Monday, January 25, 2016
Maybe Heaven is Overrated
I'll admit that blog post titles like that one are designed to grab your attention, but today I mean it. Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and, as I ponder his Damascene road reversal, I find myself wondering whether 20th-century Christianity became so obsessed with heaven that it set itself up for a 21st-century decline. Over the last hundred years, has the church communicated itself to the unchurched world so narrowly as to define the Way of Jesus as a path to the Pearly Gates that contemporary non-Christians are shrugging their collective shoulders and saying, "So what?"
Although it happened over a year ago, my Facebook news feed let me know (again) that Alex Malarkey, who wrote The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven as a memoir of his near-death journey to paradise, retracted his story, forcing the publisher of his book to pull it from store shelves. The NPR story quotes his open letter to the publisher, in which he makes a confession and bold plea for a return to scripture: "I did not die. I did not go to Heaven...I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth."
Yes, it did get him attention. Yes, people are eager to read stories of kids who almost die and go to heaven. Yes, people are desperate for any "verifiable" confirmation that their belief in a paradisiacal afterlife is reasonable. Why? Because Christianity is a big enterprise. Millions of people have given their hearts and minds and souls and lives (not to mention wallets) to follow Jesus. It would be nice, many think, to get a clear and unmistakable verification that they are headed in the right direction. And by "right direction" I mean "one-way ticket to heaven."
But, if heaven is the only thing Christianity has to offer, I am not sure the world is interested. And if "heaven" is the church's way of describing that everlasting destination where only good people go, I know that I'm not interested. And neither is Paul.
The complete and total reversal that Saul/Paul experienced cannot be overstated. In Galatians 1, Paul wrote about his pre-Christian life: "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors." He was as Jewish as any Jew. He was as accomplished and laudable as any faithful child of God, and his status was enshrined in his persecution of the way of Jesus. His resume was built upon his anti-Christian activities. And then, of course, he was struck blind. Jesus himself appeared to Paul. God himself recruited Paul away from his zealous Judaism and appointed him to be chief apostle to the Gentiles. And how did this happen? What made Paul reverse course? The answer wasn't heaven.
Before his conversion, Paul wasn't headed to hell. Paul was a faithful Jew, and God doesn't send his faithful people to eternal damnation. And Jesus didn't appear to Paul and say, "How would you like to spend eternity with me in paradise?" Paul would have shrugged his shoulders and said, "What's your point?" Paul had everything he needed. Paul was a Roman citizen. He was rich and powerful. He had connections. But what Paul didn't have was a knowledge of the fullness of God's grace and the peace that comes from it.
Before he met Jesus, Paul did everything right, but his quest would never be over. The gospel of Jesus offered Paul what he didn't even know he needed. Paul's life was turned upside-down by his introduction to the idea that God's choosing of him--God's preference, God's justification, God's complete approval--wasn't dependent upon what Paul did but upon what Jesus had done. The salvation that Paul found--the good news that inspired him to risk his life preaching the gospel across the known world--wasn't a happy destination when the work was finished but a freedom from the work itself. And that's what the church must reclaim if it will make sense in the 21st century.
Yes, I believe in heaven, but salvation isn't merely a ticket to everlasting life in paradise. It's much more than that. Over the centuries, heaven has been the way Christians have tried to describe what it means to rest in Jesus. But, in the language I hear from most contemporary Christian leaders, it has become a reward and not a promise. If the church continues to tell the world that heaven is what God has in store for those who love him, for those who believe the right things, for those who go to church, and for those who follow what the bible says, the church will only push the world further away. The world doesn't need more work. The world doesn't need that kind of heaven. The world needs grace. Like Paul, the world needs to be set free from its struggle. Heaven should be an afterthought. Grace is a gift for today.