This article discusses three pictures that the Bible offers which describe what heaven is all about.

2 pages.


In another of these essays I wrote about the decline in belief in life after death in contemporary western society, and suggested some reasons for this. I did not then give much attention to the question: what is it that Christians hope for after death?  

To think about heaven we need imaginative pictures. We cannot expect to know in literal terms what heaven will be like. Attempts to describe it literally are usually banal, and easily provoke the response: why should I want that? Who wants to spend eternity sitting on a cloud playing a harp? Heaven must be inconceivably different from our experience here and now. So we need pictures that evoke a sense of something that far transcends this life. 

The Bible and the Christian tradition offer us three main pictures of what heaven is all about. If we put these three symbols together, we shall get quite a good idea of what the Christian understanding of human destiny is.  

The first is the hope of the vision of God. "Blessed are the pure in heart," said Jesus, "for they shall see God." God, whom we now know so imperfectly, we shall then experience directly. We shall enjoy him as the ultimate fulfilment of all human desires. We shall worship him with the kind of rapturous attention that a powerful experience of beauty or love can evoke in us in this life. Because God is infinite and we were made to enjoy him, heaven's joys will never be exhausted. We shall find eternal fulfilment in God. 

But heaven will not be just me and God. God made us to find fulfilment in each other as well as in him. So the second picture of heaven is the city of God, a perfect human society, in which all our dreams of really adequate human relationships will be fulfilled. 

The book of Revelation, in its great vision of the New Jerusalem, which is the Bible's fullest account of heaven, combines these two symbols in a picture of the city in which God himself will dwell with humanity. It will be a perfect human society because it will be centred on God. 

But God's purposes reach beyond even a human society finding its true fulfilment in him. They extend to God's whole creation. Our third picture of heaven, the kingdom of God, is the broadest. It looks for the time when God's rule over his whole creation will finally be perfected. All evil, suffering and death will be overcome. God's world will be as he has always intended it to be. And when all the evils and imperfections hat obscure God in the world as it now is have been transcended, then all creation will perfectly reflect God's glory. As the apostle Paul put it, "God will be all in all." 

So the Christian hope is that the whole of God's creation will find its eternal destiny in God. Although, up till now, I've used the term "heaven" to refer to the Christian hope of life after death, because this is usually done, we can now see that this term can be rather misleading. It might suggest that our destiny is to leave the world behind and join God in some otherworldly, purely spiritual heaven. The Christian hope is much better than that. It is for the union of heaven and earth, for God's transforming presence throughout his creation.  

All this should widen our horizons beyond the narrowly individual terms in which we so often think of heaven. Our hope as individuals is to share in God's great triumph over all evil and death, to have a place in his cosmic purpose for the whole creation, to find our own fulfilment in God in the context of a world centred on God and transfigured by his glory. But, since this is what heaven is all about, of course we cannot hope to share that destiny unless we place ourselves now, as individuals, within God's purpose for his world. To enjoy the vision of God then we must begin to centre our lives on God now. To enter the city of God then, we must seek his will for human society now. To enter the kingdom of God then, we must place ourselves under God's rule now and seek his kingdom in all reality. 

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