A short thought about heaven.
I’ve long noticed that our cultural notion of heaven doesn’t align very closely with what scripture says about it. When I was a kid, I thought that heaven was a place in the sky, maybe on the clouds or maybe just beyond them, where everyone can do whatever they want. I thought that I would be as young or as old as I wanted, forever. I thought, surely, that in heaven I would be able to fly, and breathe underwater, and do whatever else I’m not able to do here on earth. After all, heaven is a place where everyone is happy, right? What could make us all happy other than getting what we want all the time?
Sometimes I still think this way. I think sometimes we all do.
A fun thought experiment about this is a comic series in the Marvel universe called “House of M.” A brief synopsis: The Scarlet Witch has lost her mind, and used her reality-altering powers to create a world in which all of her friends get what they’ve always wanted. Mutants are no longer feared or hunted by regular humans; her friends have their dream jobs; romantic relationships that were complicated in the real world are loving and functional. Spider-man’s uncle Ben is alive, as is his first love, Gwen Stacy, and rather than being considered an outlaw vigilante he is instead a celebrity who doesn’t have to hide his face. It seems as though everyone gets whatever they want.
But what Wolverine has always wanted is to remember his own past. Now, suddenly, he not only has the memories he’s been searching for, but he’s also the only person in the world who seems to realize that there’s something wrong. That this reality really is too good to be true.
We quickly discover that this world is far from perfect. Mutants are no longer a hunted minority; they seem to be a majority, and have all of the power and respect that the worst of them had once craved. The premiere family in this world is the House of Magnus – that is, Magneto, the Scarlet Witch’s father. Non-mutants with powers (like Spider-man, Iron Man, the Hulk, etc.) are respected, but non-powered, regular people form an underclass that is highly discriminated against. Homo Sapiens (as opposed to “Homo Superior”) are called “Sapes”, and treated worse than apes. There is a complete reversal in the balance of power, and while it seems that most of the main characters have completely perfect lives, this world is far from perfect.
Heaven as a place where everyone gets what they want is far from the biblical picture of heaven, but more than that, it’s an impossibility. Even if God were to bend reality to meet all of our desires, our desires inevitably conflict: as soon as I want what someone else has, we run into problems. But worse than being impossible, this notion of heaven is harmful to us. It feeds our individual desires, perhaps even giving us a sense of entitlement: “when I get to heaven, I’ll get whatever I want.” Imagine a person who’s been told that all of their life, arriving in heaven. What a child they would be! Even aside from the fact that what we want is rarely good for us, Christ teaches us that it is in what we give away that we find our significance and purpose. It is in what we are willing to give up that we can find true happiness.
Put another way, promoting one right demands relinquishing another. My right to worship God in total freedom also requires that I allow others to do likewise; if I tried to control the religions of others, I would be violating the same right that I held dear. The right to freedom precludes the right to control; the right to live precludes the right to kill. The only way that I could get absolutely everything that I wanted in heaven would be if I were there by myself. Ultimately, this view of heaven is the ultimate in self-absorption and hedonism. It’s hard to find God in that.
Scripture paints a very different view of heaven. It’s a place where God rules, where justice is guaranteed, where nobody is poor, and where everyone is in right relationship with their neighbour and with God. There’s nothing in there about never having to work, or about having superpowers, or anything else like that. It’s always earth, but it’s earth the way it was always supposed to be – back to the Garden of Eden, in a sense. It’s an ultimate second chance for us all. What’s truly amazing about this view of heaven is that, to some extent, it’s possible.
God has already healed the relationship between human beings and Himself, by becoming a human being in Jesus Christ. Sustainable living and poverty alleviation are possible in theory; human sin just gets in the way. Revelation says that sin and death are the final enemies, and that they will be destroyed some day; in this we find the difference between this earth and the new earth (usually referred to as heaven). The only difference between this world and heaven is the presence of sin in us.
Remember, at times we see glimpses of heaven. Whenever someone gives of themselves in a selfless act, whenever someone cares for someone else, whenever we live peacefully in community – in short, whenever we act like Jesus – we see what the Bible calls “the new earth” or “the kingdom of Heaven.”
Flying, it turns out, is a moot point. Loving, after all, is much better.