By Roberta Green Ahmanson
How do dreams shape our lives? Christianity began in a culture in many ways similar to our own idolatrous culture and our brothers and sisters down through time have also faced the same question, and responded by allowing Scripture to drench their imagination and dreams.
Those dreams shaped culture for more than a thousand years. So let us take a closer look at the relationship between such dreams and reality.
We become what we worship. Our vision shapes our concrete future. The Bible is very clear on this. Where there is no vision it warns, the people will “cast off restraint” and “perish” (Prov. 28:12). Today we live in a world languishing for lack of genuine prophetic vision, based in reality. This affects our lives, our nations, and our world.
Citizens of Two Countries
God has given us a heavenly vision, the New Jerusalem. Christians in the past understood that they were citizens of two countries—this world and the New Jerusalem. We need to reclaim that vision—for our own sakes and for the sake of the world.
In his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, the brilliant novelist David Foster Wallace said: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Wallace took his life at 46 in 2008.
What we worship makes all the difference in who we are and what we do in the world. When scholars talk about the “de-mystification” of reality in the West, they mean that a materialist worldview has captured our imaginations. God and his vision are dismissed as comforting lies.
But since matter is not the ultimate reality, as the Bible writers knew, we seek other ways to meet a real longing. We work and work to buy more and more things. We deaden the longing inside however we can—with work, sex, drugs, and alcohol.
British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, who died from alcohol poisoning at 27, described her inner vision in her hit “Rehab”: “The Man said, ‘Why do you think you’re here?’ I said, ‘I got no idea, I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby so I always keep a bottle near.’”
Then there are role-playing video games. Asians are among the most dedicated users. Thirty percent of South Koreans under 18 are at risk for Internet addiction.
Imagine a Godly Future
Brandon O’Brian, an editor at Leadership Journal, speaks to the longing of our Korean friends when he writes that the Bible calls us to adopt an imagination “that helps us look beyond our own experience.” We must learn to see what God sees, he says—to imagine, as the prophets did, a godly future.
And Jesus goes a step beyond the prophets, O’Brian points out, for he speaks not just of the future, but of the present: “Jesus invites his followers to imagine that the kingdom of God is at hand, and with it have come all those promised reversals . . . . the imagination was Jesus’ main target.”
The danger for all dream-losers reaches to our very identity. Psalm 135: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men . . . . Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
So what is the heavenly vision? What difference does it make in real time? Isaiah pictures a heavenly home where there is no violence, destruction, darkness, slavery, prisons, faint hearts, tears, or death.
Scripture makes it clear that we have dual citizenship: here on earth and in our heavenly home. For example, in Hebrews 11 we are told Abraham was looking for a city whose architect and builder is God. Hebrews 13 says, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city to come.”
Then John, in Revelation 21, confirms what Isaiah prophesied and what Abraham knew. He sees the city we are longing for: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
Exploring Ancient Churches
Growing up in a Baptist church, I had heard those verses many times, usually in sermons about the rapture and the last days. But it wasn’t until much later that I began to see they had real consequences for life right here on earth.
In my travels I have explored many ancient churches, hoping to get in touch with what Christians before me thought, understood, and did.
Before the year 1000, churches often depicted the New Jerusalem on the arch over the altar in glittering mosaic. An example is the 9th-century Santa Praesede in Rome. In other churches, the Last Judgment and Christ in eternal glory were seen above the door as one walked out. Santa Maria Assunta, on the island of Torcello in the Venice Lagoon, displays this image, which also comes from Revelation 21:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it.
Accompany me now in your mind’s eye to Aachen, Germany, where Charlemagne between 793 and 805 built a whole church as a three-dimensional icon of the New Jerusalem. The church itself is designed to welcome Christ when he returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Eighth Day of Resurrection
The building is an octagon, representing the seven days of creation plus the eighth day of resurrection and new life. The ceiling was originally a mosaic, glittering and golden, showing the 24 elders of Revelation bringing their crowns to Christ. An inscription at the base of the dome informs us that all the numbers have meaning.
The chandelier, given by Frederic Barbarossa in the 12th century, represents the wall of Jerusalem, here with eight gates instead of 12 in order to harmonize with the building. But it has 48 candles, 12 iron bars, and 24 golden globes, all multiples of 12.
The gallery above, held up by 32 stone pillars given by Popes Hadrian and Leo III, is the setting for the throne where Christ may sit to judge the world. Research has found that it is made of marble brought from Jerusalem, perhaps even from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the 14th century, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV added a heaven-like chapel to honor Charlemagne and the relics of the Savior. His inspiration was the 13th-century Sainte Chapelle in Paris, built by the French king, St. Louis, to house the relic of the Crown of Thorns. That chapel, too, embodied the New Jerusalem. in 1521, the Bavarian city of Augsburg faced a housing crisis for its working poor. The Fuggers, Europe’s most powerful banking family and Catholics, responded. The Fuggerai, the first low-income housing development in Europe, provides housing for the poor to this day.
Blueprint for the Earthly City
When St. Augustine responded to the 410 sack of Rome with his book The City of God, he reminded believers of their dual citizenship. His vision of the heavenly city became the blueprint for the actual city here on earth for most of the next 800 years. Then other dreams began to take over.
In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis put it this way:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
The German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand put it another way. Why, he asks, did Christ begin his ministry by making wine for a wedding party in the little Galilean town of Cana? His answer:
[At Cana] we find this divine extravagance, this unlimitedness of charity which reaches to the smallest detail. It is this divine tenderness which excludes no gift from its intention as long as it is a beneficial good to the person . . . At Cana joy was the theme.
An opinion survey in 2010 by Euro RSCG Worldwide found that 67 percent of Americans “felt the recession had served to remind people of what is really important in life. Forty-eight percent said they were actively trying to figure out what made them happy.”
Aim at Heaven
Documented longing. The idols are failing. But we know what our brothers and sisters in Naumburg well knew. We become what we worship. Aim at heaven and get earth thrown in. Walk through the cross to glory. Live in glory and make earth its reflection.
Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison described that longing on his 1989 hit album Avalon Sunset:
You brought it to my attention that everything was made in God.
Down through centuries of great writings and paintings
Everything lives in God.
Seen through the architecture of great cathedrals,
Down through the history of time….
Is and was in the beginning and evermore shall be.
When will I ever learn to live in God?
When will I ever learn?
He gives me everything I need and more.
When will I ever learn?
When indeed? From today onward, the rest of your life is before you. What you envision for that future will shape its reality. You become what you worship.
When I graduated from college in 1972, my own vision wasn’t clear. I longed for a life of significance. I wanted to make a difference in the world. I wanted to know who I was and what God wanted me to do.
But I was full of fear. However, my longing for God led me through my mistakes, my sins, to a deeper understanding of who I am, of what it means to be a child of God.
I urge us all to stand with our brothers and sisters who, for more than 2000 years, knew what to do on earth because they knew they were headed for heaven.
Reprinted with permission from CENTENNIAL REVIEW, November 2013,