Join our mailing list


Based on the book "Bringing Heaven Down to Earth," this word study attempts to make sense of the separation between heaven and earth.

"Ooh, heaven is a place on earth," sang Belinda Carlisle, with metaphysical carelessness.

The universe isn't as tidy as it used to be. In the good old days, before Galileo, the earth was flat, heaven was above, and the cosmos was orderly. The terrestrial and celestial kept their distance from each other. Today we have telescopes, and we know the cosmic picture is mind-bogglingly more vast and complicated.

But even now, we often operate with two-dimensional models of "heaven and earth." Any intersection between the two is reserved for rhetorical effect-even if it seems overdoing it to describe Meteora, Greece (as does a headline in the Globe and Mail) or the Coal Branch of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad (as does an online Atlas of Alberta Railways) as places that lie "between heaven and earth."

My fear is that our ironclad cosmic framework-our utter separation of earth and heaven-lies behind much of our confusion about the nature of heaven, as well as our failure to eagerly hope for heaven. The more we regard heaven as distant, ethereal, and irrelevant to the earthly life we currently experience, the more exotic and intimidating heaven becomes. And the more we push it to the margins of our awareness.

I tried to make this case in my book, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. At first that title might seem every bit as confused as Belinda Carlisle. Heaven is a place on earth? But as I argued, biblical prophecy describes eternal heaven not as an airy existence of floating around an ethereal realm, but rather, as eternal bodily life on a new earth, the way creation was supposed to be in the first place.

So heaven-eternal heaven, after Christ's return-will be on a transformed planet earth.

Then, and only then, will God's kingdom truly be "on earth as it is in heaven."

I was basing my central claim-heaven will be on earth-on John's vision in Revelation 21 of the New Jerusalem "coming down out of heaven from God," when God's dwelling comes down to join humankind.

But what I didn't do was sort through each of the different definitions of the English word "heaven" (or the Greek word John uses: ouranos).

The word heaven means different things: the sky (usually plural: "the heavens"), the dwelling place of God, the destination of deceased believers, or simply a blissful existence or indulgence (the kind the love-struck Carlisle had in mind in her song). The Greek word ouranos, and the Hebrew shamayim each mean all of these different things, too.

Our problem is not that we have one word for all these meanings, but that we have come to associate all these meanings at once with this one word: sky, dwelling of God, location of the deceased, and bliss. In our minds (or at least in my mind when I was growing up) they all go together: heaven is a place in the sky where God lives and the deceased go and perfect bliss abounds.

And these things are certainly related. But there are also some important theological reasons to keep them more separate than we usually do.

To show why, let's set down the word "heaven" for a second and pick up another word: "temple."

In his groundbreaking study, The Temple and the Church's Mission, one of Gregory K. Beale's fascinating statements is that the Garden of Eden, in Genesis, was the first temple, and that after that, the temple was a little replica of the Garden of Eden, in deliberate symbolic ways.

There are some telling similarities of terminology used to describe both Eden and the temple. There are some similarities of adornment. The Garden of Eden had the tree of life; the tabernacle (the makeshift mini-temple used before Solomon built a golden one) had a golden lampstand crafted to look like a tree (Exodus 25), while the temple had woodwork meant to mimic a garden-like setting (1 Kings 6). There are some similarities of location: both the Garden of Eden and the temple were on a mountain, and their entrances faced east.

But most striking to me are the similarities between the structure and layout of Eden and the temple, as Beale explains them. Eden had a three-part structure: (1) an innermost water-source, the center of God's dwelling, (2) a garden that this source flowed into and watered, where God walked with Adam and Eve, and (3) the outer lands beyond the garden's gate, which Adam and Eve were told to "fill" and "multiply" in. As they filled and multiplied, they would extend the garden, and with it God's presence, throughout all the earth.

The temple also had a three-part structure: (1) the innermost Holy of Holies, (2) the Holy Place, and (3) the outer courtyard that symbolized (through a large basin called the "sea," surrounded by sculptures of animals) the rest of world.

Beale says God meant the temple to physically remind the Israelites of Adam and Eve's original temple mission: to extend the garden of God's dwelling into all the world.

Of course, Adam and Eve blew it, and were thrown out of the garden, and later idol-prone Israel was lousy at this "temple mission" too. Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden. Israel was exiled from the Jerusalem, the city of its temple.

If Beale is right, then Adam and Eve's exile is not only the turning point of history, but also a turning point in the arrangement of the cosmos. Before their exile, Adam and Eve basked in the full presence of God in God's holy place. After their exile, God was separated from dwelling with humanity-a separation marked by two angels at the gate of Eden (and symbolized by two sculptures outside the holy place in the temple).

And this is where heaven and earth part ways. Before, there were "the heavens and the earth" but no rift between God's presence and humankind. After Adam and Eve's exile, there was a rift.

This rift forced God's true dwelling to lie somehow beyond the physical universe. For cosmological convenience, humans started thinking of the rift as a chasm between "heaven and earth," between God's dwelling and God's creation.

Before there were astronauts, this was a handy way to think about it. It made sense in the time of the Old Testament: the heavens were above, invisible, mysterious, grand. Before the Hubble Telescope, before Galileo, Israel's astronomical knowledge was so limited that they didn't know that the seat of God's dwelling wasn't literally in the stratosphere or among the stars. Or at least it was limited enough that "the heavens" made a suitable metaphor for this unseen, transcendent dimension.

It was this move-made for cosmic convenience-that seemed to re-locate God in "the heavens" above. God even poetically plays along in Isaiah 66, condescending to our crude map of the cosmos: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool," God says. (God then insists on not being marginalized or isolated from God's creation, as we see in the verses that follow: "What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. "Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?")

So "heaven and earth" came to stand for two dimensions of reality-the visible, physical, ordinary, known world in which we live, and the invisible, transcendent, extraordinary, unknown dwelling of God.

When we say "heaven," or when the early Christians said ouranos or the Israelites said shamayim, this is what we mean: God's perfect, extraordinary, transcendent dwelling. And when we say "going to heaven," we reasonably think of escaping the physical world and making this cosmic leap into this unknown dimension, gratefully shedding our physical bodies and eagerly departing this sin-soaked world.

In this framework, earth is the place where we are cursed to work; heaven is the place where we will be rejoined to God. And so G.K. Chesterton's map of the universe makes sense: "Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground."

That's the theology we work with, the doctrine we live and die with. But it seems very, very different from the end-times vision of biblical prophecy. And it ignores all this business about the temple.

The important point here is that while there is a separation after Eden, God does not see it as permanent, and never sees it as absolute. In fact, the temple was built as a mini model of Eden to show this.

From the get-go in Eden, the temple is the place of special intersection of God's dwelling and God's creation-or, to use our current, flawed terminology for a moment, the intersection of "heaven" (God's dwelling) and "earth" (God's creation). And after the exile from Eden, the temple continues to mark some kind of intersection between "heaven" and "earth," between dwelling and creation. The temple is a mini-Eden, in a way, a continuing outpost of God's dwelling, a continual reminder that the task of anyone who worships in the temple is to extend the garden of God's presence throughout creation.

And so worship has always been seen as a special intersection of heaven and earth, most famously in the emissaries' first-millennium report to Prince Vladmir about worship in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople: "We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth, for assuredly such beauty cannot be found on earth anywhere else."(This became a motif for the grandeur of worship in the Orthodox Church, as in the book Between Heaven and Earth: The Greek Church.)

The temple worked for a while. But even after Israel's return from exile, God had a new plan for the entire temple model, the entire enterprise of fusing "heaven" and "earth," God's dwelling and God's creation. The new temple was called "Immanuel," meaning "God with us." Meaning God's special dwelling with us-God's dwelling in God's creation.

"The Word became flesh," John writes, "and dwelt among us." You can translate "dwelt" as "tabernacled." And you can call "Christ" a "temple." The temple. That's what Jesus does in John 2 when he tells the temple big-wigs, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." They're baffled, because they're still in a pre-Messiah mindset about the temple. But John isn't: "He was speaking of the temple of his body."

The bigwigs did destroy "this temple," and it was raised in three days. For the implications of this, temple-wise, see the book of Hebrews about Christ as our high priest and our ultimate sacrifice.

But when Jesus ascended ("into heaven"), God gave us yet another new "temple" setup, poured out over humanity: the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, Paul says, the Church (the people, not any church building) is now God's temple: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" Paul asks an otherwise very un-temple-like congregation in Corinth, in 1 Corinthians 3. "For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple."

Finally, in Revelation 21, after Christ's final return at the end of this age, God's temple descends to earth, rejoining what was ruptured in Eden.

Only now, there is no specialized location, no garden, no three-part structure. It's all a one-part structure now. All of new creation is God's temple, God's dwelling, the intersection of dwelling and creation, "heaven" and "earth."

"I saw no temple in the city," John says (either amazed, or very satisfied by how fitting a bookend this is to Eden-or both), "for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb."

Eden was God's temple. The tabernacle was God's temple. The temple (most obviously) was God's temple. Jesus Christ is God's temple. The Holy Spirit is God's temple. The Church, through the Spirit, is God's temple. The entire new creation, after Christ's return, will be God's temple.

When I wrote about new creation, post-Revelation 21, post-Second Coming, I stuck with the word "heaven," because the word is so closely associated in our minds with the transcendent dwelling of God. And I stuck with the title, and its metaphysical mischief about "heaven" on "earth."

But since writing the book, I've decided there's a better word than "heaven," and that's "temple."

The temple, from Eden to Israel to Christ to the Church to Revelation 21, is the special intersection of God's dwelling and God's creation. In the new creation seen in Revelation 21, it isn't an intersection so much as a complete mutual manifestation-God's perfect dwelling, the Holy of Holies, filling every last corner of creation.

In the meantime, we have a more dazzling, mysterious, purifying, transformative temple than the Israelites did-we have the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit in the Church. Our buildings and our worship services continue to be special models and symbols of the intersection of God's dwelling and God's creation. But more profoundly, God's temple is God's global body, the Church, in all its facets, all its fractures, all its diversity, all its programs, all its missions, all its worship.

Our temple mission is the same as Adam and Eve's, the same as the priests of Israel: extend God's special presence into all creation, in meager anticipation of the day when all creation will, at last, be God's temple.