What do you think about when you think of heaven? From a Christian perspective, we know heaven as the place where there is no pain and suffering, only the peace and joy of being fully united to Christ. But where is it? What does it look like? Is it a place somewhere in this universe? Or somewhere else entirely? There are a lot of biblical mysteries, but heaven, as a physical place, is impossible to imagine.
I admit to feeling great tension between life as we know it and a life after death, as if they are wholly separate worlds. The sun provides the light of this world, but what of the next? Do new lights come on? Is heaven what we wishfully imagine and describe in difficult circumstances, in particular when confronted with death?
We’ve all visited earthly places that we might call heavenly. I think of being overcome by the beauty of creation, being awestruck, forgetting for a moment worldly concerns, even suffering, and feeling a pervasive peace filling me through my senses. Astonishing mountain vistas, magnificent bodies of water, stunning sunrises or sunsets at the limits of sight–creation quiets and humbles us. Our greatest machinations or constructions may inspire, but nothing reminds us of our inconsequence and yet makes us feel as part of something permanent and good like the natural wonders that have existed long before us.
On my bookshelf is a collection of essays titled “Heaven is Under Our Feet,” a project of Don Henley who started the Walden Woods Project. The essays focus on conservation, a good thing, but the title is provocative, and I think proclaims a common notion: there is no mystical heaven, rather it is the earth that is sacred. This doesn’t ring true to me. I think the Reverend Maclean, in the movie “A River Runs Through It,” says it more accurately when teaching his sons about the origins of the earth as he cradles a sedimentary rock pulled from a river: “Long ago rain fell on mud and became rock. Half a billion years ago. But even before that, beneath the rocks, are the words of God.”
Heaven is not under our feet; below us, in the earth’s core, remains God’s furious power to create and destroy worlds. Heaven must exist in some dimension we cannot comprehend. Perhaps it is all around us. Regardless, I see the world we know as a veneer around the eternal word of God. And likewise, our bodies around our souls. Christ was the word become flesh1, and in Him we are part of that same eternal word.
Psalm 115 says, “The dead cannot sing praises to the Lord, for they have gone into the silence of the grave. But we can praise the Lord both now and forever!” (verses 17-18). I’m no theologian, but I imagine, to the writer of the Psalm and the Israelites of that time, the praising of God forever was a gift to the generations of His chosen people. But I think, because of the resurrection of Christ, it is a gift to individual souls, too. Death may very well be the entrance into Heaven, but it is our eternal souls that enter, the consummation of the work of redemption throughout our lives. Paradoxically, we praise now because of and despite of our sufferings, but we will praise unreservedly in glory when we understand fully God’s plan.2
Desiring heaven, then, brings both peace and the will to persevere. Peace like that of being comforted by a parent when a nightmare startles you awake, alone in the dark, when the Spirit assures us that our Heavenly Father is with us and we are dearly loved in Christ and that, despite the brokenness of this world and our lives, everything will be OK. And though often exhausted and wishing to give up in order to enter eternal rest now, the desire for heaven spurs us to live life purposefully, even fervently. Crying out to the Lord for strength and mercy, we run the race before us3, hoping to God to lunge for the tape at the finish line, like the Olympic runner, but not to win gold but in order to bring glory to Him who sustains us.
But alas, these are mere reflections. My thoughts on a subject infinitely beyond the limit of my comprehension. A framework for understanding composed in absence of the crucible of real trial.
On Friday, August 26, we said goodbye to Gibby, Kim’s father, my hero, who fought cancer for over 9 years and remained his jovial self, right up to the point when the doctors sedated him for a week-long battle to beat back his disease once again in order to prolong his life. It was close and hopeful, but in the end it was too much for him. Body failing him, he was placed on life support. Thankfully, his entire family was able to visit him and say their goodbyes as he lay in his darkened room in the ICU, connected to more tubes and equipment than I could have imagined. I confess that this was one of the most difficult moments of my life. As I stood over him, seeing the man at the edge of death, I was overcome with grief and found myself grasping for sincere words that reflected what I really believed. This was no time for platitudes and no occasion to ponder and articulate. My faith was profoundly challenged. This moment was about testimony, and before me lay a man who epitomized selflessness, constancy, endurance, and joy. More accurately, he embodied the qualities of his soul, a clear work of grace. And so the words were “Goodbye. For a little while.”
Our hope is that God was calling our Gibby home. I felt an intense desire for heaven, if only so we can be with him again. And, of course, all of our loved ones, those already passed and all we know that someday will.
But it is here that we must remember that the only reason we have this hope is because Jesus has gone before us to the grave and rose from it. This is the crux of it. If the resurrection isn’t true, then Gibby is simply gone. But, as if written on our hearts as in the core of the earth, we believe the ancient words, though they seem absurd to rational minds. That once upon a time a man was born of a virgin mother, lived a mistake-free life, gave of himself continually, feeding, healing, teaching, loving, but was killed in the most shameful way and yet was raised from the dead in a new form, similar in appearance to the man but wholly different, and subsequently ascended into the sky to enter some unknown dimension where he now sits at the right hand of a formless god, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal.
We believe the words not because of some intellectual certainty but because they have filled an unexplainable and haunting emptiness inside; a sense we call “the peace that surpasses all understanding.” At times like these, it certainly does.
So, just as Gibby was only recently praising God in a sanctuary with his voice, he continues praising Him somewhere with Jesus and will sing again in a new body in a new world to come4, where cancer, nor any other form of suffering, has any reign. Only the almighty, triune God, who loves us as sons and daughters5 and is transforming us into the image of Christ6.
Yes, I desire this. Now and until that time he calls me home too.
1 John 1:14 (ESV): And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
2 1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
3 Hebrews 12:1: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
4 Isaiah 66:22: “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me,” says the LORD, “so shall your offspring and your name remain.”
5 2 Corinthians 6:18: “And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
6 2 Corinthians 3:18: And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
*Featured photo is from my friend Carlton and is of a cereus flower that bloomed the night that Gibby passed. A species of cactus plant, it only blooms once a year and only at night. A small, timely wonder.