Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 16, 2006

Why God is Not in Heaven

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“Where is God, grandpa?” Curious children, like my granddaughter, ask this question all of the time. How many of you have been baffled by how to answer it? Because so many adults assume there is no way to answer this question without denying what they have learned about space in the last few centuries, they give up any belief in God. How many of you remember the insurance company ad of many years ago now in which the person who died rode an escalator from the street into the clouds? That vivid image captures how most people think of heaven, if they think about it at all. The answers that Christians give to this question seem to waffle between two extremes. On the one hand, God is said to be ‘in heaven,’ which, apparently is ‘far away.’ On the other hand, God (in the person of Jesus) is said to be ‘in my heart.’ Neither of these answers are consistent with the biblical testimony or the nature of reality. How the Creator of the universe is related to our space and the physical world is a fundamental question that goes far beyond giving a ‘simple’ answer to the child’s question.

The crux of our problem in speaking about ‘where’ God is, is our failure to appreciate that we are using a wide variety of spatial metaphors and analogies to describe Yahweh’s presence. If we think about it a little, we realize that asking ‘where’ God is, is like asking, “What is ‘above’ the North Pole?” Both are foolish questions. The Creator of the universe cannot be ‘in’ the creation in the same way that creatures are ‘in’ the creation. As with all analogies and metaphors used to describe Yahweh, our concrete spatial terms become metaphors and analogies when used to describe Yahweh’s presence. We cannot do otherwise. But as metaphors and analogies, they can only give us hints and glimpses of the full reality that lies beyond them. Taking them literally gets us in deep intellectual and spiritual trouble. (To show how inadequate our creaturely abilities are in representing Yahweh’s relationship to us and the creation try diagramming it on a sheet of paper.)

That’s why Yahweh is not ‘in’ heaven. The Psalmist declares that Yahweh is as ‘close’ as the next breath we take. Now that’s ‘close’! Notice that this analogy is drawn from our understanding of personal ‘presence.’ We all understand what it means to be ‘close’ to someone intimately, even if we are ‘far away’ from that person spatially. This is much more like the Scriptures use the term ‘heaven.’ A word study of ‘heaven’ will show that it is not so much a place where Yahweh dwells as it is the name given to the presence of the Lord, ‘wherever’ that is. Where the Lord is, there is ‘heaven.’ In fact, Scripture makes it clear that Yahweh’s presence is over, under, around, and through all of creation. This is exactly one of the things we should be remembering in Communion.

The Good News from Scripture is that we do not have to ‘go anywhere’ to be in Yahweh’s presence. We don’t even have to ‘go to’ heaven when we die. Rather, the Great Lord of the Universe has deigned to tabernacle among us — here. Jesus Christ, Immanuel (“God with us”), has already come among us–here. The Holy Spirit indwells us–here. Even more astounding is that One Day, as the Apostle John envisions in Rev. 21, Yahweh will return, bringing heaven to earth, walk among us, and illumine all of creation forever. Amen!

How do I answer my granddaughter? I begin with the analogy of ‘presence.’ Children can understand what it means to be ‘close’ to mom and dad emotionally without being ‘close’ to them spatially. That’s a good start.

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Responses

  1. I wish I had written that. Biblical cosmology has long been an interest of mine.

    Despite my agreement, I think the biblical imagery does create a polarity between heaven and earth. And the consistent use of the physical analogy does carry a clear meaning. Between the sin of Adam and the coming “down” of the New Jeruselem, God has withdrawn his full presence from the eyes of humanity. Jesus was “sent” by his Father. He prayed to his Father who is “in heaven.” “Where I am going, you cannot go.” There is an other-place quality–even if we mean presence–to the relationship God and the earth. I refer to heaven as the temporary throne room of the universe, in keeping with the biblical imagery. God does not yet (again) dwell with us in all his fullness, even though his Spirit is with us. The throne room is not yet here–whether not physically here nor not evidently here is secondary. We cannot see the earth and our lives from a God-perspective and we do not now have the ruling authority that Adam once had. But when we see God face-to-face, we will again have the role that Adam lost.

    So, while I agree that we don’t “go to heaven” in the three-part world view of the ancients, and that the term is all too often used to justify an anti-material world escapism, the physical analogy helps us grasp the relationship in a way that simple “presence” cannot.

  2. Thanks so much, Bill. Since you raise a critical issue in our understanding of heaven and its relationship to our temporal existence, I will answer publicly. The Scriptures clearly do offer a distinction between heaven and earth. You correctly emphasize the yearning, the longing, for the full realization and coming of the Kingdom of Our Lord. The Kingdom is here, but not yet in its fullness. The Holy Spirit’s work as a surety of our salvation will be fulfilled when we, at last, see the Son face-to-face. So, however, the Lord is ‘present’ with us now, that presence is not now what it will be; it has not been fully realized. I agree completely. Nothing in my post was meant to dispute this.

    My major point was to underscore the reality and limitation of the spatial analogy in Scripture. There is not any ‘place’ in the universe in which Yahweh is right now. That distorts the reality of the Lord’s presence ‘in’ the universe moment-to-moment.

    I would suggest that the coming and going imagery in Scripture has (at least) two senses. The first is historical. This is how we use ‘coming’ when we say that “my birthday is coming.” Jesus says, that “the time is coming when . . . .” It is kairos-time. When the Lord announces His ‘coming,’ it is ‘coming’ in the sense of fulfilling covenantal promises. He doesn’t ‘come’ from a far-away place, He ‘comes’ to End Time. When the Lord returns, bringing heaven in trail, the Time will finally be fulfilled.

    The second sense of ‘coming’ in the New Testament is related to historical fulfillment. When the Time is fulfilled, Yahweh’s presence, that has always been as ‘close’ as our breath, will be fully revealed for all to see. Throughout Scripture we are shown glimpses of the Lord’s intimate presence, the veil that ‘hides’ Yahweh’s presence from us — most dramatically in the incarnation. When Yahweh returns to End Time, His presence that has always been as ‘cose’ as our breath, will be fully disclosed for all creation to see.

    Thanks again for engaging this critical issue.

  3. Thanks Kenn. We are mostly in agreement. The knowledge that God is everywhere present and not just in a “heaven” somewhere gives meaning to Scripture’s assertion that God is never far from us. But I am afraid the significance of the Scripture’s use of spatial analogy can easily be ignored with this general assertion, however important it is. Further, I don’t believe that a historical perspective alone adequately deals with the nuances of God’s presence in both the Old and New Testament. In fact, a historical frame of reference must still address the changing and variable nature of God’s presence in the time between Adam and the New Jerusalem.

    I should say that this is a somewhat unusual position for me to be. I typically take the cosmological perspective. However, I feel that it is important that we take the spatial analogies very seriously, considering their consistent uses in Scripture. That they may need to be re-interpreted in light of a deeper understanding of the cosmos is true. In fact, I believe that our current understanding of the cosmos adds richness and beauty to the original story that the ancients were perhaps unable to comprehend.

    Yes, Jesus’ coming is historical, but Scripture says he is not here now, but at the right hand of God. The Spirit is here, but not Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father, who is in heaven…” And you mention Rev 21, describing how God “will return, bringing heaven to earth.” If in fact, God is everywhere present, what is the nature of his return? Yes, it is historical, but the content of the historical is in the nature of the Kingdom itself, here but not fully revealed

    Other examples of the variability of God’s presence using a spatial term include God removing himself from someone’s presence (eg Saul) or God coming to people directly (Moses and Elijah).
    We could list many more.

    So how then should we understand the spatial analogies of Scripture? What are the limitations on our current experiencing of God’s presence in its fullness? I think we need to see it in relational terms. The nature of God’s presence to individual people or to peoples lies in the nature of his relationship to them. This perspective gives meaning to the both the founding story of God walking with Adam in the Garden and the coming of the New Jerusalem. The point of the Eden story isn’t that God happened to somehow physically present in the Garden and not elsewhere, such as heaven. In fact, since God is not primarily physical, I don’t believe that this was the writer’s intent. The purpose was to say that he was as close to Adam as someone walking beside us is, and probably more intimately so.

    It appears then, that the ongoing value of the spatial analogies, is in the nature of the relationship God has with people–both individually and communally. While God is generally present everywhere, in a relational sense his presence is variable.

    Back to the spatial polarity of heaven and earth then. In the breaking of the relationship that occurs around Adam and Eve’s sin, God’s apparent presence is removed from humanity and the earth in a certain sense. While God remains present in the broadest sense, the relationship changes. Therefore, it is appropriate to speak of God being elsewhere in the sense that his presence here is not (as) evident as it was before the Fall. From then on, until the final consummation, God’s relational presence is variable. It is also progressive in terms of the coming of Jesus and the current presence of the Holy Spirit. But that is another story.

    In conclusion, a full answer to a child asking where God is, is to say that he is everywhere, but because of sin and brokeness in the world, we are unable to fully experience it yet. But the time is coming….

  4. You have added a critically important new dimension to the meaning of the spatial analogies. When the Lord ‘hides his face’ or ‘removes himself’ we ought to understand these as relational not physical or spatial. They are covenantal terms for obedience and disobedience. This fills out a complete answer to the child’s question very well, as you have stated it. My concern has been to take the spatial images as analogies, not literally. I believe that we now have a fuller understanding of what those analogies are pointing to.


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