October 28, 2020

iMonk Classic: Too Much Heaven? (part 2)

The classic Michael Spencer piece “Too Much Heaven?” that we ran last Saturday has raised some good questions and comments. That piece was originally part one of a three-part series, so this week we will post the other two articles. That way, readers can get Michael’s complete message.

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. “Salvation,” 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 “third heaven” is a realm beyond the stars and stated it as the undoubtable location.

At the same time, Christians are familiar with the Bible’s message that God will create “new heaven and a new earth.” 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 “New Jerusalem” as a gigantic cubed city that will exist……somewhere, perhaps like a Borg spaceship in space.

Christians are told that if they are truly “saved,” 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 (“Who wants to go to heaven more?”) and a devaluing of life on earth (“This world is not my home.”)

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 God’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 God’s commitment to redeeming that creation. Jesus is the union of heaven and earth.

Thirdly, there are the repeated commands for God’s people to glorify God in various earthly relationships, vocations and activities.

Finally, there is the eschatological promise that God’s purpose will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

Listen carefully to Paul’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 “far better?” 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 “to depart and be with Christ is far better.” 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 “heavenly hope” 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 “elsewhere.”

It does not properly emphasize the relationship of heaven and earth, which is not an “either/or” relationship, but a relationship where one is completed by the other. The Paradise is Genesis 1 and Revelation 22 appears to be the “marriage” 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 Lord’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 “heavenly” 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, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—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 “there” now. We are receiving this permanent “heavenly” kingdom. The permanent triumph of God’s Kingdom is not the removal of God’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.

Comments

  1. I have a need to live in beautiful places. I think the beauty of nature represents a piece of heaven. Or maybe it isn’t a representation, but an actual, literal piece. There is a great deal about this world that horrifies me. There are moments when I beg the Lord to end a certain evil, knowing that it means ending this world.

    God’s creation helps me deal with those moments that start me on the way to a panic attack. I think heaven might also be those moments when you feel the kinship with other believers. There is an invisible sort of connection between us. It may be a selfish reason for wanting those who don’t believe to join us and become a part of this kinship.

    I would love for there to be more heaven and less horror.

    • *There is an invisible sort of connection between us. It may be a selfish reason for wanting those who don’t believe to join us and become a part of this kinship.*

      Whatever you say, Locutus.

  2. From the formation of stars and galaxies to the activities of viruses and bacteria and cancer cells and herbivores and carnivores, insects and fungi, worms, plants, and soil, seeds, eggs and parasites, God’s natural creation is about the endless and cyclical reproduction and destruction and transmutation and transmission of matter and energy. It can be a beautiful show at times, but ultimately the physical is all about eating and being eaten. Live, spawn and die.

    • Somebody needs a puppy.

    • “It can be a beautiful show at times, but ultimately the physical is all about eating and being eaten. Live, spawn and die.”

      I think the point of the incarnation, Jesus coming in the flesh, was to let us know that this is not what the world is all about. The world is also an arena where we can give and receive love. It is a place where we can know God.

      Additionally, the resurrection reminds us that we are destined to receive new bodies. We were not meant to live as bodiless souls. As Paul writes in 1 Cor 15, we will receive “spiritual” bodies.

      So, the question we have to ask is, will those bodies be “physical”. That depends on what one means by the word physical. I believe that our bodies will be corporeal, as Jesus’ resurrection body was. Of course, they will also be imperishable, so they will be different from our current physical bodies.

      Setting that aside, the point of 1 Cor 15 is that there is continuity between this life and the life to come. This world is fallen, but we are still responsible to act justly in this life; and if we don’t act justly in this life then we won’t be prepared for the life to come.

  3. Quixotequest says

    I’ve got N.T.-Wright-on-the-brain because of having listening to the recent Wheaton lectures a couple of times. Listening to Wright talk about the integral time-and-space reality of the present Kingdom of Heaven, and how that springs up hope and wonder for the renewing and yet future creation is like listening to the recent “Into The Universe” Stephen Hawking shows on Discovery Channel — there is substance, yet robust wonder and imagination. Truly it is not all certain and regurgitated fact, whether by Hawking or Wright. And in the case of Wright, it is what — if I remember the word choice correctly — Alcorn called a “righteous imagination” when it comes to the subject of heaven.

    So much of “churchiness” is about parsing the minutiae that separate us from the world and creation. Not about cementing us as a light within that creation. It’s not that there isn’t some place for distinguishing what separates us from The World. But its an unhealthy diet to continually affirm disconnectedness from the beauty of God’s redeeming humanity and creation. Yes there is death and sin. There is also a heavenly wonder that we at now get to see through a glass darkly.

    Thankfully Wright is the kind of infectious personality who helps us righteously gaze through that dark glass and embrace this fully hopeful Act in which we live during this Play Of The Ages. So much of evangelical churchiness often contributes to me feeling like I’m supposed to ignore that dark window onto the magnificent cosmos and gaze worshipfully and endlessly at the grasp of seemingly clearer spiritual sand I hold before my gaze now. Why can’t it be both?

    • Chaplain Mike says

      Word.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So much of evangelical churchiness often contributes to me feeling like I’m supposed to ignore that dark window onto the magnificent cosmos and gaze worshipfully and endlessly at the grasp of seemingly clearer spiritual sand I hold before my gaze now.

      I wonder if this might be an additional factor in the Young Earth Creationism Uber Alles attitude that caused so many recent screaming flamewars on this blog. And the utter failure of imagination you run into all the time in today’s Christian (TM) arts. The smaller your cosmos, the less likely to attract attention away from the “handful of spiritual sand” you’re expected to stare at forever. And a 6014-year-old, Earth-and-some-lights-in-the-sky Punyverse (which Is All Gonna Burn by tomorrow at the latest) is small enough. Even if it makes God Almighty look just as puny.

      • Quixotequest says

        I like that term: “punyverse.” It is tragic that the foundational and mysterious trinitarian concept of God doesn’t lead more Christians into more wonder and marvel and creativity and humility as they live within this creation — and therefore become a more creative, lively, and hopeful human interface with imagination-challenged skeptics, materialists and disbelievers.

        That’s not to say all critics of faith are imagination-challenged — I’ve found Sagan and Hawking, for example, surprisingly measured in their religious skepticism even while carefully qualifying their uncertainly in their leaps of wonder. Enough so that I find the efforts of people like that a welcome influence on my faith. However, I think, more than not, “proof in the pudding” should be on the side of Faith; existential defeatism or fudgy-headed apathy is the more pragmatic end course for a tirelessly skeptical and secular world-view.

        Yet a noisy subset of Christian believers, what with their parochial religiosity, personal-holiness-as-culture-war mentality, willingness to divide their world as a I-judge-Us-as-saved-and-Them-unsaved, and inflexibility born of a minute cadre of Bible-as-a-paper-God certainties, create a witness of similarly explosive antimatter to the glum and uninspiring matter of the more shrill aspects of the skeptical culture.

        I think when Christian believers and non-believers alike surrender more to wonder, imagination, creativity, and a self-aware Kierkegaardian comfort with uncertainty and a measure of humble “irrationality” can we better stop talking past each other, and dialogue together over the schisms in our humanity. Most of all, I think the willingness to do so breeds more willingness to act kindly, charitably, and usefully — whether we see that as the fruit of faith driven by God, or the intentional will of the material and independent mind.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I like that term: “punyverse.”

          The word was coined by the online comic strip Sluggy Freelance as a contraction of “Pocket Universe”, i.e. a very small, self-contained universe.

          I’ve been an SF fan since the time of Original (“Old Testament”) Star Trek. The appeal of classic SF has always been its “sense-a-wunda”, so lacking today. Compared to the Golden Age SF I inhaled during my high school and college days, most Evangelical Christians have NO sense-a-wunda, no matter how many praise-phrases they recite. Instead, in anything to do with the imaginative arts, an extreme failure of imagination. After the likes of Poul Anderson or Cordwainer Smith (the last acknowledged as a Christian SF author by everybody except Christians), the predecessors of Left Behind were just so LAME.

          Let’s take the subject of this three-part IMonk Classic — Heaven — as an example. No, let’s take an extreme example for clarity: Compare Tolkien’s Timeless Halls of Iluvatar in Ainulindale and Lewis’s Aslan’s Land in Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Last Battle to Estus Pirkle’s Believer’s Heaven and Left Behind‘s Steaming Piles of Fresh Produce Drenched in Butter.

          Yet a noisy subset of Christian believers, what with their parochial religiosity, personal-holiness-as-culture-war mentality, willingness to divide their world as a I-judge-Us-as-saved-and-Them-unsaved, and inflexibility born of a minute cadre of Bible-as-a-paper-God certainties…

          You know what these guys always reminded me of? Classic Communists. Same attitude, just quoting a different Party Line.

    • Lukas db says

      This thread is made of win. I’m only sorry I have nothing to contribute.

      Hum.

      Read Perelandra. Do it now. Or the Silmarilion. There’s my contribution. Break that punyverse. Or maybe just go for a walk in the woods. Perhaps, if I ever finish this book I’m working on, you can read that too? C’mon, work with me here.

  4. David Cornwell says

    I’ve heard about the Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but at the “thin places” that distance is even smaller. Some of those “thin places” were wild landscapes where they felt the veil was lifted for a bit and Heaven was even nearer.

    We never really know where, when, or how we might experience a thin place. I believe that Heaven is very near indeed and sometimes the veil is thinner than one can imagine. And this takes us beyond propositional logic.

    We await the redemption of all creation.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    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.

    It’s on YouTube under the title “The Believer’s Heaven”, complete with “singing midgets” and 3D6 SAN loss on your Call of Cthulhu character sheet. (Think before you click; I sent this link to my burned-out preacher of a writing partner and he still says he’s “going to get me” for it. The singing midgets were what did it.)

    The name “Estus Pirkle” also shows up on several Bad Cinema sites, mostly in combination with his filmmaker Ron Ormond, AKA “The Ed Wood of Christploitation Flicks”. (Now if I could just find those URLs… Try Googling “Estus Pirkle” or “Ron Ormond”…)

    P.S. Here’s YouTube’s clip of “The Burning Hell”; the entire movie is apparently available in the sidebars. 3D6 SAN loss minimum. Ia, Ia, Cthulhu, Fthagn…

    • The burning hell…. wow. Thanks for a thoroughly entertaining lunchtime Headless. Do you regularly write anywhere? I always enjoy your contributions.

    • While I can see the good intentions, ultimately, this ends up being disturbing and confusing for Christians trying to ask the question, “I’ve accepted Christ. Now what?”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Nothing. Nothing to do, nothing you can do except sit and wait for Christ to come back and Rapture you into Believer’s Heaven, fluffy clouds, midget praise singers and all. Oh, and go outside your four Thomas Kincade-decorated walls only for drive-by prosletyzing sallies to get as many notches on your Bible as you can because that’s the only thing that counts in Heaven. Is that kind of “Christian Life (TM)” worth living? Or is it even living at all?

  6. Even though we snicker at the more extreme views of hell, I still believe it to be a subject just as important as heaven.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I find it interesting that Christ’s mentions of Hell all use the image of Gehenna — Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem’s city dump. More of a discard pile than Uncle Zeke’s Neverending Torture Party.

  7. Hey, Chaplain Mike – that “ADDITIONAL READING” link takes one to a WordPress log-in page – could another (perhaps cached) link be substituted? Thanks!

    • Sorry Christine, I should have checked it first. I have not yet been able to get it to work. I’ve removed it, but if you see it reappear, it means I solved the mystery. Thanks for the notice.

  8. wandering_sheep says

    If you do good things, you feel good; if you do bad things, you feel bad. Heaven and hell exist as much on earth as they do anywhere else.

  9. It seems interesting that in Philippians we find Paul having a desire to depart, and in 2 Corinthians he speaks about groaning earnestly and being burdened to be clothed upon with his heavenly suit after speaking about not looking at that which is seen since it is temporary. Then in verse 8 he tells that he is willing rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. How do these inspired words of God work in relation to your ideas on being heavenly-minded?

    Philippians 1: 23For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:

    2 Corinthians 4: 17For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; 18While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
    2 Corinthians 5: 1For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: 3If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. 4For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. 5Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.
    6Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: 7(For we walk by faith, not by sight:) 8We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.

  10. Ekstasis says

    There is a concept is some other religions of Equanimity. This is the concept of being equally impartial to all conditions and outcomes. The idea is that we should do the right thing at all times, and yet not worry about the outcome. As soon as we desire certain outcomes, we then become slaves of these very desires and passions, even if it is for something good.

    Perhaps this applies to the whole heaven-earth-hell thing. Constantly desiring something that we do not yet have, such as heaven, can make us discontented with our present condition. This is much like finding a mate and getting married. The harder you try, the worse the prospects. Rather, if we are so consumed in love with Christ, we will not bother thinking about our own selfish condition and destination, and then God is free to provide us the very best future and destination possible. Saint Therese of Lisieux, for example, was so in love with Christ that she forgot all about her own soul and heaven. This is how we are united as one with Christ. As long as we think of our separateness we cannot be merged into the divine. Wow!

    • Lukas db says

      Like in the Bhagavad Gita: you have the right to your labor, not the fruits of your labor. That is, we must do what is right simply because it is right, not because we expect a reward to come of it. Let God take care of rewards and ultimate destinies; all we can do is what is right.

      Though I think this is both proper and important, I also feel that, as a Christian, I cannot go so far as to say that we should be perfectly impartial to all outcomes. We may trust God to bring about the best possible outcome, and we may not know what that will be; but certainly it will be a specific kind of outcome – one in which the creation, and its seperateness from God, is fully emphasized and glorified. I do not think the end of all things will consist of us being ‘merged into the divine.’ Union, yes; perfect union. But a union that serves to emphasize, not obliterate, the creative actions of God.