The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for more heaven on earth (Matthew 6:10). But that’s the last thing many people want—at least, it is if heaven is pictured the way so many of us picture it.
Heaven, whether portrayed in the eloquence of Dante’s Paradiso or in the humour of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons, is an eternal worship service. Everyone gathers around God and sings—while some accompany the rest of us on harps—forever.
Not many of us think of this as the best of all possible worlds. The more devout among us might aspire to thinking that it is: “Maybe, if I were just much more spiritual than I am, I would find everlasting praise to be my highest joy.” But most of us, including most Christians, don’t find that scenario compelling.
And because we don’t, we invest a lot more in this life and this world, with its manifold and manifest puzzles and payoffs, challenges and rewards.
A recent New Yorker article positively reviewed Martin Hägglund’s new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, as posing a much-needed challenge to all such stultifying versions of the life to come. How much of a blessing can eternity be: never changing, never growing, never interesting? Wouldn’t it be a sort of curse instead?
Well, yes, it would. That’s one of the main reasons I’m a Christian: I look forward to an interesting afterlife, not a dull one.
In the grip of ancient Greek ideas of perfection—ideas that really do tend toward the static, geometric, and boring—early Christians and many who followed in their train tended to see the world to come as an unending church meeting. These ideas, especially when coupled with the “you and you alone!” fervour of mystical devotion—the sort of feeling in which the world melts away and only the Beloved remains—gave us the ideal of the “beatific vision,” the common Christian idea that the best we can hope for is endless contemplation of God.
That destiny, however, is not what the Bible itself promises. The last two chapters of the Bible give us the clearest glimpse we have—even as it is only a glimpse—of what is in store.
Revelation 21 and 22 tell us that we are not going to heaven. Instead, the Lord Jesus is coming back to earth, bringing the New Jerusalem with him. Here is a splendid garden city, full of delights. In the vision given to John, the highest and best of his world is the lowest and least of the next: precious stones so large that entire gates are carved out of them, while gold is so cheaply abundant it is used as paving material.
We Canadians take water for granted, but the Middle East doesn’t. Yet here is a city down the middle of which courses an entire river, with fruit trees blooming and bearing all year ‘round.
And it is a city, a social gathering and organization, to which the kings of the earth’s nations bring their distinctive cultural products to the enrichment of everyone. There is no generic sameness in the world to come. And there is no hint that we will just sit, or bow, or stand forever in a worship service. With our capital as a garden city, we will go about doing what God called us to do when God first made us: cultivate the entire earth as a planetary garden (Genesis 1 and 2).
To say, then, as Hägglund does, that we need death to give life meaning, that we fail to value each moment now if we believe we will have unlimited such moments, is to badly misunderstand our situation. We do not need final death to value fleeting life. We do not need sadness as a kind of chiaroscuro balance to happiness.
Why is the joy of this particular game, or meal, or conversation, or kiss diminished in the slightest by the thrilling knowledge that there will be many more such games, meals, conversations, and kisses? Do I enjoy this book any less knowing that I can read good books forever? Or isn’t there instead an electric tide of delight beneath the momentary pleasure of this page that carries me forward to an endless supply of such pages?
This hunger for the good(s) of this world is innate. We are made from this planet and we are destined to live on this planet. God does not say that our fulfilment lies in repressing, or killing, or otherwise “transcending” the love we have for life here on earth, but in reconnecting with God, with each other, with the rest of creation, and with our proper calling so that we can live well in such shalom forever.
What Hägglund—and his friendly reviewer, James Wood—gets right, therefore, is that, yes, certain views of heaven are indeed boring and world-denying. And other Christian views make the mistake of substituting the hyperbole of love (“You and you alone are all I ever need and want forever!”) for the Biblical reality of a world in which we get to enjoy the constant presence of the Lord and all the good things the Lord wants to share with us: water and fruit and light and company and the rest of what makes human existence so rich from God’s creative imagination.
Does having this view of the age to come mean I don’t, and can’t, really enjoy the now? Certainly not.
But I can hardly wait for what happens next.