Almost every night for the past few years I’ve been awakened by a small hand taping me on the shoulder. As I roll over and before I can even open my eyes, I hear the voice of my youngest daughter whispering, “can I cuddle you daddy?” What surprises me the most about this nightly routine is that after all these years she still asks, despite the fact that I have never once said no. My wife recently snapped a picture of the two of us and I believe that in that image, which I have used as the cover photo for this post, I can see a glimpse of heaven.
Heaven is not “out there” somewhere. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who knows me very well because it’s something I talk about all the time, but I want to take a closer look at the implications of this belief. If heaven is not “out there,” then the same must be true of God himself because the very nature of heaven is God’s dwelling place, and I really do think this is worth examining because the way we talk about God and heaven has a strong influence on the way we think about God and heaven.
It’s common for people to talk about God as being “outside” of space and time. What we mean by “outside” is usually something like “unaffected by,” but by using words with a strong connection to location, it can feed into the idea that God and heaven are somewhere else, somewhere “out there.” I’ve started to think of this phenomenon as “A Distant Heaven,” and we don’t just do it with location but with time as well. We think of heaven as existing “some time” in the future.
I agree that God is not affected by time or space but he certainly is not “outside” of those things, and when we say unaffected we do not mean cold or distant. It would be much better for us to say that God eternally fills all time and space, and if we think deeply about that statement, we should realize that not only is it better, it is the total opposite of God being “outside” of time and space. You can see this pattern of relation in scriptures that describe God as being “above” all things but also “within” all things.
One of my favorite passages highlighting this duality is Isaiah 57:15, “For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit. To revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.’” As you can see this “high and holy place” is not “outside of time and space” but “with” and within us. This is also how Jesus can state in Luke 17 that “the kingdom of God is within you.” Before you dismiss these ideas as pointless theologizing or word games, I want to give you a real life example that might help.
Think of the difference in how you treat your spouse when their parents are around, or better yet think of how you treated them when you were still dating and their parents were around. Now contrast that with how you treat them when no one is around. This might not be true for everyone, but I know that for me I treat my wife better when her parents are around. There is no chance that I would raise my voice to my wife if her dad was in the room. My behavior doesn’t change because I am afraid of what her dad would do to me if I yelled at his daughter, although I certainly am afraid of what he would do, but my behavior changes because when her dad is in the room I instinctively know that raising my voice is not the way she should be treated.
When we think of God, and by extension heaven, as distant, we behave in ways that we never would otherwise. If we woke up every day fully trusting in what Jesus preached, that the kingdom of God is at hand, I doubt that we would be so easily seduced by competing political parties and corrupt politicians. If every step we took and every breath we breathed was done with a vivid awareness of God’s presence, I am sure that we would be more loving to our families and our neighbors. So the next time you’re tempted to think of God or heaven being “far away” remember Jesus own words when he said that he would always be with us, even to the end of time.