“Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different.” Those are the words of an official explaining the seriousness of the hurricane currently swirling in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm is predicted to hit the eastern seaboard sometime on Thursday or Friday. The weather oracles are talking about a possible storm surge of ten feet, two feet of rain, a recovery that takes weeks, multiple states impacted . . . . People in the storm’s path are scrambling to get prepared. The rest of us are looking on with a mix of concern and fascination that keeps us glued to the news.
A storm is a real thing, a very concerning thing in this case . . . what could it possibly have to do with the old crusty topic of heaven? Well, probably not what you think.
The parallel, it’s an analogy really, is not in the potential damage or the frantic prayers of those who worry they may be left behind. It is in the sense of expectation and the effects of something just off shore. When a storm approaches we know, at least in a vague way, that things are about to change. We put our best efforts into preparing, even though we realize we don’t know exactly what to do. A big storm, even when it is still out at sea, is already affecting everything in its path. Winds change. Waves change. Air pressure changes. Temperatures change.
In a small but scholarly book called The Difference Heaven Makes, Christopher Morse describes how in its biblical usage the concept of ‘heaven’ refers not so much to a place one goes, but to a direction from which God’s deeds come. “Whatever comes from God is said to come from heaven,” he writes. Heaven is a part of the good news (gospel) that early Christians proclaimed. As is true for any who share news, those who speak of heaven must assess its credibility. For this reason, it is important to realize that heaven “is not a state of denial of the harshest realities of earth.” In its biblical form heaven has little to do with the pastel illustrations dripping with escapism. Rather, as Morse suggests, “heaven is the course of God’s forthcoming.” It is the swirling wind just off our shores.
Contrary to the way some pastors speak of it these days, heaven is not only the origin of blessing but also the origin of judgment. “To be set against the life currently forthcoming from God is to be set against not only oneself and one’s best interests, but against the life interests of all those with whom this forthcoming now brings one into relation.” Translation: the winds of heaven favour the flourishing of creation, but in them is judgement for that which stands in the way. The idea of heaven should not energize our desire to escape the reality of evil but to confront it.
In scripture heaven is not eternal. It comes into being through God’s creative act. Like a storm, it has a beginning. Heaven is the dimension of creation, though it is not spatially distinct from our own, where God dwells. As Morse says, “the earth is overarched by an unimpeded dominion of love and freedom.” The biblical writers speak of a “kingdom of heaven.” We could also call it a “commonwealth.” It populated with heavenly creatures and therefor has a politics all its own. In fact, it is precisely the politics of heaven (a way of relating and exercising power) that we request in the Lord’s Prayer. It is in this heavenly envelopment that earth finds its existence.
Part of what we find so threatening about approaching storms is the fact that what we know how to do may not translate into the reality the winds will bring. We know how to get food for our families by going to the corner store. We know how to light and warm our homes with the flip of a switch. In the new reality these may no longer work. Similarly, Morse reads the biblical witness to suggest that between heaven and the reality we experience now there is a “proximity [that is] without approximation.” The gospel message is that the commonwealth of heaven is “at hand.” It is coming, yet it is not “of this world.” This difference, this otherness, is what the most literal ways of thinking about heaven fail to grasp.
To read references to heaven in a fashion more literal than the biblical texts intend, is to think that when Jacob had a vision of angels climbing a ladder between earth and heaven, he was seeing a real thing. It’s the idea that heaven is up there somewhere, very much like the world we know, just invisible. This view depends on the misguided assumption that when scripture speaks of God, or in this case of God’s dwelling within creation, that it speaks of those things in the same way it speaks of our world. It is hard to take such a view of heaven seriously. This version of the good news has little credibility, which is why many Christians have simply ceased to talk about heaven.
The parallel between our experience of an approaching storm and the biblical concept of heaven, helps us see more clearly that heaven already shapes our world. We are, even now, ruffled by its outer bands. We see that it makes sense to ready ourselves, not to abandon forever our communities, but to see them reshaped by the politics of a new commonwealth. Like any powerful storm, the reality of heaven just off our shores enables us to reassess our priorities.
I was in Virginia some years ago when the remnants of a hurricane churned through the central part of the state. There was so much rain that we were able to slide down hills on garbage bags. It was free fun, just the right price for graduate students. If you find yourself stuck for a few days in this storm or another, stay dry, stay warm and maybe take some time to re-read what the biblical writes actually say about heaven. As Christopher Morse suggests, it’s more relevant now than we might have been led to believe.