The world is full of bizarre phobias. One of the strangest is arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. (If you’re that scared then why are you eating a Reese Peanut butter cup to begin with?!)
As a theologian, my pick for the weirdest phobia (at least on the surface) is ouranophobia, the fear of heaven. How could anybody fear heaven? Isn’t that crazy?
The problem is that when you consider the kinds of images of heaven that people have gleaned from the church, ouranophobia doesn’t seem like such a strange condition after all. For example, because heaven is presumably about worshipping God, and we’re supposed to be worshipping God in church, many have concluded that heaven will be like a never-ending worship church service. The problem with that image is that Christians generally don’t seem to view the church service as the absolute high point of their week, so it is dubious based on that evidence to think that a never-ending church service will be the place of maximal joy. Indeed, it is almost like telling a child that is diligently chewing his vegetables that heaven is like eating an endless bowl of raw broccoli and cauliflower.
Mark Twain waxed on this very problem as follows:
As you have seen, that singular show is a service of divine worship—a service of praise: praise by hymn, praise by instrumental ecstasies, praise by prostration. It takes the place of “church.” Now then, in the earth these people cannot stand much church—an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. That is to say, Sunday. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing. And so—consider what their heaven provides for them: “church” that lasts forever, and a Sabbath that has no end! They quickly weary of this brief hebdomadal Sabbath here, yet they long for that eternal one; they dream of it, they talk of it, they think they think they are going to enjoy it—with all their simple hearts they think they think they are going to be happy in it! (“Letters from the Earth,” The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, ed. Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 225-26.)
The man has a point. There is a tension, if not a downright inconsistency, between the Christian’s attitude toward church services and the picture of heaven as a never-ending church service.
If ouranophobia can be traced, at least in part, to milquetoast images of heaven as like never-ending church, what can redeem it?
In response to this question I would advocate we are better off thinking of all the greatest moments of beauty and goodness as more appropriate icons for our heavenly destiny. You don’t look at an icon so much as through it to the transcendent reality beyond. And so it is for the world. All that is most wonderful and glorious about earth now is but an icon, a pale image like a shadow flicerking on the back of Plato’s famous cave, which draws us to look at the unimaginable glory that awaits. I’ll let each of you fill in the blank for what is truly most beautiful and glorious. While our intuitions in this regard are not infallible, they are generally a more reliable guide than the bleak images of church service plus infinity. The fact is that hard wooden pews, rambling flat sermons, and droning hymns or thin, derivative choruses are often rather poor icons.