There are at least four major strands of thought in the Bible
and in Christian tradition contributing to contemporary notions of heaven.
The kingdom of God
take a closer look at each:
Heaven in the Hebrew Bible is used
as a synonym for "sky," and there is considerable evidence to show that
in the ancient world people thought of God as quite literally a "sky dweller."
The term is used this way, for example, when the psalmist writes: "The heavens
declare the glory of God." (Psalm 6). And Jesus echoes the image when he
addressed God as: "Our Father, in heaven."
which many equate with "heaven," is derived from a Persian word for
a nobleman's park or garden. The word also refers to the biblical Garden of Eden,
and connotes a world without suffering, sin or death. Jesus also used this term,
as for example, when he said to the thief hanging next to him on the cross, "Today
you shall be with me in Paradise."
Eternal life -- This
phrase refers to the depth and quality of life as much as it does to life's duration.
In the New Testament one does not enter into "eternal life" at death,
but rather in the here and now as one keeps the faith and the commandments. As
Jesus put it: "And I know that His commandment is eternal life."
The kingdom of God -- This phrase is a beautiful and subtle one, which
Jesus preferred to the others, making it the focal point for this own teaching.
The kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven) refers to any time or place where
the will of God is done. It was to hasten the day when the will of God would be
done on earth that Jesus devoted and ultimately sacrificed his life. And he used
the phrase with the clear meaning that God's presence was something to be experienced
now: "Behold, the kingdom of heaven is in the midst of you!"
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.