Jeffrey B. Russell
Professor of History
University of California Santa Barbara
24 March 1996

Readings: Ezekiel 37; John 11

This is the Word of the Lord:

"Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you and will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live." Ez 37.5-6.

"Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, o my people; and I will bring you back to the Land of Israel." Ez 37.12

"Martha said, he has been dead four days; by this time he stinks. Jesus said to her: your brother shall rise again. " John 11: 39, 24.

And this is our affirmation of faith:

I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life to the world to come.

Do we believe the word we hear; do we believe the creed we affirm?

Heaven is not a joke, or a myth, or a psychological projection of reward and punishment. Heaven is love: our love for God; our love for one another; and God's love for us.

Every human from the beginning has one fundamental question that underlies his or her whole nature. The question is: Do you love me? Sadly, early in life we transform that question (by original sin, or by existential neurosis) into: "Am I worthy to be loved?" or "What can I do to be worthy to be loved?" Next we seize on answers provided by parents or society: I must earn worthiness. I will be famous, I will be rich, I will get power over others--or even I will be the greatest victim or failure. In the process, we convince ourselves that we really will be happy (meaning we will be loved) if we achieve these goals. Often we persist in such a delusion after experience has repeatedly proved it false. We continue to make the same mistake of trying to find in the limited and temporal--that is, in idols--the response that is found only in what is the real object of desire. To the question "Do you love me?" God answers willingly, freely, joyfully: yes.

To seek our true happiness; to seek our true selves; to find the true answer to the existential question we began with, we need to smash our idols, one by one. Then the illusion that "I" am the center of the cosmos ceases. It will absolutely and inevitably cease, whether death is finality or whether another life does exist. Either way, the self-flattery of self-importance will stop, dead. We cannot be sufficient unto ourselves. We are created for the connection with others, for the connection with the cosmos, for the dynamic connection among ourselves and with God.

The theme today is that only God--only heaven--can fulfill our existential longing. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, heaven is not dull; it is not static; it is not monochrome. It is an endless dynamic of joy in which one is ever more one's self as one was meant to be; one increasingly realizes one's potential in understanding as well as love and is filled more and more with wisdom. It is the discovery, sometimes unexpected, of one's deepest self. Humans are at their most real in heaven, resting dynamically in the glory of endless and increasing light and brilliance, joy and glory. The opposite of glory is worldly, unredeemed, alienated incompleteness, but glory is the living light of love that pulses in God and in every seeking creature. The glow of glory lights heaven; it unites creator and creatures in a circuit of love. Heaven is a festival combining perfect intensity with perfect peace. It is the home of paradox, where one flies open and free while one is hugged in the arms of the Lover Who does not fail or cease to love.

Heaven is wherever Christ is. "Going to heaven" or, better, "being in heaven" is being in the presence of Christ, whether one encounters Christ, "sees" him, merges with him, or in a sense becomes him. One is in heaven insofar as one is "in" Christ. We do not earn heaven as a reward. We are in God because God takes us in. Our choice is only whether to obstruct him or to allow him to grow in us. The center of the relationship in heaven between humans and Christ is a love that gives all and accepts all, a love in which God loves us perfectly and we love him perfectly, to the degree that subject and object become one--"love loves love"--and eventually only the verb remains: "loves."

Heaven is an agapê, a love feast. Whenever less than the whole world is loved, with all the creatures in it, whenever anyone or anything is excluded from love, the result is isolation and retreat from heaven. Heaven is the community of those whom God loves and who love God. All retain their personal characters, but woven together in perfect charity, so that in God's generous embrace each person among the millions whom God loves loves each other person among the millions whom God loves. It is like a weaving in which each thread touches every other thread in a spark of loving light, so that the whole web shines like a field of stars. In heaven all see and observe their love and grace and peace spread out to everyone and through everyone, so the love of each is realized perfectly and extended totally to each and to all. The union of humans with one another in Christ is more than in heaven; it is heaven.

By extension the love of every lover touches the love of every other, spreading and growing in immeasurable multiplication of power of love. This weaving is constantly woven outward from each of its centers, forming a tapestry of infinite richness. Heaven has no boundaries and its center everywhere. The joy and love are multiplied beyond all conception as the universe of love whirls ever outward yet closer and closer to that Point that is itself fulfilled Love. So those whom we have never known, or with whom we have quarreled, even those whom we have hated or who have hated us, all these we love, for whatever is evil in them has been washed away, and all that remains is the pure goodness that God has made, which is perfect love loving.

A corollary theme today is the question of body and soul in heaven. Do souls go to heaven. No. Look this up if you don't believe me, but nowhere in the Bible (either the Old or the New Testament), or in Jewish tradition, or in the early Christian writers, is there any mention whatever of the "immortal soul." What Jews and Christian affirm, rather, is the resurrection of the body, that is, of the complete human being. Early Christian writers even belabored the point: "In this very body we shall rise." Christ did not extract Lazarus' soul from his body; he raised him whole. Stink and all. Christ did not say "talitha cumi" to Jairus' dead daughter in order to save her soul; he restored her body and told her family to give her something to eat. Christ did not leave his body behind in the tomb; he rose as he had died, body and soul, and he went body and soul to the Father in heaven.

The resurrected body is identical with this earthly one, one that eats, excretes, circulates the blood, and fires neurons. The resurrected Christ ate fish. A body that does not eat or drink could not function. It is a different sort of body, a glorified body, but it is a recognizable body. "Body is flux and frustration, a locus of pain and process. If it becomes impassible and incorruptible, how is it still body?" Will our resurrection body be at our physical peak or peak of wisdom? Will a mother encounter her child as a baby or as a grown person? Beneath these questions was a consensus that the body in heaven would be a body freed from its limitations; it would possess the qualities of completion and fulfillment.

But how can bodies function without time and space? First: time. When is heaven, anyway?

Heaven could not exist "before" the creation of the cosmos, for nothing other than God exists "before" the creation. No thing existed before any thing existed. When God created, he created space and time; there was no time before the creation. God did not "sit around" in time "waiting" until he felt like creating the cosmos. God is eternal: he exists outside time and space, creates spacetime, and permeates it. God sees, understands, loves all points in spacetime as in one moment, in simultaneity. Simultaneity goes beyond human experience. Language breaks down in the overt sense, for we have no tense in our languages for understanding an action that occurs in a dimensionless point outside time and space.

So heaven does not exist "before" the world; nor does it exist "after" the end of the world. It is meaningless to speak of the existence of anything after the end of the cosmos. There can be no space without objects, no time without the motion of objects.

Even if souls without bodies could exist--even then--their acts of praising, knowing or loving occupy time. Mental experience is a process; we cannot, even as spirits, think, love, and live simultaneously and eternally as God can. Thought requires a moment of time spilling out beyond the micromoment; further, thought structures the meaningless micromoments into a meaningful pattern. A human life is a succession of nows, which, when joined together, form a story through time.

If time in heaven is different from time defined as a measure of motion within the cosmos, then this noncosmic nontime is a metaphor of time that is ontologically real, a "heaven-time" distinct from ordinary time. The door to eternity can open from any moment in spacetime, as a breakthrough of heaven-time to us or--what amounts to the same thing--of us to heaven-time.

Now, where is heaven? If glorified bodies exist in heaven, it must be a place. Even if only spirits exist there, so long as they are capable of motion, it must be a place. Most metaphorical language refers to heaven as "up," but it is equally "down," "out," "ahead," or "in." Some writers speak of "going up" to heaven; others of heaven "coming down" to us. The tension between the idea that heaven is somehow on earth (among us) and the idea that heaven is beyond earth is another perennial question; if heaven is on earth, it is on an earth transformed and sanctified. The "space," like the "time," of heaven is the original earthly paradise, and the kingdom of God within us, and the paradise at the end of the world.

The spacetime of heaven is different from our spacetime, but more real. What and when and where is heaven? Everywhere and everywhen. And it is beautiful.

If you wish to climb to the top of a tree, its branches range themselves under your feet and invite you to rest in the midst of its bosom, in the green room of its branches, whose floor is strewn with flowers. Who has ever seen the joy at the heart of a tree, with fruits of every taste within reach of your hand? You can wash yourself with its dew and dry yourself with its leaves. A cloud of fruits is over your head and a carpet of flowers beneath your feet. You are anointed with its sap and breathe in its perfume. (Ephraim Syrus)

Meanwhile there is pain. Whatever we do, we experience pain. It cannot be avoided. Jesus wept. Jesus cried when Lazarus died; he even cried in the garden when he contemplated his own approaching death. How often, Lord, have we cried for our own pain, and the pain of those we love, and the pain of the world. But Love meets us and embraces us, saying, I know your pain, beloved; I know and feel it in myself; and I fill it and you with my melting love.

Heaven is acceptance of love, which burns through and shines through the pain, transforming it. Love would rather go through hell than go to heaven without us. Perhaps the only way to avoid heaven is to stay "hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one." (C. S. Lewis)

Heaven is whatever and whenever God wants it to be; more deeply, heaven is where God is, in the rose of fire that keeps opening dynamically in one eternal moment. We have loved the stars too much to fear the night. So shall every love every love more enkindle until the cosmos coruscates with loving light, living more and ever more.

Thus says the Lord God to these bones; I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
So be it.

Jeffrey B. Russell; Copyright Princeton University Press