Monday, September 18, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the world III

God is in his heaven...
Starting here, here (and here), this little series still has some distance to go.

I began with the idea that the basic meaning of heaven is what you see when you get knocked out. Or rather, what you first see when you wake up lying flat on your back.

A second common biblical use of 'heaven' is to refer to the dwelling place of God. He is called 'the God of heaven', though also the God of heaven and earth, apparently referring not to his location, but to the extent of his dominion (i.e. over everything). Yet sometimes the more specific God in heaven (or in the heavens) is used, and this seems to be associated fairly directly in some cases with vertical elevation, though Solomon does acknowledge that the heavens can't contain him, and the psalmist speaks of him being exalted above the heavens. What effect might it have on our thinking if we translate 'heaven(s)' (shamayim) with 'sky' (or 'skies')?

This elevated location is taken to imply (or is itself a symbol of) God's ultimate superiority, with consequences for human actions.

When we turn to the New Testament, heaven is associated with God's rule (symbolised by his throne), is also the location of angels (this point was not directly made in the OT, although the voice of the angel of YHWH came from heaven). Heaven is the origin of God's audible voice. Most famously, however, heaven as the location of the Father is woven into the opening line of the Lord's prayer.

Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit the earth said upon his return, ""I looked and looked but I didn't see God" (or maybe Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev put these words in his mouth). I wonder whether the writers of the Bible might have laughed at him. Not, however, for thinking that he might be travelling to the dwelling place of God. Simply for thinking that God might be visible when he got there.
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI. Ten points for getting even the country for this pic. Photo by CAC.
UPDATE: important discussion in comments.


Kevin Beck said...

Nice post. I believe you're right about the Hebrew poets laughing at the cosmonaut's comments. They might laugh at ours too when we look into our world and claim we do not see God.


Anonymous said...

It looks like something out of Dr Who.

Nice post.

though Solomon does acknowledge that the heavens can't contain him

It seems - from my limited knowledge - that most concepts applied around the Father have an ambivalence, a certain kind of apophatism built into the biblical tradition. Similarly with the temple, sacrifice etc.

michael jensen said...

um, if we translate it as sky, will we find the three-tiered cosmology rather confronting and the need to demythologise a little bit awkward?

Here's a question: why did Jesus go up when he ascended (in Acts 1)?

byron smith said...

Kevin - nice point.

Drew - yes, there is always a move away to affirm God is more than our concepts. While God truly gives himself to us (such that it is both irresponsible and disobedient to now remain silent), he remains Lord even in his self-giving. We never 'have' him (though he is not 'having us [on]' either).

MJ - As hinted in my response to Drew, I don't think God lives in the sky. I think this too is anthropomorphism, even if (and it is only an if) some of the biblical writers mightn't have yet been conscious of this. My point is to try to slow us down in importing all our conceptions of 'heaven' each time we read the word.

michael jensen said...

Well, did he go up, or did he go 'up'?

byron smith said...

I think he went 'up', though thinking of his going up is a vivid metaphor that we shouldn't lose or denigrate, despite its anthropomorphism.

michael jensen said...

hmm. Rudolph Bultmann, take a bow!

Is this like 'rising' from the 'dead' or the 'virgin' birth?


byron smith said...

More like taking a 'seat' at the 'right hand' of God's 'throne', 'Michael'.

Martin Kemp said...

Spain. Near Barcelona

byron smith said...

Marty - wow. I'm impressed. I thought that was one of the hardest. Have you been there? Have another ten points. Your lead is quickly becoming unassailable...