Ok, keep in mind that on Tuesdays I’m not trying to be just informative, but really trying to delve into some questions that are difficult, or look at certain aspects of the Christian faith in a different perspective. While I hold the opinions I give in these posts, I recognize that I could be very, very wrong and that I’d consider these beliefs outside the core of Christianity (that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, it just means they are the essential things).
Today I’d like to explore a simple question that could potentially lead to a lot of discussion. The question is this: where is heaven?
If you recall, the last two weeks I had suggested that its possible we are not body and separate soul, but instead one unified entity. Further, I went on to argue that this is closer to the biblical view of the human person than the idea of an immaterial soul, which I suggested comes from Platonism. This leads to an interesting problem, though. If we are raised bodily at the end, then we need to ask where is heaven?
Heaven is a place on earth
No I’m not singing late ’80s ballads, and I’m not talking about it in the cheesy Hollywood sense, I’m suggesting that, at least at the end of history, heaven has a physical location, and that location is here on earth. The new Jerusalem is not somewhere else, but is upon the earth; it is not just a “new heaven” but the “new heavens and new earth” that are mentioned in Revelation. This is the language of the creation, but it is also different in that we don’t dwell in “new Eden” but “new Jerusalem”. In other words, the end of the world isn’t met with the undoing of human history, but the redemption of it (and in some ways the affirmation of parts of it). In this sense, then, it’s not about getting there (heaven as somewhere else), but about bringing about the Kingdom of God here (which will then become the new heavens and earth). So, in a very real sense, then heave is on earth, just not yet.
However, this doesn’t entirely solve the problem. We still might ask, then, where is God now? We might say that since God is spirit that a physical location is not necessary (indeed God is both in heaven and upon the earth). At this point, those who want to affirm the existence of a separate immaterial soul might think it would be good to avoid thinking of heaven as a place somewhere because immaterial things don’t need physical space to be in heaven. However, there’s a problem. Neither the one who believes in the immaterial soul nor the person who believes in an eschatological resurrection of the dead without an intervening “disembodied” period can avoid. The trouble is, Jesus was raised as a physical body, one that could be touched, held and seen; a body that cooked and ate and spoke with people; yet also a body that could move through walls or disappear from sight. And Paul makes the clear connection in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ’s physical bodily resurrection is vitally important. This isn’t a spiritual resurrection that contemporary religious cults might have talked about, but the physical body of Jesus. That body was the one who ascended to heaven. Another way we might ask this question, then is
Where is Jesus now?
At this point, we are left with a few options:
1) We could say that Jesus’ body transformed again to a non-physical one and it is this immaterial self is heaven.* There are a few problems with that, though, besides the total lack of scriptural support. First, if Jesus got rid of his physical self, then it seems the power of the incarnation is somehow diminished. Part of the remarkable nature of the incarnation is that it resulted in a permanent change in God, now one person of the trinity was human. Also Jesus was not human for a limited time, but remained human (albeit a radically different kind of human than we are, but a human nonetheless, and so our “elder brother” as Scripture says). If Jesus could have been transformed at any point following the incarnation, then the resurrection is that much less transformative of our world. I think I may need to reserve my fuller comments about the incarnation for another post (because it’s pretty in depth, and must be approached cautiously, for while Jesus is human like us, he is also presently almost nothing like us). Finally, if Jesus is spirit now, then why is there a need for the Holy Spirit at all? Jesus only left us and then came back as the Spirit. If that is the case, then we should be modalists (I’m not a modalist, which is a heresy that has experienced a bit of revival and denies the Trinity as three different persons).
2) Jesus is in heaven, which exists as a physical place in spatial (and possibly temporal) dimensions that are not observable by humans. This option is viable because there is nothing mathematically or physically, preventing there from being multiple other spatial dimensions outside of the four that we can experience (three spatial, one temporal). We can even predict what higher dimensional objects might look like to us were they to intersect our observable space-time. In fact, if Jesus was able to move between these various dimensions that would explain how he physically could go through walls or disappear from sight. While this is all very interesting, and may be a viable option, it has problems too. First, it is highly speculative and also has no scriptural support (though, honestly, it doesn’t seem like it could have scriptural support considering these are relatively recent hypotheses). Second, if Jesus is simply in different spatial dimensions that nevertheless occupy the same space as us (which this seems to indicate), then why does he remain there? It would not be difficult for him to come in and out, back and forth between the two. Why is he there rather than here? (although, again, this may be behind the general longing for Christ’s return seen in Scripture and most Christians’ lives).
3) (Yes I tend to reserve my views for last) The question is wrong. It’s not “where is Jesus” but “when is Jesus”? Hang on, because things may get a little weird. The Resurrection event was an eschatological (end of the world) event. It had been acknowledged by many Jewish theologians prior to Jesus’ birth that at the end of the world everyone would be raised from the dead. This is the only time that sustained resurrection (not temporary resuscitation) would occur. In this way, Jesus’ Resurrection was an end of the world event. This may also explain why Matthew tells us that at Jesus’ death, many dead people in Jerusalem rose form their tombs. It really was an end of the world type of thing and the end of history breaking into the midst of it at the crucifixion and resurrection had such a huge ripple effect that it became eschatological for other dead persons as well. The early church seems to have understood the resurrection of Jesus in these eschatological terms because they are waiting for the eminent end of the world. Yet it wasn’t the end of the world, instead it was the end of the world occurring in the midst of that history, localized to the person of Jesus. In this sense, Jesus’ time “jumped” to the end of history while he was still in the midst of it. Given the generally accept understanding of eternality as holding all times in unison, this is not a contradiction. Jesus continued to act and function from his eternal perspective in the midst of our temporal one. In the same way, then, we can continue to pray to him (or to the Father through him) by the Holy Spirit because his eternity includes our present, past, and future. So he is in heaven now, with all those Christians who have died (and in one sense with us who are Christians as well) waiting for history to catch up, and when it does, his return will be the new heavens and the new earth upon this time and space right now. So I guess I am saying heaven really is a place on earth.
* I’ve discussed this position before in the context of Transformation Theology at Kings, and why, ultimately, I can’t agree with the project because it begins with the assumption that the present Christ is somehow distinct from the resurrected Christ.