How do you envisage eternity? What is your idea of heaven? Is it a collage created solely from your own imagination? Or is it shaped by a bit of art, music, and even some scripture? Most people’s image of “the good place” is formed by music.
I heard about a mansion
He has built for me in glory.
And I heard about the streets of gold
Beyond the crystal sea;
About the angels singing,
And the old redemption story,
And some sweet day I’ll sing up there
The song of victory.
I’ve sung “Victory in Jesus” for nearly forty years. If you sing it long enough, as many of us have, you start to hold on to words like “mansion” and “Streets of Gold” and “beyond the crystal sea.” Whether accurate or not, my earliest images of eternity were rooted in the third verse of Victory in Jesus. I didn’t know where Eugene Bartlett, the writer of those words, found in his inspiration. Did he see how the roads were paved in heaven? Was there something in the Bible about the Divine Department of Transportation? If I received a mansion, were my parents going to live with me? I had lots of questions. Remember, I was seven, learning to play piano and the idea of heaven was about as difficult to grasp as stretching my little hands to play an octave.
At other times, our images of heaven come from literature and art. When people during the Renaissance read Dante and then attempted to illustrate The Divine Comedy (with the levels of heaven and hell), they drew what he wrote. Hell and Heaven came alive as multilayered regions of sinners and saints. Dante’s words seeped so deeply into the intellectual water of the western world, most of us don’t realize that many of the images we have in our mind of heaven or hell aren’t Biblical they’re Italian.
On All Saints’ Sunday, as we remember those who have gone ahead “to a good place,” to their just reward in eternity, where do our images of Heaven come from? Has someone created a picture, from thin air, handed it to us, and said this is eternity? Perhaps the Bible gives us something more to go on. Might scripture point us toward more significant areas of clarity as we reflect on the afterlife? As we attempt to envision eternity, perhaps we can draw our own picture instead of relying on the images others? I think this is important because we know the saints in our lives.
We don’t want someone else to paint a picture on our behalf. It’s like picking out a greeting card. Someone does the artwork and design, but you want the message to be as personal as possible.
I want to think about the saints who’ve gone before and how we picture eternity beyond the metaphors of wealth and extravagance that creep into our language when we talk about the transition from death to eternal life. I’ve officiated at more funerals than I want to remember. However, the talk of mansions of glory, streets of gold and pearly gates have never made me comfortable. Jesus was not a worldly show off in life and I’m not sure why we make him one in death. It doesn’t make sense.
The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, offers some insights on the culmination of time – when all the saints are reunited. John, exiled to the Greek Island of Patmos, has a vision God’s plan to unite heaven and earth. Heaven, as we usually talk about it, is only half of the equation. God’s idea has always been to join earth and heaven into one place. This shouldn’t sound strange to us. We talk about this idea and even pray for this idea to come into existence every Sunday morning.
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
That’s right! This idea of uniting the coming kingdom of God with what’s happening here on Earth is at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer. We say it every week! Our vision of eternity begins, in some form, with a realization of what we mean in the Lord’s Prayer: earth and Heaven coming together.
Revelation 21:1 begins: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” There’s a lot there so let’s unpack it slowly. Heaven and earth are both new. If we use our paradigm, the one we take to funerals and sing about, who would have thought the pearly gates, mansions, and streets of Gold would ever wear out. If you’ve moved into a hilltop mansion in heaven before Revelation 21:1 do you have to move out because you’re in old heaven? Also, the sea is no more. If there is no sea, where are people going to fish in the afterlife and enjoy Heavenly sunsets? It could make for some uncomfortable funerals on Ocracoke.
Here’s my point: how we picture eternity, where our beloved saints rest in peace, does not depend on a checklist or paint by numbers scenario. This was John’s vision, it’s not yours. Variations in our life experiences, religious journeys, and personal stories will impact how we understand God’s kingdom becomes a reality on Earth.
Revelation 21 offers a portrait of newness and renewal. This gives me a measure of hope. In the tiredness and fatigue of life and the hopelessness and grief of death, I read a promise of new life and comfort. The Kingdom of Heaven comes to Earth, God comes here, once again, to make all things new. It’s not the other way around. This is why we say, “on earth, as it is in Heaven.” It’s not the details that matter most in this passage. If you’re focusing on the cosmology of heaven, the thermostat of hell, or the pavement on Hallelujah Avenue, you’re missing the point. It’s the message, like mortar, holding the story of God’s kingdom together. What is that message? Look at verse 4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. “Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I’m making all things new.” It the same as the Lord’s Prayer. Heaven is at the other end of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus’ prayer implies what John envisions in Revelation. Heaven, the Kingdom of God, is wherever God’s will is done. What do you think “thy kingdom come” means? You don’t need to wait for death to experience the presence and reality of God’s unfolding Kingdom.
No matter your vision of eternity, is “newness” is in there somewhere? Eternity could be a better version of Ocracoke or angels on escalators or even your favorite hymn come to life. I don’t know. I know this, whatever eternity is, so many wonderful people are already there. I am grateful for them all. May your love for them be renewed by God’s words of comfort and assurance. May the newness of this day bring their memories meaning and your lives purpose.
Richard Lowell Bryant