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Where is Heaven?

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The languages of the Bible do not distinguish between “heaven” and “sky.” The sky was an unreachable expanse with lights moving in it, with clouds that watered the earth. Only birds and certain insects could travel there. Perhaps it was natural to assign it as the abode of God and to people it with winged beings—cherubim and seraphim, the angels who make up the armies of God. At some point, however, the meanings of sky as the expanse above our heads and heaven as God’s home turf began to diverge. By the time Jesus appeared, no one who heard him announce that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” thought he was talking about the sky.

Nevertheless, the idea of heaven as a place in the sky persists. In cartoons that show good people after death, we see them dressed in white and sitting on clouds, often with wings like the angels. God and his throne are always “up there,” and many people still refer to heaven as a place where the dead who have lived a good life go to remain in some sense alive through all eternity.

To the ancients, the sky was unreachable but not limitless the way we now regard space11 Of course, there is some dispute about whether space is infinite. We are told that the universe is expanding, but it is not clear whether the emptiness that it is expanding into exists as anything definable. Compared to modern conceptions of space, the ancient heavens were relatively cozy, near enough to be seen, an abode of invisible beings just beyond our grasp. Within my own lifetime, space has become unimaginably vaster and older. I remember as a child learning that the universe was 7 billion years old. Now it is more than 13 billion. New technologies seem to push the edges of the universe ever outward. It’s little wonder we feel lost and insignificant in such vastness. If heaven is simply up from earth, it includes such immensity that we can’t begin to understand the sheer scale of it. Current estimates put the actual size of the universe at 93 billion light-years across, most of it so distant that its light will never reach earth. It will be forever beyond our ken unless we discover some means of traveling faster than light without relativistic aging22 See, for example, Randall Munroe’s How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-world Problems.

When Jesus appeared preaching in Judea and surrounding areas, his message was strange. “Change the way you think33 The traditional English translation of “repent” carries with it a sense of remorse over sin and feelings of guilt and shame. The Greek word means something closer to regret, the sort of self-reproach you have when you discover you’ve taken a wrong turn. The remedy is to turn around. Jesus’ message begins with a declaration that we have taken a wrong turn in our thinking. We need to change the way we think. For Paul, this transformation of the mind needed to become a way of life (Romans 12:1-2).” he declared, “for the kingdom of heaven44 It is worth noting that Matthew is the only gospel writer who uses the term “kingdom of heaven.” The others use “kingdom of God” instead. Matthew (or his source) exhibits a very Jewish reluctance to refer directly to God. is within your grasp.” Jesus announced that the unreachable was within reach, the place of perfect happiness, where God’s good will is always done, was right at your elbow. You can take hold of it.

Some religious leaders once asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. He replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”55 Luke 17:20-21. If heaven can be found anywhere, it is in your heart. You can’t get much nearer than that. People with heaven in their hearts bring heaven with them wherever they go, and the influence of their heavenly mindedness spreads out around them and transforms their personal lives, their relationships, their businesses, and their communities. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who took a little yeast and mixed it with 60 pounds of flour and leavened the whole batch66 Matthew 13:33.. This is not a political agenda; this is a subversion of all worldly systems of power and control. It is a love agenda. It is serving instead of demanding. It is giving instead of taking. It is vulnerability instead of invincibility.

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Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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