Summary: Heaven is not a place I go when I die. It is a mysterious realm that is part of my existence right now. My problem is not that I can’t get into heaven. My problem is that I am at war with God. I don’t have to wait until I die to fix this!
Have you ever awakened in the morning in a new place, disoriented and confused, trying to remember where you are? That’s our human predicament.“Where are we? What is this world?” The room is spinning!
My description of the world I live in is called my cosmology. The way I understand the world I live in changes how I behave. I act differently at a football game than at the movies, or church, or a restaurant.
For years, I lived under Plato’s and Dante’s cosmology. In the last few years I have replaced this with the Bible’s cosmology. I like it. The world will make more sense. I have reason to be optimistic and have access to the presence of God in ways I would not have thought possible back in the old days.
Where Am I? The Scientific Answer
Like most people, I have turned to the scientific community for my cosmology. Science offers solid, no-nonsense real answers that can be measured and verified. It’s not like the wild speculations of religion. At least I thought this until I started paying attention to science.
The first scientists looked at the world and saw that the world was flat with a sky overhead and heavenly bodies that made their way across. This was updated when people began to sail around the world. The flat earth was exchanged for a sphere with other spheres circling it. Then Copernicus showed that the sun was the center. Now we know that the earth is a tiny speck in the Milky Way galaxy which is made of a hundred billion stars. Dizzy yet? Buckle up. The Milky Way is just one of a hundred billion galaxies. Even worse, space and time are not absolute and “outer space” is not a vast “nothing” but a mysterious “something” called dark matter with properties that are impossible to explain. If you trade your telescope for a microscope you discover another Alice’s Wonderland called quantum physics. The only reason I thought science offered a tidy cosmology is that I had my head in the sand.
Where Am I? The Religious Answer
Religions try to explain where we are as well. One ancient cosmology says that the world is supported by elephants who sit on a turtle. Really this is no more bizarre than what scientists are discovering!
What does the Bible say? Well, the Bible actually gives a wonderful answer to this question, though for a long time I didn’t know it. In the Bible, the cosmos is called “the heavens and the earth.” God, the creator stands outside “the heavens and the earth,” as in the first verse of Genesis.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
So what are the heavens and the earth?
Ancient people believed that the earth was flat with a dome on top. The flat part, where people lived, was called “earth.” The dome that covered it was called “the heavens.” The heavens were mysterious, inaccessible to human beings. They included the sun and stars, weird wandering planets, clouds, birds, and thunder. What was beyond the heavens? God.
What I find fascinating about this cosmology is that it still works. Our description of the pieces has been updated but the pieces still make sense.
1. Earth is where I live. It’s the “real world” in which I get up and eat breakfast, brush my teeth and go off to work. This hasn’t changed much. The world of Abraham and my world are much the same in spite of cosmetic differences. The sun “rises” and “sets.” I eat and sleep.
2. “The heavens” is still an apt description of the realm I observe but cannot explain. The concept of “the heavens” has undergone enormous redefinition since ancient times due to the discoveries of science but a vast, inexplicable realm remains. In fact, if anything, the realm of the unknown has grown. With every answer come a dozen new questions. It seems there is no end to “the heavens.” We can explain more than the writers of Genesis about the universe but we still lift up our eyes and drop our jaws, now more than ever.
3. Beyond the “heavens and earth.” At this point we enter the transcendent realm. What stands outside the cosmos? Maybe nothing. Maybe a force of some kind. Maybe God. No one knows for sure. But there are clues.1 To me, they point to God.
I love the Bible’s three-fold cosmology because it leaves room for what I can understand, what I can’t understand, and for mystery. There is room for my day-to-day existence, for exploration, and for God.
A Sick Substitute: The Plato-Dante Cosmology
Unfortunately, for most of my life, I lived under a different cosmology. The reason for this is two great influences: Plato and Dante.
My roots are not just Judeo-Christan. They are also Greco-Roman. In some places Greco-Roman roots have choked out Judeo-Christian ones. One example is the way I think of “material” and “spiritual.”
Plato taught that that “matter,” which I apprehend with my senses, is just a shadow. The real, eternal things are “spiritual,” meaning I don’t see, or taste, or touch them. They are beyond my direct perception. Matter is temporary and inconsequential. When I die, my physical body will dissolve and I will enter the eternal realm of spirit. Gnostics took Plato’s ideas and ran with them. Not only was matter temporary; it was disgusting. Salvation meant being liberated from the world of matter and set free in the realm of the spirit.
Plato’s influence was felt and rejected from the very first days of Christianity. In Genesis 1, with the creation of each piece of the physical world, God shouts, “It is good!” There is nothing wrong with matter. In the New Testament, Christ, the eternal Word became flesh and rose bodily from the grave. The beatific vision is not of the dissolution of earth and replacement with a transcendent spiritual realm but a new heavens and a new earth. Unfortunately, many Christians today read the words “flesh” and “spirit” like gnostics, despising their material bodies and trampling the physical earth. Like Plato, they think matter is just a husk, destined for dissolution.2
The second great influence that twisted the Bible’s cosmology was the idea of heaven and hell that evolved in the Middle Ages and was popularized by Dante. Dante took Plato’s idea of the spiritual realm and used his vivid imagination to describe our spiritual state after death. We will either spend eternity in a blissful place called “heaven” or a flaming pit called “hell.” God and his angels live in heaven. The Devil and his demons live in hell.
To summarize the Plato-Dante cosmology:
- Matter is temporary and evil. The earth along with our physical bodies are matter. They will be destroyed.
- Spirit is eternal and good. When this earth and our bodies are destroyed, we will either float off to an existence in heaven or be cast into hell, two stark realms of non-material, spiritual existence.
How I Shot Holes in The Plato-Dante Cosmology
I was fascinated by the idea of heaven so I took my Greek New Testament and read it cover to cover, underlining every occurrence of the word “heaven”(ouranos ουρανος). What I saw left me scratching my head. Within the Plato-Dante framework it just didn’t make sense. Here are a few of the things I discovered:
1. I noticed that the word for heaven, both in Greek (ouranos, ουρανος) and Hebrew (shamayim, שָׁמַ֫יִם) also means “sky.” Ancient people saw that in addition to “earth,” there was an invisible realm around and above them to which they had no access. Heaven/Sky was a fact of existence. Clouds, birds, sun and moon, planets, stars, and birds inhabited “the heavens.” Human beings could not.
2. I noticed that in many cases, “heaven” was plural.[not For example, Matthew 3:2, 5:3, Mark 1:11, Luke 18:22-23, Acts 7:56. In Hebrew, the “heaven” never occurs in the singular form. No doubt the writers of the New Testament are influenced by this. Matthew, uses the plural almost exclusively. The other gospel writers prefer the singular, though they also sometimes use the plural.[/note] This took me off guard. For example, in the Lord’s prayer, the literal translation is:
Our Father who is “in the heavens.” (Matthew 6:9)
Heavens? I was confused! I thought “Heaven” was God’s abode. How could there be more than one? Did God have a vacation home? I began to wonder if my idea of “heaven” might be too simplistic.
3. I noticed that sometimes there were evil beings in heaven. This didn’t make sense at all. What were evil beings doing in heaven? I thought they lived in Hell.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
4. I saw that in the end, God creates a new heaven and a new earth. I understood why earth would need an extreme makeover. But heaven?3
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away. (Revelation 21:1)
5. I noticed that no one in the New Testament ever “died and went to heaven.” Of course, there are pictures of the afterlife. Lazarus goes to “Abraham’s bosom.” The thief on the cross is promised to be with Jesus “in Paradise.” Jesus tells the disciples he will prepare a “place” for them. But the place beyond the grave was never called “heaven.”
A New Testament Cosmology
Actually, New Testament cosmology is the same as Old Testament cosmology.
- “The heavens and the earth” describes the entire created realm.
- God is the creator who stands outside heaven and earth but has access to both.
- “Earth” is the realm where human beings live and move and have their being.
- “Heaven” (or “the heavens”) is the invisible realm that humans cannot access or fully explain.
In many places, Jesus speaks of “the Father in the heavens.” Here, Jesus is not giving us God’s address, as if God is limited to a place called heaven. The point is that God is invisible and mysterious. But God is very much present, both in the heavens and on the earth. Heaven is his throne. Earth is his footstool.4
What Went Wrong and How Do We Fix It?
Whatever your cosmology, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that something is messed up. How do we explain the suffering and insanity of our lives and this world?
When I followed the Plato/Dante cosmology, matter was the problem. My body and the physical world were evils and needed to be dissolved. When this happened my matter-free self would live in a matter-free heaven where there was eternal peace. Of course if I played my cards wrong I could wind up in a matter-free pit, tormented by eternal flames.
In the Bible, the problem is not matter, nor is there an idea that earth needs to be replaced with heaven. The problem is that there is a war in the heavens and on the earth. This war echoes throughout the entire created realm, tearing it apart. The resolution is not to do away with the so-called bad part (earth) and replace it with the so-called good part (heaven). The resolution is to bring peace to all parts. This will happen when the rebellion against the Creator ends, in other words, when God’s Kingdom comes. Then the heavens and earth will be made new.5
A while ago, I was obsessed with documentaries on World War II. What a crazy time! Megalomaniacs ran wild. We bombed each other, sprayed each other, raped each other, committed genocide, and manufactured plagues. When the war ended, it was like the world was born again. This is a picture of new creation. When the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness, a new heavens and earth will be the result. My goal is no longer to “get people into heaven” but to declare the Kingdom of God and help this world make peace with its Savior.
I Like It!
When I stopped looking at the cosmos through Plato and Dante and began to view it through the lens of the Bible, I liked what I saw:
1. My cosmology had room for mystery. “The heavens” remained vast and mysterious, as they should be. I love having my mind blown by the quantum world and dark energy and relativity, much as a man in the first century might be thrilled at the mystery of thunder.
2. My cosmology left room for science. Science is the pursuit of understanding. This expands the universe. The more we see the more we see we don’t see. The universe gets bigger with each discovery. Bad science, like bad religion, shrinks the universe but good science increases our awareness and our awe.
3. My cosmology made a broad place for the Kingdom of God. Under the Plato-Dante cosmology, the Kingdom of God was reduced to a place in the future called “heaven.” When I realized that the “heavens and the earth” included the entire created realm, I saw that the Kingdom of God was everywhere. I was no longer trying to escape one part of creation (earth) to flee to another (heaven). I could celebrate the Lordship of Jesus and the Kingdom of God in all things.
4. Biblical cosmology gave me a reason to care about the earth. I’m a nature lover, so the thought of God wiping it all out always disturbed me. I now see that the physical world is not a temporary phenomenon. Mountains, rivers, flowers, trees, birds, sunsets, oceans, whales, my dog—the whole mind-blowing complex—is part of God’s Kingdom. When I plant a tree or pet my dog or save a whale I’m not just being a good environmentalist. I am living in the Kingdom of God.
Where Do I Go When I Die?
My redefinition of heaven raised a question. If I don’t go to heaven when I die, where would I go? The most honest answer I can give is that I don’t know for sure. But I find some very encouraging statements in Scripture.
- Jesus will be there. Paul says that to die is to “be with Christ.”6 Jesus tells the thief on the cross that “today he will be with him in Paradise.”7 Death means being with Jesus. Frankly, that’s all I need to know. If Jesus is there, it will be okay—more than okay!
- Death is mysterious. Sometimes, when it comes to my descriptions of the afterlife, I have acted like I have it all figured out. But there are thousands of questions that won’t be answered until I cross that gulf and see for myself.
- Death is scary. Even on earth, a radical change makes me gulp: the first day of Kindergarten, my wedding day. Of course death is scary! I find it easier when I make a habit of trusting God and accept the fact that my existence is mysterious.
- There’s continuity. When I die, I will remain myself. In every biblical description of the afterlife, God sees people as they truly are. This results in great joy and great sorrow. Certainly, I rely on a loving Father who will welcome his prodigal child home. But this does not mean that who I am is suddenly erased. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to act as if the way I live immaterial.8 This is a mistake.
- There’s more (and more and more). I love the final scene in C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle. The children’s adventures are not over. Death is just the beginning of a new and better one. In the Book of Revelation John has a vision of heaven in which the saints who are in God’s presence are crying out “How long, O Lord?”9 as if they are still caught up in the great campaign of Christ to make all things new.
- Because there’s more, there’s hope—maybe for everyone and everything. I used to assume that at death I would be frozen in “the eternal state” (whatever that meant). It strikes me as far more likely that at death my journey will pick up where it left off, with room for further development. If this is true, there is hope, not just for me but for everyone. (More about this in the podcast on Universalism.)
- There’s danger. It would not be accurate to say that Jesus spoke of the next life as rainbow and unicorns for all. In many places he warned of grave danger. In the coming age, the Kingdom of God will be absolute. There will be no place for deceit or greed or hatred or unforgiveness. To cling to these things is to side with a lost cause. Stay tuned for next week’s episode on Hell.
What Difference Does This Make?
I’m not dead yet, so let’s come back to earth. What practical difference does a right view of heaven make?
Life in the Plato-Dante world
If I live in the world of Plato-Dante, your life on this earth has very little meaning.
- My body will be destroyed: Pass the potato chips!
- This world is temporary: Cut down a tree. Drive a Hummer.
- My life is short: Shop it up, Sex it up.
- My life is hard: Grin and bear it.
Life in the Biblical world
God is present in this world in the power of the Spirit. The Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst. So:
- My body is part of God’s creation: I choose health, not potato chips.
- God loves this world: I’ll plant a tree and ride my bike.
- Life is sacred: I’ll stop hogging my stuff and respect the opposite sex.
- The soon-coming King is on his throne: I’ll lift up your voice and declare the Kingdom of God.
In short, I will do what Jesus tells me to do. I will “lay up my treasure in the heavens.”10 Under the Plato-Dante cosmology, I read this as Jesus telling me to lay up my treasure in a far off place in the future.” I now realize that Jesus was calling my attention to the fact that the most important things in this life reside in the invisible, heavenly realm: love, forgiveness, laughter, hope, purpose, courage, joy. I now seek to feast each day on what money cannot buy. When the war in the heavens and earth ends, all these will still be there. They are already part of God’s new world.
- I have greatly enjoyed watching both the original Cosmos with Carl Sagan and the remake with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It explores the heavens and blows your mind. But the statement made at the beginning of each is puzzling to me. “The cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be.” This is a strikingly unscientific statement for such a good scientists as Sagan and Tyson. If by “universe” they mean “everything that is,” then the statement is a tautology and means nothing: “All that is” is “all that is.” If they mean that there is nothing beyond what science can discover, they have made a religious statement, not a scientific one.
- Actually, “matter” is very difficult to define. We now know that even things that seem solid and “physical” to us are just forms of energy.
- Now I see that this is a reference back to Genesis 1:1 and that “heaven and earth” is a way to describe the entire created realm. It’s another way to say that God is making all things new.
- Isaiah 66:1
- One reason the Plato-Dante dichotomy between flesh and spirit has been so deeply embedded Christian thought is that both Paul and John seems to use the language. Romans 8:4-9 is a good example. We read of a struggle between S/spirit and flesh and assume it is a struggle between the non-material and material world or, more commonly, a struggle between good and bad parts of ourselves. There is the non-material, “spiritual” part of us (the good part), and there is the material “fleshly” part of us (the bad part). But when Paul uses the language of flesh and spirit, he is not speaking the language of Plato but of the Kingdom. The realm of the S/spirit is the Kingdom of God. The realm of the flesh is the Kingdom of Darkness. Paul is describing the battle in heaven and earth and using S/spirit and flesh describe the two opposing realms. John warns us not to love not the world and that the world is passing away (1 John 2:15-17). This is not a reference to the physical world. It is a reference the the Kingdom of Darkness. “World” is defined as “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” The physical world is not the problem as John makes clear in other places where we are told that God loves the world (John 3:16). John uses the world “world” in two very different ways. The John who tells us the “Word became flesh” is no Platonist.
- Philippians 1:23
- Luke 23:43
- This is gnosticism again. Some gnostics thought that since the material body was to be destroyed, it didn’t matter what they did with it on this earth. Others went to the other extreme and turned to extreme asceticism.
- Revelation 6:10
- Matthew 6:20