Do You Know When People Get to Heaven?

Got an interesting question this weekend that kind of broke me out of my Hurrican funk. One reader wanted to know if, “[I] know when people get to heaven.”
This is a fascinating question, and, frankly, one that I’ve never given much thought. But it really is intriguing. I guess that my conviction that folks certainly “go to heaven” when they die trumps any desire to think about how one would know that they’ve actually arrived. Perhaps its kind of like putting kids on a school bus. You just kind of  assume that since the bus only goes one place, they are sure to arrive.
Deep down, though, there is so much about that last statement that is not a part of what I actually believe about what happens to us when we die. Beginning with statement that Heaven is a “place” that we “go” when we die, there is very little about the image of a bus upon which we put our loved-ones for transport that makes sense. **The topic of C.S. Lewis’ highly important metaphor of the heavenly ‘Bus’ in the Great Divorce will be the topic of another post.**
As one who professes a belief in the ressurection about which Jesus preached and the the coming Day of the Lord that he proclaimed, these images, while compelling and comforting dont completely match-up with the understanding given to us in the text and teaching of the Bible.
One cannot understate the fascination that our ancient forebarers had with “The Heavens”. Expressed almost universally in the plural, the skies above held great mystery and challenge for the ancients. This is largely, I believe, because the Heavens were one of the few places in the world that humans could not go. We could travel across the land, be in or even under the seas, but the heavens were the realm of birds and, ultimately God. Thus, when the human died and (at least part) of him/her was no longer accesible to us, it seems legitimate that such a one must have translated to “the Heavens”. Otherwise, we could probably find them.
But what does this mean now the we, as a species, have greater command of the sky and above and not found them crowded with the souls of the departed. What do we make now of the notion that there is anywhere that the dead “go” when they die. Especially since there are so very few places left anymore that living Humans have not been.
Thus, in the same way that our ancestors thought that Heaven was “up” because “up” was one place they couldn’t go, many in our culture (including me on a lot of days) tend to think about Heaven as being somewhere in “the future” because that it the only place that we can’t imagine me going. This gives rise to the kind of questions with witch we started today’s post. Everyone, deep down, understands that we’ll all be together in heaven (wherever) someday (whenever), but in the mean time we’re left to guess about where our loved ones go and when they will really arrive there.
While to notion of a “future heaven” might be a step more orthodox than previous thoughts on a “place heaven,” I’m not sure, frankly, that Jesus himself would have been more in favor of it. Jesus readily spoke of God’s kingdom being “at hand” and “very near you.” He encouraged us to pray that God’s will be done “as it is in heaven,” not “as it will be in heaven.” No, clearly Jesus thought of God’s kingdom and the eternal life that it promised as being both here and now. Yet, at the same time, he spoke of a resurection of the dead as being somehow in the future. This gives rise to the phrase often uttered by theologians and religios professionals about Heaven being “already AND not-yet.”
Heaven is the immediate reality of God, just as Earth is our immediate reality. Moreover, Jesus promises both disciples and thieves that when we die we will “be with [him] in paradise” and that he will “come and take [us] to where [he] is.” But as God is both present and hidden from us in our existence – closer than our very breath yet ultimate ungraspable – then the abode of the dead is also simultaneously present and unreachable. Heaven is both here and now, but it is also somewhere quite different and not yet fully understandable.
So, Do we know when people get to heaven? I think the simple answer is “yes”, because, in the end it wasn’t a very long trip. Part of what Jesus came to do was to begin the process of rejoining Heaven and Earth into something much more like the Eden that God originally created. So, to the extent that Jesus is not in the habit of failing us, we can also say that the journey between Heaven and Earth, whether in time or space is closer now than it was before. So, take hope! We will rejoin our loved ones soon.

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