Recapturing the image of Heaven, beyond mere singing and harps, beyond streets of gold, beyond the simple contrast between Heaven and that other place (which we also have so wrong) requires an act of sanctified imagination.* In fact, it is precisely this type of imagination that we require to understand the Scriptures at all.
What we see in our Scriptures is nothing but a snapshot; it's not a full script. It's like walking in on skit practice and seeing only a few lines here, a few lines there, but being left to wonder what the full scene looks like. In fact, it might be said that one of the greatest troubles of the church today is that we lack a sanctified imagination, and we treat these snapshots as full-length plays.
We forget to recognize what we aren't given. When the religious people of the town bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus, we see Jesus, alone, crouched in the dirt, surrounded by a ring of religious zealots and one naked woman, fearing for her life (among other things she might be feeling). We don't really imagine any of this; we just accept it.
But when was Jesus ever alone? Not very often. So where were the disciples? They had to be close. Maybe they were right there, too, standing on the same side of Jesus' doodle as the religious elite. What about the rest of the scene? Could you hear the hustle and bustle of the city in the background? Were there caravans of camels passing by? It's foolish to think this whole scene takes place in a vacuum, that nothing else is happening in the world around them. And what about the woman? We are told she was caught in adultery, and the implication is that she is either naked or only barely, and insufficiently, clothed. A sanctified imagination lets us see her nakedness, lets us imagine the tears strolling down her face, lets us feel the shame that she must feel. All of this, we are not told; we must imagine.
What about the calling of the disciples? We read that Jesus was walking along the shore one day and saw some fishermen out in a boat and called to them. And again, we assume all of this happened in a vacuum - there is one man on the shore, one boat in the water, two men on the boat. There is no room for the rest of the world. But what if there was? What if Jesus was just one of many walking on the shore that day? Perhaps the crowds came to the seashore to buy some fresh fish. Perhaps many were waiting on the boats to return. And yes, boats. Fishing was big trade; are we not foolish to assume no one else was out there at the time? Jesus called, "Come, follow me!" and only two men were willing to think He was talking to them. How did the men in the other boats react? How did the other men in Simon and Andrew's boat react? Yes, there must have been other men. After the resurrection, we see a bunch of men fishing together on one boat. Are we to believe that there must be only two men fishing the same boat three years before? Ridiculous.
Even in the case of Heaven. As I said a couple of days ago, we read the descriptions of Heaven, which are mostly physical descriptions. Even if these were accurate, let me ask you this: how many people have you ever, in your mind, seen walking on those streets of gold? They're always empty! The streets of gold, the fine gems, the mansions - mansions with nobody on their lawns. Nobody's grilling out. There's no community. It's a huge failure of our sanctified imaginations.
It's why we struggle so much with Jesus in general.
So much of what we think we see of Him is far-removed from real-life situations. We never hear the world in the background. We never see the others in the scene. We never consider the passers-by, the spectacle, what it might be like to be tangential to the story, so tangential that you're not even mentioned, but you're there nonetheless. We limit ourselves to 12 disciples. In the beginning of Acts, the disciples themselves tell us there were two other men who had been with them from the very beginning, who had seen everything. Where were these two men? Our minds don't allow for them. Or when Luke mentions the women who followed Jesus, we are surprised. We have made no space for them.
When we recapture our sanctified imaginations and put them to good use, we start to see the Scripture situated in the real world, and this is only ever to our benefit. After all, aren't we still living here? Aren't we still living in a place where there's not just one man on the seashore and one or two of us in our boats? Aren't we living in a place where a man can cut the line to talk to a tax collector, and we could be in that line. (You thought Matthew was just ho-humming it in his booth during a little bit of down time or a lunch break, didn't you? No! There were people there!) Aren't we living in a world where, when the Lord is crucified just outside the city, we can still hear the echo of the shofar announcing the sacrifice in the Temple? Aren't we living in a world that's more than just a vacuum, more than simple little scenes far-removed from everything?
Don't we need to be able to see Jesus in that world?
The Scriptures give Him to us there, but they don't give us all of the stage. They don't give us all of the scenery. They don't tell us how many trees or rocks or passersby, how many animals in the manger, or how many fishermen on the sea. They don't tell us how many fig trees lined the road. (You thought it was just one, didn't you? One lonely, little tree with no fruit.) They don't tell us how many other people ever climbed trees to see Him, how many children were sitting on shoulders, how many men were standing on rocks, trying to get a better look. They don't tell us who was cooking dinner in Simon's house or how they reacted to having this whole posse of Jesus invite themselves over for dinner. (Oh, you thought it was just Jesus who came to sup? Again, when was Jesus ever alone? Only a few times, and we are told specifically when.) They don't tell us what the community of Heaven is like, only the landscape.
All of these things take a sanctified imagination.
And it's absolutely crucial. Until we can begin to see Jesus in the real world, we will never see Him in the real world. But He's been here all along. All we have to do to see it is to learn how to set the scene.
* I owe the concept of sanctified imagination to a pastor that I met a few weeks ago, who used this phrase repeatedly to invite us to enter into the living drama of the living Christ.