Newsweek's cover story last week asked the question, "Is heaven real?" Inside, neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander describes the near death experience that convinced him the answer must be yes. I could not help being interested in Dr. Alexander's account. I've been thinking a lot about heaven lately—ever since the doctor told me I had prostate cancer.
After the doctor gave me the diagnosis, he went on for several minutes describing various treatment options. I nodded my head to signal that I understood. But not much of what he said actually registered. I was too busy thinking about death. Samuel Johnson once said, "Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging." My diagnosis had the same effect. In the weeks that followed I thought about death a lot. As I wrestled with my fears, I concluded that the best remedy was to think about something else. I determined instead to focus on heaven.
It was harder than I expected. Heaven as we have traditionally pictured it is an uninspiring place, a subject of clichés and the butt of jokes. Heaven is the green space where our loved ones go after they die, not unlike the cemetery itself. It is a quiet and comfortable spot from which our deceased parents and grandparents view significant events like graduations, weddings, family reunions, and presumably their own funerals. Like spectators on a hill who watch from a great distance, they "look down upon us" but cannot do much else.
Such affairs are tedious enough for the living. One can only wonder what they would be like for souls who were permitted to watch but not participate. Would they find our small talk about yesterday's game or our employer's irritating behavior to be interesting? Would they enjoy knowing that we miss them? Would they be distressed at the sight of our troubles? If this is heaven, then its inhabitants are more like Marley's ghost than the angels. They might seek to interfere for good, but lack the power to do so.
If heaven is only a distant gallery from which the departed observe affairs as they unfold on earth, then it is a dull place indeed. It is more like that boring relative's house your parents forced you to visit when you were a kid—the one without Nintendo or any children your own age—than the place where God's throne dwells. This popular view of heaven pictures a realm so removed that our voice will not carry to its shores. It is close enough for the departed to watch us but too far away to have any real effect on earth. It is too removed from our present experience to sustain our interest and too far in the future to be of help in the present. We are afraid that when we finally arrive on its shores, it will be less than we had expected.
In Heaven as It Is on Earth
John Lennon sang, "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try." Although there is little in his song that agrees with what the Bible has to say about heaven, Lennon got it right on one point. It is easier to imagine that heaven does not exist than it is to imagine heaven as it does exist. There are many good reasons we find it difficult to "get a handle" on heaven.
For one thing, heaven is hard to put into words. It contains that which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived (1 Cor. 2:9). Earth is the only frame of reference we have this side of eternity. If we cannot understand heaven in terms of earth then we cannot understand it at all. It is not surprising, then, that we would try to imagine heaven in earthly terms. What is more, there is some biblical warrant for doing so. The Bible itself often uses earthly analogies to describe heavenly realities. The old clichés which characterize heaven as a place where the streets are paved with gold and the city walls are made of jewels come from biblical descriptions of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10–21).