Imagine There’s No Heaven? The Only Way is UP!

Our trouble is that if we only exist in the horizontal plane we are not looking UP to the only One who can pronounce what is virtuous, good and true.

We are living in desperately sad, bad and mad times.  We are witnessing a breakdown in human relationships, in trust, loyalty, truth and cohesion, at every level.  Why is this?  Because we have lost the awareness of the ‘up’ – that there is a God who is above us, who is greater than us, who is more powerful than us, who determines what is right, good and true; who is to be rightly regarded, obeyed, feared, and worshipped.

 

A mirror reflects left-to-right, but it doesn’t reflect top-to-bottom.  Have you ever noticed this?  Your reflection looks just like you, but your left eye is reflected by your reflection’s right eye.  Why doesn’t a mirror also reflect top-to-bottom?

You might say this is very simple, because we have a left eye and a right eye, but not a ‘top’ eye and a ‘bottom’ eye.  So try this experiment: draw four dots on a piece of paper in the shape of a diamond: a top and bottom dot, a left and right dot.  Hold the paper up to the mirror and notice what you see.  The left dot is reflected into a right dot, but the top and bottom dot are still, stubbornly, top and bottom.

If you’re interested, read on, but I won’t give the answer until right at the end!

For a couple of Sunday mornings at Grove Chapel we have been looking at the very first verse in the Bible, Genesis 1:1 – ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’.  Right at the beginning, the Creator God draws a distinction between the two realms of his creation – heaven and earth.  This distinction is then underlined in Psalm 115:16 – ‘The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.’

Heaven and earth are different.  To put it as basically as we possibly can, heaven is ‘up’ and earth is ‘down’.  Or a bit more precisely, heaven is everything ‘above us’ while the earth is everything ‘around us’.  The fact of gravity makes ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ very different as far as our own human activity is concerned.  I can walk forwards and backwards, left and right, just as far as I want.  But I cannot fly vertically upwards into the sky.  I can only travel upwards using steps, or by climbing a hill or mountain, or using some kind of flying machine.

Before aircraft were invented, it would be completely true that the only things that people saw when they looked up were the things that God had made; there would be nothing man-made there at all.  To look up was to see only God’s creation; to look around was to see both God’s creation and man’s creation.  The Bible is written with this worldview in mind.  The heavens are God’s domain, to which human beings cannot ascend.

The Bible talks about ‘the heavens’ – plural – and the cosmology of the Bible is that there are three ‘heavens’ in God’s creation.

The first heaven is what we would call the atmosphere.  It is the ‘heaven’ in which ‘the birds of heaven’ fly; it is also the ‘heaven’ that contains the clouds, the rain, the snow, the hail, the wind – everything that we would call ‘weather’ (Exodus 9:22-23).

Then the second heaven is what we would call outer space.  It is where the sun, moon and stars move in their courses above; these are the ‘heavens’ which ‘declare the glory of God’ in Psalm 19.

But then there is ‘the third heaven’ – and the apostle Paul refers to it in this way in 2 Corinthians 12:2. What is this third heaven?  It is a realm which is invisible to us, beyond our physical detection; and it is the dwelling-place of God himself and the created angels who wait on him.  This third heaven is sometimes called ‘the highest heaven’, for example by Solomon when he prays in the temple (1 Kings 8:27).

So when we lift our eyes heavenwards, we may see the birds, the clouds, the sky, the sun, moon and stars; but we are also looking up towards the dwelling-place of God himself.  To look up to heaven in this way is to humble ourselves and remind ourselves of the greatness, the transcendence and the glory of God himself.  There is a heavenly realm, where God and his angels are, which extends beyond our human observation and measurement, and which should cause us to pause, ponder and ultimately to worship.

John Lennon’s Imagine has attained an anthem-like status in the last forty years or so:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

It is the anthem of a postmodern, western world that has given up on heaven, on God, on any realm that is above us, greater than us.  Most people around us live as if there were no heaven, no God.  There is just this world and this one life. There are just people; there is no God.

How does this worldview influence people’s attitudes today?  There are many answers that could be given, but one obvious feature of present society is the tribalism of identity politics and the rejection of the unity and dignity of the whole human race.

Identity politics is what happens when you or I define ourselves according to the group we belong to.  My identity is based on my colour, my ethnicity, my beliefs, my gender, my sexual preferences, my political sympathies, and a host of other factors.  I am pulled, by a kind of horizontal gravitational force, towards my own ‘tribe’ and away from other ‘tribes’.  These tribes become clusters – large or small – which tend to become alienated from other clusters.

What happens next?  The largest, most vociferous clusters will exert the strongest force – both in terms of attraction and repulsion.  The situation becomes one of raw Darwinism: the survival and the supremacy of the fittest, biggest and loudest.  The ‘Utopia’ that might be envisioned in a song like Imagine cannot be maintained.  There can be no ‘brotherhood of man’, as Lennon sang, because the tribalism of identity politics is fundamentally a destructive and disintegrating force.

Lennon was wrong, and perhaps Yazz – of Yazz and the Plastic Population (1988) – was onto something when she sang The Only Way Is Up.  I’m not sure she was thinking at all philosophically or spiritually, but here is one of the great fundamental principles that we need to recover if we are to have a Biblical and Christian world-view: we need to rediscover the meaning of UP.

We are living in desperately sad, bad and mad times.  We are witnessing a breakdown in human relationships, in trust, loyalty, truth and cohesion, at every level.  Why is this?  Because we have lost the awareness of the ‘up’ – that there is a God who is above us, who is greater than us, who is more powerful than us, who determines what is right, good and true; who is to be rightly regarded, obeyed, feared, and worshipped.

We have become used to different tribes ‘virtue-signalling.’  They believe that their ideals are right, and they will act to defend them vigorously.  But in the absence of an ultimate, absolute sense of right – of what is ‘up’ rather than merely ‘across’, one way or the other, how can there be a moral consensus as to what ‘virtue’ is?  My virtue is your vice, and – pun unintended – vice versa, because you are facing in a different direction to me.  And next year, your virtue might morph, in your own estimation, into a vice.

But the trouble is that if we only exist in the horizontal plane we are not looking UP, to the only One who can unfailingly pronounce on what really is virtuous, good and true.

God chose to create the human race; the human race did not exist for a time and then concoct an idea about God.  This may sound like a statement of the obvious, but it needs to be said urgently.  The vertical has priority over the horizontal.

So why does a mirror reflect left-to-right, but not top-to-bottom?  Have you worked it out?  The answer is that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are defined relative to us, as creatures.  I have my own ‘left’ and my own ‘right’, and they are always ‘left’ and ‘right’ to me, but they are not absolutes; to someone facing in the opposite direction they swap over and become ‘right’ and ‘left’.

‘Up’ and ‘down’, by contrast, are absolutes.  They are not determined by the way that you or I might be facing – they are always the same.  I have ‘my left’ and ‘my right’; but I do not have ‘my up’ and ‘my down’ – these dimensions belong to God and are defined by his unchanging character, not by the whims and fads of passing generations.

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes
the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether
. (Psalm 19:7-9)

Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London, UK. This article is used with permission.