More and more people are worried that all life on earth could meet its maker in just a few generations. Especially the young generation is worried because of the increasingly troubling environmental developments. Meanwhile, many Christians don’t care as much about the planet and believe in eternal life in heaven. Is our heavenly hope really a missionary motivator to make a difference in this world?
Recently a friend told me about his conversation with a pastor: “Mr. Pastor, please explain to me exactly why I want to go to heaven.” How would you have reacted? Would you have had an answer at all? I really like the question about heaven. It shoots us straight to the heart of the cause, the core of the gospel. Because if we as missionaries want to see more than blunt traditional church attendants we need to ask ourselves: Why does an enlightened person of the 21st century truly want to believe in Jesus?
Those who fail to convince in this matter will motivate few to consider Jesus as “Redeemer”. “Redeem, um, from what again?” And above all, what does he save us to? To heaven? To heaven on earth? To join a free church? What is our new purpose? For as long as heaven is the ultimate goal of our Good News, I have a bad one: the Christian heaven does not really turn anybody on.
”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 sing-along 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?”John Eldredge
Floating on clouds while singing daily hymns can be very funny, really, – like for the first 150 years or so, but then?! Walking around on golden streets? Golden paving stones are definetely quite a sight, but honestly, they are not my personal taste exactly. And running the eternal marathon on them does not really sound like stimulating and transformative innovation either.
At this point, I often get the shrugging yet very pious remark “Well, you know, after all we can not know what’s it like in heaven anyway!” Oh wow! Is that the gospel? I that we have to offer?! Is this our great vision, our first and foremost goal, the deepest purpose of many thousands of years of salvation history: We do not know either?! How will I ever be able to convince anybody to believe in the Risen One if I cannot explain what resurrection means for everybody? What remains for those of our days who are in desperate need of concrete hopes, because of their despair of their extremely concrete future?
I will try to explain briefly why just the resurrection from all things remains nothing more but dry theory for most Christians. As always, we need to look into history and into the sources of our wisdom, Holy Scripture and Holy Spirit.
Faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these is love.Paul
Faith, love, hope. In his most famous chapter, Paul describes the three core values of the church to which everything must correspond – if it does not, it should be thrown overboard as meaningless ballast. But why is love the greatest? Because love will never end. Faith will come to an end as soon we can see God forever. Hope disappears with feelings of happiness and satisfaction as soon as it is fulfilled. But love will always continue. Forever and ever. Which brings us already here to the conclusion that everything that fascinates us about love in this life will be found in heaven too. Because love never ends.
Let me say only one thing about faith, perhaps our most logical trademark: Only a concrete faith will produce concrete hope. Conversely, a blurry, cloudy hope is always rooted in a blurry, cloudy faith.
The Church has indeed been able to bestow love upon the world as one of her most distinctive characteristics. It may be through large concepts and projects such as mission hospitals or church asylum, or it may be through detail like personal pastoral care or even the most profane yet loving interaction with each other. Time and again, I hear stories of how the experience of loving community among Christians is described by outsiders as fantastic, indescribable and extremely valuable.
Talking about hope it’s getting trickier. For “hope requires yearning” (Walter Brueggemann). Hope presupposes a state of insecurity. Positive expectations and even new confidence can grow in the midst of adverse circumstances. One of the best known examples are the still very popular gospel songs. Pain, slavery and oppression provided fertile ground for a musical festival of hope, written and sung by red-bleeding slaves, not purple dressed cardinals. Because long before “swing low, sweet chariot” the church of Europe had failed to develop living, tangible hope for ordinary people because she always sat too firmly in the saddle. Through her proximity to emperor, king, politics, there has always been abundant power and influence. What should one hope for more? The coffers were filled. Popes, bishops and priests were honored public figures. Exclusion or persecution were alien to them. The world offered much more to them than heaven. Accordingly, this milieu provided no need to develop a theology of hope. Until this day we have failed to theologically and vividly describe the “Kingdom of Heaven”. Consequently, the majority of Christians still believes that one can not know how or what heaven actually is. Although the Bible is filled with hints, descriptions, narratives and parables, our image of eternity remains a very pale and nebulous one.
On the other hand, however, theologies of hell, anguish, and purgatory developed magnificently. This is not surprising, because threats are always well suited to retain or even expand one’s power. Even 700 years after its creation, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is still a good mirror of Western theology: hell and damnation are deep and dominant, but heaven is flat and boring. And although the Bible says much less about hell than heaven, the few passages about hell have been so emphasized and embellished on great scales that they’re ranked among the most important theological parts of the gospel (or, on the other extreme, they’re totally denied by those who’ve burned their mind in infernal theologies). Accordingly, our gospel is much more rooted in fear than in hope: the gospel is all about avoiding hell. No punishment please, for this life is already hard enough! In order to get saved from hell we’ve been willing to accept the price of a terribly monotonous heaven. And so the biblical story of salvation has been degraded from the redemption of the cosmos to a cosmic trial instead, in which billions of individuals are successively processed and handled by an allmighty legislature, judiciary, and executive. This unbalanced one-sidedness makes it understandable why more and more people of the 21st century reject the image of God as the torturing judge and give a damn about the whole gospel story.
But suddenly we also understand why Luther was desperately searching for a gracious God. The daily adversities of his late medieval environment were regularly interpreted as the wrath of God. In Luther’s world, in which only two out of six babies experienced puberty and many mothers died, in a time full of criminals and hangmen, one human life did not count much. God’s resentment, “sin” and “punishment” must have been as ubiquitous as the weather. When Luther finally discovered the gracious God, that was great news. The core of the gospel became understandably the salvation from hell and damnation. For Luther & Co. that was “heaven” enough.
“You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.”Abraham Lincoln
500 years later, very few mothers die in childbirth. Most of the babies in the world are vaccinated early on, and a record-high proportion of the world’s population is receiving education – including girls. Modern Europe is really close to a paradise. No perilous, wild animals. Travel is a matter of course. The standard of living, medical and social care is unusually high. It is more likely to be killed by suicide than in war. People of all classes have unimaginable opportunities to develop into any direction. Sin, formerly seen as a brake pad for personal and communal development, was abolished, the brake was released. Fear of God’s anger scarcely tortures anyone anymore. Almost all of Europe’s post-war generations were culturally formed by peaceful upswing and rapidly increasing prosperity. The need for existential hope has declined correspondingly. The here and now on earth is gaining more importance, and with it comes a carnal spirituality – the hereafter loses its importance, heaven becomes even more unreal as it already was. The most concrete heavenly images of our day can be found as cheesy picture book drawings in Jehovah’s Witness tracts.
Just now, of all times, when it’s getting really cozy, uncomfortable clouds appear on the horizon. Refugee crises with marching right-wing populists in the wake are perhaps just tiny fly-specks. The total monitoring and manipulation by tech giants we only begin only to suspect. The latent risk of a global stock market crash may only be seen by insiders, as well as the growing danger of major power outages or global epidemics. But all of these are just some cirrus clouds. The real storm is only on the march. While my own suntanned generation prefers to look the other way to enjoy the perfect sunset of life, young generations are tormented by two crises: Existential fear of an extremely uncertain future on one hand, lack of preparation for existential dangers on the other. In other words, they find themselves in front of a multi-headed dragon – but never trained to fight for the blood. If you do not want to lose heart, you have to teach yourself on Fridays.
“Hopelessness weighs much heavier than sin. For whoever falls can rise again and receive forgiveness. Seven times seventy. But what remains for those who lose all hope?”Peter Halldorf
The Bible has well-stocked arsenals against hopelessness. Just think of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22. Or the countless exercises to steel our spiritual muscle for battles with indomitable dragons to train our parrying. Fasting is about such an exercise. Regular relinquishment makes us alert, cures our greed. But only those who really hope will train. If you do not know what to win, you won’t get involved. If you cannot see the trophy, you cannot want it – and certainly not fight for it. Concrete hope and a tangible expectation for something much greater is therefore a necessity. Surprisingly it turns out that hope is the mysterious oil in the lamps*, which makes faith and love shine when the day runs out. Hope is shining. One can live hope, but one can never share hope. Everyone is responsible for their own wick. Whoever runs dry has to fill up all by himself. And there is only one oil station: the empty grave, birthplace of the New Earth and the New Heavens.
Heaven – want some more?!
Heaven, yes please. Because Jesus is risen. Because we know him as he is with us in the Holy Spirit. Therefore we know heaven isn’t a remote and unctous nirvana for disembodied pious ones. Heaven isn’t so much a place, it is more a status, a condition that was taken away from a place, but wherever it is or goes it fascinates, thrills and excites all of our most human desires. There are many reasons why Jesus proclaimed “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” and why the crowds were always following him. Close to Jesus we smell and taste heaven and instantly we want more of it. If that sounds too foreign to you, you may want to read on.
Everybody longs for love and appreciation. I would like to assume that almost 90% of our daily actions and subconscious decisions are rooted in our need for love. As mentioned earlier, heaven is the ultimate paradise for all lovers of love.
Our survival instinct is the strongest of all. We want to live! And we want to live on full bandwidth. Therefore, some people joke they’d rather enjoy hell than to be bored in heaven. Hell seems to be the place for jokes, sex and festivity. After all, we want to enjoy life! However, the idea of a dull and tedious heaven, as piquant as a sleeping pill, unmasks the brazen suspicion that God must be a monotonous, humdrum bore. Let’s not forget it was Him who invented the tongue, including everything that can be accomplished with it. He came up with the idea of taste, He lit the fire in the loins and drew every nerves and synapse to make us really feel it. Do we seriously believe that it was us who invented cheer and delight?!
Surprised by Hope.N.T. Wright
Body, matter, substance, stuff
Jesus on Easter morning was no ghost. The Messiah truly resurrected in flesh and blood. And, best of all, he’s only the first fruit of a much larger resurrection. Therefore it would be more fitting to speak of a new creation rather than “heaven.” All creation longs for liberation from transience (Romans 8: 18-22) into a new physical state. Roses won’t turn into stemless ghost flowers and dew will still own moisture, neither will stones become soap bubbles. Why should the New Creation be an unsatisfactory downgrade from the first one? But seeing it as an upgrade from what we know should fuel our imagination with creative ideas to visualize a new and better creation. C. S. Lewis’ ingenuity has succeeded. He describes, for example, the taste of a single heavenly fruit as such a sensual experience that people in our world would start wars to come into possession of it.
Ever read 1 Corinthians 3: 12-15? Watch out! Not only our bodies, but also our actions will be resurrected with us. Everything that we have done in this life with faith, love, hope, will follow us into the New Creation (Revelation 13:14). That’s even too much for me to imagine. In other words, in heaven we will not only be listening to Bach and contemplating Rembrandt paintings, we’ll also be marveling at the works of all those nameless artists and servants of all times of world history who have done great things in hidden faithfulness. There will be a gallery of honor through which one can walk for eternity with never fading amazement.
Heaven = to be continued!
Even though some things were different with the Messiah on Easter morning, sooner or later everyone recognized him again – like, his appearance, his voice, an action. He was simply Jesus, not anyone. Resurrection is, like conversion as well by the way, a transformation, not a total change: the old has passed away, new things have begun (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are not born again as holy cows. We’re born again as us. Already in the oldest book of the Bible, Job knew that he will see God as the one he is and not as someone else: “... that’s how I’ll see God, I’ll see Him, my eyes will see Him, and no stranger ” (Job 19: 26-27). If the last book of the Bible, the Revelation, adds one more thing and says that people of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues are gathered before the throne of God (eg Revelation 7: 9) – altogether things that came into being in this world, the world after the fall – then it is crystal clear that the New Creation is a continuation of the old creation, it’s no reset but a totally transformed upgrade, updated on every level and devoid of all destructive powers. That should also truly cheer our imagination too, shouldn’t it?
Eating, drinking, stories, music…
… and these are just a few examples the Bible explicitly mentions as being part of the new creation. It’s easy to extend the list: travel, animals, trees, water, festivals, architecture … Let’s face it: why do we still believe this unbearable humbug, one can not know what it’s like in heaven? What’s wrong with us?! Why do we choose to look away from the trophy? Everyone who sees the award clearly wants to win it. For my part, I have a very clear imagination of heaven – and yet it will be surpassed by all means. That’s why I want to go there. It is worth every training, no matter how tough it gets.
How then shall we live?
What does it mean in practice? Before the Risen One ascended in order to fetch back what was taken from us after the fall – that mentioned heavenly status, home of the Almighty – he gave us a very simple description:
“You will be my witnesses.”Jesus Messiah
We are witnesses of the resurrection and therefore of his transformative spirit. Until everything is “restored,” Christ must remain in heaven**, as predicted by the prophets (Acts 3:21). But already today he renews our thinking and thus our habits and way of life. Undergoing a daily two-point calibration between the resurrection of the past and the one of the future keeps us tuned in to hope, will amend priorities, uplifting us to edgy landmarks that stick out of the numb mainstream. For whoever manages to live the not yet already now, becomes more like Jesus, making heaven palpable, letting the blind see and the lame walk, exuding faith, love, hope, even in the darkest valley of death.
So, even if forgiveness of personal sins for the purpose of some personal heaven no longer appears to be the ultimate good news of the day, conceivably because the incredible guilt of humanity threatens to extinguish itself as it’s diligently digging a grave big enough for dumping an entire planet, it’s more than overdue to truly testify hope, that is verifying the resurrection by daily planting visible trust in the future.
Apple trees for instance.
This type of activism will bear fruit.
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”Martin Luther
* compare with Matthew 25:8
** The Greek word used here ouranós means both the atmospheric sky and the spiritual heaven and is also (similar to the word kosmos) a name for everything visible – the world, the universe.