Monday, April 9, 2012

Is Heaven Really Hell?

What is Heaven? Growing up, I pictured Heaven somewhere distant in the sky; transcendent over human life and suffering—separated from my story and experience. In my weak and uncreative imagination I incorporated all kinds of clichéd imagery of the afterlife: ethereal, cloudy, white robes, and all those other passé descriptions that I’m sure you’ve heard.

As a child I feared dying for two reasons. First, I didn’t want to go to Hell, because it sounded dreadful. Second, I didn’t want to go to Heaven because it sounded like Hell. And, I had a tinge of anxiety that Christ might return before J. K. Rowling could finish the Harry Potter series. …but I digress. Nothing about Heaven seemed very appealing for me. The “no sickness, no pain, no tears” platitudes almost sounded nice, but mostly sterile and suffocating. A perfect life sounded like a safe life, and a safe life sounded like an aimless and meaningless existence. Is God really so narcissistic that He would demand we sing “Amazing Grace” a trillion, trillion, trillion times in a row multiplied by infinity—brainwashing us in the process so we believe this is the epitome of pleasure?  Does the culmination of becoming Christ-like in death mean we are wiped of our personalities and identities? Will we be God’s puppets for all eternity?

The questions never end, nor does the tension in attempting to rationalize what scripture doesn’t meticulously illustrate. Thankfully, God left us with enough hints that eclipse the bizarre image that many Christians have portrayed.

I have begun reading Rob Bell’s controversial work Love Wins. It will likely produce many ideas for future postings. Bell’s view of Heaven really isn’t that shocking though. No, it’s not the traditional model, but it’s one of the more orthodox points he makes. Bell doesn’t present Heaven as a mystical place up in the clouds. Rather he notes that “the pictures the prophets used to describe this reality [Heaven] is how earthy it is (Bell 34). Bell continues, “Wine and crops and grain and people and feasts and building and homes. It’s here they were talking about, this world, the one we know—but rescued, transformed, and renewed” (Ibid).

This idea of Shalom, the Jewish word for peace, is so compelling. Many scriptures portray the church transforming the culture around it—redeeming culture for God’s glory and our healing. Isaiah said the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (11:9); swords are no longer needed for wars, so they are remade into plowshares (2:4); and John in his Revelation spoke about the Tree of Life producing leaves that have medicinal properties for the healing of the nations (22:2). When I read  passages of scripture about the future (eschatology) they suggest for me that the traditional view, God destroying the earth and relocating us to another place, is erroneous and in need of reinterpretation. God has invested so much into Earth, our planet. Eden began in glorious perfection, so why shouldn’t we return there with a new perspective?

Russell Moore wrote a fascinating piece for Christianity Today about Heaven. He addresses the anxiety that many Christians experience grappling with death, suggesting it’s more than just death we fear.

Perhaps we dread death less from fear than from boredom, thinking the life to come will be an endless postlude to where the action really happens. This is betrayed in how we speak about the “afterlife”: it happens after we've lived our lives. The kingdom, then, is like a high-school reunion in which middle-aged people stand around and remember the “good old days.”

This imagery of Heaven resonates with my past thoughts. And, as you and I clearly know, this kind of reality is nothing to become excited about. Moore gives a motivating alternative to this dismal hogwash:


But Jesus doesn't promise an "afterlife." He promises us life—and that everlasting. Your eternity is no more about looking back to this span of time than your life now is about reflecting on kindergarten. The moment you burst through the mud above your grave, you will begin an exciting new mission—one you couldn't comprehend if someone told you. And those things that seem so important now—whether you're attractive or wealthy or famous or cancer-free—will be utterly irrelevant.

            Heaven is a core part of the Christian faith. We just celebrated Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection this past weekend. The reason Jesus chose to die a barbaric death was to reconcile us to God. Christ’s propitiation, appeasing God with His sinless and pure blood, ensured that the children of God would know the blessing of living in the richest experience of love and community. Jesus was also named Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Christ’s incarnation, fusing two distinct essences—God and a human body—points back to Eden, picturing a time when God will again walk with mankind.

            God has hidden a lot about life on the other side of time. Thankfully, as Moore wrote, we will experience life everlasting and not an afterlife. Life is about love, creativity, productivity, compassion, beauty, and all those good things that make life meaningful. That’s part of what we can look forward to. As David wrote, “  As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Psalm 17:15 ESV). God has promised that everything will be okay. He’s given enough hints about Heaven to motivate us. If Heaven will be on Earth, and Earth will progressively become more like Heaven as the Church impacts all cultures, then we have something to live for today. And Heaven doesn’t seem like Hell anymore.


Rob Bell, Love Wins

Russell Moore, A Purpose-Driven Cosmos: Why Jesus Doesn't Promise Us an 'Afterlife'


  1. Great first post, man. I always kind of figured that you were built for blogging. On your comment, "Many scriptures portray the church transforming the culture around it—redeeming culture for God’s glory and our healing", I would definitely recommend _What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission__. I will come back and post a couple of quotes from the book when I get a chance; it's sitting in my office at the church right now.

    Shalom, brother!

  2. *the book is by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert.