Do You Believe in Heaven?
“Do you believe in heaven?” the Confirmation students were recently asked after praying together “The Lord’s Prayer.” All hands went into the air with a “Yes.”
The request to describe heaven was followed by a pause.
“Heaven is perfection,” one replied. Another said, “Heaven is happiness.” Still another said, “Heaven is where we go when we die.”
Wander the halls of art galleries and one finds many images of heaven. Bartolome Bermejo (c.1440) imagined in his painting a journey with Jesus, men and women on their knees, followed by the patriarchs on a road to paradise.
In the National Gallery of Art is the German (c.1239) miniature “Paradise with Christ on the Lap of Abraham,” recalling Abraham’s call from God to “Leave your country….leave all that you hold dear and familiar. Go to the land I will show you.”
Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, imagines for us Christ’s second coming to judge the world, resulting in much confusion as all wonder their destination: Will it be with the damned or the saved.
Salvador Dali’s “Sacrament of the Last Supper” features the outstretched arms of God embracing both heaven and earth, inviting us to embrace Jesus as we touch heaven celebrating the Eucharist.
Google “heaven” and one finds numerous pictures of blue skies, puffy white clouds, bright white lights and stairways ascending upwards.
Much of our image of heaven is informed imagining real-estate. The evangelist John quotes Jesus, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Revelation 21:21 adds to this image a description of the new city “and the street of the city is pure gold.”
Other Biblical passages add to our image. The first verse of chapter 21 in Revelation speaks of a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven and a voice proclaiming, “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God.”
Martin Luther asks, “What does this mean” when we pray “Our Father who art in heaven.” Luther replies in his Small Catechism, “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.” Heaven, Luther is saying to us, is a relationship, a love affair with God. And according to the author of Revelation, that relationship begins here and now.
The kingdom of God, announces Jesus in Mark 1:15, “has come near.” Mark continues writing fifteen more chapters to his gospel detailing the features of this kingdom that “has come near:” Forgive others as you have been forgiven; love your neighbor as yourself. Inspired by Mark, Matthew adds this description of God’s kingdom: Those without a coat receive another’s extra, thirsts are quenched with fresh water, strangers are welcomed, prayers are offered even for one’s enemies.
My godmother died when I was very young. Grumbling over my assignment to weed the garden, I imagined Aunt Linnea on a cloud above watching me. With her eye on me I dared not miss a weed nor carelessly pick a plant. I was also comforted by the continued relationship I had with her.
St. Paul writes, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39), words I find most compelling when imagining heaven. John’s image of a place with many rooms excites my curiosity, brings comfort while mourning the death of dear ones, but my limited linguistic and visionary skills fall back on the words of St. Paul as I imagine heaven with this promise, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Heaven is far greater than my imaginative abilities can comprehend.
Nevertheless I hear an invitation to fancifully sit down over a cup of coffee and speak to my mom and dad as they listen attentively to all I have to say. Aunt Linnea joins us and I remind her of the good job I did weeding the garden.
My hand was also raised when the question was asked, “Do you believe in heaven?” Yes.