Once in college I went to a prayer meeting put on by a small evangelical denomination in the rural South. It was the kind of denomination that has a string of adjectives before the word “Baptist” — the kind that you might expect to handle snakes or something.
This particular prayer meeting was at a church member’s home, and I was attending because the objective was to pray for a relative who had recently been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. For most of the evening, the whole thing was a sweet display of the church being the church — we were believing God, loving one another, and begging for a miracle. But then the prayer time ended, and as we looked up at one another, huddled together in this living room, we all felt the awkwardness of trying to transition into regular conversation.
Apparently, though, some felt the awkwardness more than others. Before the little conversations could begin that would subtly dismiss us, a woman, somewhat nervously, addressed the residing pastor with a question. She spoke loudly enough that it sort of required everyone to stay put and listen in. That’s when things changed.
This sister told a story about her daughter seeing an angel sitting in the top of a tree. The encounter had just happened a few days before. They were driving home from school; the little girl was staring outside the car window; the mom asked what she was looking at; the little girl said she saw an angel in a tree — which all crescendoed with the question: Pastor, why do children see angels in trees?
Do you know why? How would you have responded? The pastor wasn’t sure what to say. I certainly didn’t know the answer.
Our Real Question
Before you dismiss the whole question as backwater, let me remind you, first, that this is not an impossible scene. We are talking about angels here, not leprechauns. Angels are real, and they can, I suppose, if they want, sit in treetops.
Secondly, the real question behind the angel-in-tree question wasn’t born in the boondocks, but is actually as pop-culture as it gets — primetime television popular. It’s a topic that, if you claim to have insider knowledge, creates a surge of fascination. The real question, one that we’ve all wondered, is about how heaven relates to this earth.
If there is a heaven, what does it have to do with me here?
We all want to know, from here, what is that place like? Can we get glimpses of it? Is there more going on around us than crusty, world-enthralled adults can see? How spiritual is everyday reality?
We all have our angel-in-the-tree questions, all of them proxies for the deeper pondering of our hearts. If there is a heaven, what does it have to do with me here?
Yes, Heaven Matters
Let’s get two things clear. Heaven is real, and it’s as relevant to people now as ever. In fact, we might say that it’s actually more relevant now. We’re all looking for a heaven somewhere, and perhaps we’re looking harder today than at any other time.
The very fact that we humans have an incredible capacity for joy, and a simultaneous passion to lasso it, beckons us to dig deep for what it all means. We all want to be happy, but we’re not all sure why? As C.S. Lewis would tell us, which I think bears out after serious investigation, it’s because we were made for another world. We were made for a better world, and we would like to get back there.
But there’s more to our hunt for heaven. We’re all looking for it, but we’ve been told over and over again it’s a myth. The sociological description of this is secularism. It’s that recent phenomenon, according to philosopher Charles Taylor, when Western thought decided to lop off the idea of transcendence in our popular consciousness. We have this carnivorous craving for depth, for meaning, but we’re told that we’d better find it in the things around us or nowhere at all. As one artist captures it, We are, we are, we are gonna live tonight, like there’s no tomorrow, ‘cause we’re the afterlife. Tragically, this just leaves us to climb the highest mountains, to run through some fields, to throw ourselves headfirst into everything this world has to offer, and still, we haven’t found what we’re looking for.
We might not call it heaven, but that’s what we want. To be sure, we’re a refined people. We’ve got a modern culture here, full of philharmonic orchestras and wearable technology. But when it gets down to the gut of things, we are as primitive as that tribe in the Amazon who talks to the stars at night. Heaven matters to us — always has, always will.
What Is Heaven?
So heaven is real, and heaven is relevant, but before we know what it has to do with us, we should have a better idea of what it actually is.
Sunday School simplicities may have misled us. We don’t actually “go to heaven” bodily — because heaven isn’t like our typical “place” you can go. No spaceship can take you there. Perhaps heaven is better understood as a dimension of reality. The Hebrew imagery of heaven as the sky is a beautiful illustration of something we hardly have categories to describe, and it is just that: imagery.
“God is in the heavens” (Psalm 115:3) doesn’t literally mean that God is in the sky bodily. That is how we try to wrap our words around the fact that God is real and involved, but not here visibly. He is out there, or up there, and by that, we mean that he resides in a dimension of reality outside our own, or something like that.
So much of this has to do with how we conceive of space and time. Theoretical physicists say that there are at least ten dimensions in the universe, possibly eleven. We can perceive three. And the way all these dimensions relate to one another isn’t so much in miles and distance, but in space-time overlap.
We can see a clue of this in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–8). Recall how it works. Jesus doesn’t take Peter, James, and John to a faraway galaxy light years out of sight. They just walk up on a mountain, and here on this earth, Moses and Elijah stepped in to talk to Jesus in his glorified form. For that moment, the curtain was pulled back, as it were, and the heavenly dimension that overlaps with our reality was seen.
Jesus is the one who makes “heaven” heaven.
As Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow contend, some of us may need to flip around the way we have conceived of heaven. Rather than think that heaven is the “place” — like all our places — where God stays, we should think of it this way: Wherever the risen Christ is, that is heaven. That is why John’s vision in Revelation has heaven coming here, heralded as, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:1–3). Jesus is now the one who makes “heaven” heaven. He is the one who makes it good and beautiful and desirable. He is the one we want.
Heaven Came Down
So then how does heaven relate to this earth? How does that dimension of reality in which God dwells impact our dimension of reality here? That is the question. That is what we are looking for when we see angels in trees.
Jesus is the answer, first. And then, Christian, you are the answer.
When the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14), God climatically stepped foot into our dimension of reality. He humbled himself to a body like ours and to the little three dimensions we call normal. God, in the person of Jesus, came into our world, and when he rose from the dead, he sparked the beginning of the day when our world will become his own. That resurrection morning dawned the new creation light that will overcome everything as we know. If heaven and earth overlap as dimensions, on that day, heaven reached its hand into our world and puts its foot in the door. Heaven came then, and eventually it’ll be clear — as clear as a big tree in a garden with birds on its branches (Matthew 13:32).
In the meantime, there is you and me.
There Is Here
After his resurrection, Jesus ascended and took his seat on the heavenly throne. Right now, those who are united to Jesus by faith are spiritually raised and seated with him (Ephesians 2:6). Spiritually speaking, because of our union with Jesus, we inhabit the dimension of reality in which he reigns. We are, in that sense, in heaven with him. And at the same time, we are here. We are breathing the air of this world, listening to the music of this culture, eating the food of this place. So he has sent us his Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is for the church Jesus’s own empowering presence. In a very real sense, we are there with him in heaven, and in a very real sense, he is here with us on earth.
We are physically here, and spiritually — in terms of our true destiny — there. Jesus is physically there, and presently — by his Spirit — here. There is an overlap of heaven and earth in terms of dimensions and history, and Christians are called to live right in the tension.
Until God’s new creation overwhelms this old one, the way that heaven touches this world is through his people.
We are “ambassadors for Christ” — his new-creation representatives in this old-creation world (2 Corinthians 5:20). And when we pray the way he taught us, that God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:9–10), we know that it must first happen in our own lives — and then through our own lives.
And it’s not as spectacular as we might think.
While so many are looking for that rare moment, for that bedazzling glimpse of the other world, the truth is that the other world, in part, is already here. The real miracle isn’t angels in the tops of trees — it’s the miracle of new life at work in us. Until the reality of God’s new creation overwhelms this old one, the way that heaven touches this world now is through his people — by his Spirit, through his people . . . people like you and me.