- Created on Sunday, 01 January 2012 00:00
- Written by Richard Avery
What comes into your mind when you see this word heaven? Almost everyone, including young children, has something to say about heaven and most of us use the word from time to time. Commonly we use the word to describe what will happen to our loved ones or us when we die. The details of our thoughts may differ, but we are likely to think of heaven as a place of goodness and happiness. Heaven is referred to many times in the Bible, yet not in the way of popular thought. Last year Biblical scholar, Paula Gooder, wrote a book about what heaven really means in the Bible. Here are some of the matters she discusses.
We read in the opening words of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth", In English 'heavens' tends to refer to the physical realm above us the sky and sun, or at night the panorama of the stars and moon. And indeed that is what the writer of Genesis is referring to in the description of creation. We too will say that the 'heavens opened', referring to a deluge of rain. But in the Bible the exact same word is used for what IS translated as 'heaven', usually meaning the place where God dwells. So in the Psalms we find descriptions of God's throne being in heaven and of God looking down from heaven to earth.
So in the Bible the word heaven/heavens has two strands of meaning: the sky, and God's dwelling place. Why this should be is linked to the Hebrew understanding of the world, a view of the cosmos that I referred to last month when commenting on the way people understood things before the scientific revolution of 500 years ago. Back in ancient times people thought of the sun, sky, moon and stars as part of a solid dome arching over the surface of the earth. The Hebrew word for this, as used in Genesis 1, is very hard to translate into English and literally means an extended surface or an expanse beaten out to a thin layer. Because this was hard to express in English, the first translators of the Bible into English reached for the word in the Latin Bible and created a version of that: firmament. A word some of you will recall from the King James Bible even though more recent translations look for alternatives.
So where does God's dwelling place come into this? In the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) after creating the heavens and the earth, God takes up his dwelling just beyond this firmament. And in this perception, the floor of heaven is the roof of earth: the firmament. God is near to the world he created, always mindful of what is happening there, even if those dwelling on earth cannot perceive him. Whilst we cannot break through the firmament to reach God, he can open the heavens and reveal himself to us.
You may know the Genesis account of Jacob's dream. Alone and on the run, he falls asleep and dreams of a stairway, resting on earth and "with its top reaching to heaven". In that night vision the thin partition between God and Jacob is removed. He sees God's messengers moving between the dwelling of God and our home on earth. And he sees God himself who declares the great future he has for Jacob. This revelation of the nearness of God has profound impact on Jacob for the rest of his life. And it sets the tone for a recurring theme of a God who is near and reveals himself. This culminates in the incarnation at the heart of Christmas: in the person of Jesus, God comes and makes his dwelling among us (John1:14). As one carol puts it "heaven came down and glory shone around".
Whilst the language in which the Bible describes the nearness of God is framed by a pre-scientific view of the universe, the truth that this language proclaims is not tied to a flat earth and a sky dome. Indeed Paula Gooder suggests that in some of the most recent ideas of physics and cosmology we may find fresh ways of thinking about the nearness of God. One of the radical ideas circulating amongst theoretical physicists these days is reality has more dimensions than the 3D space and time we are familiar with. She thinks that the idea of extra dimensions, wrapped up within the physical world as we know it, points to the possibility of God's presence with us. This is something that we cannot see or measure with technical instruments, yet is real, mysterious and vital to a true understanding of where we are.
So heaven in the Bible is not a future destination, but a present reality. And so where does this leave questions about the future and life beyond death? You should pick up a copy of Paula Gooder's book "Heaven'! She'll ppint you to Easter and the hope of resurrection.
Happy New Year!