This week I’m reflecting on the moral implications of heaven for wealth and poverty on earth. I find the Bible’s vision of heaven extremely thought-provoking, challenging, and inspiring, especially as we look toward Christmas.
Yours with gratitude,
Do class differences exist in heaven? More broadly, what are the moral implications of the Bible’s vision of heavenly society for how we structure earthly society now?
Many people may think of heaven as irrelevant pie-in-the-sky that distracts from earthly life or as the reinforcement of the class structures that oppress poor people on earth. But when we read the Bible and especially the teachings of Jesus, we find a radically different picture. Instead, the Bible’s vision of heaven is a subversive manifesto for status reversal, economic justice, and ultimate hope for the poor.
There are various Hebrew and Greek terms that get translated as “heaven” in the English-language Bible. In the New International Translation (NIV), for example, the word “heaven(s)” appears 622 times. It’s clear that heaven is crucial to the biblical worldview. We can identify two broad meanings for “heaven” in the Bible.
First, in the majority of cases, “heaven” or “the heavens” refers to the “sky” above the earth. We find this in the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Here “heavens and earth” is a “merism” or figure of speech that means “all created reality.” Thus, “heaven” refers to the upper portion of reality where the birds fly, the rain pours down, the sun shines, etc.
The Hebrews believed this upper portion of reality, just like everything else, was created by God and belongs to God: “God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:11; see Deuteronomy 10:14; Isaiah 40:26). As a figure of awe-inspiring vastness, “heaven” is often used as a metaphor for God’s transcendence above manmade constructions: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than human ways and God’s thoughts higher than human thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
Here we begin to see the critical, counter-cultural potential of heaven. The earth is not the totality of reality; there is something “above” manmade reality that transcends and challenges it.
Thus, second, in more specialized uses, “heaven” refers to the spiritual sphere of reality in which God’s presence and purpose are unlimited. Jacob calls heaven the “house of God” (Genesis 28:17). Moses and Solomon call heaven God’s “dwelling place” (Deuteronomy 26:15; 1 Kings 8:43; 2 Chronicles 30:27). Through the Prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Heaven is my throne” (Isaiah 66:1; see 1 Kings 22:19; see Psalm 2:4; 103:19; Matthew 5:34). The reformist prophet Amos says that God’s “palace is in the heavens” (Amos 9:6).
Jesus centralized this notion of heaven as the fulfillment of God’s presence and purpose in his radical preaching about “the kingdom of heaven.”
For example, Jesus launched his public career with this call for fundamental change rooted in heaven: “Reverse your worldview [metanoiete], for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). We get a glimpse of how Jesus envisioned this worldview reorientation in his first major teaching, which was attended by the sick, the suffering, foreigners, and other social outcasts:
“Blessed [privileged, lucky, favored] are the poor in spirit [Luke simply says “the poor”], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are those who are persecuted because of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, 10; Luke 6:20-22)
Here Jesus declares that the “kingdom of heaven” has a radically different order of values than our earthly kingdoms: the poor and those who struggle for justice are the truly privileged ones, the lucky ones who will be exalted when God’s purpose is finally victorious. By contrast, Jesus fiercely declares “woe” or God’s judgment on “the rich” and famous (Luke 6:24-26). Heaven’s economy is upside-down.
In addition to the Hebrew Prophets, it is likely that Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of heaven was highly influenced by his young mother Mary. Of course, Mary grew up as a peasant in Palestine under the shadow of the colonizing Roman Empire. When Mary learned that she would give birth to Jesus the Messiah, she broke out into an anthem that celebrated God’s will for political and economic reversal:
“[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble! He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty!” (Luke 1:52-53)
For Mary, Jesus’s birth was God’s flesh-and-blood proof that God’s counter-cultural purpose would finally be fulfilled for the poor and oppressed. We should remember that Jesus grew up listening to his mother sing these kinds of subversive protest songs.
The radical implications of Jesus’s vision of heaven appear throughout his teaching and practice. Let me give just three examples.
First, when a “rich young ruler” came to Jesus and asked him how he could go to heaven, Jesus bluntly answered, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). It is striking that Jesus makes radical economic generosity and justice the precondition for this rich man following him and going to heaven. In this story, the rich man walks away because he is too attached to his wealth.
Second, Jesus later visits the home of a rich and powerful tax collector named Zacchaeus. Tax collectors were despised because they collaborated with the Roman rulers and were notorious for using their power to economically exploit others. After Zach talks with Jesus, Zach experiences metanoia or the worldview reversal that Jesus called for. He declares,
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount!” (Luke 19:8)
Jesus’s response is profound: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). For Jesus, “salvation” or heaven is unlocked through radical economic justice and generosity. No mention is made of Zach undergoing religious conversion, except as it is demonstrated in his economic conversion.
Third, Jesus tells the story of “a rich man” who “lived in luxury every day.” Outside of his house was a poor man named Lazarus who lived in the streets with open wounds and begged for the scraps from the rich man’s dogs (Luke 16:19-31).
When the poor man dies, Jesus says that he goes to heaven or “Abraham’s bosom.” When the rich man dies, Jesus says that he goes to hell. When the rich man complains about his destiny, he’s told, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony” (Luke 16:25).
What is especially striking about this fierce story of reversal is that Jesus doesn’t say that the rich man was a non-Christian and the poor man was a Christian. Instead, Jesus simply says that the one man was “rich” and the other man was “poor.” And in heaven, God’s ultimate will reverses injustice and elevates the poor.
Here we see the radical, destiny-defining implication of Jesus’s declaration: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” For Jesus, the rich man’s disregard for the poor is damning. By contrast, poor Lazarus’s suffering will be overcome in heaven. The poor are blessed.
In sum, then, heaven is God’s home for the poor and a blockade against injustice. The kingdom of heaven vindicates the losers and welcomes them as its first citizens – as “the blessed” or truly happy.
But this heavenly reversal is not a justification for the poor staying poor on earth. Instead, heaven is a fierce critique and condemnation of earthly economic injustice, and heaven calls for reversal and reform here and now.
Jesus says that the “rich man” cannot follow him unless he practices radical economic justice and generosity now. Jesus says that Zacchaeus is saved precisely because he practices radical economic justice and generosity today: giving away half of his possessions and repaying fourfold reparations to the exploited. And Jesus says that the “rich man” is separated from God in hell because he failed to show compassion to poor Lazarus on earth.
When Jesus called for “worldview reversal” or metanoia, he was challenging us to fundamentally rethink how we order our values and structure our society. It is unsurprising, then, how the first Christians organized their earthly community:
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need… There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35)
Numerous historians have demonstrated that the early Christian movement expanded so rapidly, in large part, because the first followers of Christ created unprecedented dignity and empowerment for those who were seen as worthless in the Roman imperial hierarchy. For example, Professor Gary Anderson writes in his award-winning book Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale University Press, 2013),
“Homes for the elderly, orphanages, and hospitals…are institutions that appeared suddenly in the late Roman era and always in the wake of the expansion of the Christian church.”
Jesus’s vision of heaven was literally transforming earthly society and creating institutions for the most vulnerable classes. The first Christians took extremely seriously Jesus’s prayer, “Let your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
When we get to the end of the Bible, we hear this ultimate declaration of God’s will for human life in the “new heavens and new earth” – the final renewal of reality:
“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Of course, this is primarily a promise of hope for the poor and oppressed – for those whose earthly lives have been dominated by death, mourning, crying, and pain under the crushing weight of “the old order of things.” According to the Bible’s final Revelation, heaven is “the new order” of liberation and life for those who have suffered, who are met with healing, joy, and abundance in God’s new creation.
Conversely, the Bible ends with a fierce condemnation of “the merchants of the earth” who enrich themselves by trading in luxury goods and “selling human beings as slaves.” For them, the Bible declares “weeping and mourning” (Revelation 18:11-13). This echoes the Apostle James’s declaration that paying unlivable wages to workers is equivalent to murder:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you! … Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.” (James 5:1-6)
According to Jesus and the Bible, then, heaven is anything but distracting pie-in-the-sky or a justification of earthly injustice. Instead, heaven is the most radical condemnation of earthly injustice. Those who neglect and oppress the poor will lose in the end and have no fellowship with God. On the other hand, heaven is the most inspiring call for radical generosity and justice now. The poor, oppressed, and those who struggle on their behalf are promised everlasting hope and new life with God in God’s kingdom of justice that never ends.
If class differences exist in heaven, they clearly privilege the poor. The moral implications of heaven are clear: (1) greed, injustice, and violence are condemned as the damned way of death and (2) radical generosity, justice, and status-reversing community are celebrated as the eternal way of life.