In his book Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction (IVP Academic, 2012), John Jefferson Davis challenge three common assumptions about “heaven.”
He uses verses like the following:
- John 14:2
- Galatians 4:26
- Philippians 3:20
- Hebrews 8:5
- Hebrews 9:24
- Hebrews 10:1
- Hebrews 11:6
- Hebrews 12:22
- Hebrews 13:14
- Revelation 21:2
In passages like these, we see that “heaven” = new Jerusalem = Jerusalem above = new creation.
Davis shows that the following ideas, even though they are common, are unbiblical:
- Heaven is only future.
- Heaven is only spiritual.
- Heaven is inaccessible.
1. Heaven Is Not Only Future But Also Present
[H]eaven or the new Jerusalem (= new creation) already exists in the unseen dimensions but will be visibly revealed when Christ returns visibly and in a physical, bodily form at the end of history.
The writer of Hebrews informs us that in true worship we have already arrived at the heavenly Zion/Jerusalem (Heb 12:22), as truly as the Israelites in the old covenant had arrived at the visible Mount Sinai.
The John of Revelation sees the new Jerusalem coming down of out heaven from God; he sees a city already fully built, not just bricks and mortar arriving on semitrailers for some future completion date. The transition is not from not-existing city to existing city, but from invisible, existing city to visible and existing city.
2. Heaven Is Not Only Spiritual But Somehow Located in Space
Here Davis is responding to the idea that “heaven is purely spiritual, consisting of disembodied spirits flying around in some gaseous and ethereal realm.” Davis writes: “Let us be very clear about this: this notion of heaven is gnostic and Neo-Platonic and a heretical distortion of biblical teaching. Strong language, to be sure, but I believe that it is justified.” Even though I wouldn’t use the word “heretical” to describe this deviation from Scripture, Davis is right about its origin:
Neo-Platonism, which rooted itself in the Christian church and spirituality from the time of Pseudo-Dionysius in the sixth century A.D., presupposed an alien vision of salvation and the spiritual life as a flight from matter and the body to the pure realm of spirit, away from the changing world of distinctions into the changeless world of the One.
He then shows, by contrast, the biblical depiction of heaven and the framework within which it is presented:
Heaven is depicted as a city: a structured environment, a complex topography that in some sense has extension and dimensionality, and is occupied by bodies located in some form of space.
Biblical spirituality and salvation is not a rising from the world of matter to a realm of pure, disembodied spirit, but rather a transition from matter “under the curse” to a redeemed and glorified material creation (“creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” [Rom 8:21]).
The inaugurated eschatology of the New Testament teaches not a transition from matter to pure spirit but rather from matter in its present state to “matter enhanced” and glorified, suffused with the glorious Spirit of God, who was present to the material creation (Gen 1:2) and has never abandoned it (cf. Ps 104:30, presence of the life-giving Spirit in the biological world).
3. The Reality of Heaven Is Accessible, Not Inaccessible, to Believers
David correctly observes:
In true worship we are already in the presence of the new Jerusalem, of God, the risen Christ, the angels and the saints and martyrs (Heb 12:22-25); we can already experience the powers of the age to come (Heb 6:5). If we but have the eyes to see it, every Sunday morning we are “in the presence of the angels” and all the heavenly host. We are really present to heaven, and heaven is really present to us—again, the reality of inaugurated eschatology.
This is not merely an academic point but a profoundly practical teaching. Davis reminds us that this mean “the very transformative energy of the age to come (‘the powers of the coming age’ [Heb 6:5]) is already being made available to the church for its ministry and mission.” Here’s why this matters:
Alas, all too often the church today is being run on the natural energies of this age, rather than the supernatural energy loosed by the resurrection of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit! If we have lost our heavenly imagination, we will be disinclined to access, by faith and prayer, the heavenly energy from above. Which energy does your church run on?
Paul reminds us that we are already in heaven, seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6). Our molecular selves are still very much located on earth, but since we are united to Christ, with our spirits connected to Christ by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:17), our extended selves are projected (Skyped) and represented in heaven by the Holy Spirit. As Calvin rightly observed, “the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.”
Taken from Meditation and Communion with God by John Jefferson Davis. Copyright (c) 2012 by John Jefferson Davis. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com