Four years ago Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon in Lynchburg, Virginia, woke up with an intense headache. Not long after being transported to the hospital where he worked his entire cortex, the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion, had shut down. He had a rare form of bacterial meningitis – the bacteria had penetrated his spinal fluid and was eating his brain. Things got really bad really quickly, and he sunk into a coma, unresponsive, his higher order brain functions totally offline.
On the morning of his seventh day in the hospital, as doctors were weighing whether to discontinue treatment, he woke up. As he recovered, his next few months took the form of trying to understand the odyssey he had been on. If someone had told him this story earlier in his career, he said, he "would have been quite certain they were under the spell of some kind of delusion." But, in last year’s book, "Proof of Heaven,"1 the neurosurgeon recounts an extraordinary journey, a near-death experience, which he considers a glimpse of heaven that should not have happened because his brain had ceased to function. It begins with a place of puffy pink clouds against a deep blue sky. Then, "higher than the clouds – immeasurably higher – flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer-like lines behind." Not quite birds, not quite angels, something higher. Then a huge sound, booming, a glorious chant, came down from above. He writes, "Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise – that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it…."
Reading of Revelation 4:1-11
There is something about heaven that captivates us. "In the beginning," the book of Genesis says, "when God created the heavens and the earth…" Early on heaven is the firmament, the expanse of the sky. Earth was surrounded by the heavens, the waters above and below, that holds creation by its pillars (as says the book of Job) or its foundations (as says II Samuel).2 As we get deeper in heaven is simply the place where God lives. It is often depicted as a throne room, where a heavenly court resides. We get dreams and visions of writers who are spirited off to heaven – a place both physical and metaphorical – for a glimpse, in books like Dr. Alexander’s, to last year’s "Heaven is for Real,"3 about a sick little boy visiting heaven, filling apocalyptic literature throughout history and in scripture like Daniel and Revelation.
But even then the language in scripture comes in a couple of types. One kind feels rooted in a specific and ancient worldview, a world in which the earth is flat and the center of the universe, as well as a world where the only kind of governance model people know is a chief or a king. Why is God referred to as a king? That was the form of authority they had. Who is the boss of all the earthly kings? A heavenly one. This kind of heaven is some "other place," where God lives, ruling from a throne. God is up there in heaven, and we are down here. NOT in heaven.
But the other kind of language, language that blurs the line from up/down and here/there, is about a vision, a vision of heaven, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. The prophets reach for this language all the time. Isaiah says that in that day the nations will stream to Jerusalem, the holy city, and God will settle their disputes. People will beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks.4 Everyone, Isaiah says, will walk in the light of the Lord. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, sitting at a feast for all people, because God will swallow up death, will wipe away all tears. It is about something that is both out there AND coming towards us, something that God dares to do among us.
But that is something slightly different than what the creed is saying.
Reading of Mark 16:19-20
The Creed says what Mark says – that Jesus, after he died at the hands of Pontius Pilate, after he was buried and descended into the land of the dead, after he rose again, "he ascended into heaven, and sittith on the right hand of God the Father Almighty." In one sense, this phrase functions against early church heresies that Jesus didn’t truly die or wasn’t completely God or was adopted by God later. But, more importantly, I think, it is to remind us that Jesus, who was dead and as far away from God, the Father, Creator, as we can imagine, is now, through his resurrection, fully exalted, celebrated, glorified for eternity. Alister McGrath writes: "The basic idea is this…In the resurrection Jesus was liberated from the bonds of death; now he is restored to the close presence, power and majesty of [God]."5 He was far, and now he is near – not just above somewhere, but fully available to us, his grace and love infusing all creation with power.
Reading of Acts 1:6-11
After he goes – the ascension is also found in Mark and Luke, but the only place we get any detail is here – the angels ask the disciples a question. Why are you looking up there? This comes, I believe, as a word of caution. Too often the church, when it talks about heaven at all, uses it as a club. When we talk about it at all, it is about somewhere else that you may or may not go after you die. When we talk about it at all, WE are there and other people are NOT there – I have never heard it spoken about the other way around. Do you know where you are going to go? Someone will ask. Preachers and billboards and teenagers trained for evangelism ask you on the streets – if you die tonight, what will happen to you?
And while a sense of heaven as a place we go where we die is far from all of it, it is important to note that this idea, at its best, provides a very real comfort. Even for privileged folks like us, life is hard. Planes crash, children are abducted, spouses addicted, cancer keeps getting diagnosed. This life can be really, really hard, and we MUST know that there is something beyond, somewhere beyond, where God is even more present than God is here, where we can set our burdens aside, and where there is no poverty or violence…where, as Rob Bell writes, "God says no to injustice, God says ‘never again’ to the oppressors who prey on the weak and vulnerable. God declares a ban on weapons."6 Where we don’t have to worry about the things we worry so much about now. Where there is nothing but love.
I want to push you on a couple of things. First, to try and get out of your head whatever vision of heaven, from music or art of wherever else you have in there. Whatever it is, it’s too small. Second, I want you to work out of heaven being somewhere else far away from creation and life here. As you see from the other Bell quote on the insert, when Jesus talks about heaven it is about the act of pushing heaven and earth closer together, of us glimpsing a vision of that kingdom of heaven, kingdom of God that Jesus says, over and over, is breaking in here, now, God renewing all creation with deep, deep love. A love that empowers us to WORK, to live as freely as we can from those things that hold us, the powerful grips of finances and troubled relationships and global poverty. It’s not that heaven isn’t also far away – it’s just that it’s also closer than you might think.
I was rereading this week portions of The Last Battle, book 7 in C.S. Lewis’ magical series The Chronicles of Narnia. After the 4 siblings have gone on all their adventures, after they have liberated kingdoms with Aslan, the great and powerful lion, creation finally begins to break down. Evil forces they had held at bay break through. They fight, and fight, and it seems as though the walls are closing in. Deep into the final book it looks as though all is lost, surrounded by enemies, backing them into a stable which they know is a trap and inside which they will surely die. Except they don’t. Once through the door they find themselves in a new land, something different, yet the same, something that is, in my opinion, one of the best descriptions of the kingdom I know. I’d invite you to listen to this description, also found on your insert. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable…
"It is hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia, as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it, if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones; yet at the same time they were somehow different- deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country; every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that; if you ever get there, you will know what I mean."
I don’t doubt Dr. Alexander’s vision; I don’t doubt his honesty; I don’t doubt his heart. It’s just that even the most extraordinary vision of heaven is way too small. Heaven, whatever and wherever it is, it is a place full of God, full of God’s love, and place where ALL things are being made new. Where God is so real you can do nothing but rejoice. If you remember nothing else, the theological truth underneath the kingdom of heaven that IS breaking in is that absolutely nothing can separate you, us, the world from God’s love. The sermon ends with that truth…
Reading of Romans 8:37-39
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Proof of Heaven by Evan Alexander, M.D., Simon and Schuster, 2012. I must confess I haven’t read the whole book, but I am grateful to Dr. Pete Jones for passing on an excerpt from Newsweek, October 15, 2012.
2. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. by Paul Achtemeier, (New York, HarperCollins, 1996), p 408. References are Genesis 1, Deuteronomy 5, Job 26:11, and 2 Samuel 22:8.
3. Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo, with Lynn Vincent, (Nashville: Thomas Vinson, 2010).
4. Rob Bell, Love Wins, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p 32-33, Is. 2, 11.
5. Alister McGrath, "I Believe: Exploring the Apostle’s Creed" (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1997), p 73.
6. Bell, 37.
7. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle: Book 7 in the Chronicles of Narnia, (New York: Collier Books, 1956), 170-171.