When you think of heaven, what do you think of? A dream-like place with clouds? A land full of angels with wings and halos and harps? A location to meet up with old family and friends? Now, what verse in the Bible describes heaven that way?
There is a problem with the way in which most Christians think about heaven: namely, it is a completely upbiblical view, one which reinforces the solipsistic focus that we find in other worship practices. I was particularly struck by the following except from Steven Colbert’s interview with Lisa Miller, the Religion editor at Newsweek, who recently published a book on the history of humanity’s ideas of heaven.
Lisa Miller: So here’s the problem, heaven now is this kind of you-can-eat-all-the-ice-cream-you-want-and-not-get-fat…
Steven Colbert: Yes.
Lisa Miller: …you-can-drive-a-big-gold-cadillac down…
Steven Colbert: I can hear out of this ear again…
Lisa Miller: Right, you-have-your-most-perfect-beautiful-body…
Steven Colbert: Ripped abs!
Lisa Miller: Yup, and you get to hang out with your best friends…
Steven Colbert: Right.
Lisa Miller: …And chat all day…
Steven Colbert: Of course!
Lisa Miller: …And see all of the people that you miss from life. I mean, that’s… yeah…
Steven Colbert: Of course, what’s heaven for if it’s not to see our loved ones again? Why be good?
Lisa Miller: Right. That’s a very powerful yearning among people, but I think what’s problematic about contemporary visions of heaven is that God isn’t there. And once God isn’t there, then…
Steven Colbert: Well, He’s there, but He’s like mom and dad upstairs. We’re playing in the basement, we know He’s there and everything is safe because He’s there, but He leaves us alone.
I know that many Christians imagine heaven this way. Although our vision of heaven has retained the pearly gates and streets paved with gold as described in Revelation 21:21, little else remains. In fact, the strongest vision that we have of heaven isn’t even of heaven at all – Revelation 21:21 describes the new Jerusalem, not the new heaven! So what is heaven really like?
There is a description of the throne in Revelation 4, but it looks very different from the notion of heaven that most people have:
“And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!’
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.’”
This vision of heaven in Revelation is focused not on our bodies or our enjoyment, but on the worship of the Lord. (Note that the music described in Revelation speaks only of God and not how he makes us feel.) So when we think about going to heaven, are we thinking of ourselves or of God? Are we hoping to find a place of eternal rest, or planning on adoring God through the ages? Do we just long to be happy or do we deeply yearn to bring glory to God? Are we focused on ourselves or on Him?