Thursday, November 4, 2010

How Heaven Is Like an Idealized City

Okay, so Tim Keller's comment on my last post got me thinking....

In Revelation, the vision we are given of the eternal kingdom is that of a resplendent city. John, in recounting his vision, strains at the limits of his understanding and of human language to describe what he sees, "The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel...and the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass...and the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light and its lamp is the Lamb...and there will be no night there. (Rev 21).

One wonders how a first century man, as John was, would describe a modern city. How would he describe the Chrysler Building or the Hancock Building in Chicago? What would he think of street lamps --ancient cities were dark, and today's cities are permanently alight? No night in the modern city. Concrete and asphalt would seem a wonder compared to streets of dust. I am not arguing that John saw twenty-first century Manhattan, I simply find the thought intriguing.

How is heaven like an idealized city? Not the modern, cookie cutter oversized inconvenient office park cities of recent vintage, but the grand old industrial and financial center cities. Think Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, or Detroit in its glory days. How might heaven be like those, shorn of avarice, crime, sexual sin, and corruption?

  • Cities are beehives of productivity. In the same building, you will find CEO's who command multi-million dollar salaries and fast food workers making minimum wage, and all of them are busy, busy, busy, making the economy of a city hum. Heaven is not a place of indolence --my father works, and I work. Part of being in the image of God is being productive.
  • Cities are multi-cultural. Since the late nineteenth century, the nations have poured in to North American cities. The mix of languages and cultures at the same mingling together and retaining their distinctiveness, add zest to the city. Heaven will be the gathering place of the redeemed of all the nations.
  • Cities are built to impress. I love Chicago, because it got a chance to "do over" after a great fire, and they did it right. Chicago is built on a swamp. After the fire, the city fathers elevated the city, so now all utility and garbage collection happens on lower level streets, below the sidewalks. You don't share the street with garbage in Chicago. They reversed the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan out of sanitary concerns: they drank Lake Michigan water. Brilliant. City of Big Shoulders indeed. Steel girders and human ingenuity gave us the skyscraper, and skyscrapers convey wealth, beauty, and ingenuity. Many of them are iconic: Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, the aforementioned Hancock and Chrysler buildings, etc. Heaven is clearly built to impress us with the ingenuity and wisdom of God.
  • Cities are cultural centers. They are repositories of the best of cultural artifacts. Go to Chicago and see their incredible Monet collection. The Guggenheim Museum in New York is itself a work of art. There are public art installations, and theaters on every corner. Great symphonies reside in great cities. Great temple-like building are built to house them. Everything is lavish and done well. Heaven is the abode of he who does all things well, the Author of beauty and music.
  • Cities are endlessly interesting. There are always new diverse neighborhoods to explore. My wife grew up in Pittsburgh, and yet we are still discovering new neighborhoods and new things to do --and Pittsburgh is certainly far from the largest of cities. Heaven will have an infinite number of fascinating things to explore.
  • Cities gather up impressive people. Imagine what it takes to build a building in a city, with its maze of regulations, unions and challenging property. Then, think of Donald Trump. The Donald is a master of self-promotion, and I am sure there are better real estate minds, but he is the one that everyone knows. The brain flow goes toward the cities --they are places of great universities, and great minds, and great things happen there on a massive scale. Heaven will be full of impressive people --not those that impressed the eyes of the world when they were here, but those through whom God did great things, often in secret, while they were here.
  • Cities provide for every human need. Imagine the massive amounts of water needed for a city. Imagine what is needed to eliminate rainwater from the streets of a city. Imagine the emergency services needed. Imagine the amount of food that must flow into a city, the amount of electricity and other forms of power. Imagine the information superstructure that flows through cables --the massive interconnection of computers and telephones. Transportation, sustenance, sanitation, rescue, entertainment are provided by the city in spades. Heaven will be the fulfillment of all our needs, and all our sanctified wants.
Much more could be said. We are looking for a celestial city, and I am longing to see it!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Cool thing about that picture...

    The building in front with the little red sign on top is the Gateway Hilton.

    The dark building immediately to the left is Gateway Tower.

    My beloved mother-in-law lives in that building. It is a very cool place to be. You can see the jumbo-tron and stands of PNC park (the best ballpark in the world) from her windows. Downtown Pittsburgh is so awesome.

  3. Couple of thoughts: Dude, you got a comment from Tim Keller.

    Second, re-examine your eschatology. :p Heaven is not like a city. The GLORIFIED CHURCH is.

  4. That strikes me as an unnecessary neo-platonic divide.

    We are told that we are looking for a city.

    As the kingdom is realm and reign, it would make sense that the city we seek is both a people and a place...

    At least that's how this earthy a-mill type sees it!

  5. Kevin --

    It's no big deal to get a comment from Tim Keller. Look, here's another one. They're a dime a dozen!

    Tim Keller

  6. Ken,

    I'm glad for this post as follow-up to the small-town post, mainly because I still remember my long-time small-town pastor saying on more than one occasion that hell is like a small-town. His family went back generations in our little part of the Florida Panhandle, and knowing their propensity for feuding, I guess I understood his point :-)

    I personally never thought much about cities or about heaven as a city until I read Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs was not a Christian and held some pretty far-left ideas especially later in life, but her description of the workings of the city in contrast to the suburbs is very similar to yours. One question though I've had since reading that book and looking around at the world, is why have American Christians been fleeing to the suburbs for the last century? Why is the "Christian Right" a primarily suburban and exurban constituency? If heaven is like a city, do we as Christians still on earth have a responsibility to help build and maintain our earthly cities or are we free to abandon them for easier pastures?

  7. P.S. I'm a country gal myself, so it's been difficult for me to care about Jackson, but something has kept me here and I've grown so much from my experiences here in ways that I don't think I would have if I had been holed up out in the woods.

  8. And from a secular blog I read The Urbanophile, this timely post today "Religion and the City": with references to Tim Keller and Redeemer Church.

  9. Jennifer,

    Very important questions with no easy answers. I suspect the situation in each city is somewhat different. In some cities, it is heinously expensive for families to live, etc.

    The short answer is yes, with some privisos, caveats and heretofores...

    Just looking at our city (incidentally, did you see last week it came out that Jackson was #8 of the top ten shrinking cities), the answer is very complex.

    Hindsight being what it is, it was wrong of productive citizens of whatever race (and churches, incidentally) to abandon Jackson --first, white flight, and now every African American who has the means.

    There is the general appeal of the suburbs --which, quite frankly, is lost on me.

    The two big issues, of course, are crime and education. We can lament that the schools are the way they are precisely because of suburban flight, but it does not change the fact. IT would be hard to argue that the best thing Christian parents could do, in the current situation, is put children into a failing system which will not serve them well, merely on principle (while acknowledging there are some very good teachers in that system). I am trying to imagine Abby at Murrah --not a good scenario.

    It doesn't seem a very good answer to live in the city and then hole up in exclusive schools, either.

    What have seen success in other places (notably New Orleans) are charter schools or missionally-minded Christian schools. IF the dying cities are to be saved, it seems to me we need both of these things. We need Christian schools on the old Catholic parochial model that are heavily backed by churches, and open to all regardless of income, or even Christian background.

    All that is needed is some sense of parental investment and an agreement to abide by the disciplinary policies.

    I think we could and should willingly put up with some crime (most of which is nuisance crime), but education is so formative.

    Anyway, it's Monday AM and I am going into incoherent babble mode, and stop and wait for some further thoughts!

  10. That should be provisos, of course --ah, Monday..

  11. Thanks for this one, too. I think our preferences play into our understanding greatly. I prefer a smallish city (under 100K). I like knowing more people in the area. I think a city of that size has enough of what I need and is usually close enough to rural areas so that you can get out in the open air. I've loved living in some cities: Jackson, Jacksonville, Montgomery, and Panama City. Plus they know what grits is! They weren't too big or impersonal. But, hey, I'm just a country boy!

  12. This is a very thoughtful meditation on how the future salvation and kingdom of God will be like a city. Nicely done, Ken. Gives me some things to think about.

    I wonder if another aspect of 'salvation-as-a-city' might be proximity. What makes a city a city is that things are closer. Stores and schools and workplaces and people are all closer together, within an easy walk. And since God is in the midst of heavenly city (Rev 22:3; Ps 46:4) it makes sense that everyone will want to be in close, "closely compacted together" (Ps 122:3).

    The purpose of the gospel is to appease the wrath of God and remove the barrier of guilt and sin between God and us so that those who were far away can be brought near. (Not only near God but near others in Christ- Eph 2.) And nearness and proximity is what makes a city.

    Tim Keller

  13. Tim,

    Great thought. One of the glories of heaven will be the removal of all that makes life together difficult here: sin, but also misunderstanding and miscommunication.

    The closer we are to God, the closer we will be to each other. I like that!

  14. I'll take the closeness to other as long as I've got breathing room. Perhaps heaven will be like a BIG city/rural area combined: great people and space for the animals to roam as we ALL focus our gaze on our loving Father and Savior!!!