HEAVEN IN US
“I’m not afraid to die,” I confessed to my friend the other day. “I’m afraid of missing out. I don’t want to miss my kids’ lives. I want to be at everything. I want to see them grow up and get married. I want to be part of it all. I want to be close.”
After all, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we all just long for community, and don’t we fear death because it takes that very thing away from us?
It makes me wonder…What then is heaven? Could it simply be communion with God and each other? Isn’t that what we most desire?
If you asked such a question of Gregory of Nyssa, a pastor who lived in a place called Cappadocia in the 300s, he would have said, “Yes. That’s exactly what heaven is. It’s communion with God.” Last week, we talked about how we normally think of heaven as a place where we go — a place of golden streets and glass houses. For Gregory, however, heaven and eternal life has a whole lot more to do with God being “in us” than the “location” of what we would tend to call heaven
“Sometimes we find ourselves in such close communion with God,” he says, “that it defies any attempt at explanation. And this God, who’s beyond our comprehension, is so profoundly entrenched in our nature that we can actually be transformed in accordance with the original image, so that we seem to be new persons because of the absolute likeness. Because, whatever we think now about God, all of it was – once upon a time – inside people.”
By “once upon a time,” he means back in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. Like Maximus the Confessor, whom we met last week, Gregory believed that Jesus was the beginning, middle, and end of all things. For him, to be in heaven is to be in close communion with Jesus. It’s something we lost in the Garden of Eden when human beings first walked with God, and it’s something we stand to gain in the future when, as Revelation 21 says, heaven comes down to earth. My friends over on the Mysterion podcast call it “a condition of the soul.” Heaven is less a place we visit than a state of being in true communion with God.
If that sounds strange to us, it shouldn’t. The idea is all over the Bible. Being with God is the goal of absolutely everything.
Just consider the nature of Solomon’s Temple. There were three major sections to the Temple: the porch (or vestibule), the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was considered the location of God’s glorious presence. It was a perfect square box gilded with gold, and it was protected. If you were an Israelite, you could enter into the porch, but only the priests could go into the Holy Place. And only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies — and then only once a year after doing all these rituals to make sure he was personally holy enough to do so.
Now take a good look at how John in Revelation 21 describes the holy city, our reward at the end of time. It’s a perfect square gilded with gold! It’s a mirror image of the Holy of Holies! “He carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal…The city lies foursquare…its length and width and height are equal…The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass.” What is heaven’s reward? It’s being as close to God as we can be.
And that’s not the only place in scripture where we see this idea that heaven is essentially communion with God. Remember that moment Jesus dies on the cross? Matthew tells us the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was ripped in two the very moment he died. God’s presence was now spread everywhere. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God was made available to us in a way we could never have known before. No wonder people started rising from the dead. They were experiencing God’s glory. They were brought into such close communion with God that God’s own life simply couldn’t help itself. Jesus, it seems, literally brought heaven on earth.
The Apostle Paul describes being in this close proximity to God as having Christ in us, and he holds the image up as our very “hope of glory” (Col 1:27-28). In other words, this is our good news! This is heaven! This is eternal life! Jesus lives in us, and we can have a deep relationship with him!
The problem is many of us struggle to do just that. If Christ is in us, how do we get there? How do we commune with the presence of Christ in us today? The answer, we’re told by the earliest Christians, is to live holy lives and to pray. When we live a holy life undistracted by the things of the world — things like anger, jealousy, busyness, greed, and lust — we are better able to settle down and focus on our inner life. Through scripture, study, and prayer, we open ourselves up to God. In fact, the real heart of prayer, as my friends over at Mysterion point out so well, is not asking things of God, but entering into that Holy of Holies (Jesus!) that is now deep in our hearts. It’s drawing close to the heaven in us.
Now, how do we do that? Over the next few weeks, we’re going to find out.
For much more on what we talked about today, I encourage you to check out Episode 5, “Nobody ‘Goes’ to Heaven,” of the podcast, Mysterion, by Wes Arblaster and Ethan Smith.