This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “King & Country: The Story That Changes Everything,” coming in summer 2017.
Quick: when I say the word “heaven,” what do you think of? Clouds? Pearly gates? Harps? Do a quick Google search of images of heaven, and that’s most of what you’ll see. It all looks so peaceful, so fluffy, so spiritual. And it’s all wrong.
Something has gone drastically wrong in our modern, Western understanding of the Bible’s teaching on heaven. The derailment of the biblical narrative probably traces its origins back to the fundamentalist-modernist controversies at the beginning of the twentieth century, and an accidental overcorrection on the part of those who courageously defended the authority and truthfulness of the Scriptures. The core of the controversy at the time was a debate over the “supernatural” elements of the gospel story—virgin births, empty tombs, etc. Modernists complained that sophisticated contemporary people could never accept such fantastical fairy tales, and so proposed a more flesh-and-blood, here-and-now understanding of Christianity rooted not in miracles but moralism. Fundamentalists countered with a doubling-down on the reality of the spiritual and eternal and miraculous.
This was a good and necessary defense that preserved the truth of the gospel for future generations. But the wedge driven between spiritual truths and physical reality subtly tore asunder what God had always intended to be joined together. Over time, the “modernist” churches increasingly emphasized physical and temporal realities and called Christians to engage with those issues, and downplayed or jettisoned the spiritual aspects of the gospel. Fundamentalists, and later evangelicals, responded by increasingly emphasizing the importance of conversion and faith, and often downplayed or jettisoned the physical and temporal causes that “liberals” advocated. And so, over time, a subtle shift in evangelical thinking was introduced, in which spiritual realities became more and more important until the point where the gospel was primarily a message about an otherworldly afterlife and how to participate in it. Thus, the message of the gospel became, “Believe in Jesus and you will go to heaven when you die.” The Bible’s actual emphasis on the redemption of all things, the restoration of every corner of reality, and the physical resurrection and reign of God’s people was somehow lost in translation. Our ancient creeds’ confidence in “the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting” over time shrank down to a half-hearted hope that “heaven is for real.”
And so the actual end goal of the story, the full-bodied, flesh-and-blood Christian hope of a resurrected world, was replaced with the much simpler, much less satisfying ending of “going to heaven.” When you die, this new story says, your soul goes to be with Jesus, and you’re reunited with loved ones who died in Christ, and it’s peaceful and spiritual and vaguely ethereal. And maybe there are clouds and harps involved. Or at least that’s what all the cartoons about heaven seem to suggest.
This was actually a major stumbling block for me as a kid raised in a Christian home. I learned all the Bible stories and the “go-to-heaven-when-you-die” gospel. But the idea of the afterlife did not comfort me, it terrified me. On one hand, hell sounded like it hurt a lot and of course I didn’t want to go there. But heaven, to be honest, didn’t sound much better. The way that grownups described it either made it sound like a church service that never ended, or floating around on clouds strumming harps. To a ten-year-old boy, the idea of a never-ending church service is much more akin to hell than to any sort of sublime reward. And since harps are unquestionably the most boring of all musical instruments, the thought of playing one for all eternity filled my young heart with existential dread.
Even later developments in my Christian life, like discovering the incomparable joy of knowing Jesus, did not fully solve this conundrum. Pastors like John Piper radically transformed my life with their talk of “desiring God” and “enjoying God.” Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards rocked my world when he wrote, “To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here.” Heaven, now, became much more desirable, because it was about union and fellowship with Christ, the sweetness of which had ravished me. And yet even going to heaven to enjoy God—while much closer to the Bible’s true happy ending—was still a vague and blurry concept. Popular songs like MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” reinforce this sentiment. “I can only imagine what my eyes will see / When your face is before me / I can only imagine.” I knew now that heaven was going to be good, because there truly is nothing better than seeing Jesus’ face. But the story still seemed to have an imaginary quality to it, and lacked something solid I could really grasp and hang my hopes on.
In the years since, I have found that I am not alone in my unenthusiastic embrace of this version of the story. Nearly every Christian I have ever interacted with around the subject of heaven, even if they—like me—eagerly anticipate the beatific vision of being with Christ, are quick to say, “But I don’t really know what it’s going to be like.” I’ve even had well-meaning and wise believers lecture me on how the details of heavenly life are unknowable and therefore can’t function as motivation in the Christian life. And most Christians I’ve talked to, while somewhat grateful for their “get-out-of-hell-free” card, aren’t living a life motivated by eternity, because eternity for them is too vague to be a source of motivation. Once at a church picnic, I even overheard two godly young men at the condiment table lamenting how they wouldn’t be able to eat in heaven, and so resolved to enjoy the barbecue while they still had a chance.
To this muddled situation, I bring good news of great joy: it’s not true. The “go-to-heaven-when-you-die” gospel is a half-gospel at best, and doesn’t encompass even a fraction of what the story of the Bible is all about. Our contemporary gospel of escape from the world and freedom from our physical bodies has more in common with the early heresy of Gnosticism than it does with biblical Christianity.
Don’t get me wrong: the Bible is clear that when a believer dies, their soul does go to be with Jesus. To the thief on the cross, Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paul calls this being “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). But that is not the end of the story. Being in heaven with Jesus after death is more like the intermission than the finale. It’s not where the whole biblical narrative has been carrying us, and it’s not the hope of the gospel. And there is certainly no indication in Scripture that harps play any central role in eternity (praise God!).
Randy Alcorn, in his life-changing book Heaven, writes,
“We do not desire to eat gravel. Why? Because God did not design us to eat gravel. Trying to develop an appetite for a disembodied existence in a non-physical Heaven is like trying to develop an appetite for gravel. No matter how sincere we are, and no matter how hard we try, it’s not going to work. Nor should it. What God made us to desire, and therefore what we do desire if we admit it, is exactly what he promises to those who follow Jesus Christ: a resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected Earth.”
What God promises to those who follow Christ is exactly the culmination of the story the entire Bible has been tracing. Heaven and the afterlife aren’t an unrelated epilogue tacked onto the end of history; they are precisely where history has been moving this whole time. The end of the story is God’s king and God’s country brought together at last, Eden remade and our dominion restored, and a “happily ever after” of living out our calling as image-bearers in resurrected bodies in a resurrected world, with our resurrected King as our companion and friend.