A Door Into Heaven
After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had heard first speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” --Revelation 4:1
Recently, I have been reading Embodied Hope, by Kelly Kapic, a “theological meditation on pain and suffering.” Kapic does not write to defend God in the face of suffering; this book is not a theodicy. Rather, he talks about how we should live in a world of pain, especially chronic severe pain. We have to focus on bodies.
Chronic severe pain confronts sufferers regularly with the brokenness of our physical bodies. Such sufferers know—they are reminded daily—that our bodies are destined to die.
Put it more baldly: I am going to die. I am this body, which will die. I am going to die. We all know it’s true, but we often put it out of mind. With severe pain, the body forces us to listen. So how do we hope? By means of a body, a very particular body.
Kapic reminds us of basic Christian doctrines. Incarnation—the eternal God took on humanity, and from the first century orthodox theologians insisted (against the Gnostics) that Jesus was a real man, like us in every way except sin. Crucifixion—the god/man Jesus suffered intense physical pain (as well as pitiless enemies, betrayal by a friend, and the inconstancy of his disciples), and he died. None of this was play acting; Jesus suffered and died. Resurrection—the physical body of Jesus rose from the dead. His disciples were not persuaded by a phantom or spirit; they recognized him and could see his wounds. They heard his voice and saw him eat food. Ascension—Jesus, as a physical body, was taken from his disciples’ presence. He did not cease to exist; he went somewhere else.
Those who suffer and die, says Kapic, can hope in Jesus. Jesus suffered in his body and died. But he rose and still lives. Those who are in him suffer now and will die, but we will also rise.
None of these doctrines are new. Kapic is not inventing Christian dogma; he is applying it to the experience of suffering. We find hope by identifying with Jesus, in particular by identifying with his body. Symbolically in baptism we die and rise, but we look forward to a literal resurrection after we die. Kapic’s book is helpful precisely because it is not creative. Christians do not hope that their immortal souls will be freed from their bodies (that’s Plato, not the Bible). We hope that our bodies will be raised from the dead and changed. Pain and death will end, but not bodies.
Now, let’s go back two paragraphs. About Jesus’ ascension, I wrote: “He did not cease to exist; he went somewhere else.” Where did Jesus go? Where is his body? Where is Jesus? Kapic’s emphasis on the physicality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection pushes such questions to mind. The answer, I think, is that we don’t know but are free to speculate.
In the Revelation, John sees “a door in heaven.” The voice of Jesus invites him to “come up here.” It’s quite likely that John, a first century Galilean fisherman, held the traditional Hebrew cosmology in which a flat earth and sky separated the heavens from the nether regions below the earth. (Later in the book he writes of the “four corners” of the earth.) It’s possible that John would have answered, “Jesus went to heaven, which is up there, above the sky.”
Some centuries before, Greek philosophers and astronomers had already adopted a different cosmology, though John may not have known it. On this view, the earth is a globe at the center of the universe, with moon, sun and planets orbiting it. Familiar with this Ptolemaic cosmology, Medieval Christians would have located “heaven” beyond the fixed stars. Either way, with an ancient Hebrew or Medieval cosmology, Jesus’ body is in heaven.
In the last hundred years we have adopted a new cosmology, replete with billions of galaxies spread over mind-boggling distances. Interestingly, we speculate (though we are not sure) that there may be dimensions of existence unobservable by telescopes. Maybe there are many universes! Now, where is Jesus? We should still say: In heaven.
Christians need not think that belief in heaven is tied to any particular theory of cosmology. Today we think there may be extra dimensions of existence; perhaps tomorrow we will know. Science fiction authors sometimes imagine “portals” between universes. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories used such ideas. At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan makes a hole in the sky to send the children back to their world. In a children’s story, Lewis didn’t explain how that might be. It’s just part of Aslan’s magic. But it’s the sort of move a knowledgeable twentieth century science fiction writer could defend.
Part of the “syndrome” of hope is imagination. Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus is alive. The hope of that doctrine gains vivacity when I imagine a door into heaven.