WHAT IS HEAVEN? AND WHERE IS IT?
Isaiah 65 : 17 – 25
All of us wish for a better world. No matter how content and happy we are, we wish that things were a little bit better than they are now. And for many desperate people in the world, who may be starving or dying daily of violence, a need for a better world is often a matter of life or death. Before the human race really knew how things worked, they believed that gods and spirits were in charge and could make the world a better or worse place. Many people think that this was why religions were born: out of a need for a better world. Now that we have become more knowledgeable, economists, politicians and scientists have begun to tell us how we can make this world better. Some people even suggest that there is no longer a need for religion, because we can look after ourselves and create a perfect world by ourselves.
The recent debate about the choice between federation with Canada and sovereignty for Quebec had that tone of a promise of the perfect world or Utopia. We are beginning to learn, however, that politicians more often than not renege on their utopian promises. We are learning very quickly also, that the scientists often sing the songs of their paymasters – for example in the debate about environment – and that they are not always objective. So we don”t trust the experts any more. Consequently many people have returned to their search for Utopia in the spiritual world, like the old times. Experimenting with new kinds of spirituality, or Eastern religions.
In our Judeo-Christian tradition, there has always been a strong promise of a perfect world. The Bible mentions it in different ways. The Prophet Isaiah talked of a new heaven and a new earth, or New Jerusalem. When Jesus began his ministry, he called it the Kingdom of God and declared its coming. He also called it the Kingdom of heaven, and used those two expressions interchangeably. The Bible reports that after Jesus died and rose to life, he ascended into heaven promising that he would come back again. Thus the followers of Jesus began to equate the second coming of the Lord with the coming of the Kingdom of God. I am sure that if you look for it, you will find many other expressions in our Bible to convey the notion of an ideal world and the end of this imperfect one.
Today”s passage from the Hebrew Bible contains a wonderfully simple description of a utopian world – God”s promised land. It says that in such a world: 1) children do not die, 2) old people live out their lives in dignity, 3) everyone works and eats of the fruits of their labour, 4) and everyone lives in own house which nobody takes away. And in order to create such a world, the strong and the weak must be able to live together in peace without harming each other.
What is most interesting to me in this passage is what is not mentioned. I find that there are two things missing, things which are usually very important elements in other promises of an ideal world. First of all, it does not say where such a world will be or when it is coming; it leaves out the questions of location and time. In other words, it does not say that Heaven is the place you go, after you die. Jesus Christ declared the Kingdom of God by saying, "the Kingdom of God has come." If that is so – if it has come then it is already here now, though still unfinished. It is for us to complete its creation working with God, in the present.
Going to church, according to Biblical faith is not an insurance policy that one will go to heaven after death. Our faith and church life are about living in the here and now, because we live in the Kingdom of God only by participating in its completion. The notion of the afterlife as an entry point into the ideal world definitely is not there in the Isaiah passage. God”s world is already here. This is His world.
The second thing that is missing is that there is no mention of any particular system that would bring in such an ideal world. What the Isaiah passage gives us is a standard for Utopia. There are a certain number of criteria to measure whether a system is up to the standard of the Kingdom of God. In other words, Isaiah is saying to us, "How you organize your society is your responsibility. What I care about is whether the system you create measures up to God”s standard." God”s way is neither Mr. Bouchard”s way nor Mr. Chretien”s, neither capitalist nor socialist, neither of marketing boards or of a free trade agreement, whether Mr. Clinton”s nor Mr. Gingrich”s. Our human ways can not promise the coming of an ideal world automatically.
It all depends on the question of whether Mr. Bouchard or Mr. Chretien, or whoever or whatever, can create a society that can pass the following tests: Number one; children do not die. It doesn”t matter how easily we can travel outer space. That is not a measure for a better world. The progress towards Utopia can only be measured by the wellbeing of children. Our real concern should be; "Why do 44 thousand children still die everyday from malnutrition in such a highly developed world of ours?" 44,000; that”s one hundred 747 Jumbo jets crashing down every day. Why do we not respond to such a catastrophe?
Secondly, old people live out their lives with dignity. Many of us have aging parents. I have an aging mother, too. I often wonder, looking at people at Griffith-McConnel Residence, how we are expressing our appreciation to those who brought us into this world, who brought us up, and shared their wisdom of life with us. We have a bad habit of treating people, who can not physically function as well as we can, as less than human. In the hospital situations, I have seen very intelligent people treated like mentally retarded persons simply because they had a stroke and lost their faculty of speech . God”s world accords senior citizens full dignity until they complete their full lives.
Thirdly people "shall build houses and inhabit in them, they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruits." In other words, in God”s world, nobody will steal our homes or our livelihood. The promise of the God”s world includes full employment, a decent return for our work, and housing for everyone. No exploitation of cheap labour nor bank foreclosures. Imagine: such a vision was recorded thousands of years before Christ, yet, it still seems like an almost impossible pipe dream. Is it really unrealistic to dream of such a world?
The Bible says it should be possible if we change our operating principle from competition to compassion. The purpose of might and power is not to defeat the less powerful and the weak, but to supplement what is lacking so that all may survive.
In our present world, mighty lions live by killing and eating weaker animals. When there are no more animals to kill, lions must perish. Is it not wiser for a lion to learn the way of life from a weaker animal like a sheep and starts eating grass? Grass will grow again. But if you kill a sheep, you kill not only the sheep but its children and children”s children. It is not a sustainable way of life. The more creative way to survive is to learn to eat grass and live happily together with the sheep.
So what is Heaven? And where is it? It is here, now, though it is incomplete. It is a compassionate world, which Jesus began to build. We are working together with a loving God to complete it. It is heaven on this earth. Heaven begins here and extends into the life beyond this life. Let us work together to create a compassionate world, starting from here.
November 19, 1995