Friday, January 11, 2013

Christianity Applied Chapter 5: What Is Heaven, Anyway?

I vividly remember the time it occurred to me to ask my mom what it meant to go to Heaven. We were driving to my grandparents’ house in San Antonio, and we were probably a block or two away. I’d been thinking about it for much of the drive from our home in Houston, and I finally just spit it out.

“Mom, what do we do in Heaven?”

The fact that I so vividly remember asking the question but have absolutely no recollection of the answer is probably telling, but I was legitimately concerned. Do we all sit on clouds and play harps for eternity, as is depicted in so many paintings? That seems a little boring. I mean, I like harp music as much as anyone, but eternity is a long time and doing pretty much any one thing for that long would have to wear on a person . . .er . . .angel.

Do we return to Earth to visit the living, perhaps setting up interviews with additional ghosts who will convince evil-doers to change their ways via glimpses of the past, present and future?

One of my favorite TV shows growing up was Michael Landon’s “Highway To Heaven,” so perhaps we have the option to come back as travelers, wandering the world working miracles and doing good?

Do we hang out with our loved ones who went before? If so, are we all old and stooped, or do we get to live in Heavenly equivalents of our youthful bodies for all eternity? What fun would it be to sit around on clouds, so old we can barely stand to just sit?

As we have done with all of our questions, let’s take a look at what our ancient ancestors had to say about this complex question.  That won’t take long. The Old Testament says almost nothing about an afterlife of any sort.  Generally, there are passages about going down to sheol , which was simply the place of the dead, not just the good dead or the bad dead, but the dead.  Most of the time, when the word heaven is used it clearly refers to the sky, not an afterlife residence.

Actually, the New Testament isn’t much help, either. Almost all of what we picture about heaven or hell is the cultural picture we've accumulated over time.  Scripture does mention angels (the word literally means “messenger”) but there’s no indication that angels are good people who’ve died and been rewarded with harps and wings.  There’s nothing about sitting on clouds.  Even some of the things that are mentioned in scripture are more likely to be metaphorical, figurative speech rather than literal descriptions of a physical attribute.  The reference to streets of gold is one example of that.  They are mentioned in Revelation 21:21 where it says that, "the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass."  Gold can be pure, but it is never transparent.  Obviously, poetic speech is intended here, not literal facts.

We build stories and jokes around the heaven we want, instead of the few hints we find in the Bible.  For example, at funerals people often talk about seeing those who have died earlier when you get there.  It’s comforting to talk about how Mom will be welcomed by Dad, whom she has missed terribly since he died five years ago.  There are old gospel songs that sing about seeing Mom when I die.  But in Matthew chapter 22, Jesus is asked about a case of a woman who was widowed and married repeatedly.  Whose wife will she be in the afterlife is the question put to Jesus.  He replies that there is no marriage in the afterlife, but people will be like angels, which seems to mean that angels live independent, perhaps asexual, lives.  Some people would picture an unending life without sex (as they have been subjected to it) as heavenly – others would picture life without sex as hell.

In Revelation chapter 21 there is a description of heaven.  This is the only place where gates of pearl are mentioned and it is the roots of our expression about the pearly gates.  Each gate is made from a single pearl and there are twelve gates.  It sounds like it would be difficult for St. Peter to be the gate keeper when you read that there are three gates on each side of a square walled city, 1500 miles on each side. The questions quickly arise: What all have we dreamt up about heaven over the years?  What descriptions in scripture are poetic speech, and which are factual in some way?  The wisest approach may well be that suggested by Reinhold Niebuhr, who said that we shouldn’t worry a lot about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.

The question in everybody’s mind is, who ends up in each destination, who is in glory, who is in torment?  Or, put differently, what do I have to do, how good do I have to be, to go to heaven?   There are a wide variety of suggested answers to those questions.
As a child, I heard a lot of sermons about the straight and narrow path to heaven and the broad superhighway to hell.  Maybe you did, too.  Many people understand that only a small portion of humanity will be saved in heaven - and that hell will have a much larger population.  The most extreme form of this view says that there will only be 144,000 souls in heaven.  That number is based on Revelation 14:1- 4 where verse three speaks of “the 144,000 who have been redeemed from the earth.”  What doesn’t get mentioned very often is that the next verse says that these are people who have not defiled themselves with women -  and they are all virgins.  Reading this passage as an exact and literal description of heaven’s citizens  is not good news for almost all of us.  However, nowhere else are we told that non-virgins need not apply!  In Revelation 7:4, we're told that there will be 144,000 from the tribes of Israel.  Perhaps we're to understand this as an additional group, bringing the total to 288,000.  Even so, this is a pretty small number, roughly two people out of every million of all the people who have ever lived.  That would be 600 people in the whole US today.  I think if that were really the situation, a lot of people would say, “why even try, if the odds are that steep and you have to either be a Jew or a virgin?” 

Obviously, I think claiming that 144 thousand or 288 thousand are all that will be going to heaven is a misuse of scripture; in fact, it’s manipulative and toxic.  Preaching that tiny number to be saved will either motivate people with great fear and anxiety to do exactly as they are taught, or cause them to give up on God in despair.  But, we can see that taking these small numbers as exact really is a misuse of the Bible.   Chapter 7 in Revelation also says, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Rev. 7:9)  A great multitude, too big to count, from every race, every ethnic group, every nation, and every language – that's truly massive and truly inclusive.  It also agrees with other scriptures that describe God’s dream, God's hopes and plans for the creatures he made in his own image.

Many of us are familiar with John 3:16, which reads, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  The next verse is just as important, but less often quoted,  John 3:17 NRS  "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."  God's intent, God's purpose in sending Jesus is not to condemn, but to save.  It doesn’t say, "For God was so disgusted with people that he sent his only Son, that whoever never heard of him or didn’t obey him in every detail, would be in terrible agony for time without end.  You mess up some time in your 70 years and God will make you pay with excruciating pain for thousands and thousands of years." 

Think about how Jesus lived his life.  He didn't go around condemning people.  He went around healing people, feeding people, comforting and blessing people.  Think about how Christ loved outsiders, how he hung out with day laborers, prostitutes, thieving tax collectors, crazy folks, lepers, and the poor.  We tend to see Christianity as a religion that limits God's love to people on the inside, to the believers, to those who belong to some specific group.  What if we saw Christianity as a religion where people spend a lot of their time and energy in the same way that Christ did?
How good do we have to be to have God's approval?  The eleventh chapter of Hebrews has an interesting list of people who had that approval.  There's Abraham, who told people that his wife was his sister and let Pharaoh add her to his harem.  Abraham gave up on God's promise of a son and took a concubine to have a son.  There's Rahab who worked at the world's oldest profession, Samson the womanizer, David the murderer and adulterer, and Jephthah who sacrificed his own daughter.  These are people who are held up as examples of those who had God's approval.  How good do we have to be?  This list should impress us with God's unimaginable mercy and forgiveness.
How merciful is God?  While Revelation mentions 144 thousand Jews being saved, Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, chapter eleven, verse 26, that all Jews will be saved.  That's pretty audacious!  What about people who aren't Jews, and who have never heard of Jesus?  Turning again to Paul's letter to the Romans, we find in chapter two that "14  When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts."  Emil Brunner noted in his commentary on Romans that everybody knows something about right and wrong, or good and evil.  This passage offers a lot of hope for those who instinctively seek to do what's right and who love their neighbor as themselves.   This passage also reminds us that God's favor doesn't rest on one nation alone, or on one culture or ethnic group.

There are some texts in the Bible that stretch God's mercy and pardon beyond our ability to comprehend.  1Timothy 2:3-6 reads, "This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself a ransom for all."  This passage clearly says that God wants everybody to be saved.  With overflowing love God pursues each and every one of us, the good and especially the bad.

An even bolder claim is made two chapters later.  1 Timothy 4:10 NRS  "For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe."  The phrase "savior of all" certainly claims again that God doesn't have a favorite race, ethnic group, or nation.  When "Savior of all" is followed by "especially of those who believe" then the surprising thought expressed is that God is also the Savior of unbelievers, as well.  Some people read this passage and understand it to say that all people, both unbelievers and believers, will be saved.  That's certainly a radical interpretation, but with that in mind, read the scripture again.  ". . . we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." 
We find the same sort of pronouncement in Titus 2:11.  "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all."  In this text, too, we can hear the concept of universal salvation.  You might protest, "But that isn't fair.  Evil people should be punished and good people should be rewarded." I agree, it isn't fair, but it's a risky thing to ask God to be fair.  We might not be as good as we think we are.  Don't pray for God to be fair, pray for God to be forgiving! 
"But it isn't rational," you may say.  Again, I agree.  It isn't rational.  But it wasn't rational for God to choose a tiny, weak, and flawed people to be a light to the nations of the world.  It wasn't rational for God to repeatedly forgive the people of Israel despite all of their complaining, railing against God, and generally being ungrateful pains in the neck in the wilderness of Sinai.  It wasn't rational for God to come in the flesh of a poor peasant in a dirt water town in the boondocks of a conquered country.  And it isn't rational of God to forgive us for ignoring our Lord Monday through Saturday and then complaining if worship takes more than an hour out of our Sunday! 

Be glad that God isn't rational. 

Before we complain that God might save someone who is less deserving than us, we need to be very glad that God is merciful and generous, and that God can choose to do whatever God wants to do without being restricted to fairness or logic.
Don't fret that someone who doesn't deserve it might make it to heaven.  Don't worry about that one bit – because it is bound to happen!  After all, you will be there!  The Apostle Paul explained the good news of the gospel this way.  He told the folks in Corinth, "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them."  God was doing the reconciling, not us.  God wasn't counting up their sins and keeping score.  That's good news for all of us.  "O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good; for his mercy endureth forever." (1 Chronicles 16:34, among several texts)
Scripture gives us various descriptions of who is going to heaven, but the overarching theme of the Bible is that God has loved us from the beginning, God has been patient beyond belief, and God has pursued us and forgiven us of terrible misbehavior.  It is God's prerogative to draw the circle around the saved – and God will draw the circle larger than we would.  Don’t focus too much on heaven.  Don’t be so preoccupied with heaven that all you think about is whether you will get there.

Don’t be so preoccupied with the future that you fail to live in the present.  Some people are so focused on their final destination that they fail to enjoy the journey.  Returning again to the twenty-first chapter of Revelation, we find an interesting description of where heaven is located. "2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, "Look! God's dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God." This passage says two intriguing things.  First, rather than us "rising" to heaven, heaven descends to earth.
Second, instead of us going to live with God, it says that God will live with us. This isn't the way heaven is portrayed in our culture, as some sort of escape off to an eternal vacation.  The passage goes on to talk about transformation."4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.5 Then the one seated on the throne said, 'Look! I'm making all things new.'"  Madeline L’Engle noted in her book, The Rock That Is Higher, “Heaven is wherever and whenever God is present; when he is present within us, then heaven is within us. . . .  It is that place where our souls continue to be taught to grow in love and wisdom.”  L'Engle proposes that the verses in Revelation refer, not to a distant future in a distant place, but to a possible immediate future here and now.  God's place is with humankind says Revelation.  L'Engle says, yes, within us.  That does indeed, "make all things new."  It makes us new.  It makes how we see the world new.  It makes how we see other people new.  It makes how we treat each other new.

We can be so wrapped up in looking for salvation later that we fail to live in salvation now.  We can be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.  God isn’t out to get you – God’s out to save you.  We don’t get what we deserve – we get forgiven!  "O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good; for his mercy endures forever."
Finally, as we struggle to comprehend what Heaven might be like, we can listen to the words of Jesus Christ, who, when asked about the kingdom to come responded, "Nor will people say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' Don't you see? God's kingdom is already inside you." (Luke 17:21)

It seems to be a defining characteristic of the human race that we enjoy intertwining our history with our mythology and then conflating the two. The popular vision of Heaven that we see in Christian book stores, on stained glass windows and even on greeting cards is little more than an example of this phenomenon, as we have seen. With that in mind, we are better served by focusing on the here and now, on getting ourselves right with our God and leaving the afterlife, whatever that may be, to Him.


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