In contemporary Christianity, how much of the emphasis is on going to heaven? I grew up being invited to accept Jesus Christ as my savior so that, when I die, I would go to heaven. In the last few years, I shared ministry with an evangelist in Alabama who regularly (perhaps nightly) preaches that the only thing that matters is knowing where we will go when we die. In the burial office, the gospel reading that is chosen most often by the decedent or the family is John 14:1-6, in which Jesus tells his disciples, "In my Father's house, there are many dwelling places...And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." Even this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 13:31-35) recalls Jesus telling his disciples, "Where I am going, you cannot come."
Over and over and over again, we talk about going to heaven. There's nothing wrong with heaven. I like heaven. I think heaven has a central place in the gospel. I don't think the gospel is pure social cause--that the goal of the Christian life is to make a difference here and now. I think preachers should talk a lot about heaven, but it seems that we've misplaced it.
In our reading from Revelation 21 this Sunday, we are given a vision of heaven: "I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." In this vision, the one seated on the throne exclaims, "See, I am making all things new!" The earth is not a paper plate or a red plastic cup. It is not discarded. It, too, is made new. God does not transport us from the earth to live with God in heaven. God comes to earth to live among us:
See, the home of God is among mortals.I think the implications of this are more significant than a mere destination change. The vision of God coming to earth rather than us going to God changes how we live in the earth. It changes how we value our bodies and the physical world. It brings back that fundamental, foundational theology that we are not gnostics and that all of creation is good. We do not live this life so that we can escape it. We live this life so that we and this world and all that is in it might be transformed.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
Something changes when you put out fine china instead of disposable plates. Something happens when you buy a house instead of renting it. Something blossoms when you stop dating and get married. Similarly, our whole theology of God and creation and heaven and salvation changes when we stop thinking of and talking about the earth as if it were the only thing keeping us from God. Yes, I know that there are important cosmological implications for what happens to the physical earth and the physical universe in the forever timescale, and, no, I'm not trying to solve those issues here. But I am saying that the implications for recapturing a heaven-comes-to-earth theology instead of a we-are-just-waiting-to-go-home theology changes not only the stewardship of creation, but it also changes our theology of the human person, including issues of sexuality and gender and ability and age. There are incarnational implications and interfaith implications.
Changing the way we talk about heaven from somewhere else to here on earth changes lots of things, but those things can't begin to change until the religious culture shifts. Preachers and teachers must recapture the goodness of creation and leave behind the escape-pod theology. Parents must fill out their description of going to heaven to include a sense that heaven is coming to earth and that those who belong to Jesus get to live with him in the new earth forever. Heaven is essential, but how we talk about it matters.