23rd January 2024

The Wedding, the City and the Garden: Christian visions of heaven

The Wedding, the City, and the Garden: Christian visions of heaven

Reading: John 2.1-11

A sermon by Kenneth Padley 21st January 2024

What does heaven look like? What is our ultimate destiny?

These would seem important questions, exploring as they do the Christian hope. However, they are not questions which Christians ask very often. We find it safer to focus on more mundane matters.

An obvious reason for this reticence is pastoral: to talk about heaven is to talk about death, and death naturally throws up feelings of fear, sadness and loss. If this is a sensitive topic for you, please bear with me: I will be talking a bit about death today, but the subject of my sermon is what lies beyond it.

In addition to such understandable pastoral sensitivity, there are theological reasons why Christians might avoid conversation about the hereafter. Firstly, traffic between this life and the next tends to be one-directional, so we don’t get much feedback from the far side. Even in the case of Jesus, after his resurrection, he did not talk to his disciples about heaven. Rather he spent his time equipping them – and us – for the Church’s ongoing mission on earth.

This lack of information from the far side has long led to speculation, speculation exacerbated by post-modern individualism and unfamiliarity with the Christian tradition. In the light of this, let me just clarify that the Christian hope is not that we will remain on earth to haunt our homes or loved ones; nor that we will float around on a cloud; nor that God will turn us into a star or an angel. We may anticipate living on in the values of our friends and family, or to be memorialised by a tree or a bench. But our hope is for more.

So what does the Bible actually say about this really important topic? Across the scriptural narrative we discern an evolution of thought. Initially, ancient Jews believed that, following death, everyone descended to a grey shadowy underworld which they called Sheol. This is what the Psalmist means when he writes about going down ‘into the Pit’. Sheol is a place where the dead cannot hear God (Psalm 143) or serve God (Psalm 30).

The notion of Sheol was viable when the going was good, and it loosely coalesced with a theology of success which said that God would reward good people with good things in this life. Thus Abraham was deemed a godly man because he had lots of camels, and Solomon a godly king because he amassed wealth, wisdom and wives.

The problem with a ‘prosperity gospel’ like this is that it does not stand up when the going gets tough. We know bitterly that the rain falls equally on the just and unjust feller. And it is abundantly clear that the godly are not always rewarded with success or riches here on earth.

This challenge became particularly acute for Jews about 200 years before Jesus. God’s heroes, led by the Maccabee family, rebelled against religious and political oppression – but they were repaid not with camels and wives but with torture and death. The trauma of the Maccabean Revolt created a faultline in Jewish thinking, a faultline which shaped thought in Jesus’ own day about the end times – that branch of theology known as eschatology.

  • Some Jews remained loyal to the earlier belief in Sheol. These became the conservative, aristocratic group called the Sadducees. The Sadducees held sway over the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • Other Jews, however, began to think that if God did not reward people in this tormented life, maybe he had something better in store for afterwards. Following this second line of thought, the group known as the Pharisees foresaw a General Resurrection, that God would create a new and perfect world at the end of time, a place where earthly wrongs would be righted. Pharisees thus held a more optimistic eschatology than the Sadducees. Furthermore, they were not tied to the traditional liturgical round of the Jerusalem Temple. This meant that, after the Romans destroyed that Temple in 70AD, it was Pharisaism and its belief in Resurrection which became the dominant school of thought within the Jewish diaspora.

Jesus accepted Pharisaic eschatology. He talked about the General Resurrection. Naturally, his disciples adopted this position. Why wouldn’t they, having seen their Lord triumphantly raised from the dead?! The earliest Christians thus regarded Jesus’ Resurrection as the first fruits of their own redemption at the end of time. On the back of this, they were inspired by God through the Hebrew Scriptures to imagine what this Resurrection might look like. In doing this, they did not paint one picture but many. And they hung these pictures in a gallery of coruscating, open-ended vision, a gallery which we know as the book Revelation.

The first picture of heaven in Revelation is the metaphor of a wedding – Jesus as Lamb of God who marries the Church. The image is of a united family, old injuries healed and forgiven, and everyone feasting around a table in harmony together.  ‘Write this [Revelation 19.9]: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’

A second image comes two chapters later. Here the author of Revelation, John, sees a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth. The image is a political one: the gates of the city are always open because it will be an age of perpetual peace and prosperity. God’s enemies – most particularly evil and death – are no more.

Finally, in Revelation chapter 22 we are told that the new Jerusalem includes both a flowing river and a garden of flourishing fruit trees. Here is an environmental motif as the end of the Bible takes us full circle, back to Eden, humanity once more in concord with creation.

The Wedding, the City and the Garden: these are the pre-eminent Christian images of heaven. It’s not that one is right and the others wrong, because all three are concentrated into the last four chapters of the last book of the Bible. All three complement one another.

The Wedding, the City and the Garden: in line with the Pharisees’ belief in the General Resurrection, all three are concrete images, not abstract. And the upshot of this is that Christians believe in a two-stage afterlife. Two-stage, not one. When we die, our bodies are cremated or buried. Any ongoing existence at this point must be disembodied. We read in the Apocrypha that ‘the souls of the righteous rest with God’. Our tradition is divided as to whether the righteous are conscious of this state or in some sort of soul-sleep. Personally, I’m not too fussed either way – because what really matters is our end time hope for a new creation. I am not fully me without my body; you are not fully you without your body. Our hope is for Resurrection, as we affirm every time we say or sing the creed.

How this will happen is well above my pay grade! That this will happen we trust because of what we know of the God who makes and saves the world. Is it not the great theme of this holy season of Christmastide and Epiphany that God values material stuff so much that in addition to making it, he chooses to become incarnated within it in order to redeem it? As such, we see in Jesus’ miracles an anticipation of the freedom, the peace and the perfection of that to which we look. And, as such, the story of the miracle at Cana is not about showiness, profligacy, or alcoholism, but a foretaste of the greatest banquet at the end of time.