Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I’ve read the book Heaven is for Real, the first-hand account of the four-year-old boy who “went to heaven” during emergency surgery. (A Google search informs me that the movie is out in the cinema right now.) In short, my answer to the question is no. I’m not running away from the book. I just don’t have any desire to read it.
I believe that heaven is for real—at least that the promise of an everlasting conscious physical existence in the presence of God is real. But I think that Christians have confused eschatological literature that foretell of the end times (e.g., Revelation, Daniel, and some parts of the gospel) with what we’re called to hope for. Go back and read the gospel—all four accounts. How often does Jesus talk about coming away to live with him in paradise? Sure, it’s in there, but it’s not in there a lot. Jesus seems far more interested in the establishment of God’s kingdom here on earth. So what are we really supposed to be waiting for?
Yesterday, I preached a sermon on John 17:3. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” If you didn’t hear it yesterday, you can read it or listen to it here. In that sermon, I compare the Church’s expectation of heaven with the Church’s condemnation of Galileo in the 17th century. Essentially, I ask, “What if we’ve been wrong about the central hope of the Christian life for centuries?” But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in heaven. I just don’t believe that the Church is talking about heaven in the right way.
We should take Jesus at his word: eternal life is knowing God and Jesus. And knowing God and Jesus isn’t about floating around in some cloud castle where the music is played on the lyre and harp and the fried chicken is out of this world. Jesus didn’t come to earth in order that we might experience the best of this life for eternity. Heaven isn’t golf every day, no taxes, and dessert for breakfast. Heaven—even the word itself has become distracting—is supposed to be the representation of the fulfillment of God’s promises. Knowing God means knowing that we’re loved. Does that love last forever—even beyond death? Absolutely. Do I believe in the physical resurrection? Absolutely. Do I believe that there is a pearly gate? Do I believe that St. Peter will be there to check me in? Do I believe that a four-year-old boy who was undergoing an emergency appendectomy was given insight into what heaven is really like? No, no, and no.
For millennia, the problem with religion has been that people become too specific in their hopes. Pretty soon, that increasing specificity results in a religion that is out of step with the culture of the day. And that is how religions die. What are we hoping for? If God’s deepest promise to us really is a life in the clouds, we’re in big trouble. Yes, it’s about resurrection, but let’s not tell the world exactly what heaven is going to be like. And let’s get all those images of what heaven will be like out of our heads. They’re almost certainly wrong. Get back to the basics. Know God. Know that you are loved. Trust that that love will follow you even to the other side of death. That is eternal life—nothing else.