When presented the opportunity of going to heaven in a recent discussion on the blog Brap Gronk replied “Can I opt out? I’ve never seen a description of heaven that appealed to me.” BG’s not alone. Billy Joel sang basically the same thing in “Only the Good Die Young”:
They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
the sinners are much more fun…
I can already hear the defensive reactions: “Billy Joel’s one of them pagan rock and rollers. Of course that’s what he’d say.” But not so quick. I know many non-pagan non-rock and rollers — indeed, I know many non-pagan, non-rock and rolling Christians — who share some of those concerns. For them it is really tough to get excited about heaven.
Why is that? How could this be? I submit it is because they’ve been sold a false bill of goods. Often it is something not far off the old Philadelphia brand Cream Cheese ads:
The fact is that many Christians have believed our destiny is to leave the material world behind and go to heaven which, in popular imagery, often comes replete with puffy clouds, harps, angels wings, and perhaps bagels smeared with low fat cream cheese.
Ugh. It is no wonder that people don’t get excited about heaven. The fact is that this picture is a mishmash of pagan mythology, platonic philosophy and Kraft’s slick marketing. Despite the prevalence of certain popular notions, the biblical portrait of our final destiny is not about an etheral, other-worldly heaven at all.
Let me introduce the good news of what “heaven” really is with an illustration that brings our perpetual misunderstanding into broader and deeper relief. Picture eighteen year old Artie. He loves painting (get it? ARTie! Clever, eh?). Artie wants nothing more than to fulfill his potential as an artist by going to university and taking a degree in art in which he can apprentice under the masters, visit the leading museums of Europe, learn how to work with clay, marble and oils. You get the picture.
But ever since Artie was a wee lad he’s been told that when he goes to university his dad will want him to do a Bachelor’s of Business Administration and take over the family autoparts business. So every time he hears of university he thinks of having to take business classes, economics, accounting … ugh. Is it any surprise that Artie cannot get excited about university? It is (so he thinks) precisely what he does not want to study. It isn’t fashioned for Artie at all.
So imagine somebody sitting Artie down and saying the following: “Who told you your dad wants you to do a BBA? Artie that’s baloney. Your dad has brought you up to have a love for art. Do you think he’s going to deprive you of that? On the contrary, university will be more wonderous than you can imagine. Forget business at a community college. You’re going to study at the Florence University of the Arts, right in the middle of all the greatest art in the world!” Now do you think Artie would start getting excited?
Milquetoast, otherworldly portraits of “heaven” have been our BBA. Forget the clouds and angels wings. That’s the mythology. And forget also the otherworldly disembodied existence. That’s Greek philosophy. The biblical portrait is of a new heaven and new earth (Isa. 65:17; Isa. 66:22; 2 Pe. 3:7; Rev. 21) which is tangible and material, fitting when you consider we’ll be given perfected tangible and material resurrection bodies (I Cor. 15) just like Jesus. What is more, just as our new resurrection body is our old body perfected so our “new heaven and earth” will, according to Paul, simply be the old heaven and earth perfected (Rom. 8:19-21). We’ve been thinking our future home is somewhere over the horizon when, to borrow the lyrics from an old Survivor song, “The search is over, you were with me all the while.”
C.S. Lewis captured this beautifully in his story The Great Divorce. In the book people travel on a bus from a purgatorial city of bleak November rain (anybody who has spent a winter in the bleaker industrial sections of a city in the British Midlands will not have trouble conjuring up what Lewis had in mind) to the borderlands of “heaven”. This world is not blurry and ethereal. On the contrary, its tangible, concrete reality simply overwhelms the senses. The colors are almost blinding. Even the grass is so real it hurts the feet merely to step on it. I suspect Lewis is close to the truth. We are material embodied beings designed to live and thrive within a material world. God has made us to find fulfillment in the very best of creation. At this point I think I’ll give Lewis the last word:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea.”