Never Losing Sight of Heaven
Heaven has been splashed all over the headlines of the secular press this past week. It was, of course, because of the unexpected death of David Bowie and the way he choreographed his own departure from this world.
The news of Bowie’s death came as a shock, not least because no-one apart from a tight circle of his family and friends had any inkling of the cancer he had battled for the last 18 months. But what was perhaps the even greater surprise was the final album with accompanying video recorded by the dying rock legend during that time and released just days before his death. The centrepiece of this final work – at least in terms of the frequency with which it was played as part of the tributes to the singer – was the lyric, ‘I’m in heaven’.
The truth or otherwise of that claim is entirely between the late singer and the God who by now he has met in person. But the public interest it has stirred is very much in the public domain. Suddenly, as far as the media and the general public are concerned, ‘heaven’ seems no longer to be the stuff of religious myth, but is apparently real and people can somehow be sure they will be there.
The reality for many who have been caught up in the euphoria of this thought is that it owes more to desperate wishful thinking than having any solid basis in reasonable knowledge of what it’s like.
The Christian faith is by no means the only faith to claim there is a heaven, but there is something distinctive about how it is portrayed in the Bible. Yet, sadly, Christians have often relegated this strand of teaching to end-of-life pastoral care. If heaven is indeed the everlasting home God is preparing for his people, it surely makes sense for us to acquaint ourselves with it long before that time arrives.
For many people, not least the late Mr Bowie, the idea of ‘heaven’ has more to do with a fertile imagination, than any kind of revelation. So it tends to be perceived as a state and not a place and, more often than not, a state of existence defined by all our wildest dreams being fulfilled.
When the Bible speaks about heaven, however, it is very much a place it has in view. Jesus – the only One who has ever come to this earth from heaven – told his disciples, ‘I go to prepare a place for you…’ (Jn 14.3). So, it should come as no surprise that Peter, one of those disciples, should describe it in very graphic and tangible language as ‘a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’ (2Pe 3.13). Far from being the kind of ethereal disembodied existence that some Christians are inclined to imagine when they think of heaven, it will be very much the true home and habitat for which we were created and for which we inwardly long.
One of the most graphic and detailed glimpses of heaven found in Scripture comes in the book of Revelation in its closing chapters. It stands out as being all the more graphic because it is set against the backdrop of the 20 preceding chapters that describe, not merely a world in conflict and turmoil, but how the church through the ages finds itself caught up in it. Revelation is one of the darkest books of the Bible, but it could not end on a brighter note.
More than that, the apostle John’s personal circumstances as he writes the Apocalypse had brought him into the thick of that turmoil and conflict. He is exiled on the island of Patmos – a place of isolation and desolation. Yet this ageing saint is not in despair. Writing under the guiding hand of God’s Spirit and conveying the message of God’s Son, his confidence in the present and unwavering hope for eternity future shines through.
It comes out in particular in his portrayal of heaven in the penultimate chapter of the book. He describes it as ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, ‘the Holy City, the New Jerusalem’ resembling ‘a bride beautifully dressed for her husband’ (21.1-2). It is the place where God’s covenant promise will find its ultimate and enduring fulfilment as God dwells with his people in mutual communion. But several things in particular stand out.
It is a place where all things are ‘made new’: ‘the old order has passed away’ and the new order that will take its place will be free from the tears, pains and sorrows of this present age (21.1-5). It is not as though God intends to utterly obliterate everything we know and are familiar with in this present world and universe; but, rather, that he will purify and renovate creation – elevating it to a new level of existence. This will be true in a distinctive sense for God’s resurrected saints who will exchange a humanity that is ‘of the earth’ for the new humanity of the ‘man from heaven’ (1Co 15.47).
It is also the place of ultimate security. As John describes the dimensions of the heavenly Jerusalem (21.16-17) it is clear he does so symbolically. The idea of a cube-shaped city with walls that are 1400 miles long and 200 feet thick in each direction – if taken literally – belongs to the realm of the bizarre. On the other hand if it is seen as a statement about the defences of this place, then it is impregnable. That assurance for John and the church of his day could not have been more timely, but also for people in the security-craving culture of our day.
If the death of David Bowie has reawakened an awareness of heaven for a generation that has largely dismissed it, then Christians should capitalise on the opportunity this presents to declare the true glory of heaven and the gospel message of how we get there.