Heaven a Metaphor?|
Q. Heaven isn't a real place, is it? The "streets of gold" and other physical descriptions are all metaphors or allegories of our spiritual life. My pastor says the physical description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21&22 should not be interpreted as "real" except in a spiritual sense.
Differing Viewpoints within Christianity
Thanks for your input. Many sincere Christians think as you do. There are those in many denominations who don't accept the "new heaven and earth" as real places. Some, for example, do not see the Millennium period, or an end-times state of Israel as future occurrences that will really happen.
Much of the confusion and dispute comes from how we interpret key passages of the Bible as being either "literal" or "symbolic." The Bible is a literary work which employs literary devices. How we use those devices can help us in our interpretive method.
Allow me to explain how we use some of the literary devices in the Bible. The following are some of the most common forms of literary devices used in the Scriptures:
A "metaphor" is "a figure of speech in which a word for one idea or thing is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them" (Webster 2001, 326). An example might be God covering His beloved with "wings like an eagle."
An "allegory" is "the expression through symbolism of truths or generalizations about human experience" (Webster 2001, 14). Perhaps an example is C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia that symbolize battles between good and evil.
A "parable" is "a simple story told to illustrate a moral truth" (p. 378). Brief stories Jesus told to illustrate truths are examples of parables.
Much of the Bible is interpreted as a collection of metaphors, allegories and parables to those who embrace a Reformed kind of philosophy of biblical interpretation.
Taking the Bible Seriously
Evangelicals or fundamentalists are not necessarily believers who take all of God's Word "literally." Rather, they take the Bible and its figures of speech "seriously." If something can be interpreted as literal then they do so. If the biblical writer suggests a parable or a metaphor, then it is interpreted that way.
The Kingdom parables are a good example. They are identified as "parables" within the Bible text itself.
Superimposing Upon the Text
However, there is nothing in the Old or New Testament descriptions of New Jerusalem that suggest it should be taken as metaphors or allegories. For that reason we believe that passages concerning New Jerusalem should be taken literally. To do otherwise may be to superimpose upon the text something it doesn't really support.
Varied Forms of Literature
The Bible consists of all kinds of literary forms: historical narrative, wisdom writings, poetry, prophecy, instruction and so forth. The challenge is to discern what the original writer was conveying to his original readers. Our goal should be to interpret the Bible as the human writers (and divine author) intended, don't you think?
For example, anthropomorphic metaphors are figures of speech that describe God as having human emotions such as anger, grief or jealousy. As an illustration, God asks Hosea to put up with his harlot wife. Hosea's anguish over his wife's infidelity is an example of God's feelings of "jealousy" in regards to wayward Israel.
While the illustration is figurative the metaphor reveals a "real" point: It hurts God and causes him to feel jealousy just like Hosea feels for his wife when she engages in extra marital affairs. The metaphor expresses reality. (Penner 2004, 90).
Alcorn notes that "Scripture is full of accounts that should be taken literally, such as Noah's flood and ark, the plagues, crossing the Red Sea, and Christ being born in Bethlehem, calming the storm, healing people, multiplying loaves and fishes, being crucified, physically rising from the dead, and ascending."
Continuing, Alcorn points out that "our resurrection bodies wouldn't be called bodies if they weren't actual bodies. …Similarly, Paradise wouldn't be called "paradise" if it wasn't Edenlike, at least to a degree. (It need not be identical to Eden, of course.)
A New Earth
"Similarly, I believe the New Earth wouldn't be called the New Earth if it wasn't earthlike. Kings wouldn't be called kings and ruling wouldn't be called ruling if the meaning didn't largely correspond to those words.
Christ's Life Determines Interpretation
…"Similarly, I believe that the historical accounts of Christ's life on Earth after his resurrection should instruct us how to interpret Revelation 21-22's account of our lives on the New Earth after our resurrection. It's true that large portions of both Isaiah and Revelation contain figurative and apocalyptic depictions, some of which should not be taken literally. Yet we shouldn't make the same mistake many scholars make with Isaiah 52-53, spiritualizing these passages and entirely missing their central - and very literal - point, even in the midst of much that's figurative" (Alcorn 2004, 486).
Continuing, Alcorn notes, "Christ's words to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 contain some figurative language. But shouldn't we believe these were actually seven churches, located in the specified geographical locations? In Revelation, didn't the real apostle John witness certain real events, some past, some present, and some future, including the physical return of Christ to the earth? Revelation, like other books of Scripture, contains passages that must be interpreted according to their context."
(Alcorn 2004, Appendix A, pg. 486-487).
6 Reasons Heaven is Literal:
Mark Hitchcock lists six reasons he believes heaven is a literal place that currently exists:
1.Jesus called heaven "My Father's house" and said He was going there to prepare a "place" for His people (John 14:1-3). Heaven, according to Jesus, is a real place.
2.Heaven is described as a literal place, a city, with walls, gates, foundations, and a street in majestic, glorious, enthralling detail in Revelation 21:9-22:5. The Bible begins man's existence in a garden that was a literal place (the Garden of Eden) and ends in a city, the New Jerusalem, that is also a real place.
3.Jesus taught that heaven is the present abode or dwelling place of God (Matthew 10:32-33).
4.The apostle Paul visited the 'third heaven' where God dwells (2 Corinthians 12:2).
5.The true citizenship of every Christian is in heaven (Philippians 3:20-21). You can't have legitimate citizenship in a place that doesn't exist.
6.Heaven is called our heavenly homeland and a city (Hebrews 11:16).
(Hitchcock 2005, 125).
To be "Real" isn't Spiritual?
Some believers think that if heaven is "real" then it can't be "spiritual." They often use the reference "God is spirit" (John 4:24) to support their position.
Certainly, God is spirit and doesn't need a physical "heaven" to dwell in. But, are people like God? Can they exist in a realm that has no physical properties?
Physical Beings Occupy Space
Alcorn points out that "for us to exist as human beings, we occupy space." …"If the present, intermediate Heaven is a place where God, angels, and humans dwell, it makes sense that Heaven would be accommodated to mankind, because God needs no accommodation. We know that angels can exist in a physical world because they exist in this one, not just in Heaven. In fact, angels sometimes, perhaps often, take on human form (Hebrews 13:2) (Heaven 2003, 51).
Continuing, Alcorn believes we have all succumbed to a heresy he calls "Christoplatonism." This heresy started with Plato who thought that material things are evil while immaterial things are good. The church was introduced to this philosophy through the teachings of Philo, Clement and Origen. (Alcorn 2004, Appendix A).
Philo the Alexandrian Jew
Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who lived between 20 B.C. and 50 A.D. introduced Platonic ideas into early Christian theology. He especially liked to allegorize Scripture in contrast to many rabbis who subscribed to a literalist interpretation.
Clement and Origen, two early church fathers, continued the Alexandrian school of thought which allegorized Scripture. Origen went so far as to develop an entire system of allegorizing which equated the biblical literature to body, soul, and spirit. This system became an elitist, Gnostic form of interpretation that was considered superior to a literal approach.
Symbolic, Critical Method
This came to dominate church theology. Even today critical, symbolic methods of interpretation are admired by the intelligentsia. A literalist approach is considered lowly, materialistic or gauche, especially when it comes to developing a theology of Heaven. The result is an attitude held by many theologians that it is unfashionable to discuss or study Heaven. A quick look at many systematic theology text books shows this to be all too true. To this day we have been influenced by this form of thinking which has influenced our concepts of heaven and hell.
Furthermore, Gnosticism was one of the worst heresies in the first two centuries of church history. It elevated "dualism," a belief that matter is evil and spirit is good.
In addition to Platonism and Gnosticism, another theological concept blunts the realistic meaning of Heaven to believers. Theologians frequently speak of "accommodation," or God accommodating Himself to humans by speaking in understandable ways to his creation. This view of theology presents God as a lofty being who speaks "as if" He came down to visit mankind in the form of a human, Jesus Christ. (Alcorn 2004, 478). (Elwell, "Accommodation").
Problem of Allegorizing All
However, this view also allegorizes everything, because how do we discern between those things God meant literally versus those things he spoke in accommodating terms?
We know for a fact that Jesus really DID come in the flesh, He really did rise from the dead in a physical, tangible body, and there really is a REAL Heaven and new Earth upon which the real city of New Jerusalem resides.
Accommodation causes similar problems as early Gnosticism and Platonism - that Jesus only "appeared" to be in the flesh and Heaven only "appears" to be real.
In the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas presented a rational cold, scientific, view of an ethereal Heaven. It was Aquinas who taught that animals and plants have no reality in Heaven. No longer did concepts of Edenic Paradise offer anything to man. Men were to learn to contemplate God alone. This is a type of the Roman Catholic view of Heaven.
Gnostic/Catholic View of Heaven
From this vantage point we can see that modern churches and theologians have succumbed to a Gnostic/Roman Catholic view of Heaven. This kind of Heaven is intangible, wispy, half-there images of clouds and partly invisible ghostly-beings. This is not the physical reality of new heavens and a new earth as taught in the Bible.
Back to our Roots
However, we can now thank at least four, modern theologians for alerting us to a heresy: Anthony Hoekema, Wayne Grudem, Erwin Lutzer, and Randy Alcorn. These four individuals alerted the evangelical church to the fact that heresy has crept into its dogma. All four of the above scholars are currently teaching seminary students and lay people the following:
-God made Adam and Eve to be spiritual and physical - they were not human until they were both.
-God often took on human form in Old Testament times. He was probably in human form as he walked in Eden.
-God took on a human body, becoming a man in Christ, not just temporarily but forever.
-God raised Christ in a human body with physical properties, a body that walked, talked, ate, and could be touched. He explicitly states He was not a ghost.
-God made mankind in His image, and because humans are physical beings - though God is spirit - there must be something in our human bodies that reflects God's identity.
-God's Holy Spirit indwells human bodies and calls them his holy temples.
-God will raise people with eternal physical-spiritual bodies, and then come down to inhabit the New Heaven and Earth with them.
(Alcorn 2004, 465-466).
New Heavens and New Earth
In the New Heaven and New Earth no temple will be necessary because God and Jesus will dwell with us - not apart from us (Revelation 21:22). God will cause His Holy City, the New Jerusalem to come down to rest above the earth. This city will be the capital of Heaven and from it God will live among and rule His people.
The "new heavens and new earth" from Revelation 21:1-2 is the same real universe as "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" in Genesis 1:1. Both passages present the universe to us as tangible, physical and very "real" states in the eyes of the biblical writers. Therefore, we should take them literally, too.
Alcorn, Randy. 2004. Heaven. Wheaton, ILL: Tyndale.
Accomodation. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Second Edition. 2001. Walter A. Elwell, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Hitchcock, Mark. 2005. 55 Answers to questions about life after death. Sisters, OR: Multnomah.
Penner, Glenn M. 2004. In the shadow of the cross. Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Books.
Webster's New Dictionary of the English Language.2001. New York: Popular Publishing.
Authors: Valorie Mays Emilio holds an MA in History from UCLA focusing upon Christian origins. Ken Emilio graduated from CSULB and received his MA in Biblical Studies from Louisiana Baptist University. Both hold a V.O.M. Certificate in Persecuted Church Ministries from Oklahoma Wesleyan University.