(Also posted on my Facebook Page)
According to the Bible, Heaven is the abode of God, Earth is the abode of humans…and never the twain shall meet.
All references to humans coming from Heaven imply that they have been divinely appointed as messengers or agents, nothing more. When Jesus used phrases such as “came down from heaven” or “the Father has sent me”, he was asserting his authority as an agent to teach in God’s name. (As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the New Testament teaches that Jesus was born just like all other humans, just like us. Doctrines which claim otherwise are later fabrications of the Hellenist-Latin Church Fathers.)
The promise of an otherworldly Heaven for humans is based on the non-biblical belief in immortal souls. So completely has this belief overtaken mainstream Christian doctrine and practice that a critical New Testament teaching has been buried under pile upon pile of theological rubbish.
And what is this teaching? That Jesus is the new High Priest of Israel. This is the rock on which the hopes of many millions will be dashed. Time to take a closer look.
The God of Israel was believed to reign through an opening in the sky directly above the Jerusalem Temple’s inner sanctuary known as the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was separated from the outer sanctuary by a veil which represented the boundary between Heaven and Earth. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the old High Priest passed through this veil surrounded by clouds of incense and symbolically entered Heaven, there to offer up the innocent blood of unblemished animals to make a corporate atonement for his own sins and those of all the people. The spirit of the “glory of God” was believed to dwell inside the Holy of Holies so when the old High Priest passed back through the veil, again surrounded by clouds of incense, he symbolically returned from Heaven to Earth reflecting God’s own glory.
Passages analogous to Jesus’ role as the new High Priest are scattered throughout the New Testament e.g. ascending to Heaven in a cloud, just as the old High Priest did when entering the Holy of Holies; coming in the “glory of his Father” just as the old High Priest came in the glory of God on his return from Heaven. Concepts such as Jesus “sitting at the right hand of God” are images denoting the perceived superior authority of Jesus. In Matthew 26:64, Jesus claims to be the new High Priest which is why Caiaphas, the current High Priest, reacted the way he did.
Most importantly, ignoring all the symbols and images and continuing to hope for Jesus to come “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” in a literal sense is perhaps the most pointless exercise in false hopes ever devised.
It is a remarkable oddity that we, supposedly modern, humans who use a wide range of figurative language every day to communicate with others cannot seem to understand that the authors who composed the books of the Bible were equally at home with such types of expression, in some cases much more so.
If Jesus were to reappear today, it would be as a man of flesh and blood, just as he was then, conceived and born like the rest of us, just as he was then.
So, when the Bible speaks of a “Heaven” for humans, what is it? The simple answer is citizenship in the Kingdom of God on Earth, imagined as a re-establishment of Eden, this time with access to the “tree of life”, symbolically speaking of course.
During the Second Temple period, the commandment against taking the name of YHWH in vain was so strictly interpreted that pious substitutions were used to avoid unintentionally pronouncing the sacred name. Given that there is ample evidence for an original Hebrew Matthew, and given the fact that the Gospel is totally focused on Israelite norms, it is not surprising to find the author substituting the term Kingdom of Heaven for the term Kingdom of God found in the remainder of the New Testament.
Despite the fact that these terms are fully interchangeable, a degree of confusion persists with some equating Matthew’s Kingdom of Heaven with the otherworldly Heaven taught by Christian theology. This confusion can be dispelled by teachers informing their followers that Matthew’s substitution of “Heaven” for “God” is simply a reflection of Israelite piety norms. That is, of course, if they are not so wedded to their teachings about Heaven that they would prefer not to draw attention to this uncomfortable truth.