This was originally written as a letter to one of my friends
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Heaven, too. It's really been making me think. Especially since talking to some of the students here on campus, I think it's very important that I have a clear conception of what Heaven is. One student I was talking to pretty much saw Heaven as a frame of mind. The problem with that is, that Christ said He was returning to Heaven. So Heaven was more than a frame of mind -- it was a location that could be returned to.
One professor on the IWU campus gave a talk on how Heaven is not mentioned in the OT. But if the people in the OT didn't know about Heaven, how could they look forward to it? I just love how Hebrews 11 puts it: "13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a
distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. "
The "new heavens and the new earth" do imply there's a "first heaven and first earth." Might this be the heavens and the earth that God creates in Genesis 1? As Genesis 1 reads, "1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
So, I guess I see a "normal" noun -- heaven -- and a proper noun -- Heaven. (Note: while the NIV uses the lower case for both types of heaven, I'll use the lower case the and upper case to show which one I'm referring to) One noun refers to the sky and the atmosphere while the other refers to a distinct place which is perfect and where Jesus is preparing a place.
Sometimes the little-h heaven is plural ("heavens"), while I've only seen the capital-H Heaven in its singular form ("Heaven.") The capital "H" Heaven is beyond time: it existed before time was created. I don't know of any reference that talks about when God created this Heaven, but if it was created, it would have been done before the earth was created. I also see it as being distinct from earth.. One reason the two meanings of heaven are so related is that many of us consider both the sky and God to be "up there."
Interestingly, the first reference to Heaven I found is when God talks to Hagar: (Genesis 21:17) "God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.'"
So, even though Heaven is separate from earth, God is still very much involved in what happens down here.
One picture of the connection between earth and Heaven is given in Jacob's dream: (Genesis 28:12) "He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." So there is a way to travel from earth to Heaven (but not by a Babel tower like some of our ancestors thought up!).
Because God hears from Heaven, we can pray to Him: (1 Kings 8:43) "then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name."
Really, though, God is omnipresent (everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipotent (all-powerful). Psalm 103:19 "The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all." He "dwelt" in the tabernacle and in the temple that the Israelites built, but was He confined by those dinky structures? So even though we often pray to God as if He was only in Heaven, people through the ages have realized that God is in many places: (Deuteronomy 4:39) "Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other."
So God is transcendant and imminent. I believe He allows us to see glimpses of what Heaven must be like. C.S. Lewis in the book Pilgrim's Regress shows a boy who sometimes catches glimpses of a beautiful garden. Always, theses glimpses awaken a sense of longing in him: he wants to see more of that garden, to really enter it! Much of his life is spent in wandering in fake gardens. But sometimes there is the reminder -- here is a garden worth finding! Those moments wake him up and move him closer to the truly beautiful garden. Lewis also describes moments of “joy” in his life that “woke up” a desire for God at certain points in his life.
Still, while on earth we consider the physical world to be the major reality (though as believers we realize there's a spiritual realm), in Heaven, the spiritual realm is what defines reality. Paul explained this when he says, "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:18)
Still, though, Heaven is separate from earth. That's why Jesus says, in John 14: "1Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going."
If Heaven was on earth, why would Jesus need to be taken up into the clouds, through the heavens?
WARNING: This next part might sound goofy. In the movie "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy," some very unlikely people stumble upon a big secret: the world was designed for mice. When the first earth is destroyed catastrophically, the mice recommission a new earth to be made. While that's PROBABLY not too realistic, there is this grain of truth: this heaven (little "h") and this earth have been corrupted. But better than the story in Hitchiker's Guide, the actual designers are God and His Son.
This new heaven and new earth will, I believe, be added onto what Heaven is now (but does my time really apply to Heaven’s time? Is it really just 7 hours forward?).
Given the pictures in movies and books of “spirits” that aren’t much more than vapor, it’s hard for me to think of a world more solid than this physical one. But just how “solid” is it? Much of matter is empty space. But Jesus knows a lot more about real substance than I do! (John 20:26-28) A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
28 Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
This God knows the ins and outs of Heaven and earth. And He’s willing to work through people as blind as me to bring about His Kingdom.
Jesus does refer to the "Kingdom of God," and uses parables to explain what the Kingdom is like.
I'm really glad that you mentioned this, because I have often wondered what the "Kingdom of Heaven" is! This is what I've been seeing... Looking back at Psalm 103:19 "The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all." Also, "[t]he earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it"(Psalm 24:1). God owns individual countries, as He owns all of the earth, but people don’t always like to acknowledge His ownership, His kingship, or His kingdom.
God's kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms. That's why the King came riding on a donkey instead of a horse. That's why He often appeals instead of commanding. It's not that He lacks force: it's that He is love. People in His kingdom are meek, are peacemakers, and are lovers of God. But they are not spineless: Jesus fully expected His disciples to know persecution as more than a stranger.
As Matthew 6:10 says: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Unlike many kingdoms where there’s constant in-fighting between the heads of state, in this Kingdom, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are in perfect agreement. In this prayer, the Disciple’s or the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is speaking directly to the Father. It reminds me of God’s domain over both Heaven and earth, and God’s desire that all of His creation be reunited to Him. Man, is that a big heart!
Like Philips, Craig, and Dean sing, “One day every tongue will confess you are God, one day every knee will bow; still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now!” We are God’s people. While God created this world and retains the rights to it in its entirety, at this point He asks Will you follow me? When we decide to follow him, we become His subjects and realize that we live in His Kingdom. When we are meek and peacemakers, and persecuted, we show who we claim as King.
There are also those who do not see themselves as living in a world brought about by Christ. There are those who see the universe as the product of happy coincidence and blind forces. They don’t realize that they are living in a world commissioned, created, and sustained by God. Though they may live close to a person who realizes that the Kingdom is God’s, they might not even acknowledge the existence of God. For those who acknowledge Him, it’s often in a mocking way. This is like the tenants who worked a man’s vineyard while he was away (Matthew 21:33ff). The vineyard belonged to the OWNER. It was temporarily being cared for by the TENANTS. Whenever the owner sent someone to check on the tenants, the people were either sent away or beaten up. There was no sense of stewardship: only greed and self-serving. When the owner sent his son, they killed him. There the chapter closes, but the book continues.
For these people who have been given some portion of the world to steward, a day will come when they’ll be asked to show what they have produced. And “apart from me you can do nothing.” (from John 15:5). For people who lusted for more than stewardship and tried taking on the role of king themselves, this will be a dark day (as it was for the steward in J.R.R.’s “Return of the King.”)
But now is the time to be telling others – it doesn’t have to be a dark day. It can be a day of rejoicing. You can greet the King, the bridegroom, with lights instead of cowering in the shadows. He opens His arms now to all of us who call Him King! God reigns over all the earth, and we live in His kingdom. His throne is in Heaven, but He listens to the cry of His people!