Who Art in Heaven
Heaven is not a place, and yet it is a “place.” It appears in the first sentence of Scripture: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. But Genesis, famously, goes on to give its attention to the earth—leaving heaven, as it were, hanging. It makes an appearance on the second “day,” when God stretches the firmament (which seems to be a sort of transparent but firm dome) to separate the waters underneath it from waters above it and calls the firmament heaven. This firmament ultimately allows there to be an open space which birds can fly in and fill, on the fifth “day,” and it is a place for the lights to dwell—the sun, moon, and stars, made on the fourth “day.” But the attention of the chapter is clearly on the earth, on the things God has created and their orders and places. And it is not entirely clear that the firmament as “heaven” is the same as the “heaven” named in the first verse.
However we take the details, it is clear that heaven is not a place where creatures can go. All creatures are either on the land or in the seas or in the air in the space below the firmament. The stars are in the heaven, and they of course are created, but they are never above, as it were, the firmament, which seems to be like a floor of heaven. Is there a “space” above the firmament, a “space” that we might call “heaven” (in the sense of Gen. 1:1)? If so, to repeat, it would be no space for creatures. What then would it be? To my mind, the best answer is to say that heaven is a “place” for God.
Why does God need a place?
Well, he seems to have wanted one. But that is to ask, what do we mean when address God, in the prayer that Jesus taught us, as one who is “in heaven”?
The big point of Genesis 1 is that there is nothing divine except God; everything else is created by him; he alone is no creature. If “heaven” is a “place” for God and not for creatures, it can have no physical coordinates. Heaven touches the created realm, N. T. Wright suggests, “tangentially,” meaning that it is adjacent to every space in the universe without itself being a place.
It seems that heaven is a “space” that God creates in order to be near his creation. It’s as if Genesis 1:1 wants to say, “In the beginning God created everything, and he also created a way that he could be available to everything. He created the earth (the physical world, the place where creatures live) and he created heaven (a ‘place’ in which he could dwell).”
When we pray to God as one who is “in heaven,” we acknowledge that in any moment of our lives, wherever we might be, God is right there. He is available. He can be spoken to; we can ask him for things; we can turn our hearts to him.
God is not a thing in the world. We don’t count him along with other things. At church last Sunday, you didn’t add an extra to the attendance number on account of God being there (or if you did, you shouldn’t have!). When my son was visiting me, there were two people in my apartment, not three. Things we count are creatures. God is not a creature.
But this means something deeply mysterious about God. He is neither in the universe, nor is he outside it. There is no space in the universe that he occupies, but he is also not in some “exterior” space. And that means he is not far away. God is closer to you than anything else could be. He is closer than your next heartbeat.
God is not in my apartment, but he is not outside my apartment either. He is in heaven, which means he is available to me or anyone who is in my apartment.
It’s fantastic and awesome to realize this, and to pray it. The things of this world have been so made that, wherever we are, whatever is happening, God is neither near nor far. He is not next door, not under the bed, not down the street, not on the other side of the ocean, not somewhere in outer space. He is in heaven, and that means he is at hand. Available.
Out & About. This Sunday, March 31, I am to preach at Incarnation’s traditional services, which are at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.
The following Sunday, April 7, I will lead a “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This short novel was allowed to be published during the Soviet period, despite its depiction of the harsh cruelties (natural and manmade) of imprisonment in what came to be known as the Gulag. Nonetheless, it is a deeply hopeful book. If you read it, you are welcome to join the conversation, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.