If you ever find yourself in the middle of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome, don't forget to look up. What you will see, along with many other depictions of biblical grandeur, is the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. On the left side of the fresco is Adam, lying on the ground, just about ready to come to life. On the right is God, rushing toward Adam with a divine purpose, surrounded by angels. And at the very center of the picture is a small empty space--the space between man and God, between heaven and earth.
I think it’s safe to say that most people today don’t think the space between heaven and earth is small. Most people think that heaven is a long way away. And that's not just because we don't like to think about our own mortality. It's also because we have been conditioned to think that heaven is a far off place, way out there somewhere, divorced from the earth. This is actually just good old-fashioned Gnosticism creeping back into our thinking as it always does. It's the idea from an ancient heresy, influenced by Greek philosophy, that heavenly spiritual things are good, while earthly physical things are bad. It's a false dichotomy that is antithetical to the Bible and historic Christianity.
The Bible teaches that the natural state of things in this physical world is good. "God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Something went terribly wrong on the earth, of course, due to Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, but it is still God's good world, and we are still part of his good creation.
Maybe heaven is not as far off as we seem to think.
In one sense heaven is just another realm or sphere of reality. When Enoch "walked with God" in Genesis 5, he didn't have to go very far to be in God's eternal presence. He just entered a different dimension. The same goes for Elijah when his time was up, and he was taken up by a chariot of fire into heaven. He didn't have to fly way past Jupiter to the edge of our solar system in order to get to heaven. He was simply taken into God's presence by way of a holy whirlwind. Similarly, when Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after his resurrection, he didn’t shoot like a rocket on his way to the moon. He simply disappeared from view into the cloud of God’s presence.
It's really not distance that is the issue here - it is dimension.
It seems like this idea would be fairly easy for people to grasp these days, with all the talk about the multiverse, alternate realities, and the multiple dimensions that show up in Marvel movies. If actual scientists are seriously considering the possibility of a multiverse, why not investigate the claims of the Bible and the possibility of an alternate spiritual reality?
In the Christian worldview, heaven is right around the corner. When we pray to God, we aren't shooting random thoughts out into the stratosphere, hoping that the universe will hear us somehow. We are praying to our Heavenly Father who loves us, cares about us, and is willing and able to help us in our time of need. When we read the Bible or hear it spoken, it’s not just the dry words of a dead language from a 2000 year old book. It is nothing less than the living and active Word of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer - the lover of our soul who's as close to us as our next breath.
The ultimate expression of this for Christians is when we go to the altar to receive the Lord's Supper together. What happens there is nothing less than amazing, as we receive the holy communion of Christ's body and blood, given and shed for our forgiveness and salvation. Space and time fall away for a few brief moments. Heaven and earth come together in a wonderful and mystical way as we commune together with our Lord, with one another, and with all the saints who have gone before us in every time and place. It is the closest we can come in this life to “heaven on earth”, until the day when Jesus returns and brings heaven with him, as the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, descends from on high in the new creation.
Heaven may seem like a long way off right now, but it is as close to you as a gentle word spoken, a splash of water, a bit of bread, and a sip of wine. It may not look like much, but it is indeed the eternal mystery of God’s ultimate reality revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ, for you. Heaven opens up to you when you hear the pastor's words as from Christ Himself, "I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen."
If you ever make it to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, don’t forget to look up. But in the meantime, remember to look around you to see what God is doing in your very midst. You may be in for a big surprise when you realize that heaven is not as far away as you think.
"Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28:17).