Is Heaven for Real?

Is Heaven for Real?

Dear Theo,

My UCC pastor recently talked about Heaven being a relationship. I don't understand that at all. I believe it's a physical place that I can't wait to see the beauty of. What do you think?  

Also, please pray for me & my family. One year ago, out of the blue, my 20-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a severe form of Bipolar Disorder. It has been a very difficult year.

Thank you,

Is Heaven for Real?

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Dear Heaven,

I will pray for you and your family: having bipolar disorder in my own family, I know the pain and exhaustion that are attendant upon caring for someone with this illness—not to mention how hard it is on the sufferer themselves.  

Given how difficult your current reality is in this place and time, it's no wonder that you would envision Heaven not as a relationship—after all, one of your own primary relationships has been stressed and perhaps even severely compromised this past year—but as a physical place, a place where, as scripture has promised us, "Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." [Revelation 21:4]

Those of us who are busy with the difficulty of "first things" here and now are probably looking forward to them passing away. I once knew a Catholic priest, the founder of a Mexican orphanage. Bent over with care and worry at the age of 76 but still very active in the children's lives, he once said, "I'm looking forward to Heaven…eternal rest, yes, I think I could do that."

Eternal rest is one of the shorthand ways we have of speaking about Heaven, but sadly, there aren't all that many clues in scripture as to what Heaven is actually like. Most of what we learn in the Hebrew scriptures (aka the Old Testament) about Heaven is robbed from other mythologies of cultures who were near neighbors to ancient Israel.

And as far as what Jesus gave us to go by, he told a whole lot of parables about the kingdom of God aka Heaven, which only leave us shaking our heads about mustard seeds, a giant pearl, a dusty quarter under the radiator—none of them very satisfying to the person longing for eternal rest, or fields of freedom and beauty.

Nope, Revelation is the best scripture source for Heaven we got. And even Revelation is pretty squirrelly on the subject. It tells us that Heaven is "the new Jerusalem." Ok, a city, great! With awesome restaurants and museums! And all-night raves! And free and abundant parking!

But wait, in the next breath, Revelation tells us that this city "coming down out of Heaven from God" is like a bride prepared for her spouse. What the heaven are you talking about, John? A wedding. That most primary of: relationships.

I wonder if one thing that your pastor was trying to get at with the relationship metaphor was this: I have been to some beautiful, amazing places in my life. Doubtless you have, too. And if you're spent enough time there, perhaps this happened to you: the beauty wore off.

Our brains are hardwired to respond to novelty—it's a survival mechanism—so they compute and catalog every detail of our physical environment, and start to screen out data as it gets more familiar. In other words: I wonder if we wouldn't get "bored" of even Heaven's golden streets, green meadows, sparkling seas, in time.

But a relationship: is something that is organic, ever-evolving, dynamic. Novel. Its beauty can be new, every single day. Just as you are meeting your now adult daughter again as if for the first time, post-diagnosis, and hopefully mid-treatment, and learning the new normal of this life with her, perhaps that is what our eternal life with God will be like: ever-changing, with new challenges but also unlooked-for blessings and stunning new vistas, every day.

For a great read about a Heaven that is as surprising as it is beautiful, a Heaven that is about a physical place and relationships, I can't recommend highly enough the old classic The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis (yes, the Lewis of Narnia fame).

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,

Theo

Got life problems? Got God problems? Ask Dear Theo.

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A new letter will be answered by "Dear Theo" each week. Letter writers' identities will always remain anonymous.

"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by four UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds. We welcome questions spanning all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas...and everything in between.

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