Photo of earthrise from nasa.gov
What is this realm referred to as “heaven”, “kingdom of heaven”, or “kingdom of God” in the Bible? Although these terms are not used in the Hebrew Bible, there is certainly the expectation of a Messianic Age in which God will “put things to rights,” as N.T. Wright loves to say. I would also like to point out at the outset that although these terms are not necessarily used interchangeably in Scripture, I will use them variously to refer to the coming future perfection in which God reigns completely. There are aspects of this idea such as judgment, justice and salvation that I will not address, but are certainly connected to the discussion about the relationship between heaven and earth.
The first thing I think we should admit is that our knowledge of what we call heaven or the kingdom of God is limited. The descriptions throughout the Bible often feel contradictory and difficult to grasp. Jesus says to the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). In Mark Jesus says that the kingdom is at hand or near (1:15). Then you have the many parables that purport to “explain” the kingdom, but often seem to obscure it or make it more difficult to understand (Mt 13:24-52; 20:1-16; 22:1-14; 25:1-30 just to name those in Matthew). These are only the ways that Jesus described the kingdom, not including the Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Paul or Revelation. While it is necessary to try and make statements about what this realm of heaven, we should continually approach our attempts to understand it with humility and acknowledgment of our limitations.
For our purposes we are interested in the way that the Bible describes heaven or the kingdom in relationship to the earth. Does it describe it in contrast to earth, in the same terms or some combination of the two?
Heaven is certainly described in contrast to the current state of affairs, but the terms used to describe it are decidedly earthy. If some of the New Testament description of heaven could lead us to think that it is an other-worldly, spiritual realm, the Hebrew Testament depiction is distinctly grounded in the reality of this world. Isaiah’s vision of the “new heaven and new earth” uses language intimately connected to life here and now on earth.
They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat… They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune… the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isaiah 65:21-23,25)
The Hebrew Bible’s vision of the Messianic Age was grounded in the reality of the Israelite’s experience of exile in Babylon. The vision is of the restoration of Jerusalem. While it is concerned with judgment against the nations that oppressed Israel (Samaria, Assyria, Babylon, etc.), it is also concerned with the oppression practiced within its own borders (e.g. Amos 2:6-8). In terms of salvation it is concerned, not only with Israel’s future, but portrays an age in which all nations will come together under the banner of Yahweh (Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:1-4). This vision of the future Messianic Age is not one that is discontinuous with this world. In fact it is quite the opposite. The future perfection only makes sense in light of our present experience of imperfection, injustice and suffering.
I think it would be good exegesis, biblical interpretation and hermeneutical practice to read the New Testament’s words about heaven and the kingdom in light of what has just been said about the Hebrew Bible’s vision of the coming Messianic Age. Even the New Testament language about heaven is much more earthy than we typically believe. I would like to consider just one passage often used in this context, Revelation 21. Almost quoting (certainly paraphrasing) Isaiah the author writes,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)
The first thing I notice is that the new heaven and new earth are contrasted with the old heaven and the old earth. It is not a contrast between heaven and earth. As previously discussed our identities and the earth’s have continuity through redemption and ultimately the final transformation described here. Nothing here suggests that the planet which we currently inhabit will simply be disposed of like so much garbage and tossed into God’s landfill while God opens the brand new, shrink wrapped earth for us to live on for all eternity. If that were the case, then this passage suggests that there is also a place in that landfill for the old heaven. What could that possibly mean? We are dealing here with apocalyptic language and should read and interpret it as such. However, even a literal interpretation would deny the idea that heaven and earth are disconnected.
It is also interesting that the metaphor used her is that of a city, a most earthly concept. This is not just any city either, but Jerusalem. That vision from the Hebrew Bible of God’s people being restored and the world set right is alive and well in the book of Revelation. Indeed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the gates of the city (Rev 21:12). This chapter goes on at great length about the layout of the city and the materials used to construct it. Chapter 22 goes on to describe a river flowing through it and trees that bear fruit every month. This is not a vision of heaven far away from earth in the clouds or even some dimension of being. Rather it is rooted (quite literally since there are trees) on the earth. The text clearly states twice (21:2, 10) that the city came down out of heaven. If it came down out of heaven, then where was it headed?
My intention is not to completely describe what the Bible has to say about heaven or the kingdom, but instead to shed light on the way that our dualistic thinking is not based on the biblical text. Heaven is intimately connected with this world. Certainly there is an element of the biblical description that is simply beyond us, but nothing necessitates the idea that the new creation will be discontinuous with the old.
Next… It’s the End of the World As We Know It