Finding heaven on earth

Monday afternoon, about 5 o’clock, I took Max for a walk to the mailbox. The temperature was in the low 60s, the humidity was low, the breeze was light. I stared up into the sky and saw endless blue, streaked with wisps of white. I remember feeling intensely aware of my surroundings — the weight of my shirt, the comfortable give of the earth beneath my feet, the smell of grass, the sound of children playing.

It was an amazing moment. I felt compelled to stare up into the blue and offer a feeble but heartfelt word of praise to the One who blessed me with all of it.

There was no election. There were no windows being boarded up, no talking heads spewing messages of doom, gloom and despair. No future, no past. It was transcendent. It was tranquil.

It was not, however, heavenly. It was no more heavenly than the bit of business I collected and disposed of a few minutes later before returning home.

Heaven on earth does not exist. You won’t find it on a secluded beach, or in a comfortable chair with a loved one watching a great movie, or at the business end of a syringe full of drugs, or at your mother’s table eating her world-famous pecan pie.

We use the phrase, I think, because we rejoice in the opportunity to escape the horrors, sufferings and inconveniences of our lives — all of which tend to be much, much more significant than the “heavenly” item or experience in question. It is a temporary respite, doomed to end but immensely appreciated in the moment. So in that sense, it is an illusion, a fake reality. That’s a bad thing.

But “heaven on earth” is a much more dangerous concept than that. It implies that heaven, the real one, is all about physical pleasure. “Heaven on earth” is simply a smaller version of what is to come. Worse than that, it implies the reward that awaits us after this life is over is no better than the reward we achieve for ourselves here. And since God’s aid in bringing this (allegedly) heavenly circumstance to us, it weakens our faith. It teaches us to rely on ourselves for the really outstanding things. We cease to see God as the Giver of blessings (James 1:17), whether the blessings are here on earth or in a future state that is becoming more and more imaginary by the day.

In short, it dumbs God down to a carnal level. It characterizes heaven in earthly terms, and vice versa. It is, in a word, profane. If using the name of God or Jesus in a casual, flippant or dismissive way, surely using the idea of heaven similarly is similarly objectionable.

And it comes up more often than you might think. Phrases such as, “I’m in heaven,” “a taste of heaven,” and the like are common idioms in our everyday conversation. Jokes about “Saint Peter” at the “pearly gates” are as common as stories about big fish or the farmer’s daughter — and typically, no more holy. And when did we get the idea that God and heaven were things to joke about anyway?

On the other side of the issue, “godforsaken,” “hellish,” “hell on earth,” “I’ve been through hell,” and the like work the same way in reverse. The archangel Michael held Satan in reverence when they disputed over “the body of Moses” (whatever you may think that was) in Jude 9. Cartoons about weird men in red suits with horns and pitchforks do nothing to strike fear in the hearts of souls, nor do jokes about who does or does not get the air-conditioned rooms in hell. Jesus said hell was a place that would be worth gouging your eye out to avoid (Matthew 5:29). That’s no laughing matter.

All that said, there are foretastes of heaven here on earth. If heaven is characterized by the presence of Jesus and all His faithful ones (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18), and by service rendered to the God and Father of all (Revelation 22:4), then those experiences, limited though they may be, that we see in the flesh are heavenly. Note that all such experiences are primarily spiritual in nature, not physical — fitting for a spiritual existence on a spiritual plane.

If you want to refer to our song worship as “heavenly,” I have absolutely no issue with that. But let’s make sure the “heavenly” aspect of it is what is drawing us. If I want melodic and harmonious tunes, I can go to the symphony. The people of God singing songs of praise and instruction, joining hearts, minds and voices in a collected effort to strive toward the prize that awaits us — surely that is “a taste of heaven.” And how pretty it seems in our ears is absolutely irrelevant.