In 1869, The Scientific American ran a short (and sardonic) piece on Dr. D. Mortimer, a medical doctor who believed he had found the location of heaven. His suggestion, if I understand it correctly, was a fascinating one. According to Dr. Mortimer, heaven lay within the sun as a vast globe, “at least 500,000 miles in diameter.”
Apparently, Dr. Mortimer believed that the blessed occupants of heaven were either shielded from its heat or transformed physiologically (an idea based on the Apostle Paul’s writings) so they might flourish there. This location also offers the added convenience of close proximity to a large “lake of fire” for those who are not blessed.
Dr. Mortimer was not the first person who located heaven somewhere in space. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) wrote that a heavenly body known as Kolob was “nearest unto the throne of God” in the celestial heaven. Whatever Joseph Smith meant by that, he seemed to suggest there is a heavenly realm in outer space. Others have located heaven in the star cluster Pleiades.
People who look for heaven in outer space appeal to language used in the Bible. God, for example, “looks down from heaven.” The psalmist lifts up his eyes to God whose throne is in heaven. Jesus described himself as the one who “comes from above” and, in the ascension, was famously “taken up before their very eyes.” His followers stood dumbfounded, “looking into the sky.”
Locating God’s place in the skies can, however, lead to childish and uninviting depictions of heaven. For example, in a children’s book on death, Maria Shriver wrote: “[Heaven’s] a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there. At night you can sit next to the stars…”
Ms. Shriver’s heart is in the right place but I don’t think her heaven is. The heaven she describes is not the stuff of Sunday morning scripture readings but of Saturday morning cartoons, where Elmer Fudd get’s blown up and finds himself on a cloud in a fluffy heaven. It is Looney Toons theology. Has there ever been a real boy or girl who would care to spend an hour in such a boring place?
But locating heaven within a cluster of stars has other problems. For one, the New Testament routinely refers to the skies above with the singular “heaven” but uses the plural “heavens” to refer to God’s place, thus acknowledging a distinction. For another, if Jesus was literally “taken up” in the ascension outside Jerusalem, would he not have been literally “taken down” in relation to the other side of the world – say, Honolulu, Hawaii?
The distinguished New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright has written that “heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation.”
According to Wright, this means that “heaven relates to earth tangentially…one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth.” This means that heaven is earth’s “control room,” the “CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given.”
Jesus’s ascension, then, was not a “vertical take-off” but an assumption of his office as earth’s rightful ruler. This means he is “available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth” – a temple or church building – “to find him.” This explains why Jesus could say, prior to the ascension, “Look, I am with you always.”
Knowing this makes prayer easier. If God is light years away, we’d better pray loudly. But prayer is another thing entirely if he is “available, accessible.” The philosopher Dallas Willard says that the “first heaven, in biblical terms, is precisely the atmosphere or air that surrounds your body.” He suggests that God relates to space as we do to our bodies, which means he is as close to any point in space – which includes us – as we are to our fingers or head.
All this suggests that the answer to the question, “Where is heaven?” is: closer than you think.
First published in Gatehouse Media