Asking the Hard Questions: Heaven, Revelation 21:1-7, 15-22:5
NBC March 5, 2023
An Uber driver reached the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter looked up his name in his Big Book and told him to take a beautifully embroidered silken robe and proceed directly into heaven.
Next in line was a pastor who was feeling pretty excited when he saw what the Uber driver got. St. Peter looked him up in his Big Book, furrowed his brow a bit and said, “OK, we’ll let you in, but take that plain brown robe.”
The preacher was shocked and said to St Peter, “But I am a man of God – a minister of religion. You gave that Uber driver a silken robe. Surely, I rate higher than him!”
St. Peter responded matter-of-factly, “Mate, this is Heaven and up here, we are interested in results. When you preached, people slept. When that guy drove, people prayed.”
Heaven: so many ideas
Heaven. There are so many ideas of what it’s like. Mark Twain once quipped that one should choose heaven for the climate, hell for the company. We think of heaven with the Pearly gates, streets of gold, St Peter checking people in, and us sitting on clouds playing harps, every day – for eternity.
My dad used to talk about the great wedding feast that we would enjoy in heaven, and he would say that there would be lamingtons and pavlovas galore to eat at the feast (which just happened to be his favourite foods). So as a kid, I imagined heaven to be full of all my favourite foods – and as an adult, I imagine heaven to be full of all my favourite foods that I can eat without putting weight on!
Your ideas of heaven
I wonder what your ideas of heaven are. Over the next few moments, I invite you to chat with the person next to you or near you and share what you think heaven is like.
Over the millennia, ideas about heaven have gradually changed and today we are going to go on a bit of a journey trying to understand these changes and hopefully land somewhere that will give us a theological framework to build our own thoughts about heaven.
I’m not here to give you the answers, but rather to instigate some critical thinking for us all to do about heaven and what we believe it could be all about. I don’t know about you, but often the only time I think deeply about heaven is when it’s in relation to someone having died…rather than in relation to the life and hope and promise that we have been given through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So, let’s all get our thinking caps on and be prepared to agree or perhaps even respectfully disagree with me and each other, which is a good thing if it means that we have thought and researched and prayed things through. We are all learners on this journey with God and I want to learn as much as anyone else.
Now in the beginning
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the very first verse of the Bible, we are introduced to the Hebrew word for heaven or heavens ‘shamayim’. This word has a double meaning: it’s either cosmological – a part of the physical universe or the place where God lives or dwells.
For the ancients, the heavens and the earth were separate – remember our picture of the dome with the heavens above the dome and the earth within the dome.
Heaven and earth were twin halves of God’s good creation. God’s space and humans’ space. God gave the earth to humans as our special place to live. God made the heavens to be his dwelling place. In Genesis 11 we see the arrogance of humans when they started to build a massive tower up to the heavens – this solid top of the dome – to make a name for themselves. It’s a similar sin to what happened in the Garden of Eden – they wanted to be like God. And just as Adam and Eve were scattered from the garden, so too God scattered humans throughout the world and scattered their languages.
Keeping this dome picture of heaven and earth in mind helps us when we are reading other verses in the Old Testament like Genesis 7:11 on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened,
or Isaiah 40:22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. There are so many more verses I could fill the whole sermon up with – which I won’t do.
As we understand this idea of the ancient writers
As we understand this idea of the ancient writers that God’s throne and dwelling place was in the heavens above, when we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament, we can have a fuller understanding of the excitement, disbelief and shock created when John proclaimed that the Word – God – became flesh and dwelt among us.
God, the mighty One, Creator of heaven and earth, came down from the heavens to dwell or live with humans as a human on earth. The translation here is God ‘tabernacled’ or ‘pitched his tent’ amongst us. Remember, the dome interpretation of the universe was still very much a part of New Testament people’s thinking; God dwelling in the heavens above the earth was their reality.
Then in Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, we get a new idea emerging around the idea of heaven through Jesus’ conversation with a thief on the cross beside him. Jesus speaks words of comfort to this dying man: today you will be with me in Paradise. Now often when we read this, we immediately think that Jesus is speaking about heaven. This word paradise in Greek is paradeisos which comes from an ancient Persian word meaning garden or park. Persian walled gardens were historically known for their beautiful layout, their diversity of plant life, their walled enclosures, and is a place where the royal family could safely walk. They were, in effect, a paradise on earth.
The Garden of Eden
The garden of Eden in Genesis 2 has echoes of a Persian Royal Garden. Or paradise with its abundant water supplies in the rivers that ran through it. The fruit and plants of every kind for food that were “pleasing to the eye”. God spent time in that garden. Walking and talking with Adam and Eve like a King might do with his family in a royal garden.
But as we have heard over the past couple of weeks through Rick preaching on the fall, Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden due to their disobedience. And so, from that devastating moment, the Bible lays out the tragic story of human separation from the divine and the answer to how humans can find their way back to God.
When Jesus was on earth – God dwelling amongst humans, God with skin on – he spoke a lot about the kingdom of Heaven. I wonder what the disciples made of those conversations. We read that a lot of the time they were completely confused. And it’s no wonder when we read some of the ways Jesus spoke about it. He said that the kingdom of heaven was like a mustard seed, like a treasure found in a field, like a generous landowner to name a few. He told his listeners that they must have faith like a child to enter it. That it was harder for a rich man to enter than a camel through the eye of a needle. And he said on many occasions that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
The place where God dwelt
For people whose concept of heaven was the place where God dwelt, that was a lot to take in. So, let’s explore what the early believers’ understanding of heaven and life after death was. I’m borrowing heavily from an article by NT Wright called: The New Testament doesn’t say what most people think it does about heaven for some of this.
For us to understand what the first followers of Jesus believed about heaven and what happened after they died, we need to read the New Testament in its own context— the world of Jewish promises, prophecies and hopes, of Roman imperialism and brutality and of Greek thought.
Remember the ancient’s understanding of the twin halves of God’s creation – heaven and earth. Jewish people believed that God who created the heavens and the earth would finally, one day, bring heaven and earth together in a wonderful act of new creation. Completing his original creative purpose by healing the entire cosmos of its ancient ills – of the sin that scarred this earth and humans back in the garden of Eden. Their belief in all of this became a solid reality in the form of Jesus. In Jesus, God came to live with them and brought about the possibility of the Hebrew Bible’s ancient promises and prophecies of a new creation. A new heaven and a new earth that we read about in Isaiah 65.
New creation was released
With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, this new creation was released. In Jesus they had the perfect coming together of “heaven” and “earth.” Finally, the ancient Jewish hope had come to pass at last.
Because of Jesus’ teaching and through his death and resurrection, they now believed that God would raise his people from the dead. To both share in and share with the stewardship over God’s rescued and renewed creation. Just as Adam and Eve were given that role back at the beginning of creation.
So, the point was not for them to “go to heaven,” but for the life of heaven to come to earth. Remember the words Jesus taught his followers to pray: Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
From as early as the third century, some Christian teachers started to blend this belief with types of Platonic beliefs. Which created the idea of “leaving earth and going to heaven.” This became mainstream Christian belief by the Middle Ages.
So, if we don’t “go up to heaven” when we die
So, if we don’t “go up to heaven” when we die, what hope was there for Jesus’ followers to hold onto back in the first century and for us now? Now, stick with me here. This is different thinking and may be difficult for some of us to consider. All of us have lost loved ones and we want to know that they are safe and happy in heaven. My mum is dying and I want to be assured that when she dies she will be with the Lord – which is her deepest desire.
Last year Mum believed she died for a few moments. She told me that she was suddenly in a beautiful place full of soft purples and pinks and she felt a deep, deep peace that she had never known in her life. NT Wright describes this place in the article I mentioned earlier as Paradise – the place that Jesus promised the thief. Do I believe that we and our loved ones will be with the Lord when we die? Oh yes! Do I know how that will happen? No. But I know it will be good.
The firm understanding that we have hope in and can hope for is the resurrection of the dead. Where we are raised to life and given a new and immortal physical body in God’s new earth. We don’t know what these bodies will look like. But they will be perfect without pain or blemish.
Today’s text from Revelation
Let’s move to today’s text from Revelation, where we read about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. I encourage us not to immediately jump to these verses as being a literal road map to the new Jerusalem or the end times. But we read them in the context of the early Christians. Who were living under the might and power and brutality of the Roman Empire back in the first century.
This time when Caesar was lord and if anyone else was given the title, they were traitors to the state and killed. Such incredibly brave words were spoken by Paul and Peter and John and other writers and believers throughout this time of the Empire when they claimed that Jesus was Lord. This was an offence against the state and Caesar himself.
Let’s imagine how wonderful these promises must have been to these first-century Christians who were being persecuted for believing that Jesus is Lord. These Christians had been promised that Jesus was coming back soon. Our ancient sisters and brothers in Christ had seen family members used as lamps in the garden of Nero or fed to the wild beasts in the Colosseum.
Letter from John
This letter from John promised them a glimpse into God’s wonderful new world. This letter would have encouraged them in their faith, in spite of the terrible persecution they were encountering. I imagine they would have loved seeing how John subversively spoke against the Roman Empire calling it foul and immoral. I imagine they would have felt relieved seeing the destruction that God promised against it.
This new city to come that John spoke about, this place that God would bring down to earth is described as vibrant, secure and safe. The walls that surrounded it symbolised community and security – important words for people suffering. True community was a place where everyone could feel supported and safe. The gates within these walls would be open all the time for people to come in and be welcomed.
Within this city there was no temple. Because it was the place where God dwelt. Worship could happen at any time and any place within the city. It didn’t matter the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Because in this new city of God. God was there all the time. The Lamb – Jesus our Brother – was on the throne. The people could worship him face to face, giving thanks for his sacrifice on the cross.
Water an important source of life
In the dryness of the surrounding area, water was an important source of life. In this city when John speaks of the river of the water of life, he was saying that the power that sustained life is unending and uncontainable. Along the route of this river, vegetation would flourish.
In spite of hardships. In spite of famine or drought. The people could look forward to a place where there was eternal sustenance which meant they could flourish and thrive.
In this new garden is the tree of life. That amazing symbol that God guarantees life. On both sides of the river and it continually bears fruit. No one would miss out because they were on the wrong side. There is an unending provision of food that is good to the eye.
John gives his readers a choice to make. They could choose to live in a place where they forsake God and his gift of grace and suffer its fate. Or they could struggle in their witness now. In order to live forever in the city of God after they had been resurrected from the dead.
Food, security, God’s presence, no evil, no pain, no tears of grief. What an incredible comfort for those first-century Christians who made the choice to continue in their faith, no matter what the struggle. What an incredible comfort for us to hold on to.
So What is heaven?
What is heaven? That’s a hard question for us to consider. And how about the question: Where is heaven? Often, we think that heaven is somewhere up there. But isn’t that using the ancient’s way of dome thinking. If we just jump in a rocket and travel 3000 kilometres into space, we’ll find heaven. That’s not going to happen. Could heaven be in a completely different supernatural sphere –a place that we can only imagine. Paul was so right when he stated that we see through a glass darkly.
When he was on earth, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of heaven being at hand. If heaven is where God resides. If we have God living within us through the Holy Spirit. Does that mean that we could be bringing in the kingdom of heaven just by being a child of God?
We have all been given the invitation to participate in God’s kingdom. God longs for his church to be places that are like the new Jerusalem. Safe and secure, places that have a welcome for everyone and where the judging is left to God. The church is the place where the weak and vulnerable receive special care and protection. The church is the place where we believers lay down our crowns of pride, selfishness, greed and power at the feet of God. Where they worship him together. All nations, all languages, all equal. Are we willing to take up God’s invitation to participate in being a part of the kingdom of heaven on earth?
The Bible finishes as it begins
The Bible finishes as it begins. At the end of time when a new heaven and a new earth are established. Just like the beginning of time when God created the heavens and the earth and walked in the garden with humans. Before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.
The book of Revelation doesn’t have souls going up to heaven. But God bringing down the New Jerusalem. The beautiful and perfect new creation where God lives in visible form with humans.
This picture of the new heaven and the new earth is something for us to look forward to. To and to be excited about. But let’s be careful not to sit smugly with the idea that we are getting out of here and the rest of this world can go to hell.
Let’s intentionally work towards making an eternity with our Creator. Something that is attractive and precious by giving the people around us a glimpse of it. What the new heaven and new earth – what the new Eden – could look like. A place of relationship, security, flourishing and of God’s gentle presence.
Go now from this service of worship to the service of God’s people near and far, refreshed by the living water that Jesus offers to you.
Listen for the parched voices of the least of these; search out the dry places and the arid souls, and become for them a spring of living water.
And as you go, may the blessings of the God of life, the Christ of love, and the Spirit of grace be upon you this day and forevermore.
Rev. Julie Hunt