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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When we would glimpse heaven

Heaven is not what you think.  Certainly not harp-strumming angels, with little lambs cared for by a carefully coiffured, blue-eyed Jesus on a verdant landscape.  Neither some distantly remote galaxy hopelessly removed from human reality.


This week especially, as we celebrate Jesus’ victory over death, what is the hope we would enter into as we pledge our lives to him? 


What does it actually mean “We go to heaven,” even though the phrase does not appear in the New Testament?


So many of us hold the wrong image, derived not from the Bible but from classical Greece and subsequent Roman culture.  This is what we see, for example, in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator as the character played by Russell Crowe, prepared to die, glimpses the Elysian Fields.   Very pleasant, of course: but not the heaven as taught in scripture.


So what does the Bible hold out for us?  Very simply, as I shared the other week, a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1), a kingdom where God’s will is done and all relationships restored to his original purpose.  It will be a place of love and beauty, purpose and plenty, as glimpsed afar by the prophet Isaiah: “Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isaiah 51:11)


This is the “new Jerusalem,” where there is both continuity and discontinuity, “It’s Jerusalem, Jim – but not as we know it.”  Remarkably, as Isaiah foresees, there are both wolves and lambs but in an entirely new relationship as they feed together not one eating the other!


This is a future we dare to hope for and certainly for Christians, enduring terrible hardship and even cruel persecution, a hugely important cause for encouragement.  So the apostle Paul, for example, writes of his longing to be with Christ. He explains: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)


So in Eugene Peterson’s somewhat over-the-top translation, we read:  “As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here.” (v22f, the Message)


So how do we hope for heaven, for God’s glorious future, for creation healed?  I haven’t got the book to hand but I recall Pete Greig, in God on Mute, encouraging us to actively hold onto the hope of heaven as an integral part of the Christian life. Something far more wonderful than merely hoping for a pie in the sky when we die.


So wonderful, in fact, it is beyond our understanding. 


So the apostle Paul quotes Isaiah: “’What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ - the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9).   In other words we simply cannot even begin to imagine God’s glorious future, it’s beyond our intellectual grasp.


As a sixth former I was encouraged by a crazy book I found in the school library:  “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.” It’s a Victorian novella of life in a two-dimensional world where everything and everyone is flat.  And when a three-dimensional sphere appears, the flatlanders experience this as a circle.  They simply lack the ability to appreciate another dimension, like us limited to our three-dimensional world.   


Again the world of cosmology helps us to glimpse what we cannot see.  I find all this wonderfully fascinating as theoretical physicists, like Stephen Hawking, use mathematics to explore our wonderful universe, so weird it’s amazing.  How about the anthropic principle?  This suggests that the existence of a multitude of universes, each with different physical laws, could explain the fine-tuning of our own universe for conscious life.


We can’t understand this, of course, but it’s a strong argument for humility, of how to live with our very limited understanding of reality.  The fact that we cannot understand God’s glorious future is simply par for the course.


However, C S Lewis has a fascinating approach to all this, in that he encourages in the ordinary affairs of life to be prepared to glimpse heaven in our peripheral vision.  Such insights are sudden and transient, like glimpsing a kingfisher on a country walk.


But more, a sense that we are made for more than this.  So he writes:  "Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.”


So he argues: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."


So again as a sixth former I read in his Mere Christianity, which has been with me ever since.  “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same."


So secure in the love of our victorious Christ, we can handle whatever life would throw at us, knowing that God’s glorious future has already arrived.  We do so, in the words of the apostle Peter, as exiles. “residing temporarily in the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and West Lancashire.” (1 Peter 1:1, my translation). 


Alleluia, Christ is risen

He is risen indeed. Alleluia. 


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