Session 3 — Heaven
ADVENT: THE FOUR LAST THINGS
Session 3 — Heaven
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
A Collect for Sabbath Rest Saturday
Almighty God, who after the creation of the world didst rest from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p.24).
This collect from Morning Prayer first appeared in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, and it was retained in the ACNA’s BCP 2019. The prayer was written by Edward Benson (1829-1896), archbishop of Canterbury (1883-1896); so, it is a relatively modern prayer, obviously predating the standard Book of Common Prayer, the BCP 1662. It is a lovely prayer; unfortunately, it is a theologically questionable prayer. With respect to my spiritual betters, among whom I count Archbishop Benson and the ACNA Liturgy Taskforce, I would even say that, in some of its major themes, the prayer is simply wrong.
Let me lay out my concerns with it. In doing so, I’ll be expressing similar concerns with much common modern piety. I dare say the majority of Christians today probably embrace the errors contained in the prayer. These errors are so engrained in Christian thought that to challenge them is to upset the theological apple cart. I no longer have the desire to do such things for the sake of sheer contrariness — once I did, but no longer — but, I think we must be faithful to Scripture, and I think Scripture stands counter to this prayer in two regards.
To see what I mean, let me ask two questions. According to the prayer, (1) Where will Christians spend eternity? and (2) What will they be doing there?
If I am reading the prayer correctly, it says that Christians will spend eternity in heaven in a state of eternal rest. To begin to see what’s wrong with that, let me ask another question: What is missing from that picture? The resurrection! And yet, each morning and evening in the Daily Office we proclaim the resurrection in the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” In the Nicene Creed at each Eucharist we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” But, in the prayer’s version of the life everlasting or the life of the world to come, there is no explicit mention of and no real need or place for the resurrection of the body. Would I really need a body in heaven? Would I really need a body in order to rest? The problem with the prayer is that it envisions, or at least supports, an erroneous view of the afterlife which is more Platonic than Christian, a view that goes something like this: when a Christian dies, his/her soul goes to heaven to be with the Lord forever. And, those who do not die, those who are still alive when the Lord comes again, will slough off the body and leave the earth behind, to ascend into heaven where they will be forever with the Lord.
These ideas were common fare in the hymns of my youth, and they formed the worshipping imagination of generations of Christians, mine included. Here are just a few examples.
Sweet Hour of Prayer
Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”
Abide With Me
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Away In A Manger
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there
How Great Thou Art
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration
And then proclaim, my God, how great Thou art
When We All Get To Heaven
Sing the wondrous love of Jesus,
Sing His mercy and His grace;
In the mansions bright and blessed
He’ll prepare for us a place.
When we all get to heaven,
What a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
We’ll sing and shout the victory!
Nary a word or thought of resurrection in any of these hymns, just of leaving the body and the world behind in favor of the soul’s eternal rest in heaven: as with the prayer, so with the hymns. But, not so with Scripture. Scripture insists that the telos/goal of human life is not the disembodied soul, but the resurrection body, not eternal rest in heaven, but life in the new heavens and the new earth — life, in fact, at the intersection of the new heaven and the new earth.
So, how have we gotten here to this misunderstanding of the ultimate destiny of human life? The Christian embrace of the philosophy of Platonism is part of the problem. The great literary imagination of Dante and its undue influence on theology is part of the problem. Linguistic and cultural barriers in reading Scripture rightly are part of the problem. Our inability to understand and express concepts beyond our common experience is part of the problem. It is hard work to sort this all out, but we can try to make a beginning — and only a beginning — in the next few minutes.
Let’s start with one of the most basic — and surprisingly difficult — questions: What is heaven? I’m very tempted to say that heaven is the place where God is, and while that is not entirely untrue it does pose a problem. Is heaven really a place like Bowater or Paris, a geographical location in our universe somewhere up there or out there? Yuri Gagarin was the first human to enter outer space. He said many things about that experience, among them this: “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” For a Christian, that is a naive and almost laughable sentiment, as if God were a “thing” in the universe like the moon or the person sitting next to you that could be readily perceived with the human senses. God can make himself known in that way, and he did so supremely in Jesus Christ; but the initiative to do so is always God’s. We don’t go looking for him in that “sensible” way and expect to find him. And, also implicit is Gagarin’s quote is the idea that heaven is a place in space, a physical location beyond earth but one that we should be able to reach through human initiative and technology. There is something in that notion that smacks vaguely of the Tower of Babel. So, when push comes to shove we really don’t think about heaven as a geographical place, though it is common language and probably does no harm as long as we do not take it too seriously.
So, what then is heaven? I really don’t have much better language; everything other than “place” sounds too abstract: the spiritual dimension of God as contrasted with the physical dimension of creation; the spiritual realm of God in which his will is perfectly done and for whose presence we pray in the Lord’s Prayer; the state of perfect communion with God. None of these descriptions gets it right, but, taken together, perhaps they help a bit.
But, whatever — or wherever — heaven is exactly, it does from time to time intersect with the created material order, so that it becomes perceptible to us; it was the Celtic Christians, I believe, who called these points of intersection “thin places.” Eden seems to have been the first “thin place” where heaven and earth intersected, which shows us something of God’s original intent to dwell with man. Jacob experienced an intersection of heaven and earth at Bethel in his vision of the ladder reaching to heaven. For the nation of Israel, the temple was the prime point of intersection; the Holy of Holies was the place where heaven touched earth most directly and concretely. There was the Mount of Transfiguration in the New Testament. And, of course, Jesus is the perfect union of heaven and earth: fully God and fully man. We believe that heaven and earth intersect at the altar, in each celebration of Holy Communion where we join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. This should give us some sense that heaven and earth were never intended to be permanently separated from one another — held far apart — but rather were intended to intersect or overlap or in some other way connect so that God and man might dwell together. Notice what this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that man was intended to abandon the earth or the body to ascend into heaven and dwell there with God in a state of eternal rest. That’s where the prayer and the hymns get it wrong. The Scriptural image is of God and man — fully embodied man — dwelling together at the intersection of heaven and earth. That’s where the story is headed as we see in Revelation 21-22.
So, how do we get there? It is a two step process as we see from Scripture. It begins with the resurrection of the body, as in the Creeds.
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (ESV): 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Resurrection begins with those who have died prior to the parousia, the return of Jesus on the last great day. Notice verse 14. What does it imply? Those who have died in the faith are with Jesus now and will return with him then. This is what St. Paul speaks of in 2 Cor 5:
2 Corinthians 5:6–9 (ESV): 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.
Right now, while still in the body, we are in some sense away from the Lord. But, when we temporarily lay aside the fleshly body we — the “we” that St. Paul refers to as our spirit — we will be at home with the Lord. And, for St. Paul, being at home with the Lord is more to be desired than continued life in the body:
Philippians 1:21–26 (ESV): 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
Interestingly, St. Paul doesn’t use the word heaven to describe where/how he will be present with the Lord after his death. Nor does he give us any details about what the spirits with Christ there will experience or do. But, whatever it is or will be, it is to be preferred to our present existence.
Even though St. Paul doesn’t use the word heaven to refer to our temporary state after death, I think we can legitimately do so. He does say that we will be with Jesus. And, where is Jesus currently?
1 Peter 3:21–22 (ESV): Jesus Christ, 22 [has] has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
There is where we get the notion of the souls of human beings going into heaven to be with God. That is good and sound theology, provided we understand that heaven is a temporary state and not the ultimate destiny of man. When the faithful die, they go — their souls or spirits (the New Testament is not univocal in its language) — go to be with the Lord in a state of rest and refreshment and eager anticipation for the redemption and renewal of all things. Jesus described this state as παράδειςω, paradise, when he promised the brigand on the cross that they would be together that day in Paradise. And, just before that, during or following the Passover meal, Jesus told the apostles not to be troubled. He said:
John 14:2–3 (ESV): 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
These verses have inspired a great many hymns and hopes that, unfortunately, sometimes muddle good theology. The word Jesus uses for the rooms he goes to prepare for us is μοναι. That does not usually signify a permanent residence, but rather a guest room in a house or a temporary place of lodging at an inn, in other words, a place of temporary rest and refreshment.
So, we have the sense that those faithful dead are currently with Christ in a temporary place/state of rest and refreshment and longing/expectation. They are resting, but they are eager for the culmination of all things. Think of a dedicated football player who has exhausted himself on the field. The coach calls him out of the game to rest a moment, to cool off, to hydrate. And while the player enjoys that moment of respite, he is anxious to get back on the field where the action is, where he can participate in the contest and enjoy the victory. That is the picture I think we should have of the state after death which we wrap up in that little word heaven. We get a hint of this eager expectation in Revelation 6:
Revelation 6:9–11 (ESV): 9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
While this speaks specifically of the souls of the martyrs, I see no reason to think that the souls of all the faithful are not also in a similar state of rest and eagerness for the justice of God to prevail on earth. Now, just as an aside, notice that the souls under the altar are conscious and aware of what is transpiring on earth, at least to some extent. They are also in some sense praying because they are calling out to God. This is perhaps the clearest hint of what we might be doing in that temporary state between death and resurrection.
These faithful dead long for the last day, for the return of Christ. For, when it comes — when Christ comes — they will return with him. At that return, the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16); that is, they will participate in the bodily resurrection of which Christ was the firstfruits.
1 Corinthians 15:20–24 (ESV): 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
St. Paul speaks of an order to the final resurrection: Christ as the firstfruits, the dead in Christ as the first to experience resurrection with him, and finally the changing of those saints who are alive at Christ’s return:
1 Corinthians 15:50–55 (ESV): 50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
It is, in this moment, that we become fully human, that we receive the spiritual body that allows us to dwell in the presence of God. Humans — those who are fully human — are not disembodied spirits, but human spirits united with human spiritual bodies prepared for us by the Holy Spirit.
This is the first stage of the end — resurrection. These second stage is the renewal of all things and the joining of heaven and earth. We get a sense of this in Romans 8, particularly a sense of creation’s longing for and straining toward its renewal:
Romans 8:19–24 (ESV): 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.
At the redemption of our bodies, i.e., when the dead have been raised and the living have been changed and both have been clothed in spiritual bodies, then creation itself will be renewed. Then comes the judgment: the vindication of the righteous and the rejection of all that resolutely stands athwart Gods’ good purposes for new creation. Finally, comes the union of the new heavens and the new earth envisioned in Revelation 21-22:
Revelation 21:1–8 (ESV): 21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
This is the true destiny of man: not disembodied spirits ascending into heaven to dwell there eternally, but embodied spirits dwelling with God in New Jerusalem at the intersection of the new heaven and the new earth. And what will we do there? Throughout the book of Revelation we see praise proceeding eternally around the throne of God. I feel certain that we will be engaged with that, not by compulsion but from a spontaneous sense of joy and glory and thanksgiving. You’ve probably been to a concert. When it ends the crowd stands, erupts into cheering and applause, and continues until the performer returns to the stage for an encore. No one compels the audience to act this way; the audience simply is enthralled and not yet satisfied. It wants more. I imagine that is what praise will be like in the new creation.
But there are tantalizing hints that more is involved, that we might just have productive and even healing work to do. Some will reign and judge (Matt 19:28) — certainly the apostles. But there is also an implication that nations will continue to exist and to produce glorious things (Rev 21:22-26). And it seems that there will still be healing work to be done (Rev 22:1-3). In the beginning, in Eden, man — male and female — were to be priests, prophets, and kings: to mediate God to creation and creation to God, to gather up all the praises of creation and offer them to God, and to implement God’s righteous rule over creation. I might suggest that in the new heavens and the new earth we will again be given this vocation.
So, what can we say about heaven on this third Sunday of Advent? I quote N. T. Wright who was himself quoting someone else: “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” Heaven is for man only a spa weekend in a resort hotel, a place of rest and refreshment as he awaits the renewal of all things. Heaven is not our ultimate goal; resurrection and life at the intersection of the new heavens and the new earth is the Christian telos, the ultimate Christian goal.
We started with a prayer that I contend gets it wrong about heaven. Let’s conclude with one that sounds all the right notes, a prayer for all the faithful departed:
Almighty God, with whom the souls of the faithful who have departed this life are in joy and felicity: We praise and magnify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear; and we most humbly pray that, at the day of resurrection, we and all who are members of the mystical body of your Son may be set on his right hand, and hear his most joyful voice: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Grant this, O merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 679).