In the church’s calendar this is generally known as Ascension Sunday. The reading (Acts 1:6-14) is the dramatic story of Jesus being taken upward to heaven. It raises a few questions in my mind. None of which it is possible to answer, either fully or partially. However, it is always worth asking questions and always worth thinking them through. They aid us in our quest of discerning and considering what is central to our belief and what is peripheral.
Today, I’m going to focus on just one of the questions which came to mind. What do I understand by heaven? The text says that those accompanying Jesus were gazing up into heaven. Were those friends of Jesus believing in heaven as a spacial realm? Almost like a parallel universe to go to and continue to live there.
There is no clear answer given in the scriptures. The ancient texts use heaven or heavens in various ways. Psalm 78 reads that God stirred up the east wind in the heavens (26) while the book of Isaiah comments that rain and snow pour down from heaven (55:10). Deuteronomy talks about the heavens as the sun, moon and stars (4:19) which reflects the first verse in Scripture, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). These are all elusions to a spacial realm. A realm that in contemporary culture would be termed either the earth’s atmosphere or the whole universe.
Yet, there are other understandings of the word heaven. A spiritual realm where God and angels dwell. How much is this to be understood as metaphorical? How much of this belief is influenced by literature, especially by Dante’s epic poem? As a matter of interest, I googled “heaven”. I got 614,000,000 hits! Even a cursory glance at some of these shows the many and varied understandings of heaven.
I suspect if I polled a sample of the population about what they understand by heaven I would get a variety of opinions. And I am okay with that.
What I believe is important to me. Often, I have thought about issues and come to conclusions that make sense to me. Yet, that doesn’t mean they are rigid, never to be changed. As I read or talk with people something is said that challenges my belief. This is the point where I need to accept the challenge, take a fearless look at my life and belief and be willing to change if necessary. That is how growth occurs.
As I look at the things I believe I also need to let go of the idea that my understandings are right. That is just simplistic. It is also dangerous because it can affect how others are viewed. Formulating a belief from scriptures is not in the realm of right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is me, or you, or others, dealing honestly with what we read, our life experiences, our personal spirituality and finding the position that makes the most sense and is most helpful at that time in our lives. Then believing that others have done the same even if their conclusion is different. That way I accord them all the respect their position deserves.
So, ponder heaven this week. Consider what do I believe? Why do I believe it? Be comfortable with being challenged. Be comfortable with concluding I don’t really know. I suspect, whatever we believe about details, whether it is a spacial, spiritual or metaphorical place, heaven is our highest aspiration of hope for a good future.
Photo: Sunset Over Knott End (August 2015)