|Each year a class is taught at a Canadian seminary on Puritan spirituality.
The participants are invited to concentrate on one of three works from
the Puritan divine of the 17th Century, Richard Baxter. They may choose
from the Christian Directory in which he outlines the spiritual life, his
summation of pastoral ministry as found in The Reformed Pastor or his reflections
on the hope of glory from The Saints Everlasting Rest. The students have
the most difficulty with the latter. A professor suggested that their struggle
might reflect the blind spots of a culture that spends more time living
in the temporal than meditating on the eternal.1 Those students may also
struggle digesting Baxter's heavenly reflections because of the misconceptions
that are so prevalent. From harp playing angels to walks down gold brick
streets, to an entrance blocked by a long waiting line, we have been offered
many descriptions of its existence. When understood with a narrowly defined
literalness, they become silly depictions of an unfathomable reality. Its
no wonder that John Lennon tried to convince us to "Imagine there's no
C. S. Lewis never had a problem dismissing the objections of people who claimed that they did not want to spend eternity playing harps. He simply told them that if they could not understand books written for grown-ups, they should stop talking about them." He also suggested to those who advocated for a literal approach to Scripture '...might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs."2
The vivid imagery of the Apostle John's vision is a stunning piece of literature that borrows heavily from its Judaic tradition. Very few of the images are original. He uses symbols, ideas, and concepts familiar to his readers to describe his vision of heaven. Eugene Peterson writes, "...he rewrote Genesis and Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jesus. He confirmed the promise and perceptions interwoven through centuries that show that the action and presence of God, the entire realm of God's rule, has invaded our world and our lives."3
In the opening verse of the 21st chapter, John writes about the 'new' but uses words from the past. We cannot understand what is to come unless we know what was. We cannot know the new heaven and earth unless we have lived in the old creation. Too often, we create surreal descriptions of heaven. John's vision becomes bloated with make-believe fantasy. It becomes an escape from the problems, pain, turmoil, and tragedy of life. The longest living apostle has a much different vision.
The apostle conveys this truth by using very earthy imagery. He uses the stuff that is in our lives right now-people, places, sights, and sounds. The divine vision includes both a heaven and an earth. Rocks, trees, dirt, flowers are used to give form and substance to the invisible. This does not surprise us at first. Other religions describe heaven as unspoiled wilderness or serene gardens but John will not have an eternal sentimentality. The tranquility of the garden is pushed aside for the commotion of the city, not just any city, but a cramped, thousand-year-old city that became the doormat for the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans.
To fully understand his meaning, we must first consider the image of the city. The first city, Enoch, was constructed by a murderer. Cain who killed his brother Able in a jealous rage and then built a city to protect himself. God destroyed that city in the Flood. "The second city, Babel, was built in an arrogant attempt to storm heaven and was abandoned in a tangle of broken languages." The city of God, Jerusalem did not fare much better. It became infamous for child sacrifice, mocking and imprisoning its prophets and executing its savior. The city is the place of competitive striving, spiritual defiance, manipulation, and control. So why is this image used to represent the glory of the eternal? Shouldn't we try to distance ourselves from such a place? We have visited too many of these cities? Don't we deserve something different? What about that quite path that follows alongside a meandering stream? What about that distant meadow beautifully adorned by wildflowers and safely protected by snow capped mountains? Don't we deserve a retreat from the responsibilities and the difficulties of living?
John will not allow us to have an escapist vision of heaven. Again Eugene Peterson writes, "Heaven is formed out of the dirty streets an murderous alleys, adulterous bedrooms and corrupt courts, hypocritical synagogues and commercialized churches, thieving tax-collectors and traitorous disciples....[it] is quarried out of the marble and granite of our self-will, our self-assertion-all our brother-hating, God-defying, Christ-rejecting..." attitudes and actions. God takes the mess of human existence and transforms it into a heavenly wonder.
This tells me that heaven is not just for the great heroes of the faith. It is also for people like Simeon and Levi, the sons of Jacob, who defended the honor of their sister by treacherously murdering an entire village. Heaven is for Joseph who paraded before his brothers in a coat of many colors to remind them that father loved him more. Heaven is the place for brothers like Issachar and Gad who became so angry with Joseph that they stuffed him into a dry well, sold him into slavery, and then lied to their father that a wild animal killed the boy. Heaven is also for people like, Reuben who cowardly stood in silence when his younger brothers lied about the fate of Jacob's favorite son. In other words, heaven is for people like you and me. Even in all our inconsistencies, discrepancies and idiosyncrasies, God offers the promise of transformation. Our eternal existence will not be born in another world but will rise from the substance of this material world. This has tremendous potential for our spiritual lives.
Heaven is not the promise of anything other than what we have already received by faith and more. For John, heaven is not limited to that which is to come. It is the fulfillment of what has already been received. It is not remote but immediate. We do not wait for heaven to come at the rapture or when we die. We see the birth pangs of this new creation all around us. In the hopeless morass of human misery, we are called to participate in the rebirth of God's creation.
In her commentary on the Song of Songs, St Teresa of Avila, wrote, "The pay begins in this life."4 The eternal is not a dream or a retreat into fantasy when life gets too messy. It is the completion of the petition we offer each time we pray the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, the will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
This is the heavenly challenge for the Christian life. Will we be people
who wait in boredom for the next spiritual experience to capture our attention
or will we enjoy the eternal now? Will we allow the
1 James I. Packer, "Richard Baxter on Heaven, Hope and Holiness," Alive
to God: Studies in Spirituality, James I. Packer and Loren Wilkinson, eds.
(Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity, 1992, 161.
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