Updated: Aug 5, 2022
“…[W]e are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” ( 2 Peter 3:13 NIV)
One of my favorite descriptions of the afterlife comes from the movie The Return of the King. When the battle seems most hopeless, Gandalf encourages Pippin with these words:
End? No, the journey doesn’t end here… The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it. …White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.*
While the images are meant to be comforting and inspiring, and they are, I think they succumb to a common misunderstanding of Heaven as being a place apart from Earth – a far green country. When I edited an academic paper for my mother, I realized I’d been making the same mistake in my thinking. The reality of Heaven is more wonderful and more astonishing than that.
People throughout history have used different images to try to understand Heaven – a meadow across a river, a banquet with the gods. Sometimes the associations are negative, such as the oft-lampooned depiction of people in white robes playing harps all day, sitting on a cloud with nothing to do. Even when we know it’s going to be awesome, we can fail to comprehend the full magnitude of the gift. As Pastor Doug is fond of saying, “Heaven is our destination but not our goal,” but even the word destination means a place we travel to. Yet our “final destination” is actually right here on Earth! How could we miss that?
Before reading my mom’s paper, I had never considered the meaning of Revelation 21:2-3:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God’ (NIV).
Even though the old earth has “passed away” (v. 1), God is still coming down to Earth to dwell with people – the restored creation of New Earth (see Romans 8:21).
So why do we all talk about Heaven as if it were spiritual, not physical? The other thing I learned from my mom’s paper was the existence in Christian theology of a concept called the “intermediate state.” Since the second coming has not yet happened, a bodiless heaven will happen, but it’s not the end of the story. Christians who die before Jesus’s second coming will be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), experiencing the spiritual joy and peace of being in God’s presence now, but still waiting for the day when all God’s children will receive new, glorified bodies on New Earth.
I can’t believe that such basic concepts escaped my learning in a lifetime of church attendance, although I have to ascribe some of that to my previous lack of enthusiasm for learning about Heaven at all. The thesis of my mom’s paper was that we should be teaching children more about the second coming because it’s the true hope of the Good News – but I think we could all stand to learn more about it. For a start, let’s talk about the green country that’s not so far away after all.
My mother’s paper is “The End of the Story: Why and How to Teach Children About the Second Coming of Christ.” It was presented at the Children’s Spirituality Conference in 2012 and will be published in a forthcoming volume.
* Descriptions with nearly identical words occur in the books The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Interestingly, Tolkien probably didn’t mean them to refer to Heaven, but rather to an earthly paradise akin to Eden, because he considered true Paradise to be ineffable. Abigail is grateful to the author of the paper that made that case.