The Nature of Heaven

In the spring, around Easter, there is a lot of theological activity in the media, both mainstream news and entertainment (is there a difference?). The old biblical epics from the 1950s and 1960s are rerun on the movie channels. The documentary channels rerun their stock of one-hour programs on the “Lost Gospels” or “Secrets of the Bible.” And the news magazines strive to outdo each other with provocative cover stories on religious themes.

I recently re-subscribed to Time magazine after about a thirty year hiatus to use up some expiring flyer miles. I have enjoyed it a great deal. Time has a strong cast of writers and always includes an article or two that makes me think. The latest issue, dated April 16, 2012, arrived at the Krause Haus on Saturday, and I was immediately drawn to the cover story, “Rethinking Heaven,” by Jon Meacham, who is an accomplished author on religion in America and an active member of an Episcopal church in New York City.

Meacham’s article is concerned with a shift in the thinking of many Christians on what “heaven” is. He notes the traditional view that heaven is a destination, a place we go to, a place where God resides. Heaven is full of music and angels and the final resting place for faithful believers. Meacham’s research has shown him that this view is inadequate for the many in the younger generations of Christians, the Gen-Xers and the Millennials. They don’t want to wait until they die to experience heaven. They want it now, and they find it in working to establish heaven in the here and now. Meacham quotes John Blanchard from the Rock Church International: “Heaven isn’t just a place you go–heaven is how you live your life.”

Meacham’s guiding star in this reoriented view of heaven is a favorite author of American evangelicals, N.T. (Tom) Wright, the former Bishop of Durham in England. I heard Wright speak in Seattle five years ago, and this subject was raised in the Q & A. Wright, always winsome, was a little cagey when pushed on his view of heaven, but he ended the discussion this way, “Let me just say this, heaven is a lot closer than you think.”

It seems to me, then, that there is a move past the doctrine of heaven as future reward, delayed gratification. In the old view, we were willing to suffer now because future eternity was glorious. The new emphasis does not necessarily reject this, but asks, “Why wait?” (one of my favorite questions). Why can’t we change the world now?

This surely has implications for how we do church. Our meetings on Sunday mornings are often attempts to re-enact what we imagine heaven to be like: worship singing, hearing the Word preached, etc. What if we worked to establish the Kingdom of Heaven/God on earth in our lives, our daily lives? What if this were more the focus of the church than large gatherings once a week? As Blanchard also said, the younger Christians are “motivated to make a positive difference in the world.”

Ecclesiastes reminds us there is nothing new under the sun, and I see two historical connections to this burning desire to make a better world. First, it certainly is reminiscent of the old Post-Millennial view, of the church growing and establishing the reign of God on earth before Christ’s return. This view, popular in the 19th century, was effectively demolished by the horror of the unending global wars of the 20th century. It was also co-opted by secular forces that thought a better world would be created by science and technology. Is the time ripe for a revival of this view?

The other connection I see is with my generation, the folks of the late 1960s and early 1970s who said things like “Give peace a chance” and actively (if naively) worked against the militarism that dominated global politics. Much of the boom generation sold out to the materialism of the 1980s and lost this type of vision. Maybe the Millennials, our beloved children, will pick up where we failed. Maybe we can carve out a little more heaven here on earth.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

BTW: For the many who read my blog on Theological Mistakes #9: “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”, you might be interested in a recent article in Christianity Today, by Al Hsu, “He’s Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus.

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One thought on “The Nature of Heaven

  1. Great thoughts. I think Wright is dead on when he tackles this issue in Surprised by Hope. He certainly doesn’t reject the idea of heaven in the afterlife (though he, rightly I think, sees in Revelation 21-22 a vision of heaven and earth coming together in a new way, no longer separate). But he does believe that part of our mission is to bring the life of heaven into the present.

    I think you’re suggesting something similar when you ask “What if we worked to establish the Kingdom of Heaven/God on earth in our lives, our daily lives?” In Luke 11:20, Jesus said “But if I am casting out demons by the power of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” He seems to be saying that the Kingdom of God is not just a future reality, but one that is present now, inaugurated somehow by his own life on earth. So what does it mean to say that the Kingdom of God is a present reality, and to work to make it more of a reality now? Perhaps one element is to look at how the future is described in the Bible (the absence of pain and suffering, the presence of peace, every knee will bow, and so on), and to work to make those things a reality now. Unlike the Post-Millennial view, I don’t believe we can truly bring heaven on earth – the things the Bible describes will not be complete until Jesus’ return. But I do believe part of our work is to be agents of God’s work, through whom the future reality breaks into the present. Which sounds to me an awful lot like carving “out a little more heaven here on earth.”

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