These are important questions. Not easy. There is not an obvious or simple answer – heaven is not a visible place. It is not a tourist destination, so that you could get a last minute offer and go and see. And it will get you no nearer to book a seat for millions of dollars on a tourist flight in space. If people ever get to living on the moon – or Mars? – they will not think they have got to heaven. Indeed they may come back to the old truth, that heaven has always been nearer to home but sometimes we have to take long journeys to get there.
But like many questions of life, the questions about heaven are important and worth living with, even when we cannot answer them fully. If they gnaw away at you, you will turn them over and over in your mind and you will look out for heaven or clues to heaven every day in the world.*
I am reminded of Francis Thompson’s poem, “In No Strange Land”. Thompson was a gifted poet who had big problems with opium addiction and poverty as well as a profound faith. His problems drove him to live on the streets and to attempt suicide. Some friends helped him and that is how his first poems got published. When he died in 1907 the manuscript of this poem was in his pocket.
In No Strange Land
The kingdom of God is within you
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air–
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!–
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places–
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry–and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry–clinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!
Thompson is saying to himself and to us that heaven is close to us even in this world, even this world that is made of hard material surfaces, where it seems there is no free way for angels, the representatives of heaven. In truth, he says, heaven is not merely close to us, it is in some way, all around us, like the water is around the fish, but we do not see it or know it. It is all around us but we do not see it. But if we looked, if we were open to it, we would see: move but a stone and start a wing. That means…
And so: heaven comes to us when we are at our saddest, sad because we are shut out from heaven and do not see it and maybe cannot care. Then, into our saddest, there appears a ladder, pitched between heaven and Charing Cross, with the angels going up and coming down. The point is not just that heaven is open when we are sad, weak, broken, going wrong, but that it comes and is there, not because of anything we do or can do but because it is given by God, opened by God.
Before we get on to thinking more about God and heaven, let us remind ourselves where Thompson got his picture of the ladder pitched between heaven and Charing Cross. It is the story of Jacob in Genesis 28. He tricked his brother Esau and his father Isaac, and they were angry when they found out, so he fled for his life. His first night away from home, by himself in the desert, tired out, he lay down with his head on a stone for a pillow. Was he frightened? Ashamed? Uncertain about what would happen to him? However sad, he had a dream of a ladder between God’s high presence and where he was on earth, and angels going up and down, two-way communication. When he woke up, he said, Surely God is in this place and I did not know it. He made a memorial there, called the place Bethel and went on his journey in life.