In my teens I used to play the guitar—finger-plucking style. I accompanied a singing group who performed at youth meetings and evangelistic events. One of our mainstay songs went thus:

This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

I can’t feel at home with that song anymore, either. Why? Because I’m convinced that ‘heaven’ doesn’t figure in the New Testament scheme of things anything like as prominently as it does in much evangelical preaching and theology.

I winced when, at a recent outreach meeting, the speaker declared: ‘The big question, my friend, is whether you will go to heaven when you die!’ And then went on to say, of course, that if ‘my friend’ invited Jesus into his heart (another utterly unbiblical concept) he would be forgiven for his sins and be entered on God’s ‘OK for heaven’ list. Where on earth does that sort of approach come from? Certainly not the New Testament.

Let’s unpack this a bit. For starters, is heaven a real place ‘somewhere beyond the blue’? Or perhaps we should ask, ‘Is it a “place” at all?’ Well yes, you say. It’s where Jesus went when he ascended (Acts 1:11) and where he’s seated at the Father’s right hand (Acts 2:33-34). It’s where all the dead saints are, rejoicing in his presence (2 Corinthians 5:1). It’s a location in the ‘up’ direction from earth—which for Australians and Europeans could be two opposite directions, but we won’t go down that path.

The biblical data, by contrast, sits much more comfortably with the idea of heaven as a ‘dimension’ rather than as a ‘place’. When you think about it, is it likely that Jesus is currently sitting on a material throne in a spatial location somewhere ‘up there’? No. After all, God the Father is a spirit-being, not a material one, so he doesn’t have a right and left to sit at. Here we have human language stretched to its limits trying to explain spiritual realities and ending up, inevitably, using figurative and poetic terminology to get the point across. Here it is saying that, following his earthly ministry, Jesus was reunited with the Father and now rules the universe.[1] It’s describing the ‘what’ of the situation rather than the ‘where’.

The idea of heaven as a dimension is gaining increased recognition among biblical scholars. Here, for instance, is Tom Wright on the subject:

‘Heaven, in the Bible, is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last, he will remake both, and join them together for ever.’[2]

But what about the dead saints? They must be somewhere, so where are they? Well, they certainly don’t have bodies—embodiment awaits the final resurrection—so in a sense they don’t need a ‘where’, since they don’t occupy any space. But we’ll return to that in a moment. Let’s stick for now with the ‘go to heaven when you die’ idea in general.

For the average Christian it’s often the phrase ‘eternal life’ that makes them think ‘heaven’. That’s a mistake. Eternal life literally means ‘the life of the age to come’. We get a taste of it here and now when we become Christians,[3] but we will experience its fulness only after Christ’s return. And even that won’t be ‘in heaven’, because the New Testament  is clear that, in the end, it’s heaven that comes to earth, and that the final state of affairs, called in Scripture the ‘new heaven and new earth’, will be one where God removes the veil between the two dimensions to introduce that glorious new universe, with its very bodily element. God and his people will then be forever one.[4]

Here’s another false trail: readers of Matthew’s Gospel, when they come upon his common phrase ‘the kingdom of heaven’, assume that it refers to heaven, and that to ‘enter’ or ‘inherit’ the kingdom of heaven is to go to heaven when you die. Again, this is a complete misunderstanding. For a start, the other Gospel-writers, in parallel passages, use ‘kingdom of God’—no mention of ‘heaven’. Matthew used ‘kingdom of heaven’ simply because he was writing for a chiefly Jewish readership, and Jews were a bit squeamish about using the word ‘God’ lest, unwittingly, they might take his name in vain. So it was customary in Jewish circles to use ‘heaven’ to mean ‘God’.

And that kingdom itself, whatever label we give it, is not heaven. It was inaugurated by Jesus at his first coming and is all to do with ‘earth’. As followers of the King, it’s our job here and now to bring his standards to bear as much as possible on the world around us, as we continue to pray, ‘Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ When the King returns that prayer will receive its full and final answer, but in the meantime you are to move things along in that direction—and it’s to do with your workplace, your family, your activities, your standards here on earth, not in heaven when you die.

Then there’s Revelation chapters 4 and 5, where the twenty-four elders cast down their crowns before the throne of God and of the Lamb. Charles Wesley’s hymn Love Divine has been responsible for leading Christians to believe, since the eighteenth century, that this is a picture of us, in heaven at last, acknowledging the Lord’s kingship.[5] Sure, the scene in Revelation is stated to take place in heaven. But its relevance to the last day is zero. Revelation, of course, is notoriously difficult to interpret but this particular passage is all about present, not future, reality—seen from heaven’s perspective. As God’s people on earth, represented by the twenty-four elders in heaven, we acknowledge God’s supremacy now. Not until chapters 21 and 22 do we get to the great ending of history, and there, far from seeing believers leaving earth for an eternity in heaven, we see the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two dimensions for ever.[6]

What a prospect! I love it. And I never really fancied heaven anyway, at least the way it has traditionally been portrayed. Not for me walking around on 24-carat gold pavements, dressed in a long white nightshirt, twanging a harp and singing mind-numbing worship songs for ever and ever. If I’m to end up in that environment, give me instead a pavement of good Yorkshire sandstone and a vintage Hammond organ with Leslie speakers. And I suspect that those, and lots more goodies, will be available here below when heaven comes down.

‘Ah yes,’ I hear you say, ‘but here’s the clincher: Jesus told the Twelve that, in leaving them, he was going to “prepare a place for you”. And, he added, the place in question is “my Father’s house”, which has “many rooms”. What’s more, Jesus would come again and take them away “that you also may be where I am”.[7] He was going to heaven, so that’s our destination, too.’

If that is the last word on the subject we are, of course, going to have to explain away all the other Bible passages that point to a different final outcome. But we don’t have to, because monai, the Greek word for ‘rooms’, means not a permanent dwelling but a stopping-place en route to somewhere else. It means a ‘tarrying-place’ and often described an inn or guesthouse. My Bible-exegesis software defines it as ‘a hospitable area (within a house or building) where a person can remain for a period of time.’ So the disciples were not going to be staying ‘up there’ for ever; it was just a stopover until the Last Day and the arrival of the ‘new heaven and new earth’, their final destination.

All this raises, of course, the issue of what is called ‘the intermediate state’, namely, what happens to believers between their death and the return of Christ. Most evangelicals have taught that the right word for their ‘location’—if that’s an appropriate term for disembodied beings—is ‘heaven’. Jesus’ statement about his Father’s house seems to point in that direction. And when Paul, sensing his impending death, talks about ‘departing’ this life, he says it will be to be ‘with Christ’, which, he adds, is ‘better by far’.[8] He also states that to be ‘away from the body’ is to be ‘at home with the Lord’.[9]

So heaven, it seems, will be our temporary abode, our ‘room at the inn’ till the big day comes for our final embodiment and relocation to the new earth blessed with heaven’s presence. But let’s be sure that the latter destination remains our focus. Sadly, many have become so stuck on heaven that they have lost sight altogether of what is the Bible’s great prospect: resurrection to a new body like that of the risen Jesus himself.[10] Sadly, few today insist on Resurgam on their gravestones.[11]

In spite of the apparent weight of evidence for the intermediate state as a conscious, though disembodied, enjoyment of the Lord’s presence in heaven, some Christians hold that there is no such state. They believe that death marks the cessation of all conscious existence.

‘But how can they believe such a thing when Paul says so clearly that to depart this life is to be “with Christ”?’ you may well ask. Well, they point to Scripture’s common metaphor for death, which is ‘sleep’.[12] When you go to bed and fall asleep, they say, the next thing you know is the alarm going off. You have no conscious awareness of the long hours that have passed between the two. So when a Christian dies, it is immediately the day of Christ’s return, and that’s what Paul meant by stepping straight from this life to being with Christ. They would remind us, too, that ‘people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.’[13] The judgment, they rightly point out, is at the last day, so the phrase ‘after that’ suggests an immediate transition from death to the last day.

They may be right. But they will have to explain why Jesus said to the repentant thief, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’[14] They will need to explain how Moses and Elijah could appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.[15] And they may have difficulty with the fact that, in talking about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jesus said that God ‘is not the God of the dead but of the living’.[16] You must decide for yourself. And unless Jesus returns before you die, you’ll one day find out.

Either way, our prospects are wonderful! And in the long run they are delightfully earthy.[17]

None of us knows when our time will be up. For myself, being now past ‘three score years and ten’, I’m conscious that there’s more of my natural life behind me than in front of me. My aches and pains are more regular and they linger longer than they used to. Sometimes I think it would be nice to be free of all that. But my times are in God’s hands, and I want to serve his purpose eagerly and intelligently as long as I’m here. Meanwhile, I’ve no time for all that stuff about our souls being trapped in the prison of this wretched body and being released at death to fly away, unfettered, to a disembodied spirituality. That view has its roots in Greek philosophy and Gnostic heresy, not in the revealed truth of God’s Word. When my time comes I’ll be more than happy to have a few years, or a few centuries, in a room at Father’s Inn, but even then, I’m sure, I’ll be looking forward with him to Resurrection Day.

For now, we’re here. While we are, let’s keep ‘kingdom’ central. And that’s a thing of earth. We are citizens of heaven posted abroad to earth, so to speak, to be Christ’s advance party for his takeover.[18] Let people know and say that this world is a better place because you’ve been around in it, that in your own small way you have brought a little bit of heaven to earth.

‘Just a-passin’ through’? No, just a-helpin’ the takeover along.

And when the Great Transition comes at last, I invite you to have a sing-song with me round the Hammond organ.

Copyright © David Matthew 2013

1. ‘The ascension is then, as Luke certainly intends and John and Matthew hint, not Jesus “going away” in the sense of being out of sight and out of mind. Heaven, in biblical thought, is after all the “control room” for earth. For Jesus to be now “at God’s right hand” is for him to be given full authority over heaven and earth, as Matthew’s Jesus says explicitly.’  (N.T. Wright, How God Became King, HarperOne, 2012, p268)

2. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, SPCK, 2007, p26

Just A-Passin’ Through?

Getting heaven in perspective

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

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3. Hebrews 6:4

4. 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1

5. ‘…till in heaven we take our place;/ till we cast our crowns before thee,/ lost in wonder, love and praise.’ This hymn has some other questionable content, which I have written about in my article Charles’s Off-Day.

6. Revelation 21:1-3

7. John 14:1-3

8. Philippians 1:23

9. 2 Corinthians 5:6-9

10. Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:20-21

11. Resurgam is Latin for ‘I shall arise!’ and was common on tombstones in previous generations.

12. John 11:12-13; 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13

13. Hebrews 9:27

14. Luke 23:43. Some, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, follow the Curetonian Syriac manuscript and attach the ‘today’ to the earlier part of the sentence, so that Jesus says, ‘I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.’

15. Matthew 17:2-3. Some think Moses and Elijah, rather than being real persons, were here just symbolic manifestations provided by God to make the point to the disciples.

16. Matthew 22:31-32. Note, however, that in v31 Jesus puts this firmly in the ‘resurrection’ category, not in that of an intermediate state.

17. Premillennial readers will probably see the ‘earthy’ element as limited to a literal 1000-year period in their tortuous scheme of things. For myself, the millennium is symbolic of the present age, and the earthy joys will be forever when Jesus returns.

18. Philippians 3:20

Just A-Passin' Through?

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