Sermon for 09-11-11: “Heaven and Hell, Part 2: Heaven? Get Real!”

September 11, 2011

In contrast to hell, heaven is a doctrine that we Christians talk about often. What we say about it, however, is often less than fully Christian. I strongly believe that our beliefs about heaven can trivialize our actual Christian hope.

In this sermon, I use Todd Burpo’s bestselling book, “Heaven Is for Real,” as a springboard to discuss a more full-bodied and robust understanding of heaven and resurrection. My main point is that the work we do for God’s kingdom in this life will last for eternity. As a result, this sermon will challenge us to think in a new way about service and mission. 

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 3:10-17

The following is my original manuscript.

My father died 15 years ago. Since that time, whenever something significantly good has happened in my life—like the birth of my children or graduating college or getting ordained—I can count on my Aunt Mary, Dad’s sister, taking me aside and saying, “Oh, honey, I know that your father is looking down from heaven right now, and he is so proud of you!” And I get it. O.K.? I understand the sentiment. And I know that she means well… But I don’t find this thought quite as comforting as my Aunt Mary intends. In fact, it sort of bothers me.

It bothers me because if my father can “look down” from heaven when I’m doing something really good and commendable and praiseworthy, what would stop him from looking down when I’m doing something uncharitable, mean, and harmful? Can’t I have any privacy here? It’s bad enough that God sees me at my worst. Does the entire communion of saints have to also see me at my worst? Is there not some kind of lead-lined umbrella I can carry over me that would shield me from my father’s prying eyes? No offense, Dad, if you are watching.

The Bible doesn’t say that the saints who have died can watch us on earth like the people on earth can watch reality shows on TV. The Bible also doesn’t say that St. Peter will meet us at the gates of heaven when we die, or that we’ll become angels and sprout wings (if we earn them, as in It’s a Wonderful Life), or that we’ll float around on clouds with harps, or that we’ll spend eternity in choir robes singing hymns 24/7, or that we’ll spend eternity in some kind non-stop party.

Many popular ideas about heaven are not in the Bible. And these ideas, I believe, often trivialize heaven. They make it seem unreal, dreamlike and fuzzy, like a fairy tale that says, “And they lived happily ever after.” This kind of heaven doesn’t seem realistic. It feels like wishful thinking. It feels like escapism. In the wake of 9/11, are we offering a troubled nation some realistic hope about justice being done and God’s love winning out and God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death, or are we offering instead visions of pearly gates and angels’ wings and fog machines and harp music and pie in the sky by and by?

I want to say, “Get real!”

There is this very popular book called Heaven Is for Real that many of you have read. I’ve read it now, too. It makes me want to say the same thing: Get real! Heaven is for real, I strongly believe, but the heaven depicted in that book certainly doesn’t make it seem real. Do you know the premise of the book? A pastor named Todd Burpo wrote it about his four-year-old child, who has life-saving surgery. During the course of the surgery he supposedly dies for three minutes. While he’s dead, he goes to heaven and comes back with all sorts of insights about what heaven is like, including what Jesus looks like, what God the Father looks like, and what Satan looks like—although his appearance is too troubling for the child to describe, the father says.

And throughout the book, the pastor is amazed because his son is able to know things that he wouldn’t otherwise know. For example, that his mother miscarried a child before he was born or that his dad’s father was tall, and he was called “Pop.” All of these things convince this pastor that, “Wow! There really is such a place as heaven after all, and here’s what it’s like.”

I have deep misgivings about the book. And I’m sure that the author would tell me, “Well of course you do! You’ve been to some fancy-pants seminary. You make everything so complicated, when in fact it’s really so simple. So simple a four-year-old child can understand it!” And my response is this: Even if I give Colton—the four-year-old—the benefit of the doubt. Even if I take at face value that he had some kind of out-of-body, near death experience—which many people have had. Even if I take at face value that his father is accurately reporting everything the child tells him—not coaching him, not simply hearing what he wants to hear, not interpreting the child’s words in such a way that it’s self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if I allow all these things—that everyone involved is being honest and acting in good faith—I would still say that our Christian hope of heaven is so complex that I would expect a four-year-old to misunderstand it.

After all, we have in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul’s account of his being taken up to what he calls the “third heaven.” And Paul says that what he experienced goes beyond words, that he heard things that he isn’t permitted to even repeat. It was a deeply humbling experience that Paul didn’t even feel comfortable bringing up, much less talking about. But now we have this four year old child doing Paul one better—going way beyond what God saw fit to tell us in scripture. And a father and pastor putting it out there as a bestselling book! I don’t think we need to improve on Paul’s words!

I asked someone what she liked about the book, and she said, “It just gives us so much hope—that we will be reunited with our loved ones after death.” And I said, “That’s fine, but we already have this other book, the Holy Bible, which does that, and unlike every other book ever written it’s inspired in a unique way by the Holy Spirit!” The whole phenomenon of Heaven Is for Real is—for some Protestants—what weeping statues of the Virgin Mary or visitations by Mary are for some Catholics: an inferior substitute for actual revelation from God.

It’s like when I went to the Holy Land. There were places we went to, for example, where you could reach your hand through a hole in the floor and feel the rock on which Jesus was supposedly born. What am I supposed to get out of that, even if it were the actual spot where Jesus was born? What would that experience add to what God’s Word has to say on the subject of Jesus’ birth? Jesus meets us supernaturally through the words of scripture. Jesus meets us supernatually through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. What more do we need?

I’ve had a small handful of what I would call profound spiritual experiences in my life, where God’s presence seems so close and so real to me. Like Wesley, I have found, at times, my heart “strangely warmed.” And I believe that the Holy Spirit gave me those experiences to strengthen me, comfort me, encourage me, build me up—whatever. But nothing I’ve gained from those experiences is more important than what I gain from scripture! Heaven is for real, but its reality isn’t based on what a four-year-old kid does or doesn’t say about it. It’s real because of what God has revealed to us, first and foremost through the person of Jesus and then through the scripture that bears witness to his life and his love.

Besides, the picture of heaven that emerges from the book, as popular as it may be, isn’t always consistent with what scripture reveals. For example, the author never uses the word “resurrection.” And resurrection followed by life in God’s kingdom is what heaven is all about. Here’s the thing: resurrection has only happened so far to one person, and that’s Jesus. Everyone else, including those who have died in Christ, are still waiting for that. No one, including those who have died in Christ, has yet experienced heaven in all its fullness. That reality awaits us at the end of history, on the other side of the Second Coming and final judgment.

You may ask: So where are dead in Christ now? They are resting safely with Christ in an intermediate state sometimes called Paradise or the “bosom of Abraham.” This intermediate state is good. When we die, we will be fully in Christ’s presence. This is what Paul means when he says in Philippians 1:21 that “living is Christ and dying is gain.” This is the place Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 5:8, when he says to be absent from the body is to be home with the Lord. It’s good, but it’s not our ultimate hope.

When we arrive in heaven in all its fullness, we will have bodies—the same kind of resurrected body that Jesus has. Remember that the disciples could touch and feel Jesus. It was a real body. Different, unable to suffer death and decay, but similar. Physical, but more than physical as we know it. We don’t know what we’ll look like, but we’ll be recognizable to one another, just as Jesus was recognizable to his disciples. And when we arrive in heaven in all its fullness, we will live in a new world not completely unlike the world in which we live now. Different—transformed, renewed, re-created—but similar. Physical, but more than physical as we know it. This may sound strange to those of us who grew up with popular hymns, which speak of heaven as some faraway place that our souls fly away to, after we’ve had the good fortune of escaping our bodies, and escaping this miserable trash heap called earth. “Some glad morning when this life is over/ I’ll fly away.” I love the song, and I’ll never stop singing it, but its theology of heaven is terrible!

The Bible’s most extended discussion of resurrection and heaven is 1 Corinthians 15. The last verse of chapter 15, which we often overlook but which happens to be Paul’s main point in talking about heaven in the first place is this: “As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters…” All what? All that Paul has been saying about heaven and resurrection, “you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.” In other words, because of heaven, your labor now isn’t in vain.

What does that mean? What on earth does heaven have to do with our work for the Lord now, and how does heaven ensure that the work we do now isn’t in vain? Well, if Todd Burpo is right, then the work we do now doesn’t matter. Except for the fact that we have to get saved in this world, heaven has no connection to our lives in this world. Fortunately, Paul is saying something else. For Paul, heaven means that the good work we do for the Lord in this world will somehow be preserved and carried over into the world to come. The work we do for God’s kingdom in this life will last for all eternity.

Paul makes the same point, somewhat more negatively, in today’s scripture. When he talks about fire here, he’s not talking about hell. And he isn’t saying that Christians are in danger of going to hell based on the good work that they do or don’t do. This fire that Paul describes isn’t meant to be purgatory, as some Catholics believe. It’s a refining fire. It’s a metaphor that Paul uses to say that the good work we do for God’s kingdom in this world will last for eternity—and everything else will melt away or burn away. It’s another way of saying that our good work on this side of heaven will not be in vain. The most beautiful writing I’ve read on the subject comes from theologian N.T. Wright. Regarding the work we do for God’s kingdom in the here and now, he writes:

You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.1

Wright goes on to say that we can’t imagine what exactly this will look like. Wright is a classical musician. He writes, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.”2

Do you see what this means? Do you get a sense of the biblical vision of heaven? God is working through us now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help create God’s new world. As Paul says, no matter what building materials we use—“whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay”—each of us has something to contribute. God has given each one of us our own unique set of gifts and talents and abilities to be used for God’s kingdom. And when we open ourselves up to God in that way, and we let God use us in that way, and we do the good work of God’s kingdom in this world, we’re not going to be happier doing anything else!

Talk to Greg Thomson about working with those troubled teenage girls in Romania. Talk to Renée Sassaman about working with the homeless on Pine Street in downtown Atlanta. Talk to Don Martin about his work in Honduras. Talk to Stephanie Newton about writing a song that inspires Christians to deeper faith. Talk to Elizabeth LeBlanc who has a passion for ministering to children with special needs. Talk to Hugh Sullins about his involvement in youth missions. Talk to the peanut gallery of the Vinebranch band, Stephen and Grady. Talk to countless Sunday school teachers and Disciple teachers and confirmation teachers who, with very little fanfare, quietly give so much of themselves for the sake of God’s kingdom. Talk to successful business executives in our church who volunteer their time to mentor people and help the unemployed find meaningful work. Talk to these people and ask them: Is there anything better in life? It’s the very meaning of life. It’s the meaning of heaven.

Money can’t buy it. It’s not for sale. But it has been paid for! It’s been paid for by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

If you’ve never taken the first step of faith and become a Christian; if you like what you hear about heaven, but you’re not so sure that you’ll get there; today is the day that you can know for sure that you are a beloved child of God; you can say yes to God’s gift of eternal life in Christ—and make your life count for something; and get to work for God’s kingdom.


1. N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.

2. Ibid., 209.

One Response to “Sermon for 09-11-11: “Heaven and Hell, Part 2: Heaven? Get Real!””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good sermon, Brent. I personally share your view of a sort of “anteroom” that we will be in upon our death rather than in “heaven proper,” so to speak. I also think (again my own opinion) that the “great cloud of witnesses” who are looking at how we are running our race, per Hebrews 12:1, are those in the “anteroom” and that they can see what’s going on (to the extent they may care to), perhaps somewhat how I might watch the Cowboys play football – the good and the bad, cheering and sighing. IMO, only. (As to that, Jesus said there is nothing secret that will not be made public.)

    As for the book – TOTAL TRASH! (in my HUMBLE opinion). Just like a number of other fanciful books written to gain notoriety and pocket money, and perhaps even more nefariously to undermine truth. (Don’t know if you ever read the “Angels on Assignment” book many years back in that same category.) I note that the boy is only 4 years old and that somebody else (the Dad) wrote it. Yes, certainly we had better have something more substantial and compelling to base our beliefs on – which we do, the Bible.

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