Most people, I think, primarily picture heaven as a future event. A reality that will encapsulate us on the other side of this life. A state of postmortem existence that will happen for whomever it is you decide “gets to go” to heaven (children, the (s)elect few, everyone, saints, etc.). There are a lot of questions raised about the future-orientation of heaven, and many of them (but not all) are good questions.
The problem is that there are not many hard facts about what this future heaven will look like. There are stories, like Colton Burpo’s, about what heaven is like – the ‘white light’ stories – but actual verifiable evidence is
overrated hard to come by. When I asked my fellow first grader to find “Paradise” on the globe, my teacher essentially told me that paradise – heaven – was not a real, physical, tangible place to be located on a globe, but a concept that would become a reality at a later point in the macro-timeline of our universe.
Some people would disagree with this, arguing that heaven is – or at least can be – a burgeoning reality right now. This is not an idea that I was exposed to in first grade, but something I stumbled across at some point in college. I believe that when Jesus asked us to pray for God’s reality to be present “on earth as it is in heaven,” we were meant to take that as a guideline and instruction to work towards and pray for the betterment of this world, caring for each other, for strangers, for culture, and for the earth (and for everything in between!).
Through these actions, we can get a sense of heaven, but only a sense, for I doubt that heaven will include uprisings against dictators, natural disasters killings tens of thousands, or senseless violence committed against innocent victims. Even the most staunch heaven-now defenders would agree that the reality of our world today is a far cry from heaven. There is too much death and pain and suffering and disease and evil for us to look at our world and assume we have a good understanding of what heaven will be like.
So where do we turn for a picture of what heaven will be like?
The earliest stories shared by the Jewish/Christian faith are the stories of beginnings, of the genesis of creation and cosmos and community and culture. I’ve grown to love these stories, not only because of the beautiful, artistic, creative, poetic, powerful and profound picture of reality they paint, but because they have given me new insight into the world we currently inhabit and also, I believe, insight into the world to come. Because when you look at the end of the story recounted in John’s Revelation, it points to the beginning as the key to the end.
Heaven is not something entirely new, but it is re-creation because, as Revelation draws to a close, it drips with the language of creation.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1)
…and so shall it be again (Revelation 21:1).
In the beginning, the waters teemed with life (Genesis 1:20) and the rivers nourished the land (Genesis 2:6, 10)
…and so shall it be again (Revelation 22:1).
In the beginning, there was peace and harmony, an integrated creation (Genesis 1-2)
…and so shall it be again (Revelation 21:4, 22:2-3)
In the beginning, it was good (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). In the beginning it was very good (Genesis 1:31)
…and so shall it be again (Revelation 21:23-27, 22:3-5)
The key to understanding the future – to understanding heaven – is the past. In the ancient story of creation, we can find the pieces that were once shattered which will be renewed and restored and reconciled into brilliance and life and beauty forever.
The search for heaven begins in the garden.