Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thoughts on Heaven

People have many views of what heaven will be like. My first grade teacher at the Christian school encouraged sensationalized notions of heaven in our barely-wrinkled minds, teaching us that we would be able to fly, and teleport, and have any kind of food that we wanted at a mere wish, and, of course, that all our pets would be in heaven. While I can't point to any Scripture that explicitly disputes or confirms these exact projections of Paradise, I do wish that she had focused more on the wonder of being in the presence of God for eternity, being free of sin and death, or even just tried to get us to wrap our minds around eternity. I wish she hadn't catered to our first-grade mentality by letting us create heaven in our own image. I wish that instead she had tried to elevate our notions of God's heaven.

Since those early years, it has been primarily through the reading and preaching of the Bible that I believe that I have come to a better, albeit still imperfect, view of what heaven will be like. This is not coincidentally coinciding with the fact that I am, through the Holy Spirit, coming to a better knowledge of who God is.

Heaven As a Party

To know what one can expect to find at a Christmas party, one must know a little bit about the hosts, the theme, the dress code, what the reason for celebration is, and who else will be at the party. The offer of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ functions, in a way, as an invitation to heaven. I do not wish to cheapen either heaven or salvation by treating them merely as a party and an invitation, but I do not believe that they cannot be related in this way.

Jesus compared heaven to a great wedding feast where guests will be gathered to celebrate the union of Jesus Christ to His bride, the Church. You, reader, have been invited to heaven. The offer of salvation is free to all. You are on the mailing list.

The Bible teaches that God has made it possible for all to come to the feast that is heaven. But Jesus speaks of a 'dress code' in heaven, strangely enough. Jesus says that those who will be gathered in heaven will have one thing in common: they will each be dressed in 'wedding clothes.' He even goes so far as to say that no one will gain admittance without the proper attire (this can all be found in Matthew 22:1-14).

Whether we will be wearing robes or suits and ties in heaven is beside the point. The wedding clothes of which Jesus speaks are a metaphor for the righteousness of Christ that we are given metaphorically to put on for the feast. The invitation is not 'Come As You Are' implying that living a relatively good life or even that going to church will suffice for admittance to heaven. The invitation that Jesus extends for you or me to come to heaven reads more like, 'Heaven is Black Tie Only. You will not be admitted in even the best suit that you have. I know that you don't have anything good enough to get in. I know that you could never have afforded to buy anything good enough to get in, so I have provided a suit for you. I have bought it with my own money. You need merely to come and put it on. Come and put it on!'

It would be careless and unloving of me to continue with my thoughts on heaven below without first explaining why I have a reason to be excited about my place in heaven, which I have tried to do above. The Bible teaches that all who believe that Jesus died and took the hell that they deserve can come to God for forgiveness and be saved. I do not deserve heaven; I deserve hell. But heaven has been promised to me as a gift that I merely have to accept. I can't wait for heaven. Below is what I think it might be like.

Heaven As a Place

Bible 300 at Geneva College served to significantly alter my view of heaven, much in the same way that the last book in the Narnia series, The Last Battle, has done recently as I've re-read it. Both have caused me to think of heaven less as a magical, fantasy world with golden buildings, flying creatures, and superhuman people in robes, but more as simply Earth Perfected.

In The Last Battle, when the characters pass from Narnia through the door into what is, in the story, heaven, they begin to explore the new land in which they find themselves. It is a gradual buildup of recognition that causes them to eventually realize that they are, in fact, in Narnia--and yet it is not quite the Narnia they knew before. The characters struggle to express what it is that is different about the Narnia on the other side of the door, describing the colors as more colorful, or the mountains as being farther away. Finally, Digory is able to express it well when he says, "[The old Narnia] was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here...And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream." C.S. Lewis goes on in the narrative of the story to say how the difference between the old and new Narnias was similar to differences in viewing scenes through a mirror compared to viewing them with the naked eye. He says, "The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can't describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean."

It thrills me to imagine what heaven will look like. If places like Rock Run, and the green hills of Ireland, and the wilds of Alaska are somehow tarnished by sin in this world, I cannot sufficiently anticipate what it will be like to view and wholly enjoy the splendor of the new heavens and the new earth with my resurrected body. I imagine it might be similar to the difference between watching Spiderman in a state of the art theatre with the most advanced audio/visual components available when all you've known of movies before is the 12" grainy screen in your basement; or hearing a professional symphony for the first time after only knowing high school concert bands; or falling in love when all you've ever known is to live for yourself. I think these are crude illustrations, but it's what I've got to work with having never been to heaven.

The Bible speaks very plainly to the fact that all of Creation--stars and plants and animals, and photosynthesis, and the Laws of Motion, and music, and mathematics, etc--exist both for God's glory and to point man to the majesty of his Creator. That was true before sin and death entered the world, and it continues now, however imperfectly. There is no limit to my joy as I dwell on the fact that I will know God more completely in heaven, and partly because of what I will learn of God by learning more about heaven the place.

Seeing and learning about Heaven the place will help me to understand more of the God who created it. Just as the seasons, and the beauty of the sunrise, and the wonder of music all reveal to me elements of the character of God, so much more so will these things speak more clearly and more deeply and more lastingly to me when I can enjoy them without the veil, without sin as a filter.