If Heaven Exists, Why Can't We See It? | Three Things Feature
An exclusive excerpt from James Paul's 'What on Earth is Heaven?'
|Phillip Johnston & Andy Patton||Apr 19|
Our friend Jim Paul has been telling people about heaven for years. Listeners frequently approach him after a talk to ask, "Is there anywhere I can read this in a book?"
Today, the answer is yes! It's the American publication day of Jim's book What on Earth is Heaven?and we have an exclusive excerpt just for you.
What on Earth is Heaven? is available from The Rabbit Room (cheaper than Amazon!), from Inter-Varsity Press, and from your local purveyor of quality books. You can also listen to Jim chat about the book with Andrew Peterson and Mary McCampbell.
You might notice things looking a bit different today. We’re in the process of migrating Three Things to Substack. Same newsletter, new look. We’ll have a fresh issue for you soon.
Phillip & Andy
I looked and looked and looked, but I didn’t see God. (Yuri Gagarin, Russian cosmonaut)
A colleague told me about a song she used to sing in Sunday school called the ‘Blast Off Song’. Some of the lyrics went like this:
Somewhere in outer space, God has prepared a place,
For those who trust him and obey . . .
10, 9, 8 and 7, 6 and 5 and 4, call upon the Saviour while you may,
3 and 2, coming through the clouds in bright array,
The countdown’s getting closer every day . . .
Soon will the trumpet sound, and we will rise off the ground
With Christ forever we will be.
I came across a poster that commemorated the first flight into outer space by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961. It shows a smiling Gagarin looking around as he floats amongst the stars. Below are the roofs of churches and a mosque, and the caption ‘Boga Nyet!’, which translates, ‘There is no God!’ The poster was a piece of Soviet propaganda designed by an atheist state to demonstrate the final triumph of reason over religion; Gagarin had been to the heavens and found no God. Since that first space flight we have been able to describe more and more of the universe in terms of its material substances, from the smallest subatomic particles, to the largest black holes of far-flung galaxies. Yet no NASA space Voyager mission or radio telescope has ever found the place that ‘God has prepared’ in outer space that my colleague sang about in her Sunday school. If heaven really exists, why can’t we see it?
Science versus faith
One answer that people sometimes give is that science can’t find heaven because heaven is a matter of ‘faith’ not reason. They say that science tells us about the material things of nature, but that faith tells us about the ‘spiritual’ things of the supernatural world. Attractive as this answer might be, I can’t agree with it because it creates a similar split in reality to the dualism we encountered in the last chapter. It makes science and faith into separate categories that have no contact with one another; science tells us provable facts about the real world, whereas faith becomes hopeful wish-fulfilment about spiritual things for which we have no evidence. The Bible itself, however, does not ask us to divorce Christian faith from reason. The apostle Peter encourages his readers to ‘be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15), and when Paul told his fellow Jews about Jesus, he ‘reasoned’ with them, ‘trying to persuade’ them of the truth of the gospel, rather than telling them to blindly believe (Acts 17:2; 18:4). Jesus told parables to get people to engage their minds with spiritual truth and used rational arguments to make his points (Mark 3:23–27).
As a trained doctor I respect science immensely. I have seen first-hand the power that science has given us to understand the workings of the body and to treat human disease. But it is often forgotten that modern science has its origins in Christian belief. It is the biblical understanding of God as a God of order, who created an ordered world, that first led early scientists to expect to find comprehendible physical laws that govern the natural world. For instance, the seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle, was able to discover the inverse relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas by using a philosophy of experimentation which was directly derived from his Christian conviction that ‘God would not have made the universe as it is, unless he intended us to understand it’.
Far from asking us to switch off our thinking, the Christian faith encourages us to engage our minds with all aspects of our lives, including ‘spiritual’ things and the things of our faith. I am not a Christian because I just unquestioningly believe, but because I have found that the Bible gives a description of reality that is more true, more consistent and more liveable than any other philosophy or religion that I have ever encountered. It was reasoned argument that led me to faith, and the same is true for many eminent scientists, such as Francis Collins, lead scientist on the Human Genome Project. So let’s engage our thinking with what the Bible says about the structure of the reality that God has created.
Visible and invisible realities
The Bible itself does not divide the universe into a dualism between material nature and non-material spirit. Many people assume that it does, because the Bible says that there are ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ parts to reality. For example, the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians that God made all things, ‘things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible’ (Colossians 1:16), and in another letter that God is ‘the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God’ (1 Timothy 1:17). It might seem at first that the Bible is affirming the Neoplatonic split between matter and spirit. But if you think about it more deeply, ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ are not just other words for ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’. Rather, what they are telling us is that there are ‘visible’ parts of reality that we can see and experience as earth-dwellers and ‘invisible’ parts of reality that we cannot see or experience as earth-dwellers. Something that is invisible, however, is not necessarily less real and solid than the things that are visible.
You might think of it like the invisibility cloak in the Harry Potter books. When Harry puts on the cloak, he doesn’t become less real or less material. What he becomes is invisible to normal human sight and undetectable by normal magical means. Yet he is still there; just as material and real as the world around him. People can still bump into him and he can still affect what goes on around him in the visible world. In a similar way, the Bible does not divide reality into a material realm that we live in everyday and an invisible realm of shadows and ether that we escape to when we die. Rather, the Bible says that there are parts of reality that are visible to us as human beings, and parts of reality that are invisible to us. The invisible dimensions, however, are no less real and solid than the visible ones. In fact, as we shall see, they may be even more real than the visible ones; it’s just we can’t normally see them.
The distinction between a visible world and an invisible one should not be new to us, because there are plenty of phenomena in our world that are not normally visible or accessible to us but are nonetheless very real. Humans cannot normally hear the highpitched sounds of a dog whistle, or the trills and clicks that dolphins use to communicate. Neither can we normally see ultraviolet light or X-rays. Yet all these things exist. Furthermore, they interact with our everyday observable world in important ways; exposure to invisible X-rays can give us cancer. In fact, there are many things in our world that we cannot detect, but we know they exist because of their observable effects on our world.
We can observe an apple falling to earth from a tree, and even calculate the force of gravity between the two objects, but we cannot ‘see’ what makes the bonds of attraction between the apple and the earth. We know that the normal ‘solid’ matter of the universe makes up only around 5 per cent of its measurable mass, so there must be something else present, but so far we haven’t been able to ‘see’ what this invisible ‘dark matter’ is. Indeed, some scientists postulate that there are ten, twelve or even more different dimensions to reality, most of which we cannot ‘see’. The Bible talks about this kind of world. It tells us that God is the creator of everything that exists, both in the dimensions of reality that are visible to us as earthdwellers and in those that are invisible. The invisible things, however, are not necessarily less real than the earthly ones. They are not a spiritualized world of ether and clouds we escape into. In fact, the things we can’t normally see may be even more real than the things we can normally see. How, then, can we know that these ‘invisible’ realities exist? We can only know about them if they intrude upon and interact with our ‘visible’ world in such a way that we can experience and understand them. And this is just what we find in the Bible.
Lessons in transfiguration
There are many moments in the Bible when the ‘invisible’ becomes ‘visible’. One notable episode is in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elisha is surrounded by a large army of his enemies. His servant anxiously asks Elisha, ‘What shall we do?’ Elisha reassures him, ‘Don’t be afraid . . . Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ You can imagine the servant thinking that Elisha had gone crazy. There were only two of them; how could there be more people on their side than the vast army of their enemies? Then Elisha prays that God would open his servant’s eyes, and his servant sees ‘the hills full of horses and chariots of fire’. God enabled the servant to see an army of angels in the created dimensions of reality that were not normally visible to him, yet nonetheless just as real as this world; real enough to rescue Elisha and his servant from their visible enemies (2 Kings 6:15–23).
In the New Testament there is also an occasion when three of Jesus’ disciples experience something of reality that they could not normally see. Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain where they saw Jesus ‘transfigured’ in his glory. His face ‘shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light’ (Matthew 17:1–13). One moment the three disciples saw the visible Jesus they knew from their everyday earthly lives; the Jesus who was dressed in coarsely woven, dull-coloured, dust-covered clothes. The next moment the invisible had been made visible and they saw Jesus revealed as the Christ, the radiant King of Glory. They saw that there was more to Jesus than just his earthly dimensions, and although this extra dimension was normally invisible to them, it was no less real than the everyday Jesus.
The transfigured Jesus wasn’t less material or more ethereal than the earthly Jesus. The transfigured Jesus wasn’t the Neoplatonic spiritual ideal of a soul released from the confines of matter to become ‘pure spirit’; rather the reverse. The transfigured Jesus was more real, more solid, a stunningly more complete reality than the Jesus they lived with every day. The disciples witnessed a whole other dimension to Jesus that they had not been able to see clearly before. This dimension did not obliterate the earthly Jesus but added to and completed his earthly reality. If one of the disciples had reached out and touched the transfigured Jesus, his hand would not have gone through Jesus, but would have touched a more solid and weighty reality than the earthly world around them. When this window into another dimension was closed, the disciples saw the everyday Jesus still standing there. They walked down the mountain with him, back into ‘normal’ life, but from that moment on they knew that there was more to Jesus than just the visible events of his earthly life.
‘Not everything that counts can be counted’
Of course, when you begin to think of it, there are many things that profoundly affect our lives but are invisible to us: bravery, kindness, love, goodness, beauty, truth. All these things we hold dear as an essential part of a life well lived. We can see the effects they produce in people, but they are not themselves visible or measurable. Or take ideas: an idea cannot be measured or detected with a telescope or Geiger counter and yet ideas have a profound effect on our personal lives and on human history. Karl Marx, the father of communism, came up with an idea that changed the course of world history and indirectly led to the deaths of millions of people. When an idea spreads from one person to another, to a community, to a country, to an entire civilization, nothing that we can see passes between people, but those people, communities and civilizations are profoundly changed.
Or think about morals. Science may be able to tell us the most efficient thing to do or the most effective course of action, but it cannot tell us whether that action is right or wrong, good or evil, kind or unkind. In the COVID-19 pandemic that spread globally in 2020, scientific models could tell us how many people were likely to die if we took this course of action against that one. However, they couldn’t tell us whether we should prioritize the economy over people’s lives, the young over the old, or mental health over lockdown. It wasn’t just that we didn’t have enough scientific data but, rather, science could never tell us these things because these kinds of choices exist in a different dimension to science. They are no less real. Indeed, sometimes they may be even more important than science, because without these other dimensions we cannot be truly human. I’m not saying the scientific method is wrong but, rather, we need to recognize, just because science can’t ‘see’ something, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t real and meaningful. Just because science hasn’t found heaven doesn’t mean that heaven doesn’t exist or that to believe in heaven is irrational. But where, then, is it?
Heaven as a dimension, not a location
The reason that science can’t see heaven is because it is not a location somewhere in outer space (apologies to the Blast Off Song and Yuri Gagarin!). It is not within the space–time dimensions that we can measure with scientific instruments. Heaven is an altogether different dimension: ‘the eternal dimension of reality where God’s will is done’. However, this doesn’t mean that it is a non-material ‘spiritual’ cloudscape we escape into when we die. Just because most of heaven is not normally visible to us, it doesn’t mean that it is less real and solid than the earth. Indeed, in the biblical structure of reality, the reverse is true: heaven is more solid than the earthly dimensions we live in every day. It is not a ‘spiritual’ dimension into which we flee to escape earthly reality, but a dimension that is coming to earth to complete and fulfil earthly reality. This is what the disciples witnessed when they saw Jesus transfigured; the earthly Jesus they knew was stunningly completed and fulfilled by the dimension of heaven.
This is the theme of my book, What on Earth is Heaven?: heaven as a dimension that completes and fulfils the earth we live in, rather than negating or replacing it. The book examines the way that reality is deepened and made more weighty, more glorious, when the dimension of heaven is added to the earthly dimensions we already know. It delves into the biblical story of heaven and earth united in Eden, divided by humanity’s rebellion against God, and re-united through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The good news of the gospel is not that Jesus provides us with a ticket to escape this world for a heavenly paradise. Rather, the gospel is Jesus’ invitation to each one of us to become a part of bringing the kingdom of heaven to our square inch of the earth, not in some distant ‘spiritualized’ future, but in the here and now of our everyday lives.
Dr James Paul is director of the English branch of L’Abri Fellowship and before that he practised as a doctor in London, specialising in hospice care for the terminally ill. Many of the questions raised in What on Earth Is Heaven? are ones that people have asked him in these settings. This article is adapted from the book.
Copyright © 2021 by James Paul. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press (IVP).