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Words: Charles J. Butler (data unknown)
Music: James Milton Black (b. Aug. 19, 1856; d. Dec. 21, 1938)
Note: Charles Butler is a hymn writer of the late nineteenth century of whom we know little. The Cyber Hymnal estimates that he was born around 1860. (Hymnary.org gives his middle initial as F, though earliest publications have it as J.) James Black, the composer of the tune, also gave us the words and music for the gospel song When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.
The words have become more than a movie trivia quotation. They’ve entered the consciousness of many in a special way. The question is asked in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. Based on a novel by Canadian author W. P. Kinsella, the film tells of an Iowa farmer who hears an eerie voice apparently telling him to build a baseball diamond in his corn field.
When he does so, the ghosts of actual ball players long dead come there to play the game they loved in life. Former Chicago White Sox outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson (1888-1951) asks the question, “Is this heaven?” And the farmer responds, “No, it’s Iowa.”
It’s a charming fantasy, but it touches a deeper chord in the souls of many who watch it. The film is about family, and the things that tie us to one another over the years. The real farmhouse and the ball diamond that became the movie set reportedly still receive a steady stream of visitors nearly three decades later! But Iowa isn’t heaven–is it? Perhaps the answer is not as simple as it may appear.
For the secular humanist heaven has always been an utter fantasy. They will say, “This life is all you get. When you’re dead, it’s over. So, if you live in Des Moines, Iowa, or Toronto, or Calcutta, maybe that’s your heaven.” At best, for them, heaven is a state of relative happiness, here and now. But Bible-believing Christians have a far different response.
The word is used nearly seven hundred times in the Scriptures, where it actually identifies three different spheres.
¤ The first is atmospheric heaven surrounding the earth, where weather forms, and birds fly (Ps. 68:8; 104:12).
¤ The second is stellar space, where the planets and stars are found (Gen. 1:14-19; Ps. 8:3).
¤ “The third heaven,” also called Paradise (II Cor. 12:2-4), is the place where the throne of God is (Rev. 4:1-2), where He is continually worshiped by the holy angels, and by the people of God who have departed this life (Rev. 5:11-12; 7:9-12), and where we, as believers here and now, direct our prayers (Matt. 6:9).
The third heaven is also where Jesus, risen and glorified, dwells. In Revelation, He is spoken of twenty-seven times as “the Lamb,” recalling that He died to take upon Himself the punishment for our sins (cf. Jn. 1:29). The Bible says He is seated at the right hand of God the Father (Heb. 1:3; 12:2), there serving as our great High Priest and heavenly Intercessor (Heb. 4:14-16; 7:25). Christ Himself said He was also going there to prepare a dwelling place for us (Jn. 14:2-3).
But because of His deity, the Lord Jesus is able, not only to be in heaven, but to reveal His spiritual presence to each one of us here. He said, “He who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him (Jn. 14:21). And He promises His followers, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The Apostle Paul experienced the reality of this.
“The Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city’” (Acts 18:9-10).
“The Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. And I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (II Tim. 4:17).
There is, then, a true sense in which Christians today can live in the very presence of Christ, and walk daily with Him. In that, Mediaeval mystic Catherine of Siena was right when she said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” For one living in fellowship with the Lord, Iowa could indeed provide a foretaste of heaven.
One of Charles Butler’s songs, published in 1898, gives lovely expression to this truth. It says:
CH-1) Since Christ my soul from sin set free,
This world has been a heav’n to me;
And ’mid earth’s sorrows and its woe,
’Tis heav’n my Jesus here to know.
O hallelujah, yes, ’tis heav’n,
’Tis heav’n to know my sins forgiv’n,
On land or sea, what matters where?
Where Jesus is, ’tis heaven there.
CH-2) Once heaven seemed a far off place,
Till Jesus showed His smiling face;
Now it’s begun within my soul,
’Twill last while endless ages roll.
1) Is there a sense in which this life for the Christian can be like heaven? (If so, how?)
2) What is different and distinct about the actual heaven described in God’s Word?