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Heaven Is a Place On Earth

Heaven Is a Place On Earth

by The Reverend Dr. Roman D. Roldan on March 15, 2023

TLDR: The New Testament doesn’t say what most people think it does about heaven. Read on for a glimpse of what Holy Scripture, the Apocrypha, and a modern-day theologian say about Heaven.

Last week I taught a class on heaven at the Villages of Gleannloch Farms. For the Old Testament, heaven is three different things: First, it is the atmospheric heavens, what we traditionally call the skies: rain and snow come down from heaven, the heavens are higher than the earth, the heavens are covered with clouds and provide the rain earth needs for grass to grow, etc. (Isa 55:9-11; PS 147:8, and many others.)   

Second, heaven is the celestial space between earth and the furthest edges of the universe: It contains stars so numerous that they can’t be counted, and the sun, the moon, and all the celestial host dwell in this space. This space was created by the breath of the Lord, but humans often confuse the sun and the stars for gods and create objects of worship in their image, offending God. (Gen 15:5; PS 33:6; Isa 14:12; Amos 5:26; Job 9:9; Job 38:31; Exodus 20:4; Jer 44:17-25.)

Third, heaven is the dwelling place of God. This is a high and lofty place where the eternal God resides. God sees humanity from his holy place and in his zeal and compassion he often intervenes on their behalf. (Isa 57:15; Isa 63:15; 2 Chron 36:23; Dan 2:37). Often God’s dwelling place is called God’s Tabernacle and the earthly structure called by the same name represents the heavenly dwelling place (Exodus 36:8-39:43). Often it is called God’s Sanctuary (Ex 25:8-9; Lev 21:21-23), his Temple (1 Sam 1:9, 3:3; 2 Sam 22:7), God’s habitation (Ex 15:13; PS 26:8), God’s throne (PS 33:14; Isa 61:1; Jer 14:21), and God’s house/home (Gen 28:17; 1 Kings 8:12-13, 27.)

In the Inter-Testamental period, Heaven is the dwelling place of God from which direct assistance is sent to protect God’s people. Heaven intervenes in human affairs, protecting the Temple’s treasury, fighting with the army against enemies, (1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees 3:39-40, NRSV,) and even protecting specific individuals (Tobit.) Heaven is also the place for the righteous, “The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight… ‘Look on this side and on that; here are delight and rest, and there are fire and torments.’ Thus he will speak to them on the day of judgment…” (2 Esdras 7:36-38, NRSV.) Heaven is a place of judgement, “The Most High shall be revealed on the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn. Only judgment shall remain, truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong.” (2 Esdras 7:33-34, NRSV)

Heaven as a place of delights, to which we escape when we die, comes from the influential apocryphal book of 1 Enoch (Second Century Before Christ.) The book introduces the concept of a holding place (“delightful places”) for the righteous dead, awaiting their resurrection on Judgment Day: “Then Raphael, one of the holy angels who were with me, answered and said: These are the delightful places where the spirits, the souls of the dead, will be collected; for them were they formed; and here will be collected all the souls of the sons of men… until their appointed period.” (1 Enoch, Chapter 22, Translation by Richard Laurence.)  

The New Testament retains and affirms all of the Jewish Scriptures understandings of Heaven, but adds additional understandings. It affirms that Heaven is the original dwelling place of Christ (John 1:1-8, 18, 3:13, 6:33ff, 12:28, 17:5; Matt 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:18; Luke 24:51; Eph 4:10; 1 Tim 3:16, etc.) Heaven is home of the heavenly beings or angels, a word that appears 170 times in the NT (Zondervan Pictorial Commentary of the Bible.)  And heaven becomes the place where those raised by Christ go. In fact, Paul calls this place a city and we become citizens of this city through resurrection (Col 3:1, Eph 1:3, 20; 3:10; 6:120; see also, Heb 3:1, 6:4.) It is the ultimate destination in Revelation, where heaven appears 52 times. But the New Testament never sees Heaven as a place in the skies to which we escape after we die.

In an article written for Time Magazine entitled, The New Testament Doesn’t Say What Most People Think It Does About Heaven, Anglican Theologian NT Wright says, “For most modern Christians, the idea of ‘going to heaven when you die’ is not simply one belief among others, but the one that seems to give a point to it all… But the people who believed in that kind of ‘heaven’ when the New Testament was written were not the early Christians. They were the “Middle Platonists.” These were late followers of the Greek Philosopher Plato (423-347 BC.) Wright continues, “The followers of the Jesus-movement that grew up in that complex environment saw ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ — God’s space and ours, if you like — as the twin halves of God’s good creation. Rather than rescuing people from the latter in order to reach the former, the creator God would finally bring heaven and earth together in a great act of new creation, completing the original creative purpose by healing the entire cosmos of its ancient ills. They believed that God would then raise his people from the dead, to share in — and, indeed, to share his stewardship over — this rescued and renewed creation. And they believed all this because of Jesus.”

This is the true New Testament understanding of Heaven. The current heavens and earth will be destroyed and new heavens and a new earth will come together, in a new creation. “God will put the whole world right, this worldview says, and in ‘justification’ he puts people right, by the gospel, to be part of his putting-right project for the world. Christian mission includes bringing real advance signs of new creation into the present world: in healing, in justice, in beauty, in celebrating the new creation and lamenting the continuing pain of the old.” (Ibid.)

This earth will be restored to be united with a restored heaven, and since this new creation will become our eternal home, what we do here and now matters. If we don’t escape but stay, then how we care for this earth becomes important. We must steward creation with love and care because this will be our forever home. Creation-care, and how we treat each other, matter a great deal. We must care for each other as though we will spend eternity together, because this is exactly what will happen, here on this island home.

Blessings to you,

Fr. Roman+

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