I was raised in the church, so I was taught that heaven is a beautiful place we go to when we die, because of the sacrificial death on a cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom Christians consider to be God’s one and only son. This is what most Christians are taught when they are children by the Christian education program that we in the church call “Sunday School”.
Since then I have struggled with several issues related to this teaching. First of all, if heaven is a place, then where is it? Outer space? Another planet? Another solar system? Another universe? In the book of Matthew, in Chapters 5, 6 and 7, what is often referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus makes some very interesting points about suffering, spirituality, morality, and heaven. I think some conclusions can be drawn about heaven in particular in Matthew 5:2-12, also known as “the Beatitudes”.
Jesus uses the phrase, “Blessed are you when…”, followed by several scenarios of suffering, which are then followed by rewards. Jesus covers a large amount of territory in these 11 verses. Such topics are as follows: “the poor in spirit”, “those who mourn”, “the meek”, “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, “the merciful”, “the pure in heart”, “peacemakers”, “those who are persecuted for righteousness”, and finally, “when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of false things about you because of me”.
So, you might be saying, what are the rewards? Well, the rewards are not what most people spend their time dreaming about. Jesus does not promise a new car, a new house, an expensive vacation, or winning the lottery. Instead, as Jesus is known to do, he turns suffering on its head, and points out rewards that are directly related to each type of suffering. They are as follows: “the kingdom of heaven”, “comfort”, “the earth”, “being filled”, “being shown mercy”, “seeing God”, “being called children of God”, “the kingdom of heaven” (again) and, finally, “a great reward in heaven”. So, there it is, again and again: “heaven”.
So what is this “heaven” exactly? These days I am more inclined to believe that heaven is not just a place that good people go to when they die, like so many of us are taught. I think heaven is more than that. I think heaven could be described as “another dimension of reality.” Now, I’m not talking here about having our minds blown by LSD, marijuana or peyote. I’m talking about something much deeper, something that penetrates every day, every hour, every minute, every second of our lives. And not just for those who are considered by some as believers, either. Heaven is a state of being, a way of seeing, an experience that can be tapped into at anytime, in any place, by anybody.
The trick, though, if you want to call it that, is that heaven can only be experienced by those who do God’s will. Now, I do not believe that this is only a select population, nor do I believe that you have to refer to yourself as a Christian. I think God is bigger than our petty religions that we create, the churches, temples, mosques and synagogues that we build, and all the rules we try to follow as if God is the Cosmic Santa Claus, and we want to make sure that we are on his “Good List”, so we can get lots of presents on Christmas morning.
I think Jesus challenges us to take a higher path, a more difficult path, but a path that gives rewards that are greater than we can ask for or imagine. In Matthew 5:44-45, Jesus makes an especially radical challenge: “…love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” So, what is he getting at, here? Most of us, if we are honest, would admit that loving our enemies is something we cannot do, not without a lot of help, at least. And there it is. There is help, if you are willing to ask for it and accept it, no strings attached. Ask God to forgive you for all the ways that you fall short, every day, every hour, every minute, every second. Then, accept the life-changing, soul-freeing, everlasting love that God wants to give to each and every one of us. Perhaps, if we are willing, there is a “place” in heaven for every one of us.