Heaven

It’s been a while, and for that I apologize.  Happy New Year to you all, and may the Lord bless you this year.

In continuing my thesis preparation, I’ve been reading some more Walter Wink.  You may recall that my thesis topic is the Powers and Principalities, on which Wink has an important view – compelling in some areas, and very unorthodox in others – that includes a concept of Panentheism.  To give it a quick review, panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism, which is the belief that God is everything and everything is God) is a view that unites the physical and spiritual and does not support any dichotomy between the two.  In panentheism, everything has both a spiritual essence and a concrete manifestation.  While this sounds quaint or even dubious when we talk about rocks and trees and individual blades of grass having their own spirits, or even angels, it seems much more important and makes much more sense when applied to worldly institutions such as culture, government, etc.  In Wink’s view, then, the Powers are the institutions of this world in both their physical and spiritual elements: the Prime Minister, and the Office of the PM which he fills; the cultural icon or celebrity, and the spirit that drives and is made up by popular culture.  There are many things that need to be ironed out in this view, and in my estimation Wink falls into many theological errors that usually seem to be simply taking a good idea too far (e.g. especially to the point of de-personalizing spiritual forces), but we won’t discuss those here.  My point today is the notion of Heaven that he brings up in Naming the Powers.

What is heaven?  And where is it?  Those answers are not easy to find, even in scripture.  What we know of Heaven is that it’s where God lives and reigns – but we also affirm that God is everywhere.  We describe Heaven as a place, and traditionally people looked to the sky – but we’ve been to space, and as the soviet cosmonauts entered that great vacuum they reported no angel sightings.  We’ve fallen back on saying that Heaven is a spiritual realm, perhaps in another dimension.  All we do know about it is that it is spiritual, and therefore invisible to us – yet Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God, or the place where God reigns and rules, is at hand.

So if Heaven is spiritual, what is spiritual?  We think of it as being invisible and immaterial, yet we also affirm the presence of spirit in the world: God is everywhere, His Holy Spirit indwells us, and we believe ourselves to be spiritual, yet embodied, beings.  Traditional Christianity sometimes falls into a manichaean dualism, seeing body and spirit as separate things and proposing that when we die our spirits will leave our bodies and go to the spiritual realm of Heaven; Reformed theology rejects this notion of eternal disembodied existence, and indeed there is little biblical warrant for that view.  Instead, the hope of eternal life that we are shown in the New Testament is not a view of bodiless spirits, but a bodily resurrection from the dead!  Furthermore, Revelation (which is almost never clear) is very clear in the last two chapters as it describes “Heaven”:  God’s city comes down from heaven to earth, where God will live and reign among earthly people for ever and ever.  God’s rule will be manifest on earth, as it is in heaven.

That paraphrase of the Lord’s prayer turns us back to Wink.  If he’s on the right track about everything having both physical and spiritual elements, then everything on earth is spiritual as well as physical.  And if Heaven is spiritual and invisible, the place where God rules and yet God is everywhere, and if Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is among us…then Heaven is here, on earth, as a spiritual reality of which earth is only the physical component.  If this is true, then every place where God’s will is carried out becomes heaven, even if only for that moment in which God’s spiritual rule is made physically manifest.

This is the already-and-not-yet principle in action: God has reconciled the whole world to himself, but it is not yet fulfilled.  As the writer to the Hebrews noted, God has placed everything under the feet of Christ, but we do not yet see all things in submission to Him – but we see Jesus Christ!  As Christ healed the sick, cast out demons, and exposed injustice – the phsyical, spiritual and political symptoms of a fallen world – the righteous rule of God is revealed as it truly exists through its physical manifestations.  When Jesus makes something right, restores someone’s flesh or spirit or dignity, making it the way God made it to be and in line with His will, then the spiritual reality of Heaven is given phsyical manifestation.

What’s truly amazing about this is that we get to take part in it, most obviously and completely through our participation in God’s community, the Church.  This is a physical place that openly acknowledges the rule and will of God, both in our creeds and (hopefully) our actions.  Our rituals and liturgy give embodiment to spiritual realities that are somewhat abstract, but the way we treat one another and the outside world are unambiguous manifestations of the true spiritual reality of Heaven.  It’s no wonder the New Testament uses the metaphor that says that we are citizens of Heaven, because when we live together in harmony with God and acknowledging His lordship, we live in heaven.  But now we see only in part; one day we will see and know in full, when Christ returns and makes the Kingdom of Heaven manifest in its entirety, no longer hidden by a world that hides the reality of Heaven among us.

Whether or not Wink is right, I don’t think there’s a lot here to disagree with.  So whatever your creed, I hope you will join with me in saying “Come, Lord Jesus!” and in so doing experience a little bit of Heaven.

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6 thoughts on “Heaven

  1. I think you have actually hit upon the heart of eschatology as the tension of “already/not yet”. It is far too easy (and often) that we get caught either living too far in either the “already” or the “not yet” side of heaven and make the good news either not so good for today or not news of what is still yet to come but only the “good” of what is today. I think of those who preach a form of a “gospel” that makes promises of things for today that are not all for today, but await another day…and I think of those who act like there is nothing more for today than the forgiveness of sins in some abstract notion. Both have failed to comprehend the fullness of the good news to speak to everything about what is and what shall be.

    Having not read anything by Wink…I really haven’t the foggiest idea whether I would agree with him or disagree, but with what you have written here…I agree heartily. 🙂 And I certainly look forward to reading your thesis!

    • You guys are the fastest commenters ever.

      Wink either hits the nail on the head, or not at all. He draws extensively from apocryphal literature; in my reading today he quoted the gospel of Thomas. He probably draws more from OT apocrypha than from the OT, and seems to draw from everyone from Philo to Freud (and especially Jung).

      Ultimately, his view could be completely impersonal. Also, he claims that the Spirit of Christ cannot exist without its concretion in the Body of Christ, which seems a pretty fundamental trinitarian heresy. Also, he claims that all sacrificial metaphors are wrong, and therefore so is anyone who employs them, including most biblical writers.

  2. I am about to read your post, but before I do, I must tell you that upon seeing the cover of the Wink book, I could not help but read it aloud in the voice of Goldmember: “Naming the POWersh!”

  3. Great post.

    This week’s reading for Being Human actually covers the physical/spiritual dichotomy in human beings.

    Your description falls in line with N.T. Wright’s view in Surprised by Hope. He denies a return of Christ literally from on high “in the clouds”, instead suggesting that he will pass through the veil between God’s dimension and ours–a veil that will ultimately be lifted in the new creation. The point being, heaven is in some sense literally here already, we just don’t see it.

    (It’s been a while since I read Wright’s book, so I may not be representing him completely accurately.)

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