One of my neighbors hosted a party. I can't remember the reason for the gathering, but I do remember one of the women I met. We talked for a bit about things in general, then about our families, and finally about our concerns for our children. She had something weighing on her mind and needed a sounding board. Apparently I was it.
The gist of the problem was that her 14-year-old daughter had recently declared that she wanted to be an atheist. After being raised in a church-going family, attending Sunday school regularly for the entire span of her still-short life, and listening to sermon after sermon, she had concluded that it was all bunk. My new confident told me, "I don't mind that she's thinking about religions questions and sorting things out for herself. I applaud her honesty. What bothers me is why she came to this conclusion."
She paused, so I supposed I was supposed to ask, "Well, why did she?"
The woman answered, "She tells me that she doesn't believe that there's an old man with a white beard who sits on a cloud continually circling the planet watching over us. She just doesn't believe there is a heaven in the clouds."
The image came from a poster in their church's preschool classroom. An artist, no doubt with good intentions, created it to help four-year-olds visualize something their minds weren't ready to embrace more fully. To this questioning teen, however, it stood as the totality of the Christian message, its simplicity abetted by years of illustrations in children's Bibles, pictures on pajamas, and sweet stories told during children's sermon time.
My new acquaintance continued, "I don't believe that either, but I can't convince her that the church never meant it literally."
Perhaps someday that teen will make the leap toward understanding a more adult version of the concept that was presented with such simplicity to preschoolers. But perhaps not. Many other people have struggled and continue to struggle with a similar question: Where exactly is heaven?
The scriptural account is a bit vague. Some verses suggest it is "above" and others that it is "within." Ancient peoples often depicted it as in or beyond the sky. I once had a discussion with a college-aged student who argued that if the pearly gates really existed, orbiting astronauts would have located them. And, even if the entrance to heaven existed in an unimaginably distant location, the Hubble Space Telescope would certainly have photographed it by now. His conclusion: No pictures, no heaven.
The question isn't even limited to the young. During a Bible study group I attended recently, a mature woman—probably in her 70s—asked the question: Where is heaven, anyway? I was a visitor and unsure of that denomination's teaching, so I kept quiet, but I noticed that no one answered the question. The leader diverted the discussion to other things and left the location of heaven hanging.
The heaven in which ultimate spiritual reality resides presents multiple mysteries. The Bible offers clues that heaven is much, much more than our human brains can imagine. Pictures and talk about heavenly features and locations provide analogies that can help people comprehend parts of the concept. Metaphor offers imperfect access to truths that exist in a nonphysical realm. But if we keep looking, literally, within the limits of a three-dimensional, physical space, heaven will likely remain elusive.