In a former post on Christian eschatology, I briefly sketched out the key ways the New Testament talks about the future, what it means and its implications for the present. It was an attempt to answer the question of what we should look forward to if heaven is not the ultimate goal. I did say heaven is important but it is not nearly the whole story. What then should we do with heaven? I made the claim that eschatology, the study of the eschaton i.e. the last things, was really about God’s future. What is God going to do, who is it with and what will it involve? The plans of God involve his creation which includes heaven. Questions about heaven usually revolve around our destiny or that of our loved ones? It is highly personalized so we forget that heaven itself might have a future. Now if heaven has a future that suggests it has a purpose, a reason for why it was made. Why is there a heaven at all? We have to go back to the beginning.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” If the emergence of existence was being described according to our modern physicalist notions of reality, it certainly would not have been described in that way. Modern cosmology is interested in how energy and matter came to be. On the other hand ancient cosmology, in this case the ancient Near Eastern variety to which the Bible belongs, did not have such concerns. As Dr John Walton has called it, they had a functional ontology, that is, they were interested in how stuff was ordered and what it did, not what it was intrinsically made of. It isn’t that they didn’t wonder about the exact nature of it but without the tools of modern science they could only speculate and it therefore remained a peripheral concern. Physical matter clearly mattered to them but just not exactly in the way it does for us today. I have already mentioned this in many other posts but they described the world according to the way it appeared to them in relation to their existential concerns.
Ancient cosmology described created order. I explained in Raised to Ascend that the topographical expressions of heaven being above and earth being below corresponded to a cosmic hierarchy. Power was conceptualised as being possessed on a vertical scale of upwardly increasing authority. Spatial metaphors were based on the normal human experience of spatial reality. What was above, literally and metaphorically, controlled what was below. We still use such figural language today. Human life is subject to the forces of nature so many of them conceived of heaven, the upward space and its content, as some kind of divine power of which the earth, the downward space, was subsumed under. If there is a master there must be a servant so they thought heaven and earth interacted with each other in that way. They were distinct aspects of the natural world but they needed each other. As such they thought there were places on earth, which we will collectively call sacred space, where this necessary commerce between them would happen. What is interesting about ancient Jewish cosmology is that they depersonalized the heavens as divine but the idea of mutual belonging as the complementary halves of God’s creation is maintained. The story of Jacob’s ladder captures that sense of busy interaction, not isolated distance between the two. As I argued in other posts, sacred spaces demonstrates an integrated view of reality. Now with heaven being demoted and YHWH being as established the ultimate source of all cosmic order, the Lord God is then the Most High, heaven is his throne and earth his footstool. Heaven is therefore God’s dimension of present reality, the administrative headquarters of his universal reign. Heaven is not reduced to a place you go to when you die.
Throughout revelation there isn’t much attention paid to the destination of the dead. It assumes the standard position that the dead go into the underworld only hinting at righteous martyrs somehow having a place in heaven. The scriptures in general say so very little about the afterlife and its relation to heaven, it is hard to be dogmatic about it. For me the clearest indications of a heavenly afterlife are in Revelation 6:9-11, Hebrews 12:22-23 and Ephesians 3:14-15. They point to aspects of the deceased individual’s humanity being preserved by God with him in heaven. They are in heaven because they continue with God and are therefore at the place from which he reigns. It isn’t because heaven was made to be the resting place of the dead. Heaven hosts those who are in the intermediate state between the present age and the one to come but is itself not the intermediate state. Heaven’s role in the afterlife is incidental and not primary. Heaven is not another way of talking about the afterlife in the Bible. The New Testament is actually far more preoccupied with what happens after life after death. Since death was viewed as transitory, they did not pay much attention to the intermediate state. Pagan thinking had far richer traditions about the afterlife since they thought death was final. Many scholars are of the view the Jewish elaboration of the afterlife emerged during the second Temple period which was marked by a lot of pagan influence.
We have established that heaven occupies only an incidental and biblically vague role in the afterlife. Now we can refocus on the issue of heaven’s God given purpose and future. As I have already mentioned, heaven’s existence is bound to the earth. They are the complementary halves of God’s created reality, made for each other. Genesis 1 and 2 are written according to an ancient Near Eastern worldview where the cosmos is the home of deity. The temple is then seen as a microcosm of this larger reality, from which the gods operate in the world. Sacred space therefore functions as a nexus point, a place where the heavens and the earth overlap and interlock. This motif of the divine cosmic temple is dotted throughout the Bible. In Revelation the future of heaven is seen with earth where they are joined together using the powerful metaphor of a marital union. The reason heaven and earth is seen as out of joint and needs to be put back together is the presence of sin. Heaven is God’s dimension of reality and earth is man’s dimension given to him by his creator as a priest-king. If sacred space is holy the presence of sin means humanity and deity, heaven and earth cannot commune properly. To re-establish sacred space purification has to be made which means you need a sacrificial system to do atonement for sin and make things right. In the Gospel the atoning sacrifice that brings heaven and earth together is the crucifixion of the Messiah Jesus. The is renewed union between the heavens and the earth which was conceived on the cross and birthed three days later will be consummated in the future. Revelation specifically calls this new creation. The veil between heaven and earth is pulled aside to show there is vibrant interaction between the two and in future they will be unified. Instead of us going to heaven in a disembodied afterlife the ultimate future is actually heaven coming down on earth in a new bodily reality.
This idea of an eschatological union between the fundamental binaries of the Genesis creation narratives, Creator/creation, heaven/earth, God/man, Jew/Gentile, helps us discern an important principle in aiding us to envision the world to come. I explained the principle of continuity and discontinuity in the previous post but in this one it is association and dissociation. Unsurprisingly, both principles overlap because they are ways of describing a yet to be fully realised future. You might say the associations that will be present in the new creation are an example of continuity. In Genesis we find the foundations of the distinctive Jewish worldview. Instead of a world born from internal conflict like other ancient Near Eastern creation narratives we have relationship. This is true relationship where there are real distinctions between the members in the relationship. This is an important point to note because in other cosmogonies everything emerges from some primordial substance, including the gods. In Genesis God is completely distinct from his creation, he is not a part of nature. Strictly speaking he is the only truly supernatural being. Even though he is present in creation he equally transcends it all. He is the one on whom everything depends but who does not depend on anything. This cosmological duality between creator and creation is foundational for biblically ontology where things do have a distinct being and identity and not just manifestations or the forms of one thing. Without that you cannot have true otherness which is necessary for a relationship. For instance if heaven and earth and earth cannot be distinguished from one another then there is no point in talking about them coming together. All associations require another.
When we get to the last part of Revelation where it talks about the new creation, it takes a look at those relationships between the different aspects of the original creation and re-envisions what the future of these relationships will be. Heaven and earth come together as I have already said but the sea is no more. When we go back to Genesis 1 we find there is an important terrestrial binary of land and sea. In the new creation there is only land. This tells us in the new creation not only will there be new associations, some relationships will come to an end; there will be dissociation. (As I earlier mentioned this can be seen as example of continuity versus discontinuity, since some relationships continue but in a renewed form but some connections are terminated.) Another example of a new association outside Revelation is between Jew and Gentile. Paul says in Ephesians that the Messiah broke down the dividing wall between them to form one new man in himself. Paul was alluding to temple architecture but this goes to show for some new relationships to exist, divisions have to be squashed.
As I have tried to demonstrate, association versus dissociation necessarily goes beyond merely maintaining some relationships while jettisoning others. It is about redefining them according to a renewed cosmic vision of reality, a unified new creation under God’s will and purpose. Because of the goal of unity we need to think relationally in conceiving what it will be like and this principle is very useful in navigating. You take those created binaries, such as heaven and earth, and see what relationships they will have in the future in God. In any relationship you have to consider the purpose of each identifiable element, even if they are antithetical, to discern the type of relationship between them and how it will progress when there is a change between the elements or their connection. For example in ancient cosmology where there is a three tier structure to the universe of heaven, earth and the terrestrial underworld, heaven and the underworld are at opposite poles. However, in the new creation that we glimpse in Revelation there is no place for the Hades i.e. the underworld because cosmic landscape is radically altered by heaven, the highest point, being brought on earth. The cosmic geography has fundamentally changed because of a new relationship between the great creational binaries of heaven and earth. This new future arrangement is to bring God’s life giving presence and power on earth which means there can be no death, including the place that holds the dead, that is, Hades. This is part of God’s universal agenda to be all in all, where all creation is brought under his sovereign rule and he has uninterrupted communion with all his creatures.
How popular theology envisions heaven misses the point by not actually taking the whole sweep of scripture into consideration. Rather we selectively emphasize the things scripture does not devote much time to and minimize the things that are very important to it. This is typical of an individualistic reading of scripture where it is about me and my concerns forgetting the Bible is actually about God and his story. The biblical vision of heaven transcends an individual’s destiny and encompasses the future of all existence. It’s about God’s will being done on earth as it is heaven. So the first thing that should pop into our minds when we think of heaven is not an incorporeal afterlife but rather kingdom. The place and power of heaven is actually the dominion of God over all creation.