But if I lived in Paris, I would lose Paris. It wouldn’t be Paris anymore: cathedrals, and palmiers, and catacombs, and Voltaire with his satchel of manuscripts around every corner. It would just be Paris: graffiti, and social unrest, and urine soaked quaysides.
It’s important to me that Paris continue to hover in the borderland of my memory between fiction and nonfiction without crossing completely to one side or the other. Properly understood, it is neither totally real nor is it pure fantasy. It's Paris.
Many Christians want to treat heaven like I treat Paris, though for different reasons. They want to keep it as distant of a netherworld as possible, because if it got any closer to this one it would become an inconvenience. The heaven way of doing things would start to meddle in our way of doing things. It would stick it's nose into our personal desires, our conveniently racist systems, our business dealings, or what have you. So it’s best left to some place strictly inaccessible like the afterlife or some after-armageddon.
Jesus didn't talk much about heaven other than to teach us to pray for things to happen "on earth" as they do "in heaven." Instead, he spoke a lot about the “kingdom of God,” a very concrete, real-worldly alternative to the kingdom of Caesar, which could pop into existence among his followers when they adopted a way of life that contradicted their society's way of power hungry greed and warlike domination. Shortly after his death, his later followers, like the author of Matthew, started putting the words “kingdom of heaven” into his mouth, initially as an innocent Jewish piety in order to avoid even the Greek translation of saying “God.” Within another generation or two, the word “kingdom” was mostly dropped and this just became “heaven.”
As the Christian story spread into the Greek thinking world, the idea of “heaven” subtly merged with the widespread neo-Platonic idea that there is a parallel “world of forms [or ideals]” of which everything on this plane is just a shoddy reflection. As the early Christian expectation that Jesus would soon return and establish his kingdom on this earth started wearing thin with time, some very imaginative Greek speaking Christians started to hypothesize that an afterlife in this alternative realm called heaven must be where individual Christians are "resurrected" to after death.
If you’ve ever puzzled at how so many Christians today, who of all people should embrace our reality the most lovingly, can instead speak with such contempt about “the world,” it relates to this.
But heaven should not, I repeat, should not be treated like it’s Paris. In fact, if you don’t absolutely insist on using the word heaven, I’d prefer to talk about the “reign of God” or the “way of Jesus,” referring to our new mode and means of relating to one another once everything in this very real world of ours has been brought under God’s rule.
Instead of awaiting our escape to some otherworldly plane, a Christian’s relationship to the reign of God should be like Wile E. Coyote's relationship to the landscape. In the old “Looney Tunes” cartoons Wile E. Coyote could drag a pit or a wall into the frame whenever it suited his purpose of catching Roadrunner (don’t worry about his success rate—all Looney Tunes analogies break down eventually). As Christians, we drag the reign of God into frame whenever we serve the needy, welcome the stranger, advocate for justice, forgive someone who has hurt us, or generally live according to the way of Jesus.
When asked whether the reign of God is now or in the future, Christians are the ones who respond, "Yes," and get on with their healing work.
If we do that, then neither “will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.