John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
‘A man who is good enough to go to heaven is good enough to be a clergyman.’
At least, according to Dr Johnson.
What does heaven mean to you?
Does heaven motivate you?
I ask partly because I have been quite surprised recently to find out how hugely important the hope, the desire, of heaven is for some people.
This may be because it’s never figured very large in my thinking, or in my Christian vocabulary.
Once, heaven was perhaps the most attractive thing for new Christians. Before Constantine upset all the apple carts by making Christianity the religion of empire, Christianity was a religion of the poor. And if it flourished among the poor of the Empire, it was partly because the hope of heaven was hope of a better life.
But what does heaven mean to you?
Does heaven motivate you?
Of course, we use the word all the time. Common phrases such as: that would be (or was) heavenly, or that was a little bit of heaven on earth. So we have an idea in the mind about heaven as somehow better than what we experience now.
Though maybe also Milton didn’t get it too far wrong:
‘The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’
Paradise Lost, 1, 1.242
In the Bible, there’s no one single picture of heaven (you wouldn’t expect that in a collection of books written over an 800 year period, would you?). Indeed, there might not even be a single heaven: ‘The heaven of heavens cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built?’ says Solomon as he dedicates the temple (2 Chronicles 6:18); and Paul talks about a mystical experience that took him into the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-5).
But the overriding popular picture of heaven, underscored by many artists over the centuries, is that heaven is where God’s throne is to be found; where, surrounded by angels, Christ is the true High Priest offering spiritual sacrifices and interceding for all faithful Christians. Heaven is where the Son of Man will sit at the right hand of the Father and prepare a place for us; where the names of the redeemed are recorded; a realm of peace and joy, for which pictures of a great feast are not inappropriate. Heaven is the promised fulfilment of a life already begun but not yet complete, a life connected to but yet unlike the life we know.
And in Hebrews we are told that we ‘have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.’ (Hebrews 12:22). It is a wonderful vision: a vision that we are in company of innumerable angels in festal gathering, we are with the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and with the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and – above all – we are with God the judge of all, and Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.
All language about heaven – as indeed all language about God – is metaphorical. It cannot be otherwise. Language about heaven gives us pictures of life with God in God’s closer presence, of life with God not confined to or constricted by life as we know it.
But if you take some of the descriptions literally, you end up with nonsense, with cities that are architecturally impossible and structurally impractical. Look at description of ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God’ in Revelation 21, and you’ll see what I mean. But look again. Don’t try to conceive it in physical terms; try to imagine it, to grasp the concepts the pictures are trying to convey, and you get something entirely different. You’ll see wonder, glory, brightness, purity.
Occasionally, I like to indulge in a little sunbathing. But as well as enjoying the warmth of the sun, I sometimes find that I am thinking about how the sun is often used as an image of heaven or of God, for the sun gives light and warmth. But the New Testament pictures go far beyond this image, not because the New Testament is worried about the harmful effects of u-v rays, but because the image has to give way in the face of the reality of God.
‘And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God it its light, and its lamp is the Lamb’. And when we are in that great company that Hebrews speaks about, when we are in the closest presence of God, how could it be otherwise?
And I also remember that Jesus suggests we should create ‘an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
Where is your treasure? And why do you put your treasure somewhere?
Now I don’t I think I put my treasure in heaven so much as in God, in the lap of the Son of God who came as one of us to show us God, to break down the barriers of separation.
And from this perspective, heaven is not reward (as those early Christians might have thought) but consequence. But then, I don’t do punishment and reward as theological categories all that much (despite there being quantities about them, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures).
And the reason I don’t do reward and punishment too much is because what I believe about the work of Christ is not controlled by the juridical, quasi-legal and somewhat feudal images associated with the substitutionary activity of God in Christ on the cross and in the resurrection, but by the ones that speak of reconciliation – God in Christ (therefore God in God’s own self) breaking the barriers down and not holding our sins against us.
Of course, once we’ve got hold of that idea, once we’ve recognised the significance of what God has done, then there are major consequences for our way of life.
And that’s what Hebrews tells us, too.
Hebrews draws clear distinctions.
On the one hand, there’s the vision we’ve been thinking about, and which we experience in part now – after all, the writer of Hebrews doesn’t say we will come to the heavenly Jerusalem but that we have come, using a word that evokes our approach to God in worship rather than our coming to the top of the mountain up a steep and windy road.
But on the other, there’s the experience of the Hebrews at Mount Sinai where the people were terrified at the fire and the darkness and the gloom and the thunder and the voice from heaven.
It’s not like that for us.
And yet, it’s the same God.
We’re told ‘not [to] refuse the one who is speaking’. The one who spoke terrifyingly at Sinai made a covenant and gave the law, the torah, the guidance about how the people should live. In the heavenly Jerusalem we are in the presence of the mediator of the new covenant. How much more, then, does how we live, what we do, matter. And failure to live in this way might put us on the wrong side of the equation again.
‘For indeed’ – and here’s the link with the God of Sinai – ‘our God is a consuming fire.’
Of course, God in mercy allows us hourly, daily, weekly, to confess our sins and failures and to make promise of amendment. And it’s in this spirit, too, that I see heaven as consequence. But I also see the truth of ‘how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven’. And I would not like to be unprepared.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of those who clearly saw heaven on earth. And also the danger of not recognising it. Maybe we should listen to her
‘Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round, and pluck blackberries.’
Don’t pluck blackberries. Don’t sit back complacently. Live for heaven, because living for heaven is living for God.
The light that is God is sucking my little, feeble and spluttering light into God, to become part of God to all eternity. And that is heaven indeed.
My God, I love thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
Not yet because who love thee not
Are lost eternally.
Nor for the sake of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord.