We all want to go to heaven. Heaven is the good place. We certainly don’t want to go to the other place. There are probably as many conceptions of heaven as there are human beings. We all have our individual idea of heaven. However, there is sometimes the idea that heaven is a little bit boring. People talk about heaven as a place where angels strum harps and swing censers. The fullest description of heaven is to be found in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. Let us look at some verses from this book.
“At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads. From the throne issue flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:2-8)
When we read this passage, it reminds us of the Divine Liturgy. There is a throne (the altar), white robes (vestments), lamps of fire (candles), and the hymn “Holy, holy, holy” which we sing at Liturgy. Finally in Revelation 5:8,
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;”
We have bowls of incense. This really does seem like the heavenly version of our Liturgy.
However, this does not necessarily appeal to everyone. At one time an Orthodox priest was teaching a class of bright teenagers about heaven. To describe the glories of heaven the priest compared heaven to a never-ending Liturgy. For him, this was the height of beauty. However, the teenagers in the class reacted with horror. For them the Liturgy was a rather boring event their parents took them to. For them, the idea of a never-ending Liturgy was a nightmare.
The problem here arises out of our conception of eternity. We are tempted to think of eternity as a never-ending succession of minutes and hours. This is not the case. Eternity is a condition of no time. Time only began to exist when the universe was created. Time is the opposite of eternity. Eternity is the eternal now. This being the case, there is no possibility of being bored in heaven because it is the eternal now, not a succession of minutes and hours. This notion of eternity also tells us something about Jesus Christ. The Creed says “…. And one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages.” Naturally, we think of God the Father as being eternal. But the Creed says, that Jesus Christ was begotten of the Father. This sounds like the Father was first and the Son second. Obviously when human parents beget a child, they existed before the child came into being. As a matter of fact, heretics such as Arius thought the Father was first and the Son second. [Arius was infamous for saying that “There was a time when He (Jesus) was not. In other words, because the Son is begotten by the Father He is the second. However, Arius is forgetting about the difference between eternity and time. This is a false teaching and Arius was condemned and the Creed written.] However, the begetting of the Son takes place in eternity, the eternal now. As the Creed says “before all ages”. In other words, Christ was begotten in the eternal now before time so Jesus Christ is just as eternal as the Father. Of course, as human beings we cannot really conceive of the eternal now. We can only think of a succession of minutes and hours. Nevertheless, we can be sure that the eternal now of heaven will be anything but boring.
Some people accuse Christianity of having a negative view of human beings, seeing humanity only as poor, wretched sinners. However, in fact Christianity has a quite positive view of human beings. The Book of Genesis tell us that we are created “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen1:26). Human beings have fallen into sin, of course, but this does not destroy the image and likeness of God within us. We can say that Jesus Christ came into the world to restore and renew the image of God within us.After the creation of the material world, including flora and fauna, God creates humanity and says that human beings are given dominion, or authority, over the material world. This does not mean that humanity can abuse the natural world, but rather humanity is called to make God present in the world to reflect His love for the world and finally, to offer the good things of this world, in gratitude to God. Actually, human beings are higher than angels. It is humanity that was given authority of the world. Only human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Finally the Son of God became a human being, not an angel.
As a matter of fact, the Fathers of the Orthodox Church wrote that “God became a human being so that human beings can become God”. Now this is a bold saying but we should not misunderstand it. God is God by nature. But we become like God through grace. Or to put it another way, Jesus Christ is the Son of God by nature, but we become sons and daughters of God through adoption in the sacrament of baptism. The only thing that hinders this process is sin, but God has given us through the church, the forgiveness of sins so that we can overcome this.
This is a process that will continue through all eternity. Some people imagine heaven as a static world, but in fact we will be growing into God’s beauty, truth and goodness forever. We can never exhaust the riches of God.
In fact, we learn what it means to be a human being by looking at the Holy Trinity. The Trinity teaches us that we are not made to be “rugged individualists”. Rather we are made to be persons in loving relationships with other persons, both divine and human. God is not an isolated monarch, but rather exists as a Trinity of loving persons. There is a difference and even hierarchy in the Trinity. The Trinity is One, but God the Father is the source and cause of the person of the Son and Spirit, but they are equal to each other. This is how we human beings should relate to other people. We share a common nature with the rest of humanity but as persons we are unique. To be human means to be in relationship with other persons, divine and human. As human beings we are not homeless parts of a collective, nor are we isolated individuals. This means there can be differences and hierarchy among humans, but we are all equal to one another. Or to put it another way, Christ said in Luke 22:25-27
“…… “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
In other worlds, Christ tells us that among Christians there should be no tyranny of one over another, but rather to be a Christian leader is to be a humble servant.
So let us continue that path we are on, growing in knowledge and love of God through eternity, existing in relationship with the person of the Trinity and other human beings.
As Christians we believe that the world was created by God, as it says in the Creed “I believe in one God… the maker of all things visible and invisible.” This idea of creation is not held by atheists who believe that the world, with its complexity and beauty, just came into being by chance, or by believers of some Eastern religions in which the world “emanates” from God, the world flows out of God and then flows back, in a process of eternal return.As Orthodox we believe that the entire Holy Trinity took part in creation. Although the Old Testament does not teach about the Trinity very clearly, when we Christians read it we see hints of the Holy Trinity. In the creation account in the book of Genesis we read:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” (Gen 1:1-3)
The first verses mentions the spirit or breath of God and the following verse begins with “And God said…” Of course when a person says something, he says a word. And we believe this world to be Jesus Christ. Or in psalm 33:6-9 we see another reference to the world being created by the Word of the Lord (i.e., Jesus Christ) and by the breath or spirit of God.
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lord, let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth. (Ps 33:6-9)
In the Book of Genesis the world is said to have been created in six days and many people take this to mean six 24-hour days as we experience now. However, even in the patristic period some Fathers believed the six days could be six long periods of time. The idea is that God started the process and guides its development.
The Bible also tells us that the created world is “very good” (Gen 1:31). Of course we know that the world is not perfect. In addition to human sin there are diseases, natural disasters and so on. This is because the material world somehow fell together with Adam and Eve. However, because the world is fundamentally good, Christianity does not see salvation as a flight from the material world, but rather will be transformed at the end of time together with the resurrection of humanity.
Although Christianity does not accept pantheism (that God and the world are one) it believes that God is present in every place for the created world. For example, the prayer:
O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessing and Giver of Life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.
It says that God is “everywhere present and fillest all things.” This same omnipresence of God is expressed in Psalm 139:7-12 and Acts 17:27-28.
“Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.”
“….. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for `In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your poets have said, `For we are indeed his offspring.’ (Acts 17:27-28)
Another part of the created world is that of the bodiless powers (angels). It is somewhat incorrect to call all the bodiless powers angels, because angels are only one rank of the nine categories of bodiless powers. There are Angels Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim. The word angel means messenger and in the Bible we see the bodiless powers conveying messages from God to humanity and, in general, mediating between God and the world. The demons or the devil are also bodiless powers created by God who rebelled against God and were cast into hell.
So we see that the created world, i.e., the world of angels, the world of inanimate and animate things, and the world of human beings comes from the hand of God and is guided, sustained and loved by Him.
The most fundamental belief in Christianity is the belief in one God. This is something we share with Judaism and Islam, although of course, Christianity believes that God is a Trinity, which Jews and Muslims do not.
This belief in one God is expressed in the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut 6:4)
The first words “Hear, O Israel” are “Scema” in Hebrew and this verse is the most important prayer in Judaism. It is recited in morning and evening prayers and Jews try to repeat it just before they die. Jesus Christ repeats this prayer in Mark 12:29 “Jesus answered, “The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”, showing that He believes in this traditional confession of faith But who is this one, God? He partially reveals Himself in the incident of the burning bush in Exodus:
“Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, `What is his name?`; what shall I say to them?”; God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say his to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, `The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Ex 3:13-15)
The name Yahweh means something like “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” or simply “I am”. The name Yahweh was considered so holy that Jews never said it.
When they read the Bible they say “Adonai” or Lord rather than say, Yahweh. The word Yahweh was spoken only once a year by the high priest in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem.
Therefore God’s “name” is “I am” showing that God is the ultimate reality, the creator of all things that exist. It is interesting to notice that in St. John’s Gospel especially, Christ frequently makes “I am” statements. “I am the good shepherd”, “I am the light of the world” and so on. These “I am” statements are a subtle way of Jesus Christ saying that He is God. This is especially clear in the following incident in John 8:52-59.
“The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, as did the prophets; and you say, `If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you claim to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say that he is your God. But you have not known him; I know him. If I said, I do not know him, I should be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”; The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they took up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.”
When Jesus says “before Abraham was, I am” (in Greek ego eimi) He is making a clear statement of His divinity which the Jewish leaders saw as blasphemy, and for which they sought to kill Him.
St. John Chrysostom (ca. 349-407) commenting on this statement of Jesus Christ attaches more theological significates to “ego eimi”. In his 55th homily on John he says:
“But wherefore said He not, ‘Before Abraham was, I was’ instead of ‘I am’. As the Father uses this expression, I am, so also does Christ; for it signifies continuous Being, irrespective of all time. On which account the expression seems to them to be blasphemous.”
So God is the great “I am” and Jesus Christ shares this status. God is the absolute, ultimate reality. Because of this God is sometimes called the “Supreme Being”. The idea is that there is a great chain of being from atoms to rocks t plants to an animal to human being, with God being at the top of the chain. However, to say that God is the Supreme Being implies that the being of God is the same as the being of creatures, although more exalted. However, God’s ‘being” cannot be compared to the being of creatures. It is a unique kind of being, and so the Fathers of the Church say that God is beyond being or beyond existence to show that God exists in a radically different way than the way creatures exist.
All of the makes it seem that God is infinitely far from us. But Jesus Christ taught us that ‘Yahweh” is our loving Father and can be addressed as “Abba” or “dear Father”.
In this way, the infinite God is shown to be as close to us as our human fathers are or even closer.
All of the above is not simply a philosophical game. It is an attempt to express the paradox of God’s infinity brought close to humanity.