Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ready for Heaven?

As I pulled into the bank today, the radio was playing a Kenny Chesney song. He sang in his usual lighthearted twang, staying true to the beachy feel that runs throughout many of his hits.

He was singing about heaven, how everyone wants to go, but only after they've soaked up all this world has to offer.

"Everybody wanna go to heaven, but nobody wanna go now," he crooned.

Sad, I thought, but true. When most of us consider the idea of heaven that has been ingrained in our church doctrine and circulated through pop culture, our hearts sink.

The vision goes something like this: We die, leaving behind all those we love. Wings sprout from our backs and halos appear above our heads as our disembodied spirits ascend to a cloud where we'll laze around for eternity, playing harps and singing 1990s worship music as our bearded, venerable God basks in the praise while seated idly on his golden throne.

Or as Chesney sees it:

"Someday I want to see those streets of gold in my halo
But I wouldn’t mind waiting at least a hundred years or so"

Why not wait? If what we've believed is true, we're not missing out on much. Is it better than eternal suffering and everlasting fire that cannot be quenched? Sure. But not by much.

Randy Alcorn offers us a different view of heaven in his book by the same name. He explains why the image we've concocted is so disheartening, why the prospect of this ethereal dwelling place can't inspire us.

"We do not desire to eat gravel. Why? Because God did not design us to eat gravel. Trying to develop an appetite for a disembodied, non-physical existence is like trying to develop an appetite for gravel. No matter how sincere we are, and no matter how hard we try, it's not going to work. Nor should it" (7).

Instead, we desire what our savior has promised, through his word and actions. We are physical beings designed for a physical place. We want to live in communion with the resurrected Christ in a new body, on a new earth, and surprisingly to many of us, "our desires correspond precisely with God's plans."

Through a nearly 500-page comprehensive study filled with theological evidence and experiential research, Alcorn reconstructs a view of heaven as he interprets it from scripture.

Here's how he addresses a few misconceptions:

-Heaven, in its final state, will be on a resurrected earth, not in some galaxy far away.

-We will not be disembodied spirits. Instead, we will be like the resurrected Christ in body. He ate and allowed his disciples to touch him, but strangely he was also able to walk through walls.

-We will be restored to the dominion we were promised before the Fall. We will not become pudgy cherubs but will have real, tangible rewards, real territories to look after, real dominion over a real realm.

There is more. Alcorn makes it clear that we should not presume to know everything about heaven, but we can know something. We can use our imaginations to interpret our day-to-day experiences in a way that gives us glimpses of eternity.

In other words, when sin marred the earth, it didn't take away all that God had pronounced good. The taste of fresh fruit, conversation with the ones you love, beautiful scenery - they all point us back to God's ideal, the perfection that we've lost through the decay of sin but which Jesus will restore when he comes again and institutes his kingdom on earth.

Part of the reason we have trouble seeing this is that we've made Christianity more about tenets than the experience of the Gospel, more about articles of faith than the trust and hope they're supposed to point us to.

Christianity is not just right in an intellectual sense, like bullet points you'd use in a throwdown argument with an atheist. Christianity jives with the way we all experience the world, and it explains things that we know inherently.

-We're screwed up, unable to do what we know is right.
-We long for community but are terrible at fostering it.
-We desire beauty, safety, love, adventure and peace, and we notice when those things are lacking.
-We've had thousands of years of history, and our basic inclination toward self has not changed.

Jesus fixes our sin for us. He gives us sacred communion through sacrificial love. He tells us that the beauty we desire is a foretaste of things to come. Through his death, he shows us how submission and obedience to God's will frees us from the bondage that comes with self-love.

In essence, all the things we long for at our core are restored when God's will is done earth as it is in heaven.

So don't lose heart. Eternity is adventure that's already begun to happen.

For more, check out the resources at Randy Alcorn's Eternal Perspectives Ministries.

Photo: Meditation in Xinjiang province, China. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2006.


Susan said...

Trevor, thanks for the reminder of all we have to look forward to. Just seeing the face of Jesus makes me long for eternity. Keep living the faith, my friend.

Joseph Davis said...

Thanks for helping me to remember that this world, in its present sense, it not the place for finding our complete satisfaction. It's amazing how often I desire this world to be something that it simply cannot be. We desire a better country, a heavenly one. Everything here is Over-Rated!