How many times do you see Heaven depicted as a place in the clouds that your angelic soul wafts up to when you die? I know for me, the answer is a lot. And it’s not just in cartoons and parodies that you see that sort of image, it’s an image that’s appeared in pop-culture because that’s how many Christians throughout the centuries have imagined it. I don’t know who started thinking about Heaven like that, but it’s a load of rubbish. Here’s the image of Heaven that the Bible actually gives us, in Revelation 21:
‘Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”’
Not exactly clouds in the sky. But it does mention an old Heaven. Maybe that’s where the image comes from? The closest we get to an image of that seems to be in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees God ‘seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple’. Seraphim (a type of angel) are also present in this image, ‘each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying’. Other hints are in Jesus’ famous quote, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’, and John’s visions early in Revelation. But none of this has anything to do with cloud-people and fat babies with wings. If this is what Christians have done to the Bible it’s not hard to see why so many people don’t take us seriously.
The Heaven that we’re hoping for is really the joining of Heaven and Earth; Heaven on Earth. It is an image of completion and perfection both spiritual and physical. God didn’t give us physical bodies by accident, mortal shells to be shed when we die, He gave us physical bodies because that’s how He wants us to exist: bodily. Hence you see the bodily resurrection of Jesus at the ends of the gospels, the Jesus that could experience the physical world and be experienced by the physical world; His resurrection body is often thought to be the forerunner of our own, the promise of what God has in store.
We can take a lot of hope for this. God meant to give you the body that you have. Your appearance is no accident and whatever you look like, that’s how God made you to look. It’s not something to be ashamed of or to hide away. So maybe you don’t look like the models in the shop windows or on billboards, no one does, not even the models themselves after all the photo-editing their images go through. You were made to be you, and that you-ness is not going to be replaced by an angel in a white gown that floats up to clouds when you die.
There’s another encouragement in this, the encouragement to seek restoration now, in the physical world and for the physical world. I believe that if we say we want to honour God then we have an obligation to honour His physical creation right now, not ignoring it because we’re looking forward to flying away to the land of the winged babies (yeah, it just keeps sounding weirder). This can take many forms. Primarily it takes the form of caring for people. Honouring them and loving them as the images of God waiting for restoration that they are. No one is beneath our help, there is the potential for glory in all of us. This is a massive challenge for me; living in university halls means that there are often occasions where I am definitely not thinking of certain fellow humans as potentially glorious, but it’s really a challenge for all of us.
It also means showing a bit of care for the natural world. The world around us is as much a part of God’s creation as we are and Paul writes that it’s groaning for restoration, just like we are. It is not something to be abused and subjugated, it’s something to be cherished as an intended part of God’s perfect world. That’s why caring for the environment, and caring for animals is, I believe, a part of how we can honour God and worship Him. That’s also going to be a challenge for some people. There are some Christians who naturally really care about the environment and are so conscientious in what they do, but others, like me, have to try a lot harder, and really think about what we’re doing in order to worship God in that way.
That’s about all I have to say on this. I know that I may have come across a bit abrasive at times, and I don’t want to cause offense, but I do want to argue quite strongly against a view of Heaven that I believe is unbiblical and extremely unhelpful. Heaven will be a place on Earth, and Earth will be a place in Heaven, but in the meantime all of us can help to make the world we live in now a little bit more like the perfect world it was created to be.