Tuesday, 3 July 2012


St Matthew’s Church, Oxford, 1st July 2012.  Readings: Revelation 21 and John 14: 1-6

This is the fourth in our series of sermons on the ‘last things’: death, judgement, Hell and Heaven.   You might think I have got the easy one: Heaven.   But in many ways I think the subject of Heaven is just as difficult as say the subject of Hell.  If we can get our heads around Hell, Heaven is relatively easy to comprehend.   But the reverse isn’t really the case.

In this sermon I want to pose some questions about Heaven.   I don’t intend to give you many answers.   For example I am not going to paint for you a rosy picture of heaven such as the one on the right.

Some of you might find that unsatisfactory but tough.   In the end we all have to make up our own minds about Heaven – just as we have to make our own minds up about God.   I, nor anyone else, can tell you what to believe about Heaven. 

But I also want to encourage your belief in Heaven.   I am rather assuming here that we all do believe in Heaven at least to some extent.   Forgive me if you don’t.   

Now we don’t say the Creed – the agreed statement of what Christians believe - very often at St Matthew’s – at least not at the 10.30 service.  However it is worth looking at it from time to time.   The Creed says two things about Heaven.

Firstly that Jesus has gone there:
‘And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
And ascended into Heaven’.

And secondly that there is life after death:
                ‘And I look for the resurrection of the dead,
                And the life of the world to come.'

But it should be noted that the Creed says nothing more than this.   In saying the Creed we say nothing about what we think Heaven is like. 

In this sermon I am taking Heaven to be a time and place after death.   I know some people think Heaven is here and now – or at least can be glimpsed here and now – but this sermon is one of a series on the last things so by Heaven I mean the life of the world to come which is not Hell.  However I’ll come back to the possible timelessness and spacelessness of Heaven later.

So what does the Bible tell us about Heaven?   When choosing bible readings for today’s service I wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice.   To be frank descriptions of Heaven are few and far between in the bible – much less common than descriptions of Hell. 

I ended up with the reading from John’s gospel:  where Jesus is talking about Heaven as a house with many rooms.    And the reading from Revelation: which is John’s vision of Heaven as a rather strange but beautiful city.   And of course there is the notion of heaven as a banquet, a party, which I have talked about many times.

In wondering what to today I started by wondering what people really wanted to know about Heaven.   The first question I think people want the answer to is, ‘Does it really exist’?    The second is, ‘What is it like?’ and the third is, Am I going there?’  

So let’s start with: ‘Does it exist’?     I think we do rather have to assume that it does.   The Bible is surely pretty clear about this: even if it has little to say about what heave is like.  We affirm our belief in Heaven every time we say the Creed. 

Even John Lennon, in one of his best known songs, which begins with the words ‘Imagine there’s no Heaven,’ starts with the assumption there is a Heaven – either on the part of the singer or the person the song is being sung to. 

I am afraid I cannot prove to you that Heaven exists.   Just as I cannot prove that God exists.   We have to take the existence of Heaven on trust – because God has promised it.   This promise is a promise we know we can trust because Jesus has risen from the dead.    As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised our teaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those how have [died]’.

The second big question people seem to ask about Heaven is, ‘What is it like?’  
Now Heaven, almost by definition, is a nice place and somewhere God is.  When the Bible does talk about what Heaven is like it is clear at least on these two fronts.   Jesus says to his disciples ‘Let not your hearts be troubled…In my Father’s house there are many rooms’. John says ‘He {God] will dwell with them, and… there shall be no mourning nor crying nor pain any more’. 

We often used to sing a chorus at St Matthew’s which begins, ‘Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace, I want to see my saviour’s face, Heaven is a wonderful place.’

But beyond the recognition of Heaven as where God is and that it’s a wonderful place we are likely to have many questions.   Let’s start with some seemingly trivial ones first.   

First will we have to wear white clothes?   Mrs. C.F. Alexander in one of her best known songs: Once in Royal David’s City, views Heaven as a place where we ‘like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around.’   She gets the notion of wearing white clothes from various verses in the Bible including Revelation 6: 11.  Do you think we will be wearing white clothes?

Next what will we do in Heaven?    The rather common – if now somewhat old fashioned idea - that we are going to spend a lot of time playing harps also comes from Revelation.   Revelation 14.2 says, ‘And I heard a voice from Heaven like the sound of sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne.’  

But this verse hardly seems to justify the notion that we will all be continuously playing harps in Heaven.    But, if not, what we will be precisely doing?   Will we eat and drink in Heaven - as the song that we will sing after this sermon suggests?   Will we work, will we sleep?   The Bible is distinctly unclear.   Mrs CF Alexander’s suggestion that we will wait around sounds rather lame to me.

Interestingly – and as a bit of an aside – people seem to be distinctly uncertain about the last line of Once in Royal David’s City.   One version has it that, ‘All in white shall stand around’ and another that, ‘All in white shall be around’.  And indeed perhaps we will do nothing in Heaven but just be?

But surely the most pressing question people have about what Heaven is like is whether we will be able to meet our friends and family there?  This is clearly a big question people want to know, particularly when someone they love has just died.    What might usefully said to help us with this question?   Two things perhaps:

Firstly that being is surely relationship.  All agree that Heaven is where God is and being in Heaven means being with God: having a relationship with him.   But our relationship with God is not, and surely never will be, mutually exclusive of our relationships with other people.  If in Heaven we are to have a relationship with God then might we have relationships with other people as well?

Secondly our promise and hope of Heaven – as I said earlier –is based on the resurrection of Jesus.  When Jesus returned from the grave he was recognised by his friends – in some cases not immediately to be sure – but this surely too gives us confidence that in Heaven – we will keep our identities – at least to some degree – retaining the possibility of being recognised for who we are.

When thinking about what Heaven is like we run – I think – into a number of difficulties.   I have assumed up to this point in my sermon that Heaven is a place and also a place where time is in operation.   

But is it really?   In the old days people used to think of Heaven as a physical place - under the earth or beyond the stars – but in a physical place nonetheless.    Nowadays, knowing the Earth is not flat and how far distant the stars are, we no longer think of Heaven as an actual place.   Or do we?   It seems to me that we cannot imagine Heaven without thinking of it as somewhere we go, or can we?

And it is also nearly impossible to think about existence in places without also thinking about time.   When I said that many of us would like to know what we will be doing in Heaven you might have recalled that doing, as opposed to being, involves time.   We can do anything without time.   Playing a harp – for starters – requires time for it to be meaningful.   A tune involves a sequence of notes played over a period of time.   

Without time that tune could only be a single note infinitely short in duration.   Having a conversation with someone we love involves a sequence of exchanges over a period of time.   A common notion of Heaven is that it is everlasting.   But if for God there is no time then is there really time in Heaven? 

It seems to me that all visions of Heaven necessarily involve seeing it as located in space in time.   One of my reasons for thinking this is that Jesus both in his earthly life and in his risen life was located in time and space.   

The incarnation means that the physical body, located in time and space, is made holy.  In the end our physical body may be transformed but must retain its physical connection with time and space.  Jesus talks about Heaven as a house with many rooms and that he is going there to prepare a place there and then come back.  In other words that Heaven is a physical location located in time.  This perhaps sounds shocking to our modern ears – or would do so if the words had not begun to be taken as a sort of metaphor or parable.

St John’s vision of a new Heaven in Revelation rather plays with the notion of space and time.   Revelation seems to have a view of time as circular or at least cyclical rather than linear and where the events are set seems indistinct.  But John’s Heaven is not entirely timeless and spaceless.

A vision of Heaven that I particularly like and commend is that to be found in CS Lewis’s book The Great Divorce.   In this fantasy the narrator takes a bus trip from Hell to Heaven.   The inhabitants of Hell can make this trip if they want and stay in Heaven as long as they like if they choose to.   Most of the travellers on the bus choose to go back to Hell but some stay.  Lewis’ vision of Heaven is of a land where the grass hurts the feet of the people from Hell because it is so real and where the inhabitants are shining spirits who are on a journey from the plane (where the bus from Hell lets off its passengers) to the mountains where God is.  Lewis’ vision of Heaven is located firmly in time and space – albeit on a grand scale.   For instance he talks about Hell being a grain of sand down a crack of the earth of Heaven.     

The third big question about Heaven that I think most people want to know is, ‘If it exists, am I going there? I cannot presume to answer this for you.   All I can say is that God has promised us Heaven if only we can grasp that promise. 

Now a promise is a performative form of speech.   I have talked before about the difference between descriptive words and peformative words.   Descriptive words – if true - just reflects the world like a mirror.  Performative words if true change the world.   There is a vast difference between me saying Heaven is like this - say a place with grass and mountains - and God saying I promise you Heaven.    The first set of words changes nothing and may even be untrue, the second set of words changes matters completely.   But God’s promise of Heaven needs us – to whom he is making the promise – to trust that promise.   We need to engage with God’s performative words if they are to become true.

Since I have been using lines of songs to illustrate different perspectives on Heaven, here is one last song relating to the question of how we get to Heaven.   There is a song many of used to sing around campfires as children which began, ‘You'll never get to Heaven In an old Ford car 'cos an old Ford car Won't get that far.‘    And there was another verse which ran: ’You'll never get to Heaven in a Playtex bra ‘cos a Playtex bra. won't stretch that far.’   This song reminds us that in the end, not only can we not really know what Heaven is like, but we cannot get there under our own steam either.   We just have to trust in God to prepare a place for us there.   Any provisional description of what Heaven is like is less important than God’s promise of its existence.

So to summarise what I have said.   There are, I think, three big questions about Heaven:  The first is, ‘Does it really exist’?    The second is, ‘What is it like?’    The third is: ‘Am I going there?’    Although I said I wasn’t going to supply many answers to questions, my answers – in short - to these questions are:  Yes to the first, yes Heaven does really exist.  However we can’t really answer the second - ‘What is Heaven like?’ - beyond the promise that God will be there and it will be a good place to be.   And my answer to the third?  Well yes I hope I am going there, and I hope you are coming with me.

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