Christians are often stereotyped these days. Christianity itself is stereotyped. Yet of all the caricatures, I believe there is one that is the most corrupting, the most harmful and perverse, and it is one shared by Christian and non-Christian alike. It is our stereotype of heaven.
How long must we suffer the delusion that heaven is a land of kindly-faced angels and soft puffy clouds? Leaving the question of angels aside for later, I must ask, from where did we find this image of an ethereal Paradise? Certainly not from the Book of Revelation, for St. John did not see us living as airy immortals in an immaterial land. Rather, he saw "a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away..." (Rev. 21:1).
We have retained something of the Manichean heresy, from the days of early Christianity. It was defeated in orthodox theology by St. Augustine, yet it endured. The Manichees taught that spirit was good and matter was evil, that the soul was trapped in a prison of corrupting flesh. Therefore, their idea of salvation was in the release of man from its human bondage, in the redemption of spirit from the slavery of substance, in the ascension to a purely ethereal life.
This is our doctrine of heaven taken to the extreme, and I maintain that it is fatal to Christian faith. We need look no further than Genesis to find that it took both "dust from the ground" and "the breath of life" from our Creator before the Scriptures declared "and man became a living being." Both elements--matter and spirit--were present from the Creation, and both elements were good. Salvation does not require that man abandon his body; only that he abandon his previous life of sin.
Man is both spiritual and material. There will be a new Heaven and a new Earth.
Paradise is not something totally beyond our experience; it is the fulfillment of our original nature, in the blessing of God's presence and perfection. This assertion is vital to my theology. Christianity does not ask us to renounce our humanity, but to fulfill it. Heaven is not a cosmic bribe, created as a special gift to those in whom God delights. It is the necessary outcome of the Promise, for God had given man dominon over the Creation; after the Fall, God meant to redeem man and restore him to his place over a restored Nature. Just as God promised Abraham that through him (and the Jewish people) all the nations would be blessed, so God had promised Adam that through him (and the human race) all of Creation would be blessed.
Our misconception of heaven is fundamentally a misconception of the human person.
Here is another startling argument, for those (such as myself) accustomed to the Protestant assertion of human sinfulness. Man is originally good. Man was created in innocence, in the image of God, and man has retained that intrinsic goodness and virtue. The Fall was a corruption of the original, but it did not and could not destroy it. Salvation does not replace, but restores. It brings the individual human back to his original place, in worship of God, in fellowship with man, and in stewardship of Nature.
Do we realize what it means when we say that Christ was fully God and fully Man?
I find the early cinematic depictions of Jesus Christ almost comical, in that they treat him as utterly different than any man. He is aloof, almost dispassionate; as loving and gentle as Mr. Rogers, certainly, but not human. The Scriptures present Him in a totally different light. He is weakened by hunger before being tempted by the Devil, he gets exasperated with ignorance of his disciples, he shows a sense of humor in puns (as when he renamed the dimwitted Simon "the rock"--Peter), and he rages against the religious hypocrites of his day. The famous "shortest verse" (John 11:35: "Jesus wept") could be more accurately translated "Jesus broke down and cried like a girl." Scripture records that in Gethsemane, his tears were like drops of blood: this is a real physiological symptom of extreme stress, in which the capillaries behind the eyes burst and seep into the tear ducts. His cry to God in Gethsemane to "take this cup away from me" was a real one, from a man who knew the torture that awaited him. Jesus Christ was not only God; he was more fully human than any human we could know.
This is our inheritance. We are children of His image, of His beauty, of His might. We are the sons of a King; we are the sons of God.
A final word, not about heaven but about the angels. I really wonder how we ever came to this traditional concept of the heavenly creatures, as patient and gentle creatures, much like kindly old nannies but with wings and flaming swords. This is utterly inconsistent with Scripture. In nearly every instance of an angelic visitation recorded in the Bible, the unlucky witness is either struck dumb in terror or must be dissuaded from awestruck worship. Ask yourselves, how many times were the angels obliged to say "do not be afraid" to the patriarchs and prophets? Did they ever tire from it, or did they appreciate the easy audience, like a bad stand-up comic appreciates an indulging crowd?
In Exodus 33, Moses was only allowed to see God with His back turned away (a direct glance would have killed him), yet even after another forty days and nights his face was still lit up like a Christmas tree, and all who saw him feared to approach. Angels live eternally in the direct presence of God. They are the messengers of God; they reflect His awesome power, His timeless glory. These are not meek and mild creatures, nor would we find their gazes comforting. Only when we have come to our inheritance as sons of God will we find ourselves able to return their gaze. Only when we too reflect fully the glory of the King can we endure the reflection of that majesty from others.