It seems every now and then the providence gives you a nudge that you can still ignore without angering the Almighty, but doing so will rob you of an opportunity, which trying to force later would make awkward. To say that the concepts of heaven and hell are heavily laden with excessive literature, misconceptions, and general abuse is an understatement. This always irks me as a man of theology and an orthodox Christian. It seems the difficulties and baggage surrounding both make some people incapable of taking these concepts seriously, while to others the nuance of these things is too difficult and prompts them to an unhealthy literalism. Either is just as bad, and each is dangerously wrongheaded. These topics have been brought to the surface of my mind as several sermon series’ at church converged along with a random foray into the shady theology of Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort about which I blogged briefly earlier. I thought about writing about hell as the more contentious of the two but decided against it because I just didn’t feel like it. However as I taught a youth-group lesson about the trajectory of salvation history it came to me that teaching satisfactorily about heaven requires teaching about hell and visa versa. As to which to address first heaven was the obvious choice as it is already breaking into our reality, while hell is being prepared now but will only be realized after the resurrection. But more on that in another post.
There are hosts of misconceptions concerning heaven that either make it sound stupid or irrelevant, however I think they fall neatly into three grand categories. The word picture which accompanies these categories best is the iconic image of some chubby cherubic child flying through the infinite plunking the supple strings of an ethereal harp. Sorry Thomas Kinkade fans, but crap like this isn’t heavenly. Thank God!
Many people have been presented with an image of heaven as a really vague reality that is immaterial, lazy, and in some distant future beyond death and time. These three theologically bankrupt errors describe a heaven that is not designed for humans, whose entire concept of satisfactory reality requires tangible interaction, that is boring as hell, and in no way connected to the lives we lead now other than as bait. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this heaven would quickly become hellish to live in. Rather than shred this heinous myth to pieces and stomp on it intellectually, which would be very satisfying, I will save time by making as clear as possible what we do know about heaven.
First, to all the pseudo-Christians who like to be edgy by rejecting major points of theology as superstition or metaphor I will say simply this; Jesus believed very literally in heaven.1
So let’s disarm some of these misconceptions and replace them with proper theology, shall we?
Heaven is physical. Rather than drifting in some luminescent expanse, filled with eerily peaceful synthesizer music, heaven is very concrete and will look a lot like this universe does. God is spirit, but in the incarnation He took on flesh, which is just a fancy way of saying He became as meat-and-bone human as you or I.2 If you stomped on Jesus’ foot He would shout. If He got pushed out an airlock in space He would suffocate and quickly freeze solid. When the Romans nailed Him to a cross His collar-bones suffocated Him under His own weight just the same as every other person crucified. This was not only to share fully in our experience of human life and human suffering, but also to impute, or as I like to think of it inject, his holiness into this physical, mundane, and human reality. Part of being truly holy, is being everlasting. Anything that God has made holy cannot be destroyed. So if heaven was just some super-cosmic cloud of happy gas with souls in it, why would God waste His time making physical reality holy by washing it in the blood of His only son?3 When Jesus rose from the dead He was very clear that He was not a ghost, in fact He made the disciples touch Him and feed Him so they could see He was not an illusion.4 He also said that they would be raised after dying to be like Him, with a real physical heavenly body that cannot be touched by time or harm.5
Why would God not do this? Did he not create an entire physical universe and then command us to explore it and enjoy it? When He created the physical world and the spiritual worlds he called them all good. He made them as He intended them to be, that is as eternal things. He only gave us the gift of death and finitude when we chose to live apart from Him, so that we would not have to live apart from Him forever, for to do so would be to live in hell.6 Why then, when creation is restored to the way it always should have been, would He turn it into some diaphanous hallucination of a reality? God created us to enjoy tangible physical reality and so we will forever in heaven.
Heaven is not for slackers. The idea that heaven is a surreal timeless experience of simply dwelling is not only un-biblical, but even human logic can know that such an existence would become a trap. Anyone who has ever been on a vacation that went too long and had too little to do knows this. God created humanity with the gifts to work and be caretakers of the physical world.7 He had made the world in such a way that we would shape it and create in it. After all, the desire to create is part of His image in us. Humanity is designed to work forever. Now the only things that make us groan when we think of that are human flaws we have put into the idea of work. Work is good. Work tainted by injustice is bad. In heaven work will be unhindered by rivals, it will be free of the coercion of oppressors, and each laborer will live to see the fruits of their labors and share in a just and ample reward. We will work as long as is healthy and rest as long as we need, without the unhealthy imbalance of over-work or laziness. We will forever be occupied mastering our gifts and attaining new ones, and we will do so in seamless and joyful concert with each-other.8 Why would God grant us the instinct to create and the satisfaction to contribute to something larger than ourselves just to park us on the heavenly bench and call it bliss? We will have rest from our earthly labors, and rather than sapping our strength and will to live our just and fulfilling heavenly work will enliven us.
Heaven is not bait to keep us in line. The idea that all heaven is for is to be a future incentive for us to not screw around is the opposite of what heaven truly is. Two things, heaven is more about now than the future, and heaven is not only a future reality. People don’t often know, even in Christian circles, that heaven started breaking into reality two thousand years ago when the first of it’s eternal citizens rose from the dead.9 Now that guy also happens to be heaven’s Lord and master and the architect of the universe, but even so in his resurrection Christ became the first being to possess a heavenly body.10 Since that time the values of the Kingdom of Heaven have been trickling into our reality. The truth that very few know is that we won’t go to heaven, heaven is coming to us. It is slowly over-taking all of our reality, material, spiritual, and institutional until the time is right for Christ to return and bring the fullness of heaven with Him. When this world is utterly destroyed and the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (a good old fire & brimstone saying I just love) that doesn’t mean that all the things we hold dear and have invested in are gone. The old world will be destroyed, in that when it is fully transformed it will be a fully new world in place of the old. The transition from a fallen reality of sin and darkness to one of holiness and light is simply a remaking of things. Christ will make all things new. This is transformation rather than annihilation.11 C.S. Lewis, in his great work The Great Divorce, makes the point that heaven, and hell as we’ll discuss later, work backwards into not only this reality but our past. Christ has made us a promise that He will make all things new and perfect the past, present, and future. That means that as heaven advances, even now, into our lives we will be transformed. Christ will even transform our worst wounds and afflictions into blessings. He won’t just heal the disease or remove the wounding object. He will go further and totally transform these things into light. Even though we were sinners Christ did not destroy us but is making us holy, the same is becoming true of our reality and our past.12 So heaven is much more real, immediate, and functional today than it is some amorphous future ideal. God isn’t dangling heaven in front of us and telling us not to blow it, he’s massaging heaven into the wounds of our past and saying “don’t try to stop it, let it work on you.”13
So when you really know what heaven is and how it works, it becomes a lot less mysterious and much more tangible. Sure the knit-picky details are mysterious, even Jesus doesn’t know when the whole process is going to wrap up.14 But do we really need to know every exact detail about it? What point would there be if God gave you a vision and said, “dude, the world as it is will end and my Kingdom will be fully realized in exactly 6,007,821 years, how legit is that!” Sorry friend, you will be dust long before then and just have to wait with the rest of us. But just the same, what if He said the world was going to end tomorrow, or in a year, or what if He told you exactly which occupation you would be best known for in heaven or which ancient historical figure you’d hit it of best with? Other than the novelty, shortly followed by the sad loss of the sense of mysterious expectation, what help would this be? How would this information impact the way you live your life now? I for one am far more grateful that when I look through the lens of heaven and the resurrection, the most damaging moments of my past are not only healed, but many have become blessings, all in the here and now.15
If you are willing to participate in it, heaven is a process of transformation that begins now and its roots creep back into your past. But if you are unwilling to participate in it, you will find it is an unstoppable force, as I’ll discuss in a coming post.
Peace to you all.
Also, as per the request below I’m adding some scripture references to guide your thinking on some of these points. This is not an academic work so rather than giving full citations I’ll just make little numbered links which will take you to the verses on bible gateway. These references are not meant as proof-texting, but as a guide for your thoughts. There are dozens of passages relevant to every point above, these few can serve as a starting point for you.