A friend of mine said, on the morning of Easter Sunday, as he was riding the subway to church, he observed many people in their Sunday best, making eye contact with one another and giving each other the verbal acknowledgement and affirmation of “Mmhmm”. It was a rather endearing account of friendliness in the urban context. But it makes you wonder, sure, among the many of the church-goers on Easter were regulars. But also many of the churches in America gear up for an influx of attendants that one Sunday of the year, and often see it as a very good evangelistic opportunity for the non-regulars. It seems that even to the remotely spiritual, heaven is of some importance when reminded by the calendar. And such is corroborated by the statistic from the Gallup that 85% of Americans still believe in a heaven.
This raises an interesting question: What kind of a heaven do we believe in? The recent cover story in Time Magazine by Jon Meacham titled, “Heaven Can’t Wait” (here’s his blog post for those who can’t see the whole article), tries to illuminate the recent shift in the answer to that question. The traditional view of heaven with pearly gates, golden streets, halos, wings and singing with harps is being challenged by the rethinking of scholars such as NT Wright, and Wright explains:
When 1st century Jews spoke about eternal life, they weren’t thinking of going to heaven in the way we normally imagine it…. Eternal life meant the age to come, the time when God would bring heaven and earth together, the time when God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done on earth as in heaven.
And others in a similar camp, like Christopher Morse, take it a bit further, as Meacham explains:
This point of view is one in which the alleviation of the evident pain and injustice of the world is the ongoing work that Jesus began and the means of bringing into being what the New Testament authors meant when they spoke of heaven. The earth is not a temporary place that will disappear on the last day, and heaven means “God’s space.” And so with all respect to the views of believers like Stanley, the Wright school holds that one should neither need nor want a ticket out of the created order into an ethereal realm. One should instead be hard at work making the world godly and just.
This change of perspective on what heaven is, is more important than it may seem at first glance. The common critique of Christians being ‘too heavenly minded for any earthly good’ stems in part from the view of heaven as an escape from earth and that salvation is merely a ticket to that location. For a generation of rising humanitarians, this ‘new’ view of heaven is foundational for any acts of justice and mercy in which they engage. Without it, there is no reason to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.
There is a danger though. If heaven, at the end of time, will be brought to earth, it does mean that being heavenly minded is to be concerned for earthly good as they will be one and the same in the future. But the question remains, and this is the danger, what do our work and acts of justice and godliness amount to? To believe that any contribution we make now quantifiably adds to the final ‘heaven and earth’ is to say that what Jesus did on the cross was somehow not enough, that it was somehow insufficient to redeem. And that is more than an uncomfortable road to start treading on. So then, we come back to the question: How does our acts of justice and godliness matter?
I am unsure I know what the answer is, but I think this rethinking of heaven is a good one. Of course, this rethinking itself needs rethinking, but for those who see the irrelevance of the traditional view to modernized culture, the tepid nature of evangelical force in individualized Christianity, and the warrant it can give to why we should even be humanitarian, this may be worth giving some thought. Because I, for one, would like to believe that there is grass, soccer, and even competition in what we like to call heaven. That, aside from wanting the Giver and not the gift, that the world the Giver creates is one that gives us hope.