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Why Haven’t We Found Heaven Up There Yet?

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The final scene in Luke’s Gospel is the blessing and departure of Jesus. 

The ascension, celebrated this year on Sunday, June 1, concludes his earthly ministry.

His disciples seem ready to proclaim the astounding news of his resurrection, having confirmed that he was really the one they had known prior to his death. The Mount of Olives is once again the backdrop for his revelatory action.

We struggle to know what actually transpired in this numinous event. The language is spare: “and in the act of blessing he parted from them” (Luke 24:51).

Other translations render the event in this way: “while blessing them, the savior left them and was carried up to heaven.”

It is understandable that the writer would use the cosmology of the day and consider heaven to be “up,” yet holding on to that spatial understanding presents many problems.

A man in my Bible study class asked recently, “Where is heaven?”

We have the Hubble telescope roaming around, he said, and it has not turned up any evidence.

His concrete question presses us to think about the location of heaven in a different way.

Recently, this class has been studying N.T. Wright’s provocative book, “Surprised by Hope.” He vigorously challenges the idea that heaven is a far-off place we flee to when we die.

Rather, Wright argues for the interlocking relationship of heaven and earth, and sees the future of humanity and all creation as inhabiting a perfected world where God’s fullness dwells.

So where did Jesus go? The first born from the dead went to be with God, whose dwelling is not so far away.

Indeed, God already inhabits all creation and is slowly, almost imperceptibly “making all things new.”

When we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are participating in this renewal and welcoming God’s presence in all things.

Creation still groans for liberation, but the defeat of death in resurrection has already given a clue to God’s plan. God loves this world and will not consign it to utter destruction.

Yet, this is no “myth of progress,” which assumes things are naturally getting better and better.

Only God can ultimately lift creation out of chaos, and our hope is grounded in God’s resurrecting power.

Humanity has a role to play, however, both within history and beyond. We see this chiefly in the story of Jesus, whose human life has been taken into the life of God, thereby transfiguring the horizon of hope.

His departure is for our good, and the gift of the Spirit draws us into his resurrected life.

Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas. A version of this column first appeared on her blog, Trinitarian Soundings, and is used with permission.