UPDATE: Here’s a post that has a perfect feel for the idea of heaven that I grew up around- and that still surrounds me here in the mountains. (PHC= Pentecostal Holiness Church.)
The message of many evangelistically focused conservative Christians is about heaven: How to get there. What will heaven be like. Why heaven is our ultimate destiny. â€œSalvation,â€ in this version of Christianity, is about going to heaven. Purely and simply.
If you died tonight, would God let you into his heaven? Is your name in the book? When the rapture occurs, will you be taken or left?
At another level, however, this message has a more ambiguous, even dark, side: the rejection of the value of earthly life in favor of life in heaven. The longing for heaven can sound like a near suicidal longing to escape this world, something that would set must psychiatrists reaching for the phone.
Many Christians are unclear of the relation of heaven and earth. Heaven is spoken of as up there, out there, away from here. Earth is to be left behind. It is the domain of the devil. A recent speaker at my ministry said that the â€œthird heavenâ€ is a realm beyond the stars and stated it as the undoubtable location.
At the same time, Christians are familiar with the Bibleâ€™s message that God will create â€œnew heaven and a new earth.â€ Believers in an earthly millennium believe that Jesus will reign over an earthly kingdom from his throne in Jerusalem. Yet, some of those same literalists will go into detailed descriptions of the â€œNew Jerusalemâ€ as a gigantic cubed city that will exist……somewhere, perhaps like a Borg spaceship in space.
Christians are told that if they are truly â€œsaved,â€ their attitude toward the relationship of heaven and earth will be the attitude of Paul in Philippians.
My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
From this, some Christians build an entire attitude towards life on earth that contains a kind of competitive spirituality (â€œWho wants to go to heaven more?â€) and a devaluing of life on earth (â€œThis world is not my home.â€)
This becomes a problem immediately, and at several levels.
First, there is the issue of creation and the considerable Biblical teaching on creation as a conveyance of Godâ€™s glory. Creation is the arena where we serve and worship God. We are part of this creation, and were made to be part of it.
Secondly, there is the incarnation, which is an affirmation of creation and Godâ€™s commitment to redeeming that creation. Jesus is the union of heaven and earth.
Thirdly, there are the repeated commands for Godâ€™s people to glorify God in various earthly relationships, vocations and activities.
Finally, there is the eschatological promise that Godâ€™s purpose will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.
Listen carefully to Paulâ€™s actual words in Philippians in their larger context. Do they really say what they are so often quoted to say?
Philippians 1:18b Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
What is â€œfar better?â€ While heaven is always far better than this fallen world, and rest is ideally better than labor, Paul certainly has in mind his imprisonment and prosecution by the Romans as well as what is going on in the Christian communities that Paul cannot respond to as a prisoner.
Paul is not endorsing a general despising of created life and earthly existence or a focus on heaven that devalues the gift of life glorifying God in the present.
I am well aware from my own ministry that there are moments of suffering where it should be clear to any Christian that â€œto depart and be with Christ is far better.â€ A visit to any hospital, nursing home or blighted community will underline this truth.
But this does not negate the gifts of God that are to be appreciated and sacramentally encountered in this life. The Older Testament continually sees the life of the righteous as an earthly life that longs to know God more and serve him in this earthly realm. The â€œheavenly hopeâ€ is absent in the Older Testament, and only begins to shine through later passages.
It is an imbalanced view of scripture to give more attention to Enoch or Elijah than to the perspective of the vast majority of the Older Testament that looks for God to keep his promises in this life as well as in the life beyond. When the New Testament hope of heaven appears in the teachings of Jesus, it is in the context of a developed Jewish understanding that develops from the Older Testament roots. Those roots should not be radically reinterpreted or ignored in favor of a distorted apocalypticism.
This was humorously underlined for me several years ago when someone brought a movie to our ministry produced by fundamentalist Baptist evangelist Estus Perkle (sp?) Much of this film, entitled Heaven, is available on YouTube, as is its sequel The Burning Hell.
Though well-motivated, the film amounts to a study of the perception of heaven by mid-twentieth century Baptist fundamentalists. Crass literalism and cultural prejudice abounds in such a way that heaven appears to be a place most of us would only want to live only if the choices were extremely limited and unpleasant.
Is it possible that the evangelical version of heaven suffers from two major problems:
It is simply not centered enough in God himself, but emphasizes details that are quite probably metaphorical and meant to be secondary to the central truth that heaven is where God reigns most directly. In other words, heaven is the God-present dimension of all reality, not a place somewhere â€œelsewhere.â€
It does not properly emphasize the relationship of heaven and earth, which is not an â€œeither/orâ€ relationship, but a relationship where one is completed by the other. The Paradise is Genesis 1 and Revelation 22 appears to be the â€œmarriageâ€ of heaven and earth in the presence of God himself. Sin has ruptured that harmony, and Jesus Christ, the one mediator between heaven and earth, will once again restore that union.
If this is true, then there is a heavenly aspect to every human activity and the church bears witness to this in Baptism, the Lordâ€™s Supper and its own worship and proclamation. Christians bear witness to this heavenly dimension by sanctifying everything they do with the person of Christ and the centrality of the God revealed in the Gospel.
Listen to the perspective of one of the most â€œheavenlyâ€ passages in the New Testament, Hebrews 12.
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly* of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Heb. 12:25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, â€œYet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.â€ 27 This phrase, â€œYet once more,â€ indicates the removal of things that are shakenâ€”that is, things that have been madeâ€”in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
This is not a future event. It is a present event. We are â€œthereâ€ now. We are receiving this permanent â€œheavenlyâ€ kingdom. The permanent triumph of Godâ€™s Kingdom is not the removal of Godâ€™s people to some distance city beyond space, but the appearance of the New Jerusalem in this world.
This is, for more, a much more helpful perspective on heaven, and one that preserves the holiness and sacredness of glorifying God in this world.