“Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 3:2
We know that heaven is not in some remote part of the natural sky; that we cannot say of it, “Lo, here, or Lo, there.” But still we are apt to think of it as far away. We are also inclined to think of heaven as remote in time. We speak commonly of the future world. In the thought of some it lies at the indefinitely remote time when they expect a general resurrection. With others death is the gateway to heaven, and still it seems too distant to be of much present and practical interest.
But the truth is that heaven is far away neither in space nor in time. It is here and now. We live in it now, or may do so. It is a present reality, the most real and most important element of the life which we are now living. When we speak of heaven and living for heaven, we are not necessarily setting our hearts on something far away and despising the life in which we now are. One might live for a far-off heaven, and no doubt some have lived so, careless of this world’s joys or sorrows or opportunities for usefulness, their eyes fixed on some vision of the future. But we may live for heaven and still live thoroughly in the present. We may value heaven – and they who have some true knowledge of heaven ought so to value it – as the most real of present realities.
We are taught in the New Church that heaven is a state of human thought, feeling, and life, a state in which love to the Lord and to the neighbor are the ruling motive. We are taught that no outward paradise which could be made by human or divine skill would be a heaven if these affections were absent from the heart; that there is no real, thorough, lasting satisfaction except in the exercise of these affections. It follows that we may come into heaven while we are still in this world and live in heaven while we live on earth, for we may learn here to love the Lord and one another, and to find our chief enjoyment in the exercise of these heavenly loves.
But this is an abstract way of speaking. Heaven is not merely a heavenly state in ourselves; it is the great world of human beings who are living in that state, in whose hearts are heavenly affections, whose minds are bright with the light of heavenly truths, and whose hands are busy in useful works. There are many such heavenly souls in the world. There are countless more who have gone from earth to the spiritual world and are living the same good life under freer and happier conditions. All these heavenly people in a concrete sense are heaven. When we have heaven in ourselves by exercising heavenly affections, we are brought spiritually near to others who are in the exercise and enjoyment of the same affections – others both of this world and of the spiritual world. It is largely through this inward association with others who are in heavenly states, especially with the vast multitude who are in the spiritual world, that we find a delight in those states. It would be only a poor and feeble enjoyment that even the best affection could give us if we must enjoy it alone. But each heavenly affection is a bond of union with the heaven of angels, by which their life and joy are communicated to us.
It is not a figure of speech by which we say that heaven is about us when we are in heavenly states. Heaven is so really around us at such times that if it were granted to us, as it was to Elisha’s servant and to others in Bible days, to open our spiritual eyes, we should see the angels who are our companions and the beautiful world in which they dwell. We should meet those kind heavenly guardians whom the Lord has appointed to encamp about us and defend us, to bear us up in their hands lest we dash our foot against a stone. Among them we should see and recognize some who had been dear to us on earth, who still love and help us; and there would be some whom we had not known here but who would from the first look seem to us as old friends because their faces would be so full of sympathy. We should recognize these loving friends as one source of the happiness which we had felt when in our better states of mind. We should see what societies of angels and who in particular have been the means of bringing our souls special inspirations of strength or peace or happiness.
For infinitely wise and good reasons the Lord does not draw the veil aside for us and allow us to see the heavenly world in which we are actually living when heavenly affections are in our own hearts. To see that world as an outward, objective reality would destroy our freedom to choose heaven for its essential heavenly quality. We should be lured by its outward attractiveness, and it would be less possible to come into its true spirit. It is enough to know from the Lord’s Word that heaven is near, even at hand, and to be strengthened by the knowledge that when we are in heavenly states, acting from heavenly affections, angels are our companions.
There is another thought, true for the same reasons as that which we have just been considering, namely, that when we are in unheavenly states and living in the indulgence of selfish and evil affections, we are in hell. Not only is hell within us at such times, but it is also about us, not by a figure of speech but actually. We are breathing its poisoned atmosphere, and the excitement which we feel is inspired by those whose home is there. If in such a state our eyes were opened, we should see the hateful forms and faces of those who find their life in evil and who now exult with wicked glee in drawing us into their power. Why, at least, does not the Lord draw the veil aside, we think, and show us the terribleness of evil and what miserable slaves we are when we yield to its influence? It is because the very horror of the sight might frighten us and we should be less able freely to shun and renounce evil because it is evil. Our power to escape permanently and thoroughly from it would be greatly lessened. If we are tempted to question the Lord’s providence in not revealing to us more openly the conditions of the good and the evil in the spiritual world, we do well to remember His words, “They have Moses and the prophets: let them hear them… If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.”
There are here some very practical lessons. In choosing our companions, if we make our choice habitual, we are choosing the companionship which we shall choose when we die, and which will be ours forever. We should form the habit of considering our spiritual state and companionship as much as we do our natural companionship and friends. We may, by abiding in heavenly states, grow so sensitive to their deep and satisfying happiness that they become more important to us than any and all outward things. We cannot sacrifice them for the sake of money, health, or life itself. They become the things worth living for, immensely superior to all other blessings. We should have heaven in our business. The most necessary thing in making a home is that there be in it the sunshine of heaven. The only absolute requirement for our happiness is that, as we go to and fro in the ways of the world, heaven shall go with us. This is to live for heaven and yet to live more fully for the present.
Heaven is not heaven from locality, neither is it heaven from anything that belongs to the angels as their own. It is heaven from what is received from the Lord in the hearts and lives of the angels. To be near to the Lord, not in place but in the heart, to feel the protection, the strength, the peace, the inspiration of His presence – this is heaven to men on earth and to angels. Heaven is being near to the Lord and keeping near to Him. There is no other heaven for men or angels.
Mere physical nearness to the Lord, even when He walked on earth, did not make heaven. Some cried out with fear at His approach. It was not heaven to them. It was not heaven to those who followed Him to accuse and to betray Him. It was not heaven to those who came to taunt and jeer at Him. His presence was a blessing only to those who in some measure drew near to Him in spirit.
The Lord, when He came upon the earth, did not force heaven upon men. He made it accessible to them. He brought it within their reach. But even His physical presence could not force their wills. Men must repent; they must recognize and give up their evils and selfishness before they can experience heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand; it is near and within the reach of all. It is even nearer now than in the Gospel days. New knowledge of the Lord, revealed through the Word, makes it possible to come nearer to Him and to abide in His presence. May we choose, while we are in this world, to abide in the presence of the Lord and His angels! For what we choose here we choose to eternity.