Heaven is a Wonderful Place
I have desired to go where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And lilies blow.
And I have asked to be Where no storms come,
Where the green well is the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)
It is the case that: a longing for a better place, i.e., thoughts of a place in which harms threaten not, and thoughts of an environment where notions of death are expelled from the mind is the norm for the thought-life of the majority of us. Any such thoughts are often accentuated by a realization that—though the creation is indeed wondrous in its beauty and complexity, the environment in which we live, and breathe and have our being is nevertheless a hostile environment in which potential harms lay in wait—to spoil the idyllic day to which Manley Hopkins alludes. Heaven is our desire because this world is not and may never be such an environment.
Reading the words of St John’s Gospel at the head of the funeral cortege is a most surreal experience:
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,…(John 11:25,26).
This particular occasion was the funeral of someone with whom one was well acquainted (a ‘young’ forty-six-year-old), someone that we had met on a reasonably regular basis. Such an occasion as this person’s funeral is particularly poignant.
This is not the place to speculate as to the post-mortem destiny of any particular person—or to philosophize as to the actual/temporal post-mortem state of affairs prior to the biblical notion of ‘The Judgement’—save to say that, according to the Bible, there is the promise of ‘personal existence’, i.e., the survival of the person after death. However, it is the author’s opinion that, even though ‘the matter’ (no pun intended) isn’t settled regarding the actual nature of man, i.e., whether or not there is a dualistic factor ‘within’ that is presently undetectable, there is a strong argument for there being a ‘dimension’ to humanity other than meets the critical eye of the materialist thinker. The philosopher J.P.Moreland () opines that “…if the dualist arguments are successful the principle/seat of life and consciousness is a transcendent self or immaterial ego of some sort.” () (2014)
It is often said of someone who has died that they are ‘with the angels’ or even that they have ‘joined the stars in heaven’. If this is the opinion of someone we know and love, someone who is referring to a deceased relative or friend, we are not likely to question the sentiment behind the aspiration. However, as far as we are able to comprehend the ‘reality’, it is the case that, in order to function as individuals, it is necessary to ‘inhabit’ the ‘space,’ i.e., the physiology that makes up the material—the DNA that, it is perceived, makes us who we are. Ergo in order to continue to exist post-mortem, we shall, most likely, need something akin to our physical bodies with which to function.
The idea of there being any such thing as post-mortem survival is, of course, anathema to both Materialists and Monists. Indeed, it is the apparent conclusion of persons ascribing to a worldview that allows for no such possibility at death. For the Monist ‘soul-life is a social construct that evaporates into the oneness of a universe that is seen as having a soul-life of its own—a non-personal figment of a lively imagination—that, somehow, denies the potentiality of the soul-life of the individual person whilst allowing for the alleged creative capacity of an indescribable ‘ultimate reality’. However, the Monist notion of this alleged ultimate reality need not be confused with the God of Judeo/Christian Scriptures, which is an entirely different proposition.
If heaven is such a ‘wonderful place’, then one might expect that it has an altogether different set of physical laws than experienced on earth and in the known universe. Scripture gives a strong impression that, in heaven, there is a different environment. In the book of Revelation, we read the following words of comfortable promise:
I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighbourhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people; he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.” Revelation 21:1-5
The book of revelation is exactly that—a REVELATION. It is addressed to the seven churches in late first century Asia Minor (present-day Turkey)—churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. There isn’t the space to delve further into the life of these seven centres of Christian life and worship save to say that they were vibrant centres of community life—moreover, churches that were experiencing rather mixed fortunes. Dennis E. Johnson describes Revelation as a letter for a church (churches) under attack, “Its purpose, to reveal ‘things which must soon take place’ is not to satisfy idle eschatological curiosity or feed futuristic conjecture but to fortify Jesus’ followers in steadfast hope and holy living.”()
Getting back to ‘Heaven’, we are reminded of an international student who, while travelling in the school minibus, would often sing words to the effect of ‘Heaven is a wonderful place’. We were never too sure whether the words were anticipatory or cynical. If we take the words offered above, i.e., that, in heaven, things shall be rather different in that, in the heavenly abode, there shall be ‘no death; neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ This would have to be an entirely different environment indeed.
In his considerably thorough book on the subject of Heaven, Randy Alcorn reminds his readers that the story of the Christian Faith begins with a story of an idyllic garden in which God was intimately present and in which the progenitors of the human race made the worst possible decisions—bringing about a curse that was to adversely affect the entire biosphere. In order to understand the narrative, it’s necessary to refer to the first book of the Bible (A part of The Pentateuch): “Because of you cursed is the ground.” (Genesis 3:17).
Alcorn asserts that:
…when the curse is reversed, we shall no longer engage in painful toil but shall enjoy satisfying caretaking. No longer will the earth yield ‘thorns and thistles’ (Genesis 3:18) defying our dominion and repaying us for corrupting it. No longer will we return to the ground—from which we were taken (3:19) swallowed up in death as unrighteous stewards who ruined ourselves and the earth.
Alcorn continues when he opines that our welfare is inseparable from the earth’s welfare—our destiny inseparable from that of the earth’s. (P.103) Alcorn’s expectations are ‘other worldly’ yet rooted in the earth’s flourishing. With regards to the effects brought about by the physical laws, in particular the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Alcorn suggests that there may have been some changes brought about by the creator and sustainer of the biosphere as a result of God’s promised judgement—according to Scripture. This, naturally, creates difficulty in that, according to current scientific consensus, the biosphere is the product of natural processes evolving over some 3.5 billion years.
For the purpose of clarification there is, within the Christian tradition, an increasing disparity—or rather a polarization between the view that sees a newly refurbished earth on which the incumbents, somehow, live a ‘New Heaven & New Earth existence’, and the view that has a less than earthly hope, i.e., the view that realizes the belief that the Sovereign God—creator and sustainer of all that exists—known yet unrealised.
The argument here is that any ‘permanent abolishment of death must take seriously the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that should death be swallowed up by victory, there would be a totally different state of affairs in operation—even ‘different physical laws’:
Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man in heaven. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, neither does the perishable inherit the imperishable…and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ ‘O death where is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:49,52,53,54,55). The writer of the letter to ‘The Hebrews’ refers to ‘a better country’, i.e., a ‘heavenly country’ (11:14) and ‘a kingdom that cannot be shaken’ (12:28}. The implications are obvious: Heaven, wherever its location, cannot be a renewed version of the old—it has to be an altogether different state of affairs (in heaven—on the ‘new/refurbished earth’) than exists anywhere on Earth. Clearly, there shall be an altogether ‘different’ order. And yet there are many well-meaning, well-informed, theologians who insist on informing us that everything created has always meant to be ‘material’—and all that there will ever be—at least to do with the created biosphere—shall only ever be ‘material’. Materialism, as Edgar Andrews outlines (), is based on the idea that every effect, including every human experience, must have a physical cause. Richard Middleton () poses the question of why it is that the idea of an ‘other worldly destiny in heaven’ has displaced what Middleton refers to as ‘the biblical teaching of the renewal of the earth’. Middleton, we believe, is ‘half-way’ correct. ‘Heaven’ is, we suggest, ‘worlds apart’ from the material world on offer by those with a fixation on a return to a ‘biospheric utopia’, which was, most likely, never the ideal home of men or even of angels