Heavenly Thoughts

Article excerpt

WHAT IS HEAVEN? It is not a question much examined in contemporary newspaper columns or chat shows, but those of us who are getting older should occasionally turn our minds to this direction as we contemplate our own deaths and what might happen to us afterwards.

As creatures of time, we mortals have a problem in getting our heads around the concept of eternity. For finite minds to grapple with the more specific concept of heaven is even harder. Is it a place, an idea, a glorious old people's home, a holy mountain, a celestial city, a mindset, a vision ... or what? The paucity of material in Scripture to guide us around heaven is baffling. All we can be sure about is that heaven is where God dwells. Everything else on the subject is a mysterious mixture of visions, traditions, dreams of saints, and interpretations of biblical verses. Hard evidence is hard to come by. Yet there are enough clues from all these sources to put a sincere searcher on some interesting trails towards the destination which remains a heavenly secret.

The Old Testament is a rich source of visionary traditions about heaven. Moses and the elders are reported in Exodus 24:11 to have ascended to the holy mountain where "they beheld God, ate and drank." The prophet Isaiah was admitted to the heavenly throne room full of seraphs and purified (Isaiah 6:18). His abject penitence during this beautifully described event, arguably the most powerful passage of theophany in the entire Bible, is a reminder that entry to heaven will be preceded by judgment. The same theme is suggested in the dreams of Daniel, who witnessed a heavenly scene of the judgment of wicked powers (Daniel 7).

The Zion Psalms (Nos. 46, 48, 76, 87, 125, and 129) are full of pointers to what heaven could be like. Psalm 48 suggests that the city of God on his holy mountain is "beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth." In the ensuing verses the psalmist portrays heaven as a fortress of absolute invincibility. Before its gates kings flee, strong men tremble, and mighty ships are shattered in the wind. This is a theological way of saying that man's power on earth offers no security whereas God's power in heaven gives total security.

The themes of feasting, joy, beauty, loftiness, and security also resonate in the visionary hints about heaven to be found in the New Testament. Its Greek word ouranos (literally sky or air) has derived into the English word heaven denoting the firmament above the earth where God has his abode. The first indication of this concept in the Gospels is to be found in Mark's account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in which the heavens open and a divine voice is heard saying, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased" (Mark 1:10-11).

In Luke's Gospel, Jesus reports an experience in which he "watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning" (Luke 10:18). Jesus' vision has echoes of the Book of Revelation, whose author witnesses a heavenly war between the archangel Michael and the dragon who loses the war and is thrown down to earth, where he falls into a lake of fire (Revelation 12:9; 20:10). The Book of Revelation is the classic document of the visionary tradition. Its glimpses of heaven have been variously interpreted as literary fictions, visions of the early Christian seer John of Patmos, or experiences reported in the circle of John the Baptist and Jesus.

The visionary tradition is more subdued in the letters of Paul, but he describes in unambiguous terms how he experienced a heavenly journey and how he "was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know-God knows" (2 Corinthians 12:3-4). In disclosing that he had this out of body experience 14 years earlier, Paul implied that heavenly visions are rare. …