N. T. Wright uses this phrase in the video segment Scriptural Resources for Worship as he describes John’s account of the throne room of heaven in Revelation 4-5. Having just completed Wright’s books Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, I understand this phrase much more fully than if I had watched this video clip in isolation. However, it does encapsulate the basic thrust of Wright’s theology as presented in these books, in particular the latter one. It is the idea that the spiritual and the physical are not mutually exclusive; that heaven (God’s space) and earth (man’s space) are co-existing realms that actually interact and penetrate one another at various times and in various ways. As I have reflected on this, it has fundamentally and profoundly changed my thinking about heaven and earth, as well as the whole purpose of the Christian life, which of course is Wright’s purpose in writing, I believe.
As the old gospel hymn puts it, “some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.” While the song doesn’t specifically say that heaven exists somewhere up in the clouds, that is certainly the picture it paints. Not surprisingly, coming from a Baptist tradition, this is the view of heaven with which I grew up; heaven is the ultimate destination of man, and is separate from this evil world. But, if “heaven” (man’s ultimate spiritual destination) exists as a particular location in the “heavens” (the realm of the created order beyond our small planet earth), then it stands to reason that it should be, at least theoretically, accessible by man on the basis of his ingenuity and effort alone. To put it in a question, if man could but build a rocket ship powerful enough, could he not approach heaven? Framing it this way, of course, shows the folly of such a belief. Man cannot physically rocket himself to heaven any more than, at least in the Christian belief, he can merit his way there spiritually.
Part of the confusion and misinformation about heaven, I believe, lies in our woefully poor vocabulary for these ideas. We use one term – “heaven” – to describe a host of ideas. Heaven is the ultimate destination for the soul of man. Heaven is the current dwelling place of God and the departed saints. Heaven is the firmament beyond our own blue skies. Heaven is the new city of Jerusalem coming down at the end of time. The average churchgoer conjures up all these various ideas when we throw out the word heaven and it is small wonder that our understanding of the truth of heaven is so shallow. The rest of the confusion is largely attributable, as Wright points out, to the false Platonic beliefs that the physical (earth) is somehow bad and the spiritual (heaven) is good. Scripture teaches us that the physical is very good, albeit fallen. But God is at work restoring the physical to its perfected form before the fall! This is precisely what Jesus was teaching us in his example prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
God is Spirit, the scriptures tell us. But God is also very physical. Man is physical, restricted to earthly physical reality, but he is also spiritual. If both God and man exist in both physical and spiritual realms, why do we try to understand heaven and earth as being only one or the other? They are both. God is in heaven, but He is also very much in the earth as His Spirit works through its stewards. Man is on earth, but he can touch heaven through the avenues of scripture, prayer and worship! And one day, heaven and earth will be united in perfect harmony, as it was in the Garden! Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!