“Is heaven ‘out there’ somewhere now or will is it somewhere now in place and time?…Will this earth be destroyed or remade/redeemed at the end of time?…What does it mean to be faithful?…Why has Christ not come back in 2000 years? Didn’t the apostles think he was coming back a lot sooner?”
I’ve looked at a couple of these before but it is clear from my in-box that we need to revisit a variety of subjects that have coalesced into something I think we can deal with in one answer.
I can remember swinging on a backyard swingset when I was a little boy. It is one of my first memories. The swingset had not been set into concrete and so as soon as you got going, one leg or another of the set would rise up a bit as if it were going to come out of the ground. Being a boy, I tried to swing harder to see if I could make it flip! But as clearly as I remember anything, I remember wondering if there wasn’t something under the swingset pushing up, trying to get out of the ground. And I was pretty sure that it might be the devil.
In all of our Bible Class songs and in our common parlance, heaven was up and hell was down. I assumed that hell was somewhere deep in the earth and – though only aged three or four – I had already wondered about how the devil made his way from “down there” to the land of little boys, dogs, and tea. Perhaps I had found his gateway: my swing.
I might have asked one of my parents about it or I might have allowed my mind to move on – as a kid’s mind is wont to do – but the thought passed and I didn’t worry about it long. I recall that memory to this day when people ask me where heaven (or hell) is located.
The short answer is: we don’t know. Heaven already exists. God is there and Jesus went there to prepare a place for us. As Randy Alcorn said in his book, it seems to be under construction as the picture of it changes from time to time in scripture. But since it already exists somewhere, what about those like N.T. Wright and many of the younger ministers in my own religious tribe who believe that heaven will be here, on a redeemed, cleansed, and renewed earth?
As I’ve written before, I find their arguments very compelling but not exactly convincing. I see where they get their concept and it makes sense on some levels. Still… I believe that heaven already exists somewhere. I have no problem with the idea that this world will be renewed and be absorbed in heaven’s territory on the Last Day. I just don’t know about the mechanics of that Day.
While we wait for that Day to come, what does it mean to be faithful? The impression I have (and I could be wrong) is that many or most Christians are trying to do the right things and think the right things while opposing the other things so that when Jesus returns, they will get to go heaven. That reduces our faith – which should be active, giving, loving, and joyful – into rote rituals, repeated prayers, and standardized worship. There is nothing in scripture to indicate that we are supposed to behave and wait our turn to enter heaven.
So if we are not supposed to spend all of our time on earth just trying to measure up in the hopes that we might make the cut on Judgment Day, what does it mean to be faithful? I think it means making this earth more like heaven each day while we wait on the Lord. Jesus’ prayer to His Father was very plain – “Let Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” None of us can argue that this prayer has been answered affirmatively in any widespread way, but it CAN and IS answered affirmatively every time one of us decides to live out the life of Christ on earth, making our portion of earth more like heaven. When we immerse ourselves in love and good works (not in order to be saved but because we are saved), we will have an impact for good; we will be making the world a bit more like heaven for those near us.
When a family decides to forgo some pleasure in order to support an orphan or a Compassion International child, they are making the world more like heaven and playing a part in answering the prayer of their savior. My wife support such a child and we are also big fans of One Child Matters (www.onechildmatters.org) that works in smaller communities than Compassion does and links hands with local churches and schools in a unique and effective way. We love the work of the International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org) in stopping human trafficking and freeing modern day slaves all over the world. When they pull little boys and girls out of a two foot tall crawlspace in India where they are imprisoned when not working at a mill or a brothel, the IJM is making the world more like heaven by removing the hell that others are experiencing.
Countless decisions every day make this world more like heaven or more like hell. I was amazed at the reaction to a decision Kami and I made without hesitation; seriously, without giving it a second thought. We were on a cruise ship – the lovely Navigator of the Seas – and Kami went down to skate on the ice rink on the third deck. She has been a figure skater all of her life and continues to skate weekly here in Colorado but, like all skaters, falls happen. She was skating backward and caught a blade, catching herself on her left wrist. She knew that she had hurt herself but she waited an hour before alerting me (I was reading on another deck) that she needed help. I took her to the ship’s doctor, a nice man who X-rayed her wrist and didn’t find a break. He put her in a small splint and gave her ibuprofen.
At home, two weeks later, she went to our doctor. She just wasn’t feeling better. He determined that she had broken not her wrist but her ulna. She was sent to orthopedic specialists to put a hard cast on her immediately. Once there, the specialists said, no, she hadn’t broken her ulna… she had broken her wrist after all. So one doctor missed the break and the other doctor read a break where there wasn’t one. People immediately called, texted, and emailed us saying we had to sue Royal Caribbean or at least get free cruises because of us.
No. Ice is slippery. We knew that before she packed her figure skates. Accidents happen. We were also aware of that. People can miss a break on an X-ray if it is a hairline fracture. We knew that, too. And our family doctor? Great guy but he doesn’t spend all day every day reading X-rays. We gave him a pass, too. Suing someone was the last thing we would even think about. She has a nice cast on and is doing well.
We were reminded of the time my children and I were in my Toyota and struck by an 18 wheeler and driven into the side of Cheat Lake bridge (WV) in October of 1993. I was hospitalized for most of a week and my children were released within a day – scarred and bruised but all right. My car was in several pieces, of course, and I had a scar or two and a knee that will probably give me trouble from time to time the rest of my life. People came out of the woodwork and told me to sue. Millions of dollars were suggested as a starting point.
We asked the trucking company to pay our medical bills. Not a penny more. Why? We didn’t expect to get through this world without pain or accidents. I won’t make someone else’s life hell. My job is to make their life more like heaven.
God says that what He requires of us is to walk humbly with him and to love justice and mercy. Sounds like He wants us to act like heaven could be right here…if we do our job. Yes, the apostles thought Jesus was coming back very, very soon. Why didn’t he? Honestly, I have no idea. But here’s a thought: maybe he’s waiting on us to do what he told us to do. You know, all that “into the all the world” stuff and that “love your neighbor” stuff. Maybe when we make this world more like heaven, heaven will come to us or we will go to it.
As for its final location, I trust Him. As long as He is there, I want to be there, too.