Heaven: Dreading It or Anticipating It?
In Hamlet, Shakespeare called what lies beyond death “the undiscovered country.” People have given much thought to this country—and adopted remarkably different attitudes toward it.
Three centuries ago Jonathan Edwards wrote, “My mind was very much taken up with contemplations on heaven, and the enjoyments of those there.” He reasoned that since “happiness is the highest end of the creation of the universe...how happy may we conclude will be those intelligent beings that are to be made eternally happy!”
James Gilmour, missionary to Mongolia, his health deteriorating, wrote in his journal in 1889, “Heaven is ahead...hurrah!” These exuberant views of Heaven provide a stark contrast to most people’s attitudes—even those who are Christians.
Sir Walter Scott dreaded having to endure “an eternity of music.” Lloyd George admitted, “When I was a boy, the thought of Heaven used to frighten me more than the thought of hell. I pictured Heaven as a place where time would be perpetual Sundays, with perpetual services from which there would be no escape.” 1
A pastor confessed to me, “Whenever I think about Heaven, it makes me depressed. I’d rather just cease to exist when I die.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I can’t stand the thought of that endless tedium. To float around in the clouds with nothing to do but strum a harp...it’s all so terribly boring. Heaven doesn’t sound much better than hell. I’d rather be annihilated than spend eternity in a place like that.”
Where did this Bible-believing, seminary-educated pastor get such a view of Heaven? Certainly not from Scripture, where Paul said to depart and be with Christ was “far better” than staying on earth (Philippians 1:23). Yet, though my friend was more honest about it than most, I’ve found many Christians share the same misconceptions about Heaven.
Our Mark Twain View of Heaven
When an English vicar was asked by a colleague what he expected after death, he replied, “Well, if it comes to that, I suppose I shall enter into eternal bliss, but I really wish you wouldn’t bring up such depressing subjects.”2
I’ve written about Heaven. I’ve received thousands of letters and had hundreds of conversations concerning Heaven. I’ve had countless appointments and phone calls about it. I taught a seminary course, “A Theology of Heaven.” I’ve spoken about Heaven at churches and conferences. There’s a great deal I don’t know...but if there’s one thing I do know, it’s what people think about Heaven. And I’m frankly alarmed. Not simply because of ignorance, but the harmful misconceptions held by many believers.
A Far Side cartoon captures these misconceptions. A man with angel wings and a halo sits on a cloud, doing nothing, with no one nearby. He has the expression of someone marooned on a desert island, with absolutely nothing to do. A caption shows his inner thoughts: “Wish I’d brought a magazine.”
Poetry about Heaven has tended to be mystical and, often, sappy. It rarely captures the biblical portrayals of a New Earth with a great capital city made with precious stones, having specific dimensions, and containing trees, rivers, and resurrected people coming in and out of the gates, engaged in meaningful relationships and productive activity. Our unbiblical assumptions that Heaven won’t be a real earthly place blinds us to what Scripture actually says. It’s made countless Christians vulnerable to a Mark Twain view of Heaven.
Twain said in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, “There is no humor in heaven.” He said, “You take heaven. I’d rather go to Bermuda.”
Huck Finn lived with the Christian spinster Miss Watson. She attacked his fun-loving spirit. Huck says,
She went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it...I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said, not by a considerable sight.’ I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.3
What would have attracted Huck Finn was a place where he could do pleasurable things with enjoyable people. Miss Watson, the supposed Christian, had nothing to say about Heaven that appealed to Huck. And nothing to say about Heaven which, if we’re honest, appeals to any of us!
Do I mean that we should invent notions about Heaven that sound good even though they’re untrue? No. Had Miss Watson told Huck what the Bible says of living in a resurrected body and being with people you love on a resurrected earth with land and rivers and adventures, that would have gotten his attention!
When it came to Heaven and hell, Mark Twain never “got it.” He was a charming writer, but a poor theologian. Under the weight of age, he said in his autobiography,
“The burden of pain, care, misery grows heavier year by year. At length ambition is dead, pride is dead, vanity is dead, longing for release is in their place. It comes at last—the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them—and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness. “4
What a contrast to his contemporary Charles Spurgeon’s perspective: “To come to Thee is to come home from exile, to come to land out of the raging storm, to come to rest after long labour, to come to the goal of my desires and the summit of my wishes.”
Is living forever in the presence of God, in the place made for you, the goal of your desires and the summit of your wishes? Or have you adopted Mark Twain’s sad caricature of Heaven, devoid of the biblical teaching of a resurrected life on a resurrected earth?
Darkness...or Better by Far?
Bertrand Russell has been called the greatest mind of the twentieth century. Anticipating his death he said, “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”5
The apostle Paul was one of the greatest minds of the first century. He said, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:21).
Voltaire, an atheist alarmed at the prospect of death, wrote: “I wish I had never been born.” Near the end he was so afraid of death that he said to his doctor, “I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six more months of life.”6 Evangelist D. L. Moody said, “Soon you will read in the newspaper that I am dead. Don’t believe it for a moment. I will be more alive than ever before.”
Beside his deathbed, Moody’s son recorded his father’s last words in this world: “Earth recedes, heaven opens before me!”7 No matter what he says while he’s still healthy, when he dies, no sane man wants to be Twain, Russell or Voltaire. He wants to be Paul, Spurgeon or Moody.
Our Terminal Vagueness about Heaven
Besides the Bible itself, the most influential book on Heaven ever written was by a Puritan pastor, published in 1649. It contained 460,000 words, which today would be about 1500 pages. Richard Baxter said this in The Saints’ Everlasting Rest:
“If there be so certain and glorious a rest for the saints, why is there no more industrious seeking after it? One would think, if a man did but once hear of such unspeakable glory to be obtained, and believed what he heard to be true, he should be transported with the vehemency of his desire after it, and should almost forget to eat and drink, and should care for nothing else, and speak of and inquire after nothing else, but how to get this treasure. And yet people who hear of it daily, and profess to believe it as a fundamental article of their faith, do as little mind it, or labor for it, as if they had never heard of any such thing, or did not believe one word they hear.”
The answer may be that the Heaven portrayed has not been so glorious. We have failed to believe or understand what the Bible says about Heaven. Therefore, it has not consumed our imaginations...or shaped our lives.
A 2003 Barna Research poll concluded, “An overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe that there is life after death and that Heaven and hell exist.”8 Nearly two-thirds believe they are Heaven-bound, and only one-half of 1% think they are hell-bound. What people actually believe about Heaven and hell varies widely. A Barna Research spokesperson said, “They’re cutting and pasting religious views from a variety of different sources—television, movies, conversations with their friends.” The result is a highly individualistic theology of the afterlife, usually without biblical substantiation. Even in churches there’s widespread ignorance of the doctrine of heaven.
Novelist John Updike tells the story of a fourteen-year-old boy named David. When it’s time for questions in his catechism class, David looks to his pastor for answers:
“I asked Reverend Dobson about Heaven and he said it was like Abraham Lincoln’s goodness living after him.”
“And why didn’t you like it?”
“Well, don’t you see? It amounts to saying there isn’t any Heaven at all.”
“I don’t see that it amounts to that. What do you want Heaven to be?”
“Well, I don’t know. I want it to be something. I thought he’d tell me what it was.”9
We all want Heaven to be something. The Bible teaches it is something. Yet when it’s spoken of so vaguely by Christian leaders, who speak so clearly about other aspects of life, it appears to us—as it did to David—that Heaven amounts to nothing at all.
How many ministers have said at funerals, “He will live on in our memories”? What that really suggests is that though we might remember him, he will not live on. The Bible teaches that when we die, Christians will live on in Christ’s presence, awaiting the greatest day in the history of the universe—the resurrection of people and the universe, where we will live on forever as real people on a real earth.
Few people, however, really seem to believe this. “Scientific, philosophical, and theological skepticism has nullified the modern Heaven and replaced it with teachings that are minimalist, meager, and dry.”10
Speaking of our failure to understand Heaven, J. C. Ryle said, “Vagueness and dimness of perception are the defect of weak believers. They do not see clearly what they believe and why they believe.”11
Heaven was once an elementary teaching in which believers were solidly trained. This is no longer the case. Vagueness and dimness characterize our modern view of Heaven. We, our children, our churches, and our culture are thereby impoverished.
Our Deeply Ingrained Misconceptions
John Eldredge says,
Nearly every Christian I have spoken with has some idea that eternity is an unending church service...we have settled on an image of the never-ending singalong in the sky, one great hymn after another, forever and ever, amen.... And our heart sinks. Forever and ever? That’s it? That’s the good news? And then we sigh and feel guilty that we are not more “spiritual.” We lose heart, and we turn once more to the present to find what life we can.12
I’ve never met anyone who wants to be a ghost. The resurrected Jesus reassured his fearful disciples, “Touch me, I’m not a ghost.” Yet we picture an afterlife in which we become ghosts—the very things his disciples were afraid of and Jesus promised he wasn’t.
Our bodies and our God-given appetites and taste buds don’t permit us to desire to eat gravel. Why? Because we were not made to eat gravel. Trying to develop an appetite for a disembodied existence in a non-physical Heaven is like trying to develop an appetite for gravel. It’s not going to work. Nor should it.
What God made us to desire, and therefore what we do desire, is exactly what God promises to those who follow Jesus: the resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected earth. Our desires correspond precisely to God’s plans. It’s not that we want something, then engage in wishful thinking that what we want exists. It’s the opposite—the reason we want it is precisely because it does or will exist. Resurrected people in a resurrected universe isn’t our idea—it’s God’s.
For more information on the subject of Heaven, see Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven.
1 Bruce Milne, The Message of Heaven & Hell (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 324.
2 Barry Morrow, Heaven Observed (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 89.
3 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1996), 6.
4 Charles Ferguson Ball, Heaven (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1980), 19.
5 Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, vol. 2 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968), 159.
6 Voltaire, as quoted by J. Sidlow Baxter, The Other Side of Death (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1987), 7.
7 George Sweeting and Donald Sweeting, “The Evangelist and The Agnostic,” Moody Monthly, July/August 1989, 69.
8 K. Connie Kang, “Next Stop, the Pearly Gates...or Hell?”, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2003.
9 John Updike, “Pigeon Feathers,” in Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987), 135-138; cited by Barry Morrow, Heaven Observed (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 14-15.
10 Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 352.
11 J. C. Ryle, Heaven (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 8-9.
12 John Eldredge, The Journey of Desire (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 111