The idea I often hear from Christians is that when we enter the Kingdom of God or heaven or whatever we want to call it, we suddenly become perfect. I think a lot of that stems from the Greek ideas that have become a part of Christianity. A lot of people have unknowingly accepted the Greek dualism exhibited in Neo-Platonism that separates reality into two camps: the material and the spiritual. Based on this assumption, most people seem to think that we have this good, pure, eternal soul that is trapped in a corrupt, evil (or at least prone to evil), carnal body. When we die, our perfect and good soul is liberated from our imperfect and corrupt prisons and we are forever perfect.
But this idea denies the idea of resurrection, which says that a person is dead, and then the person comes back to life – not as an eternal and pure soul, but as the person who died. Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages, as expressed in Dante’s Divine Comedy, attempted to reconcile the matter by claiming both: when we die, our pure, eternal soul is free from corruption, and at some point in the future, it will be deposited in a new body.
The Hebrew view was not that there is a soul and body that are two distinct things, one pure, the other corrupt. The Hebrew view was that the body and the spirit are mixed together and intertwined in such a way that you cannot have one without the other – the body needs the spirit and the spirit needs the body. So at death, the spirit leaves the body; the body dies and the spirit returns to God. Even if the spirit continues on as a distinct entity and is not simply absorbed into God, the spirit has no mind.
The Greek word for soul is psyche, our word for mind. The mind is the soul. The mind is where the spirit and the body meet. We are more than the sum of our parts, and the more is the mind.
The idea of us just standing around forever, even if it is in worship, misses the point that God is love, and love does things – love is an action. There may be a time to stand around an worship, but love is more than that. So the idea that reality and society and people are all suddenly perfect would mean that we no longer have to love because there would be no work to be done that gives love life through action. So we may find that people are people in heaven, just as they are here – the difference is that their primary motivation is love instead of self.
I think of that old story about the man who visited hell and heaven.
The man arrived in hell and saw that hell was a beautiful banquet. He saw table after table of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As the man approached, he saw the problem: Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke his heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.
Then he went to heaven. He was surprised to discover that exact same setting that was in hell was in heaven too. Again he saw table after table piled with food. In heaven, however, the people were sitting contentedly talking with each other, well-fed and happy. The man was also surprised to discover that the people in heaven had their arms splinted on wooden slats just as the people in hell did, preventing them from bending his elbows.
The man wondered how it was that the people in hell were miserable and starving, while the people in heaven were happy and well-fed when both heaven and hell were essentially the same? Then he watched a man pick up his spoon, dig it into the dish before him, and stretch across the table, feeding the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.
The man suddenly realized that the only difference between heaven and hell was how the people therein treated each other – they were exactly the same, offering the same food, the same conditions, and the same challenge. Yet in hell, they starved trying to feed themselves, while in heaven they were sated because they fed each other.
The man realized that he could end the suffering in hell. He rushed back to hell to share the solution to their problem with the people there. He whispered in the ear of one starving man: “You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you.”
“You want me to feed that detestable person sitting across from me?” the man responded insulted, “I would rather starve!”
Granted this is merely a parable or an allegory and cannot be taken as an accurate description of any literal heaven or hell, but it does make a point that many people seen to miss. That point is that if heaven is “The Kingdom OF GOD,” then heaven is “The Kingdom of Love!” Love does not exist in some static form, but is an action – there is a “doing” that accompanies love. Even if I am in love with a person and have yet to “DO” anything that is often associated with being in love, I am in the process of re-orienting my thoughts and life around that person for whom I hope to spend a lifetime “Doing” things.
So instead of thinking of heaven as this perfect place where perfect people live side by side with God who is visible, perhaps it is more accurate to think of heaven as a place where people who continue to be imperfect, and who still have needs, become perfected over time by enacting love toward each other. Perhaps God stays just as invisible in heaven as God seems to be now, being made visible not in a physical form, but through acts of love. Perhaps the hands that wipe away every tear in heaven is the hand of another person, not the literal hand of God, but the love of God acting through us. I think that when we are in heaven, or the Kingdom, or wherever and whatever we call it, I think we will find that we are pretty much the same as we are here. The difference is that in heaven our perception or our priorities change.
So, I think that we may find that heaven is a lot like earth. Why would God create earth and have us be here if it were not going to be like heaven. Besides, the idea is that heaven and earth eventually become the same place. What made Eden stop being a paradise we could get back to was that we became selfish. In heaven we put each other above ourselves — and because we all look out for each other, everyone is taken care of.
In heaven our focus is “What can I do to help” instead of the focus of hell which is “What’s in it for me?”