranos, which appears 269 times. Most of these parallel the use of samayim in the Old Testament. It’s a replacement word for “sky” (Mark 13:25 describes stars “falling from heaven”) and it’s also the place where God dwells (see Mark 16:19). But then the concept gets even muddier, because …
The Gospels introduce yet another “heaven” that’s not exactly Heaven. It’s Matthew’s fault. His gospel keeps mentioning something called “the kingdom of heaven,” a phrase that appears 32 times in that book alone. It’s used in the same way Jesus talks about the “kingdom of God” in the other three gospels. The “heaven” part throws us. We hear Jesus mention the kingdom of heaven and automatically assume he’s making a Pearly Gates reference. But he’s not. This would be a good time to turn to Bishop N.T. Wright for an assist. Among many other influential books, Wright is the author of Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Here’s his take: “Since many read Matthew first, when they find Jesus talking about ‘entering the kingdom of heaven,’ they have their assumptions confirmed and suppose that he is indeed talking about how to go to heaven when you die, which is certainly not what either Jesus or Matthew had in mind.” So that heaven isn’t Heaven either.
- While the “kingdom of heaven” (or kingdom of God) does have a blissful, future component, we shouldn’t confuse it with the place Christians go when they die. So when Jesus speaks about the kingdom, we’re not wrong to read a kingdom-come element into it. But it has a present-day meaning, too. “Kingdom of heaven” refers to the entirety of the world under the control of the Almighty and subject to his will. According to Wright, we should think of the kingdom of God as “the heavenly dimension of our present life” And the biblical Heaven, he writes, “is not a future destiny but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life.” Think of it like parallel universes. Heaven is God’s dimension. Earth is ours. Eventually the two will merge together forever as the “new heavens and the new earth” of Revelation 21. And, yes, that will be Heaven.
- Speaking of “going to heaven when we die,” that idea owes more to Plato than the New Testament. The popular idea of heaven as a final resting place for bodiless souls? That comes from Greek philosophy, not the Bible. Plato taught that a person’s essence was contained in the soul, which he described as the eternal core of who we are—including our mind, emotions, and personality. The body may die, Plato believed, but the soul lives on. In Plato’s case, that “living on” presumed a belief in reincarnation. But early Christian writers—who were profoundly influenced by Greek thought—embraced Plato’s ideas about the immortality of the soul. And we still do today, because those church fathers, from Augustine to Aquinas, still hold sway over not just our theology, but how we read the Bible. Where does the soul go after believers die? Into the presence of God, of course. At least, that’s what we say. And it sounds great. But did that ancient idea get its start in paganism? Wright suggests that there’s little to support it in the New Testament. When it does occur, it refers “not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of the disposable body but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality.”
- If we do have a soul or spirit, it might not be immortal. Again, we’re influenced by Greek thought, and read the Bible through that lenses. Which means we end up ignoring verses like 1 Timothy 6:16, which describes God alone as immortal. Or we miss the incredibly familiar phrasing of John 3:16, which seems to suggest “everlasting life” is the result of belief, rather than the innate reality of every human. In our focus on the continuation of the soul, Wright says, we have neglected to focus on the real story of the New Testament: the resurrection of the body. Which leads to the last surprise …
- The point of salvation isn’t “going to heaven” when we die, but resurrection. This, of course, is N.T. Wright’s primary thesis in Surprised by Hope. Consider Romans 8:11—“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” Resurrection doesn’t mean passing out of the body and into some free-range spiritual existence, but the cancellation of death itself. It’s our mortal bodies renewed and revived. We visualize heaven as an ethereal realm somewhere “up there,” but the Bible seems to point not toward a separate realm, but right back here. Eventually our home here will be transformed—heaven will “come to earth,” Wright says—and we will enjoy it in the same resurrection-transformed bodies we’re living in now.
Does your brain hurt yet? Mine does. Which means it’s time for a quick personal confession. When you write a book about a certain subject, people assume you are, in fact, an expert in the subject. In a sense, that’s almost true. You know more about the topic than an average person. But a legitimate expert? Hardly.
I’ve written books about the end times, the saints, the afterlife, and the Bible. Am I an full-fledged expert on all of these topics? No. I have a wall positively uncluttered with theology degrees to prove it. What I am is insatiably curious. And I’m a halfway decent researcher who has, I guess, a knack for explaining things. I’ve been lucky enough to spin these explanations into books.
I am confessing this to you so you know this: I don’t have all the answers. The more I learn, the less I understand. I see my black-and-white beliefs become gray.
I grew up believing in two potential destinations for my soul: a physically burning hell and an up-there heaven. I was taught that my life was just a fleeting preparation for that eternity beyond the Pearly Gates. So as a kid, I spent a lot of emotional energy worrying about avoiding hell and getting my ticket punched for heaven. But as an adult, I’ve taken a serious look at what the Bible says, and am discovering it doesn’t always match up to what I’ve been taught. When I read N.T. Wright, I spend half the time smacking my forehead and saying “Of course!” and the rest of the time wishing I had more brain cells, because the Bible is so hard to figure out. Heaven, hell, the soul, eternity … these are such important concepts. Couldn’t God have communicated them to us in a way we could understand without an advanced degree?
I am a writer and a teacher, but not an expert. I can tell you what certain theologians say about the Bible. I can point you toward what it appears to say, but don’t think for a minute that I get it. Because I don’t.
Do I hope for heaven? Of course. Do I hope there’s an eternal element to who I am? Certainly. Am I certain about what I believe? Not in the slightest. I’m telling you this because I want you to know you’re not alone in the uncertainty. I’m right there with you. I try not to let the confusion paralyze me. I keep searching. I approach the Bible with humility, and I seek out the smart guys while also trying to hold tightly to Jesus. Because smart only goes so far. Eventually, you have to take a step past reason and into the fog of uncertainty. That step? It’s called faith.
Jason Boyett is the author of the Pocket Guide series of books, including Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. He has a blog and is on Twitter. His next book, O Me of Little Faith (Zondervan) releases in the spring and is about his journey of faith and doubt.