Last month, The American Spectator published a "Symposium on Heaven" inspired by Peter Kreeft's book, Heaven: the Heart's Deepest Longing. A Christian believer, a Jewish believer, and a skeptic contributed to the discussion. The skeptic, John Derbyshire, used up most of his space mocking C.S. Lewis, whom Kreeft perhaps over-quoted in his book. The Christian, Jonathan Aitken, took Derbyshire's demand for evidence at face value, offering hauntingly similar near-death experiences (including his own) as hints of an afterlife. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's "Heaven is Overrated" calls everyone back down to earth: We can leave the afterlife to God, because there's plenty to appreciate and address here and now.
I often wander into the rabbi's camp. Words fail Isaiah and Paul when attempting to describe heaven; how can mortal minds comprehend it? I anticipate it through faith, and it'll be great-but in the meantime, we don't want to be too heavenly-minded for any earthly good, do we? For the most part, Christians leave heaven-talk for funerals. So does the general population, to go by the common observation when some unhappy soul has shuffled off: "He's gone to a better place."
But heaven is not a white hanky of consolation in times of grief, nor a windy platitude. It's closer than we realize, joined to earth at the hip. "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!" sing the Sons of Korah (Psalm 84). An image of heaven springs to our minds, but the place of the song is on earth-the Temple in Jerusalem, a grand structure by all accounts, but surely it pales in comparison with God's actual throne?
Not in the mind of the devout Jew who traveled there once a year. The Temple was the actual dwelling of God on earth, anticipated in the "songs of ascent" chanted by pilgrims on their way to meet Him. Before dismissing the idea as crude and "unspiritual," we might remember how God actually works. Discussing his book, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright contrasts the pantheist view of God-as-everything and the deist view of God-as-elsewhere: "Judaism and Christianity have a view of God in the world that is much more interesting and complex-where God and the world, heaven and earth actually overlap and interlock."
In the Old Testament, heaven is God's place, but also an overarching providence ("under heaven"), a witness, a place of appeal, the origin of earthly blessing. With the appearance of Jesus, a new era begins: the Kingdom of Heaven. Not a smooth transition, according to Matthew 11:12, where (depending on translation) it is suffering violence or violently advancing. But the Kingdom is here; as the Temple was an outpost of heaven on earth, the church is heaven's staging ground, scattered all over the globe in millions of flickering lights. Ever since creation, heaven and earth are paired, just as Christ, ever since the incarnation, is the union of God and man. And at the end of time both will be recreated.
That's something to keep in mind as we boil through summer, when the a/c fails and the kids snap at each other and campaign rhetoric soars to new heights of absurdity and the Supreme Court hands down infuriating decisions. In the thick of earthly chaos, the invisible walls of the Kingdom of Heaven rise around us, cool and serene. Seeing it takes faith, just as Abraham somehow saw a living heir in the bound boy trembling under his knife (Hebrews 11:19). But all the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 were commended for exactly this: seeing beyond their natural horizon.
And now they are part of a vast cloud of witnesses, looking on with profound interest. Heaven is not a default "better place." It is part of our drama, intimately connected. Heaven will not dispose of earth, or leave her behind, or forget her. The New Jerusalem is poised to come down with a loud proclamation: "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man" (Revelation 21:3). And it begins here and now.