The other day a woman asked me, "What do you know about heaven?" Without pausing to think, I said, "Not much. I've never been there."
I wasn't trying to be amusing or rude. I would have given almost the same answer if someone had asked me to tell them about hell.
Then she said, "But what does the Bible say? And, what about the book by ... ?"
There are some people writing books about heaven who claim to know more than I think they can know. I have even less confidence in people who claim to have been there - briefly - as they fluctuated between life and death.
I'm not saying that no one has ever been granted a visionary glimpse, but I'm not sure the people selling books on heaven really saw it. Their descriptions seem quite molded by preconceived ideas that were taught them prior to their experience. There also seems to be a literal, if not simplistic, adherence to certain ways of reading the Bible.
The problem with taking cues from Revelation 21, for example, is that Revelation is primarily a message presented in symbols. There are many descriptions provided in the last book of the Bible, but they are ancient Jewish apocalyptic descriptions.
What does that mean? The images of places and scenes of activity are generally not literal descriptions, they are descriptions of symbols.
So much of what the New Testament writers said about heaven, and what Jesus said about "gehenna" (the word we translate as "hell"), was said in order to communicate truth through a symbolic description rather than a literal one. Symbols point to real things, realities that cannot be easily described, and communicate more than a thousand words could ever do.
For example, the crystal sea as smooth as glass: a symbol for peace, the lack of violence and turbulence. Yet that doesn't necessarily eliminate the joy of windsurfing, for there may be adventures too. We are told we will serve God, and that means activity.
The biblical writers affirm that heaven is God's sphere, a created dimension where God's glory is manifested. Glorious things await us there that we cannot see in our life on earth. Yes, I believe what the New Testament affirms. I just don't think I have a literal description of heaven every time heaven is mentioned in the Bible.
But if you do, I won't argue the point. I don't think I need to convince you otherwise. No one's salvation depends on it.
The New Testament also gives the hope that one day God will make heaven and earth intersect each other completely. God will remake this world. That is when God's holy purpose "will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The risen Jesus will be at the center of it all.
These are truths we can affirm. And more, we can imagine the world that is to come. We can anticipate it and hope for it. We can anticipate the day we meet Jesus.
Thinking about it often helps people to care for this world, too. Mother Theresa thought so much about God that she served the poor all her days and treated them with dignity. William Wilberforce focused so much on God that he worked ceaselessly to end slavery in the British Empire. Go ahead and dream about heaven - it may change your life on earth.
But the woman I spoke with had another question. She lost two sons, who died young, and she thinks about them constantly. "Will I know them in heaven? Will they know me?"
"Yes, I think you will know each other," I answered.
On what grounds could I say that? Because Jesus is our example of what awaits us at the Resurrection. There was continuity as well as discontinuity: his new body had remarkable life and power; yet he could be identified as the same man who died on the cross. Only in select cases were his disciples supernaturally prevented from recognizing him, until he had prepared them for that shock.
Secondly, when God raises the dead, God will resurrect the whole human being. In God's plan, body and soul belong together. In the Resurrection, body and soul will be made new. And the whole person includes our identity.
Yes, I think we will know others there, though our greatest focus will be on the crucified and risen Jesus, who made it all possible for us to inherit this eternal gift.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 628 Lincoln St. You may contact him by calling 509-525-6872 Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.