I grew up and was formed in a version of the Christian tradition that practiced a remarkably simple form of Christianity.
It was about going to heaven.
This life was preparation for heaven. God was preparing a place called heaven with lots of mansions. People who accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior by praying a prayer to ask him into their heart had their names written in a book reserving a place in heaven. One day, they would die (or Jesus would return) and go to heaven. Later, they would get their new bodies and live in a city described- literally- in the book of Revelation as a super-sized cube with streets of gold. In that city they would be with all their friends, relatives and Bible characters forever, where they would worship Jesus for all of eternity without illness, pain or death.
If you accepted Jesus- ever, even once- you were going to heaven because once saved, always saved. If you didn’t accept Jesus you were going to hell. Any day at any time, Jesus would return and take his people to heaven in the rapture, leaving the lost people to be ruled over by the anti-Christ until Jesus returned to judge the world and end everything.
The people who were going to heaven went to churches where this is what you talked about all the time. You sang about it. You read about it in the Bible. Preachers preached about it. Nothing was more important. The reason you were on this earth was to “witness” to other people, which meant present them with the plan of how to get to heaven. If they prayed to go to heaven, then you were a “soul winner,” which was the best thing you could ever be in life.
Christians were happier than other people because they were going to heaven. They said “No” to everything the devil wanted them to do, because they were going to heaven, so they didn’t sin as much. They enjoyed church more than anything else, and they went to church as much as possible.
Life on this earth was worthwhile only because of heaven later. If you were a real Christian, like Paul, you wanted to leave this world and go to heaven as soon as possible. In fact, when Paul was caught up to the third heaven, he no longer wanted to be on earth, but to be in heaven. People who were in car wrecks and came back from death always had stories about heaven that included how much they wanted to go there and not go back to earth. But if God made you go back, you’d do it for a little while.
This was the Christianity that shaped and formed me. I heard it preached again this week, plainly and forcefully. It made me realize that I am not the same person I used to be. This is not the center and heart of my faith any more.
I don’t think about heaven as the primary reason for my faith. My faith is centered around Jesus and what it means to know God through Jesus now. I am a person to whom Jesus said “The Kingdom of God is upon you,” and I believe it. Jesus is king, now and forever. I believe in heaven and hell, and I always tell those who hear me preach and teach that God will take his people to a new creation, while those who refuse God’s love and forgiveness will go to hell.
Heaven is where God is. It is as close as a heartbeat. It is the center of reality, not a place “up there,” but the reality I cannot see with my senses but which nonetheless surrounds me. I believe Jesus and his kingdom will “appear” and we’ll realize how close heaven was to earth all along.
When I think of death, I think of going to be with God, to rest in him; to be safe in him and his love. I look forward to the new creation and to resurrection, but it is so far outside of my ability to conceive of it all that I never try to understand much about it. Big books on heaven bore me. Near death experience books actually offend me. They make me feel manipulated.
When someone implies that real Christians want to go to heaven now, I have absolutely no resonance with that sentiment at all. I am a person of this world, and the goodness of God that I know has come to me in the land of the living. I believed in God’s promises for a new creation, but I don’t want to go there now. I want to see my dad and mom again, yes. But I want to be with my beautiful wife and wonderful children, go to work, read a good book, enjoy a ball game and walk my dog.
When it comes to this subject, give me Judaism any day.
All the beauty I know of heaven, I know through the beauty of this world. I can’t reject this world and understand anything of a new creation. All I know of love, I know through the love I have experienced in this world. My body, my mind, my emotions—all are at home in this world. If I was made for another world, that world is not found in rejecting this world, but in the longings for things this world cannot give or satisfy.
Is there too much heaven in some versions of Christianity? Was Jesus as much about heaven as my faith tradition told me? Is rejecting this world and longing for heaven the normal Christian life? Is there something wrong with those of us who are rooted in this world and find out joy in God here now?
Do churches that concentrate on “winning souls for heaven” really represent the Gospel of Jesus?
I’ve got more questions and comments, but that should get us started.