Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit the earth, is reputed to have said upon his return, "I looked and looked but I didn’t see God". God is not in heaven; we have now been there.
This anecdote may make us smile. Heaven is indeed well-known as the dwelling-place of God, yet when Christians pray to "our Father in heaven" we do not mean that God is literally to be glimpsed by cosmonauts up above the ionosphere in the heavens. The Scriptures do frequently speak of "the heavens" in this literal sense of what you see when you look up on a clear night. But the term gains extra layers of meaning as we follow the biblical story from the creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1-2 through to the marriage of heaven and earth in Revelation 21-22. Heaven comes to mean a reality far deeper, richer and more overarching than merely the sky.
For many Christians, "heaven" has come to serve as a shorthand for everything we hope for, for the ultimate goal of our salvation, for the blissful land of rest at the end of our journey. We populate this realm with images from cartoons and movies, in which white robed figures with haloes play harps on clouds, or perhaps play rugby against the angels. Even where the content is left more vague, much Christian piety assumes that going to heaven when we die is the content of Christian hope. This theme is found in many of our songs, mentioned at many funerals, serves as a focal point in evangelism, and is frequently discussed in wistful or anguished conversations late at night.
Heaven: the origin, not the goal, of our salvation
However, a closer reading of the biblical narrative would suggest that such conceptions are significantly wide of the mark. The good news of Jesus certainly does hold out a stunning hope in the face of death and for a dying world. But it is not that we will go to heaven. It is that heaven will come to us. It is not that we will pass into a higher realm at death, but that, one day, God will transform this world so that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It is not that there is life after death for an immortal soul, but that at some point after our death, God will raise us bodily as he did for Jesus. Although there are a few passing references to the fact that those who have died in Christ are not lost, but are now with him, this is never held out as the primary content of our hope.
This is worth pausing over. We are indeed "citizens of heaven", but this doesn’t mean we hope to end up there. Instead, it is from heaven that we await a Saviour who will raise us to have glorious bodies like his (Philippians 3.20-21). Our inheritance is indeed in heaven, but that is because Jesus is our hope, and he is hidden until the day our living (i.e. resurrection) hope is realised (1 Peter 1.3; see also Colossians 1.5). We seek to enter “the kingdom of heaven”, but this is Matthew’s way of speaking of what is elsewhere called "the kingdom of God"; "heaven" here is simply a reverent way of referring to God without directly mentioning him (see also Luke 15:18). We could go on and on, but nowhere does the New Testament teach that going to heaven when we die is the focus of Christian hope.
The truly Christian hope, based on the experience of Jesus, is for resurrection, not merely an otherworldly existence after death. Resurrection is a powerful act of God to vindicate and transform our lowly bodies to be like Jesus’ glorious body, for us to be raised as he was raised, not simply back from the dead into mortal bodies to die again, but raised in glory and freedom.
"Your will be done on earth"
And it doesn’t end with our bodies. Our hope is for God to say "yes and amen" to the creation that he declared good, very good. It is for the earth to be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, for death to be swallowed up in victorious new life, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In short, our hope is not to escape this place and these bodies and go elsewhere, it is for God to heal and bring new life to his broken creation, conquering death and decay forever.
Thus, Christian hope is not for redemption from the world, but for the redemption of the world. Jesus’ resurrection therefore has implications not just our bodies, but also for the entire created order of which they are a part. In Romans 8 Paul pictures the created order as a woman giving birth, waiting and straining for a future joy, despite pain and distress at the moment. Switching metaphors, he says that creation is like a prisoner, in bondage to decay. So while everything currently falls apart, God has something surprising planned: a gaol-break! And creation is yearning, groaning for that day. And so, says Paul, are all those who have gotten their first taste of God’s future in the Holy Spirit. We too groan and yearn for that day when our bodies will be redeemed, that is, raised into glorious freedom.
That heaven is not the end of the world has all kinds of implications. Here, briefly, are four.
God has not abandoned his good creation.
The God who has the power to call things which are not into existence is the same God who raises the dead (Romans 4.17). Therefore, redemption is not fundamentally opposed to creation and the created order, but vindicates it. And that means that the church is not the opposite of the world, but an imperfect foretaste of the world’s true future.
God says "yes" to life.
His "no" of judgement is only to be understood within an overarching "yes" to Christ, to humanity, to his world, to life. He opposes that which opposes the flourishing of his creation. God is unashamedly positive about all that is good in the world: he says "yes" to love, to laughter, to sharing, to sex, to food, to fun, to music, to matter. It is because he loves the world that he will not put up with its present disfigurements.
Humanity as humanity matters.
Jesus was raised, and remains, a human (1 Timothy 2.5). We await resurrection as humans. Nothing that is truly human will ultimately perish (though all must be transformed). This makes human endeavour and relationships noble, even while they remain tragically flawed. Christians remain humans, with much still in common with our neighbours. Secular work in God’s good world is not to be despised or treated merely instrumentally. Neither is art, or education, or healthcare, or agriculture, or science. There is much about these activities that will not endure, and much that requires reform; yet these tasks all participate as part of what it is to be a human creature.
What we do with our bodies and the planet matters.
Not because we can create the kingdom of God or sculpt our resurrection bodies now, but because God cares for them. Bodies and the broader environment in which they find their place are good gifts, worth caring for. Just as our obedience will never be complete in this age, yet we keep thanking, trusting and loving God, so our care for creation is presently an imperfectible, yet unavoidable, responsibility and privilege. We must therefore also reject any dualism that opposes ‘spiritual’ to 'physical' concerns. To be truly spiritual is to be enlivened, empowered, cleansed and directed by the Holy Spirit of life, who is the midwife our birth (Job 33:4) and our rebirth (Titus 3.5), and the midwife of the world’s birth (Genesis 1.2) and rebirth (Romans 8.22-23). To be a friend of God is to be a friend of creation, of humanity, of life - the kind of friend that hates what is evil, clings to what is good, that is not overcome by evil, but overcomes evil with good (Romans 12.9, 21).
This article was originally published in Salt magazine with the title "Heaven: It's not the end of the world" in Autumn 2009 and then online by WebSalt. Long time readers (or those who browse the sidebar) may recognise that it is a condensed version of my sixteen part series on heaven from the early days of this blog in 2006. I thought I would repost it here (with permission from the Salt editor) in order to provide a more accessible and convenient form of the argument in a single post. Those looking for a little more detail are referred to the full series.