March 27, 2024 / Katelyn J. Dixon

Heaven at Our Fingertips

There is a life-changing difference between intellectually acknowledging heaven as a spiritual “someday” and embracing heaven as a vibrant, whole-life encompassing spiritual reality today.

There is a life-changing difference between intellectually acknowledging heaven as a spiritual “someday” and embracing heaven as a vibrant, whole-life encompassing spiritual reality today.

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)

I grew up learning about heaven in Sunday school, and I’ve glued my fair share of cotton balls to coloring pages outlining celestial clouds and pearly gates. I have prayed “on earth as it is in heaven” more times than I can count. But I never imagined I would need heaven to be a reality I live into on earth until my grandfather died in 2022, followed by my grandmother one year later. In the wake of loss, I needed to know just what Jesus meant when he said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), and why he taught us to pray for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven”(Matthew 6:10). I had experienced significant pain and loss before my Grandparents passed away — an abusive relationship, the death of my marriage, and seasons of deep depression to name a few. During those seasons, I wanted to leave this earth for heaven more than anything. But losing my loved ones helped me realize that my long-distance relationship with heaven would no longer suffice. I needed to know that my life on earth wasn’t cut off from that of heaven — that my story here matters beyond granting me access to a favorable afterlife.

Although it is an invitation that I suspect has been wooing me for most of my life, grief and longing compelled me to embark upon a pilgrimage of re-learning heaven as both a present reality and the next chapter of my eternal story. What I have found on my journey of navigating grief by cultivating a relationship with heaven is this: there is a life-changing difference between intellectually acknowledging heaven as a spiritual “someday” and embracing heaven as a vibrant, whole-life encompassing spiritual reality today. This distinction parallels the difference between the most prominent view of heaven I was taught growing up in a Western evangelical spiritual context, and the new understanding which is emerging within me now.

What I Was Taught

The message I intuited and was taught about heaven when I was younger is that heaven is a place Christians escape to when we die. Only salvation in Jesus can purchase our one-way ticket to heaven. Those who have not said the right words or believed the same things as us will not be given this ticket. This is too bad, because it means the only other option is hell. Therefore, because heaven is an elite Skyclub that admits members on a very narrow set of criteria, we must try very, very hard to ensure that the people around us understand and say the right things so they, too, will go to heaven when they die. Their eternal fate rests on our ability to bring them to a point of intellectual assent. Believing this way for more than half of my life created a constant tug-of-war between anxiety and apathy within me. What if my loved ones go to hell and it’s all my fault? And if it’s all going to burn, why does what we do in this life and how we treat the earth matter anyway?

To understand how our theology of heaven shapes how we live on earth, we must go back further than the childhood teaching we received on heaven and hell — all the way back to the beginning. In particular, our interpretation of the consequence of Adam and Eve’s partaking of forbidden fruit radically shapes how we view heaven, earth, and the mission of Jesus. Do we see earth and humankind as primarily cursed or as being redeemed? An irreversibly cursed earth is certainly a place from which I’d be eager to escape. When I look at the darkness within my own heart and in the world around me, it often seems like our earth is just that — doomed. Viewing the earth and humankind as in the process of being renewed, however, makes a little more space for heaven to be born in my heart. Although I used to think that the core identity of Adam, Eve, and the rest of us was depravity because we disobeyed God, two questions have been quietly unsettling that belief in me — questions that are transforming my view of the curse into stubborn beauty borne of brokenness:

  1. What if when God tells Adam “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 2:17), God is also inviting Adam to partake in the redemption of creation as cultivator of the earth?
  2. And what if Eve experiencing pain in childbirth along with a complicated relationship with her husband does not revoke the miracle that she carries the seeds of redemption for all humankind within her body?

Maybe what we call the curse is also God’s blessing — a complicated yet holy way of re-working brokenness into redemption, death into resurrection. Seeing the curse as an invitation to redemption rather than punishment for failing ought to transform how we live. It fills me with hope to think that even though humankind disobeyed God, we were never meant to “stay fallen.” Viewing earth and those who do not fit within our boundaries of the heaven club as primarily cursed is a natural outworking of identifying with “fallen” more than “being redeemed.”

What I Now Believe

After years of sifting through the layers of teaching I received as a child and releasing old beliefs that were contributing more to anxiety and apathy than love and compassion, I now think of God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth as a glass window upon which we press our fingers and faces to get a better glimpse of reality. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus proclaimed, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mark 1:15). “At hand” is the Greek word engizo, which means “to come near, to draw near.” Just as Jesus is both God and the means through which we see God face-to-face on earth, so is heaven’s “at-hand-ness” both the window pane and what we will one day behold in fullness beyond the glass in the light of eternity. Heaven has drawn near, and because of Jesus it is possible to be engaged in the reality of heaven now — not just when we die.

When we pray “May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), we are praying for our spiritual appetites to be whetted for the feast God has already begun to prepare, and for our spiritual eyes to be opened to the unique and manifold ways we can help prepare for the wedding supper of the Lamb today. In my own life, there are two areas in particular that have whetted my appetite for eternity: my relationship with God’s creation and my relationship with what the author of Hebrews calls “the great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) — that is, the communion of saints.


I am embarrassed to admit that caring for the earth is somewhat new to me. I have always felt that people were more important to care for and I was content to leave cultivating and renewing the earth to someone else. But my journey of re-learning heaven through the words of Scripture has convinced me that in some precious and mysterious way, our fate and the earth’s are inextricably bound up together. The book of Romans tells me that in our groaning for renewal and redemption, the Spirit groans too—along with all of creation. The earth participates with us in our centuries-long birthing pains until Christ returns to make all things new (Romans 8:18-25). How could I ever have dismissed my co-laborer?

Because of this, I now care about the living conditions of chickens, of all things. It feels somewhat silly, but I painstakingly remove each non-biodegradable sticker from my banana peels before composting them as a tiny holy way of saying “thank you” to the Creation that sustains me and gives me life. There won’t be stickers with bar codes on them in heaven, but John’s Revelation tells me there will be fruit trees, and their leaves are for healing the wounds of the nations (Revelation 22:2). Isn’t that wonderful, and worth celebrating in the here-and-now?

The Cloud of Witnesses

The author of Hebrews paints a beautiful picture of the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on as we journey through this life. The reality of women and men of God who have gone before us and are rooting for us even now makes me wonder how many of us who came to faith in a Western evangelical context grew up largely ignoring them. In my tradition, honoring saints was frowned upon as ‘that weird thing the other church does,’ which has perhaps cost us the awe and wonder that comes from existing in the simultaneity of time — that is, recognizing the present betrothal of earth to heaven and the coming wedding day in which earth and heaven will be one. To ignore the communion of saints is to ignore the reality that there are millions of people worshipping God right now, and that every time we worship, we join them.

I once heard a prominent Christian theologian who had lost his son early in life say, “I am never closer to my son than when I am singing and worshiping on Sunday morning.” This was a profound comfort to me when my grandparents passed away. Now, I picture myself joining with heaven when I sing to God. I feel the joy of grandmother with me when singing “How Great Thou Art,” her favorite hymn. I sense the love of my grandfather when singing his favorite, “Shall We Gather at the River?” Love is eternal, after all, because God is. But it is not just my loved ones with whom I feel a greater sense of connectedness. There are countless other pilgrims who have gone before me that I am learning from, too. I recently had a dream about St. Columba — founder of the monastic community on Iona — and I am now studying his teaching and sayings, wanting to learn from his life. George Macdonald and Julian of Norwich have also become guides and friends as I let their prayers, poetry, and writing shape my own.

All Things New

Living out our days as if they are something just to get through on our way to heaven is often easier than living with sustained vision and hope. We see our own brokenness reflected in the world around us every day, and the temptation to despair can be strong — especially when much evidence points to sin, decay, and death as the ultimate victors. It takes courage to live our lives with reverence and delight as the holy cover and the title page of what C.S. Lewis calls in The Last Battle “the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before” (Lewis, The Last Battle, 174). Yet what do we risk losing in not living our lives on earth as the cover and title page of the Great Story? Waiting to be in relationship with heaven until after we die means missing out on the joyful humility that comes from realizing how small yet vital our part is to play. We cease becoming like children when we succumb to the cynicism of believing there’s nothing new under the sun, a disappointed view which pales in comparison to the awe-inducing promise that God is making everything new (Revelation 21:5).

In light of this, each day offers an opportunity to experience a foretaste of heaven at hand — as close as our fingertips. Every sunrise and sunset are invitations to celebrate God’s faithfulness and beauty in the land of the living as we look forward to our home in the city where “the Lamb is its lamp” (Revelation 21:23). Every meal around a table with family and friends can mirror the joy of the greater feast to come. Even the tears we shed are harbingers of promise that await the healing touch of God, who promises to wipe every tear from our eyes.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,” wrote poet E.B. Brown in Aurora Leigh, “and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes of his shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

I want to be someone who sees heaven on earth and takes off her shoes. Don’t you? Here is the best possible news — news that invites us to dance barefoot upon our broken and blessed earth: the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. May we be a people who experience that nearness as benediction for our past, joy for today, and hope for tomorrow — now and forever, eternal embrace.