Heaven

I recently read someone talking about the idea of heaven who asked this question: “But what happens when heaven becomes more then [sic] a promise, when it becomes a goal?” The writer continues, “Often evangelical thought seems to see our eternal destiny as the point, with this life being some sort of cosmic waiting room.” He goes on to encourage us not to look past the possibilities and potential in this life on earth.

I would agree that heaven alone is not our goal and that we do indeed have a purpose and role in this world and this life. I also agree with the writer that, although he does not use these words, we should not be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.

But is it true that evangelical thought “often” presents the present life on earth merely as a cosmic waiting room for heaven? Who is teaching that? He is certainly not alone is asking these questions or making sweeping accusations such as these; writers like N.T. Wright have made similar (if not identical) statements. But are these accurate reflections of views that are taught?

I did a quick search of several “evangelical” Bible dictionaries, systematic theologies, and other treatments on this topic and the concept of this life as “cosmic waiting room” for heaven simply cannot be found as he and others like him have described it. Of course there may be some teachers promulgating this idea, but surely this would not be considered mainstream. Rather, such teaching may come from popular-level treatments at best. And indeed some people may have such a mental configuration of heaven in this way. But, to say that this is characteristic of “evangelicalism” is off the mark.

I do not believe that the “it’s-all-about-heaven-and-nothing-else-matters” is really a foundational pillar in “evangelical thought” like it is made out to be. Unfortunately, this sort of classification is merely another jejune caricature of the true evangelical understanding of eschatology. I have heard a chorus of people ridiculing the concept of heaven as the place where we “float on clouds and play harps.” However, even my own young children don’t understand that image of heaven. My wife and I have never given formal instructions to our children on the actual biblical description of heaven. Yet when I ask them what it is like they respond, “well, it is where Jesus lives and we will be with him one day.” That, as it turns out, is a fairly accurate description of the biblical understanding of heaven: Solomon, perhaps overwhelmed by the thought of having built a temple for the LORD, admits somewhat hyperbolically, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27 ESV). His assumption is that heaven is the dwelling-place of God. The LORD himself confirms Solomon’s assumption by declaring, “heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool” (Is. 66:1). It was God’s “voice from heaven” that declared his approval of Jesus at his baptism (Matt 3:17). Jesus often referred to the place where God resides when he says, “our Father who is in heaven” (e.g. Matt 5:16, 45; 6:1; 7:11, 21; 10:32–33; 16:17; 18:10, 14; 23:9; Mark 11:25). For Paul, God’s wrath is revealed “from heaven” (Rom 1:18). In addition, he refers to this place as where those who trust in Christ will dwell: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor 5:1–2).

Peter confirms heaven as the location of Jesus after his ascension, “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God” (1 Pet 3:22 ESV). He uses a similar phrase borrowed from Isaiah that describes the place that “we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13; cf. Isa. 65:17; 66:22). John used this same imagery from Isaiah in his vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. The key to that passage is the voice that declares, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3).

I find it ironic that proponents of the “bringing-heaven-to-earth” view also are the loudest voices for seeing the Bible as one grand story (meta-narrative). “Look at the end of the story,” they exclaim. “It’s about heaven coming to earth. Therefore, let’s live like that now.” But the climactic statement of this merging of heaven and earth is given in terms of the redeemed people of God’s proximity to him: “God’s dwelling is with man” (Rev 21:3), a goal that finds its origins in the very beginning of the story (Genesis 1–2).

It is true that we do not want to live as though what we do on earth doesn’t matter. I would agree with the suggestion that heaven isn’t the only goal. But is it really legitimate to continually present those who believe that the gospel is a message to be believed and not merely a lifestyle to be lived as believing “it’s-all-about-heaven-and-nothing-else-matters”? This is an unfair and foolish mischaracterization. Of course we do not want to overlook the beautiful things in this life. Nevertheless, when we understand rightly what heaven really is – the final dwelling of God with his people – then why wouldn’t we make that our goal? And why wouldn’t we make it our goal to invite people into that dwelling as well? Such a view, indeed, changes our perspectives on this earth, in this life, and on this and every day.

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3 thoughts on “Heaven

  1. Aaron: A well-written, even-handed approach to a right view of heaven. I especially like the last paragraph where you make the connection between the text in Rev. and the beginning of humankind in the garden. Never thought of that! You should teach BSF or something! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your studies!

  2. Aaron, as always, well done. The “heaven as the goal” conversation is loaded theologically, but also politically. How do you see various eschatological viewpoints like a-millenialism, post-millenialism, pre-millenialism, and dispensationalism informing the idea that “earth is a cosmic waiting room” or that the earth is not our home?

    1. That’s a great question and sounds more like a question for a thesis paper! 🙂 All the views you mentioned would agree on these three things (at least): 1) a second coming of Christ, 2) the judgment, and 3) the redeemed will dwell with Christ in the new heaven/new earth. They would differ in the details, of course.
      However, proponents of each eschatological perspective would also have some beliefs regarding Christian ethics. In other words, they would follow some biblical instruction regarding how they are to conduct themselves in this life (morally and politically). You are correct that each perspectives view on heaven informs their particular mission. From what I understand of each of these perspectives, they would all affirm that we have a divine task on earth and that heaven informs that task (be that evangelism/missions, social justice, creation care, etc.). None of these perspectives, it seems to me, would see belief in heaven as endorsing a “nothing in this world matters” view.

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