Things That Keep Me Up at Night: Heaven

Monday, March 25, 2019

(This post is part 3 of my 5 part series on things that keep me up at night. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

There are a few things that keep me up into the wee hours of the night, and one of those things is "heaven."

When I was a preteen, I went on a youth retreat at a cabin in the woods. I remember waking up early one morning with some other kids and the youth leader, and we watched the sun rise from our vantage point on a hill. It was magnificent. Until the youth leader said something along the lines of, "This is so beautiful, but we have to remember that God is going to come back and destroy it one day."

Perfect moment ruined. Suddenly, this sunrise didn't feel so beautiful anymore. I remember being overcome with strong feelings of foreboding and sorrow. Most of my youth group memories consist of rapture theology and legalistic sexual ethics, so I guess that this traumatic moment is just one more thing I need to work out in therapy.

I wrestled with this "end time" theology all throughout my teen years. I spent a year reading through the entire Old Testament during my freshman year, and low and behold, a major theological thread surprised me:

God was committed not just to God's people, but also to God's creation. 

That God would abandon his mission to save the entire world was troubling. God spent thousands of years committed to the redemption of heaven and earth - why would he then abruptly destroy everything that he had deemed "good"?

Answer: God wouldn't. And he won't.

Thank God.

Both the Old and the New Testaments agree: God has in mind to renew the entire cosmos, starting with the resurrection of our physical bodies. And yet, our Christian language and theology of "heaven" has persisted. It's everywhere, from the bestseller's list to our Sunday school classes to the American church's "Roman's road" to salvation.

This is the tension that keeps me up at night. I don't necessarily deny that this conscious, intermediate state with Jesus exists after we die, but the problem is just that: this "heaven" is a temporary state. Our theologies make heaven the final destination for the redeemed, when it isn't.

The term "heaven" is never used in Scripture for the final eschaton (end) that God has in mind for his people, and I fear that our continued misuse of "heaven" as such has caused us to overlook God's plan to redeem all things.

This tension was especially manifested when I served in children's ministry. When the Gospel was presented to kids, both preschoolers and elementary students alike, God's endgame was always presented as "dying and going to heaven." There was no mention of God's plan to restore the world, nor was there any mention of the resurrection of our bodies. I worried over what theological pitfalls would arise because of our neglect to present ALL of God's good news. How do we communicate this life after life after death to children in responsible and appropriate ways so that they don’t have to unlearn their concept of “heaven” when they grow up? And how do we do it without scaring them?

I still haven't quite figured it out, friends. I'd hate to mess someone up the way I was messed up as a kid (I already have enough things to keep me up at night). But here's what I've got so far:

"Because of our sin, we are all going to die. But the good news is that Jesus loves you so much that he made a way so that you can be with him when you die. But wait! It gets better! Jesus has a plan to save the entire world, and he's going to make all the wrong things in this world right again. He's going to fix everything, and just like Jesus rose from the dead, he's going to raise you from the dead, too."

I can't help but to think that lots of adults need to hear this, too.

I hope that one of these sleepless nights I'll be able to come up with a better way to articulate this final hope we have in Jesus. In the meantime, I've repented of the ways that I've previously used "heaven" to describe God's final plan.

God has something far better than "heaven" in mind: God's love for us is so fierce, he loves us bodies and all. He will never abandon us, even when our bodies have seen decay.

Now go enjoy that sunrise.

For further reading:

  • A New Heaven and a New Earth by J. Richard Middleton
  • Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
  • God Dwells Among Us by G.K. Beale
  • Salvation Means Creation Healed by Howard Snyder

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