Heaven is hard to imagine, but…

October 22, 2012

Is there a lead-lined umbrella to protect us from prying eyes in heaven?

For the past 17 years, whenever a significant milestone in my life occurred—graduations, the birth of my children, ordination—I could count on my Aunt Mary, who died a couple of weeks ago, telling me how confident she was that her late brother, my dad, was “looking down on me” and feeling pride at my accomplishment.

I would never tell her this, but the thought that Dad had the equivalent of a 50-yard-line club-level seat in heaven, viewing all the significant events in my life, never comforted me. On the contrary, if deceased loved ones can see us at our best, what’s stopping them from seeing us at our worst? Speculating about what the dead in Christ can and can’t see down here makes me think of Superman’s X-ray vision. Will a lead-lined umbrella protect me from prying eyes?

The larger problem, however, isn’t my concern for privacy: It’s that now, when I think of heaven, I’m thinking of comic books and superheroes and X-ray vision. I’m thinking of people who live somewhere up there looking at us down here—as if heaven were a place up in the sky. In other words, this way of speaking of heaven makes it seem unreal, which does not help!

The truth is, I struggle to believe in heaven sometimes. It often feels like pie-in-the-sky. Wishful thinking. Too good to be true. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’ve known a few Christians—intellectuals, like me—who say that they don’t need heaven; that it’s enough for them to know God now, and enjoy this gift of life now. They don’t exactly deny the afterlife, but if there is one, it’s just the cherry on top. Heaven isn’t essential to their faith. Moreover, they don’t let hope for an afterlife sully their motives for doing good now. Heaven, they say, won’t be a bribe for good behavior.

To which I say, Spare me, please! I don’t believe you. I think that you struggle to believe in heaven for the same reasons I do. You’re worried that it’s not real, and you don’t want to be disappointed (as if you would experience disappointment if this life were all there is). But instead of confronting the difficulty head-on, reasoning your way through it, you side-step it entirely. Then you pretend that it’s the honorable thing to do.

No, I stand with the apostle Paul, the cold-eyed realist on the matter of the afterlife, who said, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Logically speaking, there’s no evading the fact that without heaven, we Christians are—to put it no more strongly—wasting our time and wasting our lives. Needless to say, my vocation as a Christian pastor is laughably absurd.

But see… that’s just the thing. If, like me, you struggle with heaven, then the moment you read the previous paragraph, something in your heart objected: No way! The way of Christ-like love is good. Self-denial and self-sacrifice are good. It’s good to be a peacemaker. It’s good to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and take care of the sick. Something inside of you wants the captives to be released, the blind to have their vision restored, and the oppressed to be liberated. Don’t you feel this in your bones?

If so, then you can also feel in your bones the logic of heaven. While I may entertain doubts about deceased loved ones looking down on us from above, and other popular, self-serving depictions of heaven, I don’t doubt for a moment my strong desire for justice to be fully and finally done (not against me, mind you, but at least for others). So forget about me, my eternal well-being, my survival beyond the grave, my reunion with departed loved ones. Apart from heaven, it’s impossible that the scales of justice can ever be balanced, or that the Good will be vindicated. Therefore, I find a future that doesn’t include heaven intolerable.

Obviously, this just scratches the surface of the topic. I haven’t said a word about the intermediate state versus full-bodied resurrection, our ultimate Christian hope. I haven’t discussed my favorite writing on the subject, which comes from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. But I got to thinking about these things when I read John Koessler’s recent article in Christianity Today, “Why It’s Hard to imagine Heaven is Real.” You might appreciate it, too. He nicely describes the problems that make heaven hard to believe in. I especially liked this part:

Heaven as we have traditionally pictured it is an uninspiring place, a subject of clichés and the butt of jokes. Heaven is the green space where our loved ones go after they die, not unlike the cemetery itself. It is a quiet and comfortable spot from which our deceased parents and grandparents view significant events like graduations, weddings, family reunions, and presumably their own funerals. Like spectators on a hill who watch from a great distance, they “look down upon us” but cannot do much else.

Such affairs are tedious enough for the living. One can only wonder what they would be like for souls who were permitted to watch but not participate. Would they find our small talk about yesterday’s game or our employer’s irritating behavior to be interesting? Would they enjoy knowing that we miss them? Would they be distressed at the sight of our troubles? If this is heaven, then its inhabitants are more like Marley’s ghost than the angels. They might seek to interfere for good, but lack the power to do so.

If heaven is only a distant gallery from which the departed observe affairs as they unfold on earth, then it is a dull place indeed. It is more like that boring relative’s house your parents forced you to visit when you were a kid—the one without Nintendo or any children your own age—than the place where God’s throne dwells. This popular view of heaven pictures a realm so removed that our voice will not carry to its shores. It is close enough for the departed to watch us but too far away to have any real effect on earth. It is too removed from our present experience to sustain our interest and too far in the future to be of help in the present.

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