I am going to take it in two contexts. One context is overtly spiritual. The other context is to use it as a phrase that makes some sense, but actually has nothing to do with religion or spirituality. This might be the way you would hear the phrase in contemporary culture, much like swearing might use God-language, but have no real reference to God.
The first way this phrase can be used is the spiritual. I prefer this one and want to spend some significant time developing it. In this sense “heaven” normally means the place to which we (at least the good ones!) go after death. Any of us who have gone to funerals may have heard this kind of reference. We hear phrases such as, “he was a God-fearing man who now is with his Maker.” Heaven can be seen as a kind of reward for a life well lived.
Sometimes this post-mortem view of heaven serves as an incentive to living an ethical life. It might imply if you are a scamp or no-good kind of person, heaven will not be your destination. In fact, I have been a little unnerved by some folks speculating on the ultimate destination of this or that person. I have little doubt that some people have considered me hell-bound!
However, the phrase, “to make heaven on earth,” struck me for its contrarian perspective. It does not negate what might be true after we die. I am happy with the idea of heaven as a good place, a happy place---a state of peace and joy and wellbeing. I can understand and, even, long for that kind of place and state of being. I am pretty sure folks can create hell on earth! There is too much violence, child abuse, neglect, etc. not to have some perspective of hell on earth. Let’s hope there is at least a chance to make heaven on earth.
To make heaven on earth would be to introduce and maximize the gospel news Jesus taught. It would implement the way of living the Buddha enjoins us to do. Heaven on earth would work for love to become the dominant feature of our life and our relationships. Just imagine there could be only one rule to guide and regulate human interaction. Every relationship and human interaction has to be loving. Some would dismiss this as unrealistic and Pollyannaish. Cynics would come out of the woodwork to make fun of anyone stupid enough to think love could be the dominant mode of relating.
I am willing to stand accused of such naïveté. In fact, I am so convinced of the ultimate possibility of making heaven on earth, that I am willing to be compassionate and sacrificial to make it happen. Does that make me gullible? Perhaps, but love is always vulnerable. It seems to me that we are all condemned to a hell, if we are not willing to make heaven on earth. Why else would Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, and all the rest of the saints of the earth have come to teach us a way of love?
I realize many folks might use the language of “heaven” in completely secular ways. For example, I have heard some people describe the ice cream they were eating as “heavenly!” Perhaps I don’t like ice cream well enough for it to reach heavenly status! With this kind of secular definition of “heaven,” anything that reaches superb or optimum status becomes heavenly. I like good things as well as the next guy, but good things are not by definition “heavenly.”
I don’t mind spiritual language being used in a secular way. Ice cream might be heavenly for someone, but that does not bring a kingdom of love and peace and joy. I am quite confident evil people could think ice cream is heavenly and when they are eating ice cream, they have a bit of heaven on earth!
So I am back to the spiritual meaning of heaven. I might have hopes of heaven after death. But right now, I harbor hopes that I can begin to do my part to make heaven on earth. If I can do that, I have lived a good life. If I can lure others into the heaven-making project, then we have an even better chance to carving out some heavenly places and times. Churches and temples and mosques could be thing beginning of making heaven on earth.
But the spiritual extend deeply into our everyday life. Much of my heaven-making will be done on my job and in my weekends when I am with other people. Some of it will be done in cars driving down the road. No doubt, much of heaven-making will happen in small ways that ultimately make a huge difference. Each day I want to get up, get dressed and proceed to make heaven on earth. Join me!