Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?
—Robert Browning

According to a recent snippet in Harper's magazine, the reach of American entrepreneurship has exceeded that of the builders of the Tower of Babel and extends into heaven itself. Afterlife Telegrams offers to deliver messages to the dead for a price of $10 a word (with a five-word minimum) by way of terminally ill patients who promise to deliver the messages upon "passing into the afterlife."

In the fine print of the agreement, however, it warns customers that it cannot guarantee the message will get through. "The truth is," Afterlife Telegrams solemnly warns, "no one knows what happens when someone dies."

According to a spate of books reaching back several years, however, it is clear that lots of people have thought they knew what happens when someone dies, and they have described it in considerable detail. Indeed, the description of heaven and other aspects of the afterlife occupies a prominent place in the history of Western ideas. Describing heaven has rarely been the result of idle speculation or objective biblical theology, but has customarily been about what is, and what should be, going on in this world.

Rose Bowl or Garden City

Several recent books present startling historical arrays of portraits of heaven. Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang's Heaven: A History has won considerable notice for its sweeping coverage of both popular and élite accounts of heaven. Jeffrey Burton Russell covers much the same ground in his more recent survey, A History of Heaven, but is stuck on Dante's vision. In The Early History of Heaven, J. Edward Wright examines views of heaven outside Israel and the church that might have influenced biblical concepts. And Alister McGrath's Brief History of Heaven intentionally draws more on literature than on theology.

Several themes stand out among the riches of these volumes. Perhaps the most crucial of these is that heaven in fact has not been portrayed as a boring place, but the location of the highest aspirations of the human heart. Since human hearts vary in their aspirations, however, the views of heaven do, too. Many accounts of heaven focus upon the loveliness of God and the experience, therefore, of what is called the beatific vision. Since God is the most beautiful of all, heaven consists simply in the eternal contemplation and enjoyment of God.

This view of the ultimate destiny of the blessed is typical of mysticism around the world, whether Jewish kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, or Hindu bhakti (devotional) traditions. And it stands literally at the center of Dante's vision of paradise, as the saints sit in ordered circles around the Trinity, gazing at God forever in their appropriate ranks in a giant rose bowl—yes, not unlike the football stadium in Pasadena, in which no one pays attention to the other fans but only to the activity in the middle, in this case, God himself.

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The Old and New Testaments, however, emphasize the destiny of the blessed as a sort of garden city, a New Jerusalem fit for inhabitants who enjoy it in resurrected bodies. Thus the medieval image of the walled garden emerges over and over again (which many readers will recognize as a recurring motif in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia).

Heaven's most welcoming features seem to correspond nicely to inhospitable counterparts on earth. Heaven is a safe and orderly place, versus the threatening chaos of most societies in history. Heaven is a clean and beautiful place, versus earthly squalor. Heaven is a place of abundant food, splendid clothes, delightful music, and running water—all luxuries denied so many on earth. And heaven is even fragrant. It is fascinating to a modern, middle-class North American, whose nose is rarely troubled by anything worse than someone's excessive perfume, to read so many accounts of sweet smells in heaven—until one remembers how olfactorily overwhelming so much of Europe would have been until recently.

The early medieval pope Gregory the Great, quoted in Russell, records one such vision, typical of many others:

Across the bridge there were green and pleasant meadows carpeted with sweet flowers and herbs. In the fields groups of white-clothed people were seen. Such a sweet scent filled the air that it fed those who dwelt and walked there. The dwellings of the blessed were full of a great light. A house of amazing capacity was being constructed there, apparently out of golden bricks.

The idea of going back to the primeval garden (the "return to Eden") rather than forward to a garden city is deeply rooted in Christian History, but its popular acceptance today seems to owe much more to John Milton's Paradise Lost than to biblical prophecy. Indeed, the concept resembles the Islamic notion of a heavenly oasis awaiting faithful Muslims much more than it does the heavenly Jerusalem as a garden city descending to earth. The biblical vision in Revelation 22 shows that in the midst of the "city and its gates and walls" is the "river of the water of life," and on each side of the river is "the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit."

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Who gets to go to heaven, and who enjoys what there, is another earth-heaven symmetry revealed in these volumes. As Russell dryly points out, when monks write the accounts, monasticism receives the highest heavenly recognition. When bishops or theologians offer their versions, clergy and scholars rank highest. Customarily, to be sure, the reader is assured that no one will be envious in heaven and thus higher and lower ranks won't pose a problem to anyone's beatitude. (We'll see.)

A related question is the destiny of non-Christians, whether Old Testament saints, "righteous pagans" (such as Plato or Aristotle, who in the eyes of many Christians have taught so much truth), or those who never had the opportunity to hear the gospel before death. Here, too, Dante is hardly the spokesman for all orthodox Christians in his awarding of heavenly positions to distinguished pagans he happened to admire. Still, we must charitably recognize that our own generation has not answered this question to everyone's satisfaction—a question that grows ever sharper as we encounter more and more people of other religions.

What Is Our Destination?

The question of who will be in heaven has vexed Christians for two millennia. Surely, however, we agree at least on the bare fact that we are indeed going to heaven—right?

Paul Marshall contradicts this apparent truism in his Heaven Is Not My Home. With Russell, McGrath, and others, he notes that the ancient Israelite and early Christian traditions agree that the destiny of God's people is a redeemed and renewed earthly city, the New Jerusalem, and not some celestial alternative. Heaven is, properly speaking, the abode of God, and humans cannot live there. Heaven thus represents God's unapproachable transcendence. Earth instead is the proper abode of humans who enjoy the unspeakable blessing of communion with the God who condescends to inhabit the city he makes for them. God foreshadowed this sort of dwelling both in the Old Testament tabernacle and in the New Testament "tabernacling" of the Incarnation of his Son. In the New Jerusalem to come, there is no tabernacle or temple at all, for "its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (Rev. 21:22).

This view of "heaven on earth," so to speak, nicely accommodates the speculations recorded throughout church history about whether animals, and particularly pets, will be in heaven. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer is among those cited in favor of such a prospect.) It also underscores the human condition of being fundamentally both soul and body, and thus accommodates the speculations about the nature of the resurrected self. (Many accounts suggest a body in peak physical condition—often at the age of 30, as a symbol of full maturity—with all deformities removed and perhaps only some scars as trophies of sanctity, as in Jesus' own wounds in hands and feet.)

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Marshall then argues that this alternative (and, he argues, original) view of human destiny exalts the importance of "earth-keeping" and "city-building" and "peace-making" as crucial to the Christian vocation. Work, rest, and play; education, politics, and art; worship, evangelism, and Christian fellowship—we must embrace all of these not only as ingredients of human existence today, but as integral to human existence—after all, God has designed us to live this way evermore. And that sort of world-affirming gospel—which fulfills all the best of our human hopes, desires, and joys—makes the idea of going to some ethereal heaven truly pale by comparison.

At the same time, the gospel maintains a tension between earth and heaven, as it calls us to set our minds "on things above" (Col. 3:2), and to "store up treasure in heaven" (Matt. 6:20). Such a tension encourages us not to see the current earth as bad and a coming heaven as good, but to appreciate properly the current earth as partial, fallen, and due to give way to the "new heavens and new earth"—in the kingdom of "heaven," that is, of God. Thus we are fools either to neglect this world that God blesses now or to idolize this world that God has promised to renew in the future.

Which brings us to a time-hallowed question: Will there be motorcycles in heaven?

When I was 26, my wife and brother prevailed upon me to give up my black Honda motorbike. They were afraid of motorcycles and couldn't have peace knowing I was traversing Chicago's expressways and city streets on one. So I gave it up. And I did so with heaven in mind. I theologized that in the life to come, God would give me a whole stable of motorcycles, racing cars, powerboats, airplanes, and other mechanical pleasures I had forgone in this life because of their danger as well as their cost. And if there weren't motorcycles in heaven, I reasoned, God would provide something better: perhaps airborne "speeders" as in the Star Wars movies. These juvenile fantasies helped me do the right thing: to give up a good earthly thing for an even better thing to come, as well as to respond sympathetically to the concerns of my family. And I think the glorious biblical visions of the life to come are provided to help us in just this way.

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The biblical vision of the New Jerusalem (thanks be to God!) offers us all of these goods—garden, city, body, soul, family, church, God—forever!

All of these books make clear in their different ways, therefore, that one's view of heaven is a reflection of, and can be a powerful motive within, one's life on earth. We thus can pose the question implicit in Browning's own: If God graciously rewards us with blessings beyond our grasp, what are the blessings toward which we should be reaching? We all agree that the earth, as we have it now, is not our final home. But what is? Where is it? Who can get there, and how?

Answering those questions has occupied some of the greatest imaginations in history. Answering them today, in each Christian church, ought to be worth at least a sermon or two.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day (Baker).

Related Elsewhere

McDannell and Lang's Heaven: A History, Wright's The Early History of Heaven, Marshall's Heaven Is Not My Home, McGrath's A Brief History of Heaven, and Russell's A History of Heaven are available from ChristianBook.com, Amazon.com, and other book retailers.

Other stories appearing on our site today include:

The Believer's Final Bliss | The regeneration of man requires that old things must pass away and all things become new. By John Murray (July 7, 1958)
The Glories of Heaven | While heaven will be glorious, the greater glory will consist in our transformation. By Stanley C. Baldwin (May 22, 1964)
The Hope of Heaven | Have Christians forfeited their rightful anticipation of eternity? By L. Nelson Bell (May 24, 1968)
Illusion or Reality? | Heaven is a place. There is a city we are going to see and walk in. By Edith Schaeffer (Mar. 12, 1976)
Heaven Can't Wait | I have seen the electrifying results of what can happen when the reality comes alive. By Philip Yancey (Sept. 7, 1984)
Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off | As if anticipating the question, "Will life on the new earth be boring?" the Bible points to much activity there. By Anthony Hoekema (Sept. 20, 1985)
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What Will Heaven Be Like? | Thirty-five frequently asked questions about eternity. By Peter Kreeft (from Tough Questions Christians Ask, 1989)
The Eternal Weight of Glory | If only we could have the positives of earthly life without the negatives. By Harry Blamires (May 27, 1991)
Afraid of Heaven | We do not yearn to be near God because we do not find sin utterly repugnant or goodness rapturously attractive. By Kenneth Kantzer (May 27, 1991)

Other related articles include:

Hell's Final Enigma | Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell? (April 24, 2004)
Christian History Corner: How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife. (August 9, 2002)
What's a Heaven For? | C.S. Lewis saw belief in heaven not as wishful thinking, but as thoughtful wishing. (Oct. 26, 1998)

Other Christianity Today articles by John Stackhouse include:

What Conversion Is and Is Not | Hint: It's not just about getting people 'saved.' (Feb. 7, 2003)
Ears to Hear, Eyes to See | Luci Shaw's poetry helps us pay attention to God's world. (Dec. 26, 2003)
Music at the Theological Roundtable | What it teaches us about God and the universe. (November 1, 2002)
The True, the Good, and the Beautiful Christian | Beauty is making a comeback in science and theology. Will it find its place in the lives of believers? (January 7, 2002)
What Has Jerusalem to Do with Mecca? | Two new books on the world's religions raise new possibilities, and new questions, for evangelicals. (September 4, 2001)
Mind Over Skepticism | Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has defeated two of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith. (June 20, 2001)
The Seven Deadly Signs | Ministries that think they can do no financial wrong deceive themselves. (June 30, 2000)
An Elder Statesman's Plea | John Stott's 'little statement on evangelical faith' reveals the strengths and limitations of the movement he helped create. (Feb. 14, 2000)
The Battle for the Inclusive Bible | Conflicts over "gender-neutral" versions are not really about translation issues. (Nov. 5, 1999)
Finding a Home for Eve | We are right to criticize radical feminist scholars—and wrong to ignore them. (Mar. 1, 1999)
The Jesus I'd Prefer to Know | Searching for the historical Jesus and finding oneself instead. (Dec. 7, 1998)
The Perils of Left and Right | Evangelical theology is much bigger and richer than our two-party labels. (Aug. 10, 1998)
Bad Things Still Happen | A concise, clear argument for how God can be both good and omnipotent. (July 13, 1998)
Fighting the Good Fight | A plea for healthy disagreements. (Oct. 6, 1997)
Confronting Canada's Secular Slide | Why Canadian evangelicals thrive in a culture often indifferent to religious faith. (July 18, 1994)

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