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Where is Heaven?

Updated: May 7

Everything Jesus Taught about Heaven. Week Two

April 21, 2024

David R. Collins


Scripture:

Matthew 4:17



I want to start our time together with a poem that’s important to me. I think it might be important to you as well. It goes like this…


When the night falls down

I wait for you

And you come around

And the world's alive

With the sound of kids

On the street outside


When you walk into the room

You pull me close and we start to move

And we're spinning with the stars above

And you lift me up in a wave of love


In this world we're just beginning

To understand the miracle of living

Baby I was afraid before

But I'm not afraid anymore


Ooh baby, do you know what that's worth?

Ooh heaven is a place on earth

They say in heaven love comes first

We'll make heaven a place on earth

Ooh heaven is a place on earth


It’s not a very serious song, but St. Belinda is asking a very serious question:


Where is heaven?


Is it, as so many cartoons depict, on a cloud? Is it, as some of the sci-fi religions teach, on another planet? Or is it, as the Rev. Dr. Carlyle sang, a place on earth? Like if we went on some adventure, with either the Rock or Brendan Fraser as our guide, would we discover it?


And, most importantly, who gets to say where it is?


Today is our second week in our series, Everything Jesus Taught about Heaven. Last week, Megan started us out with the most encouraging sermon about hell I’ve ever heard. If you haven’t heard it or read it yet, you should check it out.


Today, we’re going to get into what Jesus taught about where heaven really is.


There are two answers to that question.


The first answer involves the ancient Jewish concept of the heavens, which was a part of Jesus’ worldview, and of the gospel writers as well. And then we’ll get in to what Jesus specifically taught about the location of heaven, and why that matters.


First, where did Jesus and his followers grow up believing heaven is?


In the scriptures, the term "heaven" is derived from the Hebrew word shamayim and the Greek word ouranos. Intriguingly, both terms are plural and typically paired with a definite article, suggesting a more precise translation would be "the heavens" rather than "heaven." This linguistic detail implies that, biblically, heaven is not conceptualized as a singular, discrete location, akin to how we might refer to Orlando, Disney World, or even something huge like the Atlantic Ocean. Rather, "the heavens" suggests a broader, more expansive reality, encompassing more than just one place.


Heaven vs. The Heavens

The ancient cultures that shaped the Bible, and to which Jesus belonged, understood "the heavens” as the vast realm surrounding the earth. The first thing they meant by “the heavens" was the sky or  the atmosphere. When Jesus said "the birds of the air," the actual language he used was "the birds of the heavens" (Matt. 6:26).


Why did they make that change in the translations? Well, partly it’s just that we don’t say “the heavens”. We talk about the different layers of the atmosphere, and have great names like “cumulonimbus” for types of clouds, which can can seed to make it rain if we want.


Our modern scientific knowledge has influenced how we translate and read these ancient texts. We want to make a distinction between the natural realm of the atmosphere and the supernatural realm of the spirits. So, our English Bibles will say birds, clouds, thunder, or rain occupy "the air" but that God and his angels occupy "heaven," when all of these verses actually use the same plural word - "the heavens."


Now, I’m not suggesting that if we want to be better Christians, that we have to become flat-earthers first.


Flat-Earthers

I was talking with a friend a while back about flat-earthers and they said,

“You know, some people really believe the earth is flat!”

And I said, “No they don’t. “

And they said, “Yes they do!”

So I said, “Do you know any reasonable people who honestly believe that?”

And he said,  “This one guy I went to high school with.”

And I was like, “And?”

And he thought for a second and admitted, “Yeah, he’s an idiot.”


A little later on, I asked my friend, “Just out of curiosity, what does your idiot friend do for a living?”

“He works at FedEx.”

“Your flat-earther friend works for a global shipping company?”


So no, let’s not be like people who don’t actually exist. And let’s not pretend to be like them when we come into church either. Like I take off my smart hat and put on my church hat.


But we do need to try and recognize the lens we see through to read the Bible, and I’m not talking about glasses. It’s even harder to see this lens because we’re looking through it all the time.


Ancient Vs. Modern Lens

Look at all the factors that have created our lens, as everyday American Christian people in 2024. We think of the scientific revolution as ancient history, but Galileo only died 382 years ago. Isaac Newton was born that same year. Charles Darwin died the same year that this congregation was founded: 1882.


So all of the wrestling and accommodating, all of the reactions, and readjustments that the church has made in trying to have both a truly scientific understanding of the world, and a faithful understanding of the Bible, have happened in relatively recent memory.


Our predecessors inherited this challenge and, in good faith, intentionally and unintentionally crafted the lens through which we view both scripture and the natural world. They aimed to preserve our faith, sometimes by reframing the things we learn in the Bible from an immediate, tangible reality to a more distant, spiritual one. They did it to try and protect it. But it also shifted and altered our perception of what matters, and what doesn’t, often with some drastic, and unintended consequences.


That’s what I think happened to me.


What I Used to Believe about Heaven


There was a time when I believed that heaven was all that really mattered.


It was simple economics really.


Because if you take the really long view, and look at how just incredibly long eternity is, like it’s really long. It just keeps on going and going and never ends.


So I thought that if you looked at it, at how really really long a million years is, and that would just be a small part of eternity, and then you looked at this life, where you spend 100 years tops, and that’s if you’re incredibly lucky, then the math seemed really clear.


The lens that I inherited made me think that this life didn’t really matter, when you compared it to eternal life. So all that did matter was saying the right words in the right church so that I could make it into heaven when I died, and helping as many people as I could do the same.


And if you’re nodding your head right now, and thinking, “Yeah, that sounds about right, what’s the problem?” I don’t want to burst your bubble, but I also kind of do. Because we all need to be aware of the lens we’re looking at the world through, and looking at our faith through.


Now I see that the lens that led me, and maybe you, to see our faith that way didn’t come from the Bible itself, but from the last ten or so generations of the church who were trying to protect and preserve the Bible from the modern world. So we ended up with a skewed view on the location of heaven.


So that’s how the ancients viewed the heavens. Now let’s look at what Jesus taught.


What Jesus Taught about the Location of Heaven

Today’s scripture is Jesus’ stump speech, his actual central message. This is the message that Jesus preached all over Israel. It’s really simple, and it tell us where heaven is.


Matthew 4:17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’


Now, if we read that with our modern Christian lens, we might hear Jesus saying, “Say the right words to get into heaven, because tomorrow is never promised.” You may have heard that sermon, but not from me. With our modern lens, especially if we read one of the many translations that says, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, we hear Jesus saying “when” heaven is, not where it is.


We look around us, and this doesn’t look much like heaven does it, so Jesus must be saying that it’s on the way. But that’s not what Jesus was saying.


Eugene Peterson gets it right in The Message by translating it as, "God's kingdom is here."


Jesus's first-century Jewish listeners would have totally understood what he was getting at. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of prophecies about a future age where heaven and earth merge, God’s glory fills the earth, evil is wiped out, and God reigns as He does in heaven, living among His people as in Eden.


So Jesus wasn't saying there was now a way for souls to zip off from earth to a far-off heavenly paradise. Instead, he proclaimed that the realm of heaven, God’s presence, had made its way to us.


Heaven is not a distant future but a present reality, within reach right now. And Jesus tells us how to reach it right here in this verse: "Repent".


Repent

You might think of this word a certain way. It might not be a nice word to you. It has been used as a weapon by many and caused religious trauma, especially for those in the LGBT community. You might have been told that if you were sufficiently sorry for who you are, that God just might love you. That was a crime committed against you, and as much as I can apologize for people I disagree with, but who have the same job as me, I do apologize. Because not only have they done you harm, but they’ve robbed you of the full meaning of this word.


Our favorite guy, Frederick Buechner defines Repentance perfectly. He writes that

"To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry,' than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”

Repentance is so much more than feeling sorry or having regrets, although those emotions often play into the process. It's about a radical reshaping of how we view everything. When Jesus tells us to repent because the kingdom of heaven is near, He's really inviting us to live in heaven right here and now, not as a reward for some day, but a present reality, which demands our active participation right here, right now.


This perspective brings us closer to how the ancients saw heaven—not as a faraway place but as a dimension intimately tied to our everyday lives. They didn’t think of heaven as a pinpoint location on a map but as a reality woven into the fabric of our existence, affecting and influencing everything.


Repenting means to realign our lives around the truth that kingdom of heaven in our everyday interactions, the natural beauty around us, the acts of kindness we give and receive, and those genuine moments of connection. Repenting is about realizing that our choices and actions are tied into the manifestation of God’s kingdom on Earth.


To repent is to say "wow" to the now.


To move our focus from a solely future-oriented heaven to one that is alive and active here—through acts of love, justice, mercy, and integrity. We’re not supposed to wait for God’s promises to unfold but to actively engage in realizing them today.


And we do this, not by trying really hard to do it, but by seeing the world differently. By seeing how connected we all truly are. By seeing how heaven isn’t some far away goal or reward, but is right here, close to us…as close as the air on our skin and in our lungs.


And if the kingdom of heaven is that close, then where do you think those we loved and lost are?


God is holding them,

and God is all around us,

so they’re here too.


Wow.


Repentance is a perspective shift. For us it’s usually a momentary realization that we have to hold onto even when we stop feeling it, but for them? It’s every moment.


So where is heaven?


It’s a place on Earth.


It’s every place you are, every place God is.


Oh baby, do you know what that’s worth?


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