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.