Talking about heaven is a little like talking about your unborn child. It’s like talking about that vocation you want to be when you grow up. It’s like talking about the job you want when you graduate from college. Talking about heaven is like talking about an unknown future, except it’s unique in that the essence of the experience can’t be paralleled by anything we have ever experienced before. While I was awaiting the birth of my daughter, I could have talked about her with reasonably accurate predictive detail. By looking at other infants or considering the type of child I was or my wife was, I could have set my expectations appropriately. But to talk of heaven is to speak about things for which we have very little direct parallel. So it’s best for us to first confess that we cannot really speak of heaven. It goes beyond the limits of words.
But speak of heaven we must; and speak of heaven Jesus did. Literal description is rarely (if ever) used. The literary category most frequently employed by Jesus, the authors of Scripture, and many Christians throughout history has been that of metaphor. So let’s consider a few biblical metaphors we find in the Bible that point us toward heavenly realities:
The Seed and the Plant
In 1 Cor. 15, Paul compares our earthly bodies with our heavenly ones. He uses the metaphor of a seed and a plant to describe the transformation that will occur.
15:37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare seed 23 – perhaps of wheat or something else. 15:38 But God gives it a body just as he planned, and to each of the seeds a body of its own.
Here Paul describes both the continuity and discontinuity between our bodies now and our bodies then. A wheat seed is at the same time radically different from the final wheat plant and essentially the same.
The King and the Kingdom
Heaven will include the dissolution of corrupt earthly rule. Jesus, the one who suffers and serves even the most wretched (think washes Judas’ feet), is the coming King who will rule with wisdom and justice. This means the end of oppression and injustice.
Colonizing the Earth (from N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)
In Phil. Paul writes to Christians living in Philippi, a Roman Colony. Augustus had settled his military veterans there after the battles of Philippi and Actium. The purpose of these soldiers and the purpose of colonization generally is to infuse the colonized culture with the values and customs of the colonizers. Paul uses this parallel to describe the role of the Christians in Philippi. As Wright says:
“So when Paul says, ‘We are citizens of heaven,’ he doesn’t at all mean that when we’re done with this life we’ll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King…will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people.” (pg. 100)
Heaven isn’t a place we escape to, it’s a culture, and even new reality, that overtakes earth. It’s a utopian dream that cannot be achieved apart from the return of Christ and the resurrection.
In Romans 8, Paul describes the whole of creation waiting and longing to be reborn. He uses the metaphor of labor to describe this longing for transformation:
“8:21 … the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 8:22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. “
Like the seed and the plant metaphor, this metaphor maintains both continuity and discontinuity between the world as we know it now and the world to come. It also highlights the suffering and hardship creation endures as it awaits its new birth.
The marriage of heaven and earth is described in Revelation 21-22. Heaven comes down to earth and they are joined together in wedlock. In this picture, heaven and earth aren’t polar opposites. Earth isn’t the material bad and heaven the unchanging good. Earth doesn’t corrupt heaven, heaven transforms earth and they are united together.
In all these metaphors, it is clear that heaven is a place or culture that is coming to earth. Christians then are people who care deeply about the earth and about the well-being of its inhabitants. We look forward to the future not as people who want to escape earth, but as a people who long for earth to be all that it is meant to be. We are people who pray with Jesus, “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”