Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. Psalm 139:7-8
Unlike the relatively few biblical references about hell, references to heaven abound in the Bible. I find this to be good news and confirmation that God’s plan for us has been recognized as good, inclusive, and forgiving for millennia. Heaven, as a place, is named 241 times in the Old Testament and 244 times in the New Testament, plus another 114 times in the Apocryphal books (the writings included in the original biblical canon that are excluded from most protestant bibles). This does not include the numerous biblical references to the heavens, which refer to the sky, planets, or stars. The Gospel that refers to hell most often, Matthew, refers to heaven significantly more than any other book of the Bible, with 76 mentions. Equally surprising is that Revelation, often considered the book of doom and gloom, has the next most mentions of heaven with 48.
The Bible begins with two stories of creation that tell of God creating heaven and earth. The accounts are generally assumed to imply a division between heaven and earth, meaning they are described as places separate from each other. For example, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1). Importantly, however, one can also read the accounts as if heaven and earth were a single creation, implying an intimate interrelationship between them, as if the two are actually one. Affirmation of this connection is found in the Lord’s prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Numerous biblical references describe earthly life as being under heaven, as in Ecclesiastes 3:1: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” This can be read as being physically under heaven or as being under the authority of heaven. Heaven is also called the place of God. For example, “…the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11:4), “The Lord looks down from heaven” (Psalm 33:13), “O give thanks to the God of heaven…” (Psalm 136:26), and “…there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…” (Daniel 2:28).
Heaven is also described as the place from which heavenly beings, like angels, reside. For example, in the story of Abraham and Isaac, “But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven…” (Genesis 22:11) and the Christmas story, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven…” (Luke 1:15). Interestingly, not all beings in heaven are recorded as acting in ways that are pleasing to God. The prophet Isaiah writes in 24:21: “On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven…” The book of Revelation describes an epic battle in heaven between the archangel, Michael and a dragon: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back…” (Revelation 12:7). This latter passage names the dragon as “the Devil and Satan,” who is thrown down from heaven to earth along with his angels (Revelation 12:9).
References to voices from heaven abound throughout the Bible. For example, at Jesus’ baptism, “And a voice from heaven said…” (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22), as Jesus ponders his impending death, “Then a voice came from heaven…” (John 12:28), and in Peter’s second letter, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven…” (2 Peter 1:18).
Despite the implication that heaven and earth are separate places, there is a common thread to both, which is God. Psalm 139 assures us that God is not only in heaven and on earth, but also in Sheol, the place of the dead. Not only is there a common thread, but there is on-going communication between heaven and earth from God, from angels, and from other unnamed sources. There is also apparently conflict in heaven, at least on occasion, just as there is on earth.
One could reasonably conclude that heaven is similar to any place on earth other than where we currently find ourselves, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. In other words, someone who is cold might describe heaven as another location that is warmer than wherever he or she is today. A lonely person might describe heaven as a place where they can be a part of an intimate community. A person suffering from persistent illness may see heaven as a place of healing and health. In that sense, heaven may be the place that provides whatever we believe we lack. Our search for heaven, then, could equate to our search for contentment.
More next week.
This is the 17th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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