HEAVEN: THE PRESENCE OF GOD
BY: JAMES A. FOWLER
Heaven should not be conceived in spatial and materialistic concepts,
but rather as the presence of God.
WHAT IS HEAVEN?
The simplest definition might be “heaven is the presence of God.” Could we simplify that even further and say “heaven is God”? No! That would be a logical fallacy, for that would be to make some “thing”, some concept, into God, which is the essence of idolatry. But we might invert the equation and say “God is heaven.”
In the religion of Judaism there was great respect for God’s name. Yahweh was comprised only of consonants, “YHWH”. There were no vowels, and the word was thus unpronouncable. It was merely formed breath, which is consistent with the fact that God is Spirit. (John 4:24) In order to avoid using God’s name, the Jews used other names and designations, substituting other concepts as a circumlocution for the name of Yahweh.
The word “heaven” became a synonym for Yahweh in post-exilic Judaism. This usage is carried over into the New Testament as can be seen in the following gospel usages:
Matthew 21:25 – (Jesus says to the Jewish authorities) “the baptism of John…was it from heaven or from men?”
Matthew 23:22 – “he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.”
Luke 15:21 – (Prodigal son) “I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight.”
John 3:27 – (John the Baptist says of Jesus) “A man can receive nothing, unless it has been given to him from heaven.”
The equation of God and heaven is also evidenced in the manner in which the gospel writers use the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” synonymously. Matthew, who wrote his gospel narrative particularly for a Jewish audience, is sensitive to the Jewish evasion of the name of God and uses “kingdom of heaven” in exactly the same contexts where Mark and Luke (writing for Roman and Greek audiences respectively) use the phrase “kingdom of God.” (cf. Matt. 13:11; Mk. 4:11; Lk. 8:10) “Kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are not separate eschatological concepts as some have attempted to differentiate them.
John the Baptist, and then Jesus, and then the disciples, all proclaimed to the people of Palestine, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7) This was the good news of the gospel what God, what heaven, was doing in Jesus Christ.
“Heaven” could be conceived of as the immanence of God’s presence in the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ, and at the same time “heaven” was used of the transcendence of God’s presence beyond mankind. Thus it is that Jesus could instruct His disciples to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven….Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matt. 6:9,10). Later in Matthew 7:21 Jesus declares that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” In this latter reference Jesus seems to use the immanent and transcendent concepts of God’s presence in the same sentence.
If “heaven” entails such a wide spectrum of God’s presence, then the popular mental conceptions found in many religious circles today are most inadequate. Pictures of clouds, harps, angels, pearly gates, etc., are figures formulated as “concrete” conceptualizations and fixed in the “concrete” of religious dogma. Surely we must pursue an understanding of heaven beyond these inadequate pictures.
In I Corinthians 2:9 Paul quotes from Isaiah 64:4 and does so in the context of the spiritual realities God has made available to Christians in Jesus Christ: “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” Is that not true of “heaven,” the presence of God, both immanently and transcendently? If it has entered the heart of man, our thinking processes and concepts, then it is probably not an accurate representation of “heaven,” of God’s presence! God is so much bigger than our finite abilities to conceptualize that any images that we can conceive are but inadequate images which become idols. Perhaps that is why the Jews generally refrain from speculating about “heaven,” for it leads to forbidden idolatry. But Christians have always engaged in such speculation!
Would you want to participate in a “heaven” that was only what your mind and heart could conceive? I would not! I have very little imagination! The “heaven” that I could conjure up in my mind would be extremely boring! I am convinced that heaven is not boring. Is love boring? Is joy boring? Our meager human perceptions of “heaven” would only lead to discontent. They are so static, so selfish, so mercenary, so materialistic, so space/time oriented, so inadequate! Man is made so as to only be content with God! That is why our human aspirations of heart and mind are no basis for revealing “heaven,” as some authors have indicated. The character of God is the only basis for revealing “heaven.” Heaven is the presence of God, acting as He always does, according to His character.
When it comes to thinking about “heaven,” we, with our finite minds, do not even know how to ask the correct questions. Mankind (“religious” people especially), thinking as they most often do, in a futuristic, spatial and temporal framework, ask questions like these:
What will I be like in heaven?
What kind of body will I have? (physical, spiritual, visible, invisible?)
Will I be recognizable? (in form? in personality?)
Will I be able to recognize those I love? (my wife? husband? children?)
What will I be doing in heaven? (“I don’t like playing the harp, you know!”)
Will heaven be boring to me? (Most human portrayals of such seem to be so.)
Will all of my desires be fulfilled in heaven? (Someone once described heaven as “the presence of everything desirable; the absence of everything undesirable.)
Will I be able to progress, develop or grow in heaven?
Does heaven have any challenges for me? (“I am most satisfied when I am challenged and can achieve and accomplish and overcome.”)
What kind of mental or emotional recall will I have in heaven from my time spent on earth?
What will my place of habitation be like?
How big will my “mansion” be?
Will I have more than someone else?
Will someone else have more than me?
Do these latter questions not seem rather mercenary and materialistic? It does not seem to me that we will “possess” anything in heaven. We do not “possess” mansions. We do not “possess” crowns. We do not “possess” salvation. We do not “possess” holiness. We do not “possess” love. We do not “possess” joy. We do not “possess” heaven! God possesses us!
Our questions about “heaven” are framed in such a self-oriented perspective. “What will I be like?” “What will I be doing?” These only reveal that we do not have a clue what heaven is all about!
Heaven is the presence of God. God’s presence always implies that He is acting in accord with His character. God’s character is summed up in Love. “God is Love.“ (I John 4:8,16) God’s love is total selflessness. Love is concerned only about the other, and the Ultimate Other, God. Then why do we continue to ask all those self-oriented questions with personal pronouns such as “I, me and my”? My present self-concern pollutes my perspective of heaven! My present space/time context of thinking preempts my understanding of eternity, infinity, God and heaven. Ignorance is certainly revealed when we do not even know how to ask the right questions!
Heaven is the presence of God, acting in accord with His character. God is love, unselfish and unselfconscious. To experience “heaven” is to lose our self-orientation and our self-concern. This would seem to reveal that heaven has nothing to do with morality, whether “I” am doing things right! Heaven has nothing to do with dogma and doctrine, whether “I” believe and assent to the right ideas. Heaven is only concerned about, centered upon, the other person and the Ultimate Other, God, who should be our ultimate concern in heaven. That is why it can be said that “religion knows nothing about heaven!” Religion is so caught up in the self-centered me-ism of doing things right and believing the right things, and knows nothing of the loving, joyous, self-giving of heaven.
Heaven is the presence of God. Heaven is the character of God in action. Heaven is what God is and does, not what man does to perform for God, as religion advocates. If that be the case, does concern for heaven produce passivity and inactivity in the one thus concerned? Not necessarily! Necessarily not! God is an active God. His presence is always actively expressing His character in the out-going means of grace. Faith is our receptivity of His activity. God is love. Love is always active, extending out toward the other. There is no such thing as passive love; that is apathy! God is joy. Joy is always energetic and enlivening. Heaven’s demeanor is that of humor and laughter and play and activity. Thus I repeat, “Religion knows nothing about heaven,” as evidenced by its being so sour and dour and serious about itself, and so passive and inactive in loving others.
Heaven is the presence of God, and subjectively considered, heaven is spiritual ecstasy. The word “ecstatic” is etymologically derived from two Greek words, ek meaning “out of,” and stasis which comes from histemi meaning “to stand.” It is not difficult to see that that which stands and is unmoving is “static”. “Ecstatic” has to do with that which is “out of” the realm of the “static.” There is no ecstasy in that which is static, for such is rigid, cold, hard, immovable, dead. Ecstasy is experienced only in that which is dynamic, i.e. alive, active, warm, moving and incomprehensible. Heaven is spiritual ecstasy in that it has to do with the dynamic presence of God in action.
If heaven is the presence of God, does consideration of and concern for “heaven” produce in those thus concerned a form of “escapism” from the present situation? Many have charged that heavenly consideration and expectations lead to an “escapist” mind-set that involves losing interest in living and working in this world. We must admit that such is often the case among religionists who view heaven as merely a futuristic “pie in the sky bye-and-bye,” almost an escapist “nirvana” concept. But if heaven is the active and dynamic presence of God God in action in accord with His character then to consider “heaven” is to consider ultimate reality and the divine intent for mankind. The failure and the refusal to consider “heaven,” the presence of God, is truly “escapism!” Such is an attempt to “escape” from ultimate reality, an attempt to “escape” from functional humanity, an attempt to “escape” from genuine social interaction. Heaven, the presence of God, invests and infuses the present situation with His activity, His character, His love, His joy, His peace right now, here and now, within those receptive to Him.
Is this to imply then that we have heaven on earth right now? We have seen that heaven became a synonym for God, and is so used interchangeably in the gospels; that the “kingdom of heaven” is the “kingdom of God;” that “heaven” is the presence of God in action. Is God in action on earth right now? Is the presence of God active presently in the world? Is not the message of Christianity, the “good news” that mankind can be reconciled to the presence of God through Jesus Christ?
The earliest proclamation of the gospel by Jesus Himself was “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), because the presence of God was at hand in Jesus Christ. In the beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:2) Jesus kept telling parables about the “kingdom of heaven” (cf. Matt. 13), explaining the dynamics of new covenant Christianity. Jesus explained that the “key” to the kingdom of heaven was the confession that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:19). The kingdom of heaven/ kingdom of God is present whenever the King is present, for Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21) or “within you” (KJV). In Ephesians 1:3 Paul explains that “God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus,” by the indwelling spiritual presence of Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews indicates that Christians have becomes “partakers of a heavenly calling” (Heb. 3:1), have “tasted of the heavenly gift” (Heb. 6:4), and have “come to the heavenly Jerusalem.“ (Heb. 12:22)
If heaven is the presence of God, then is the presence of God not actively present among us and within us right now, here on earth, as Christians? Are we not actively participating in the heavenly and spiritual dynamic of the expression of the character of God? Is that not what the Christian life is all about? I believe it is! The heavenly Father is desirous of expressing His character with His spiritual children, Christians, the “People of God.” As Christians, we presently participate in the “kingdom of heaven.” The presence of the Spirit of God within us allows for the present subjective experiencing of the heavenly blessings of the active expression of His character. We experience “heaven” on earth, the active presence of God.
But I turn right around and declare that what I am saying is not to say that earth is heaven, or even that the church is heaven. To that I would exclaim, “Good heaven, God forbid!”
Does this sound contradictory and confusing? Bear with me as I attempt to explain, hoping not to muddy the waters even more.
Heaven is the continuum of the life that we now have in Christ Jesus. (By the use of the word “continuum” I do not mean merely the distant future continuation of Christ’s life, but that there is no discontinuity of content, so it is not just a temporal designation but a substantive consideration of content in the context of eternal duration.)
Again then, heaven is the continuum of the life that we have as Christians. This is true objectively in that the life we have (or participate in) is the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.“ (John 11:25) “I am the way, the truth and the life.“ (John 14:6) Paul refers to “Christ who is our life.“ (Colossians 3:4) John writes in I John 5:12, “He that has the Son has life; he that does not have the Son of God does not have life.” The life that we participate in as Christians, both now and then, presently and in the future is the life of Jesus, eternal life, heavenly reality.
Subjectively, we are presently to be developing an appreciation for the function of Christ’s life in our behavior. We are to be involved in the process of growing and developing the extent to which the life of Jesus is allowed to pervade and permeate our soul and body, so as to express God’s character in our behavior, characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, etc. Paul explains that “it is no longer I who lives but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), and that in order that “the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal bodies.“ (II Cor. 4:10, 11)
If this be the case (as Scripture seems to indicate), then objectively we have all the heaven we are ever going to get, right now, presently, on earth, in Jesus Christ! And subjectively, now is the time, here on earth is the place, for the development of the appreciation of His life, since physical death would seem to be the terminus of such development and growth. Now is the day of salvation through sanctification in Christ Jesus. (I Cor. 6:2; II Thess. 2:13)
Yet, we must consider not only the objectivity of the life of Jesus Christ and the subjectivity of the appreciation of such, but also the objectivity of the realm in which that life is experienced and the subjectivity of the experience of that life within that realm. The present subjective experience of Christ’s life is within an objective realm that is antithetically hostile and alien to the experience and expression of His life the environment of the “world” thus causing subjective difficulty and hindrance to the awareness and enjoyment of His life. Such is the Christian life on earth! The future subjective experience of Christ’s life will be within an objective realm that is completely conducive to the experience and expression of God’s life. It will be in a “new heaven and a new earth” (II Peter 3:13), wherein the total environment and atmosphere will also be the presence of God. Thus it is that “heaven” as spiritual condition or state and “heaven” as realm or place or location will converge or merge into one the presence of God, objectively and subjectively. Even then there is no pantheism implied for the Creator/creature distinction will always be maintained. Though we partake of heavenly realities, the presence of God, we do not become God, nor do we assume any of His essential, exclusive and non-transferrable attributes. We do not become eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.
Therefore, we are not saying that all there is to heaven, objectively and subjectively, is what we have and experience on earth right now! It is not a matter of “what you see is what you get.” I would not want an eternity of what I am currently capable of seeing! That would not be “heavenly” to me. Yet, at the same time, I do have all heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus, right now. (Eph. 1:3)
Heaven is the presence of God. Jesus Christ is the presence of God. Heaven is eternal life. Jesus Christ is eternal life. To have the presence of Jesus Christ in us be the Spirit, God in us, is to have the presence of heaven in us, to participate in the kingdom of God, and to allow God to act in accord with His heavenly character, both now and in the future.
The Creator-God so designed the creature-man so as to require the presence of the Creator-God within the creature man in order for the creature-man to be the creature-man that the Creator-God intended the creature-man to be. Man is not man as God intended apart from seeking for and participating in heaven, seeking for and participating in the presence of God.
It has been said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I disagree! The road to hell is paved with apathy and escapism. Apathy which says, “I don’t care; I don’t give a damn.” Escapism which seeks to avoid and evade the true functional intent for humanity. The divine intent for the human creature is to allow God, the heavenly Father (made available to mankind in Jesus Christ, His Son, and by the outpouring of His Spirit) to function by His heavenly presence in us. That is the gospel, the “good news” about “heaven.”
Heaven: the presence of God in Jesus Christ. Now and then!
As the song writer testified, “Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.”
HEAVEN-THE PRESENCE OF GOD [James A. Fowler] 1