Have you ever met a Christian who speaks fondly of a place he or she has yet to visit? Say, heaven?
And no, I am not referring to the place Americans go to get hefty tax cuts; avoid communing with brown immigrants; where they get to sip diesel cocktails and bathe in nuclear waste just because they can.
No. That’s Texas, sir.
I’m referring to the people who attend religious gatherings at least once a week all around the world, lifting hands in worship, singing their hearts out to God. Those people. The ones who carry Bibles, read Christian literature as if it were the news, and listen to contemporary worship music as if it were canon.
Have you ever heard them speak about the glorious hope that awaits the faithful once they step into the void of death and cross the bridge of hopelessness into everlasting light?
Yes. Christians. More so, Western Christians.
And by “Western” I mean North, Central, and South American.
We (western Christians) sometimes discuss heaven like kids discuss Disney Land or Disney World. Or the way parents discuss upcoming holidays and steakhouses and burger joints we want to visit. You know, “I can’t wait to try the triple-deck bacon extravaganza at Honkies. It has sixty thousand calories and that’s just the burger. The onion fries are fried in bacon grease! O, the heart attack! Honey! Bring my Tums tablets. No, the extra strength ones!”
Listen, I’m not dismissing the beauty of heaven. I’m not dismissing the undecipherable blessings that await us in the beyond either. I very much look forward to the day in which I will no longer have to pay taxes to a government that seldom assists the disadvantaged with the funds it deprives me of. I will no longer have to see people go hungry because of greed or famine or drought. I will no longer be a witness to the horrors of cancer, AIDS, plagues, war, and genocide.
I mean, no more death. That is amazing.
What a beautiful hope. A dream, almost, to live in a place where suffering no longer exists. We become immortal hedonists. At least that’s what some Christians make it sound like.
But seldom do we reflect on the direct cause and purpose of heaven: Christ.
I want us to consider the validity of a Christocentric understanding of heaven and life here on earth instead of a heaven-centric understanding of existence.
What I mean is that far too many of us succumb to an idea that heaven will just become a hangout, a place where we kind of, well, just hang out. Where we can walk over to a celestial ice cream parlor or a sanctified bar (no alcohol for the Baptists) wherein which we get to indulge without gaining weight or suffering through hangovers the day after. But this line of thinking is ludicrous. We have turned heaven into an eternal amusement park whereas others have turned it into an eternal choir show where we’re compelled to worship God, together, forever.
The issue here is the compulsion, not the fact that we’re worshipping God or lack of time involved in it. Also, yeah, the concept of time won’t even be a thing once we cross over the threshold of life and death, and time into eternity. There’s no such thing as time in a place where time does not exist. It’s strange, really, but frightening. I won’t know whether I’ve rested for an hour or six centuries. It’ll be something new to us but we will adjust… without time.
Our understanding of the beyond, of heaven, has been warped by medieval artwork, American consumerism, pop culture, and the seeker-sensitive evangelical industrial complex (EIC) mania.
This myopic view of heaven prioritizes our comfort over our relational posture toward God, not just that, but it diminishes the value of Christ in our theology. The collateral damage from this line of thinking also diminishes our willingness to focus on temporal matters, namely, our neighbors and our environment.
I recall listening to minister, John MacArthur, I cannot recall which series it was but I recall his sentiment about environmentalists, condemning their efforts to stymie pollution and stall environmental disasters caused by human activity because, according to MacArthur’s interpretation of eschatology, the world was going to be incinerated by Jesus someday anyway. So, considering the finitude of our planet, in MacArthur’s mind, there was no point in attempting to stall current events or endeavor at a combined venture to make things better for people now or the next generation because the planet, as he saw it, was doomed.
Others have avoided the push for racial equity because racism, in its interpersonal and its structural state, would only be remedied in heaven. Some have thwarted efforts to dismantle exploitative systems that historically disadvantage the poor and racial minorities. They believe, and erroneously so, that because Jesus said to his disciples a week before his crucifixion, “You will always have the poor with you,” that by that we needn’t strive to end world hunger and poverty.
Theologians and ministers have shunned the idea of combating sexual abuse in the church and sexual abuse outside of it because sexual deviancy will only be corrected if not outright annihilated in the afterlife. What’s the point of pushing for policies, laws, cultural and systemic changes to our institutions here on earth if they will always fail because of man’s sinful nature? Shouldn’t we focus on heaven and heaven alone where these problems will cease to exist?
Man’s sinful nature is only corrected by supernatural transformation therefore the complete redemption and transformation will only take place in heaven so until then we need to focus on the gospel message and that alone.
Forget about poverty. Forget about racism. Forget about sexism and misogyny.
I understand this escapist and apathetic (also pathetic) line of reasoning because I lived it. I used to disseminate it. Again, as you read above, I used to listen to John MacArthur and his cadre of heaven-onlyists for years, thinking that any attempt to remedy current problems was a waste of time. A waste of “God’s time.”
I believed that because this world would one day cease to be and I would escape its demise and destruction that the only thing for me to focus on was to get as many people into Noah’s Celestial Ark as soon as possible before a world-altering cataclysmic event unfolded. Anyone unfortunate enough to get stuck outside of that cosmic redemption carriage was, well, lost. Not just lost in eternal separation but also lost in their current state here on earth.
“Damn the earth,” I thought. “It’ll be reborn anyway.”
The poor would remain poor, because, well, heaven was better.
The battered and sexually abused woman would remain, well, battered and sexually abused because heaven was her only hope. I mean, her abusive husband would soon dispatch her to heaven, along with her kids, (thank domestic abuse for that one) so there wasn’t much to worry about. She’d have cake, beef stew, and another patriarch to rule over her in heaven.
The black teen who was racially profiled by police, handcuffed, beat, and tossed behind bars on false and trumped-up charges, with an unnecessarily lengthier sentence than his white counterparts, would not need to stress about the system that disadvantaged him because heaven has no racism. All the racists from earth would then become race-loving Teletubbies in heaven. The policeman who beat him with a club on earth would greet him with cake in heaven.
The absurdity of this mindset, which removes the focus of our life and goal from Christ and places it in a place instead is such a perversion of the gospel yet we endure it. We drink its filth, swallow its bile, and defecate its heresy for millions to follow.
Heaven-onlyism turns us away from the blind, the naked, the battered, the prisoner, the downtrodden, the outcast, the immigrant, the refugee, the widow (and widower), the elderly, the sick, the vilomah, and the orphan. It creates an escapist mindset where we’re not that much interested in Christ nor that interested in people created in His image but focused on a place where we are delivered from our responsibilities for our neighbor and our planet.
We’re more focused on getting the ‘hell outta dodge’ than we are on living as Christ lived. More focused on allowing the ship we’re on to sink to the throes of misery because we believe we’re promised safe passage through murky waters, unstained by obligations of selflessness.
The problem is… and what many people fail to understand, is that God commands us to care for our neighbor and our planet. He commands us to care for our land, the land we share with our neighbors. He commands us to be the good Samaritan, well knowing those in our care may never pay us back. He demands that we visit the “least of these” lest we be forsaken on Judgement Day.
We need to focus more so on Jesus than on WHAT Jesus will do with the planet and WHEN.
No one knows the day nor the hour and until then, we need to work. We need to move mountains. We need to open seas. Part them in half with what God has given us as gifts and talents to help our neighbors. We need to care for our surroundings and our environment not as if we idolize or personify nature but because God has given us this bucolic planet for us to enjoy, not exploit.
There’s a difference.
God does not bless exploitation and He does not merit individuals the grace of salvation AND the right to exploit. Once saved, our responsibility to live like Jesus is immediate, from here through eternity and that will demand we confront the wrongs of our time.
“Jesus never confronted the Roman empire, nor did he abolish slavery.”
But Christians did. Real Christ-followers refused to bow a knee to imperial power, greed, and exploitation.
Heretics and exploiters bent the knee at the river of exploitation by enslaving men and women in the name of Jesus and then telling the same groups to expect relief and redemption in Heaven only.
“Endure your chains. Save your soul!”
That’s a damnable offense in the eyes of God and His people.
Be wary of ministers, pastors, theologians, and clergymen who speak so lofty of heaven and its many gifts but turn a blind eye to God’s people here on Earth. Admonish them to focus on Christ and not on escapism, because, as we have seen through history, many of them have come to faith in Jesus not for the love of the Lord but because of their fear of hell.
The fear of eternal separation, whatever that may entail, has done more damage to the Christian psyche than it has led people into a loving and eternal life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.
Heaven may be full of people who will wander the streets of gold not knowing who exactly it is they’re there to meet.
And that is an embarrassment. Of course, I’m exaggerating, playing coy, but please entertain this next thought for just a moment.
Image a man named John entering heaven, having suffered some calamitous death on earth, and now he graces the fields of the beyond the same way Maximus dreamed of walking through his field of grain. He wanders here and there, seeing joy-filled faces, laughter, peace, tears of relief, and restfulness everywhere. He watches people who have made a perilous journey from one end of the universe to the other, losing thousands, if not millions of their numbers, having since reached safer shores in God’s eternal rest.
John comes across this blinding light, a man, or at least someone in the shape of a man walking toward him, surrounded by resplendent glory.
“Welcome, John.” Says Jesus.
“Oh, uh, hi.”
“I’m glad you made it. I’m so happy to have you here.” Jesus continues.
“Yeah, uh, hey, where’s the fluffy cake stuff we were promised back on earth?”
“Excuse me. I think I see a poutine waterfall over there.” John bumps into Jesus on his way to what he presumes is a waterfall spewing gravy, cheese curds, and french fries.
How daunting a sight.
But that’s how many of us see heaven and operate as such.
Others yet see themselves dressed in white robes singing, for ions, possibly innumerable songs.
“When will we get a break from this singing to finally grab some cake or something.” Said Sandy, in singsong.
“Not sure, but here’s the 1,045,095th repetition of the bridge.” Said another heavenly apparition, in falsetto.
“Right. Sorry. ‘And on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on…” For eternity, they sang.
Our minds are so fixated on sanctified mundanity that we may be shocked when we get to heaven and realize that we’ll still be required to relate to one another and also with the Principle Host of it all, Jesus.
Granted. Our newness will remove from us the selfishness that is so prevalent in us here on earth but I cannot imagine the face of thousands of redeemed folk looking around expecting plush couches, white robes, and cake everywhere until they realize that heaven is much more, more than what we think, more than what we can comprehend.
But heaven’s main focus isn’t the place, the timelessness, or the absence of pain and suffering.
Heaven will be Jesus. Jesus will be Heaven.
And if we’re not focused on Jesus here on earth, not in the sense that we want to escape from the troubles of the world kind of mindset. No. No one wants to be in a relationship with someone who is just with them because the alternative, namely, singleness or some less entertaining lover was the option or whatnot.
No. We want to be the focus of their love and adoration. Their time. Their friend, best friend even.
But we’re not focused on befriending Jesus. We’re focused on the benefits that relationship grants us. No different from friends with benefits here on earth. Except, instead of trading up sexual favors we want to trade up for celestial cake.
And damned be everyone left behind.
Please, for the of Jesus and your neighbor. Direct your attention to Christ and you will then be forced to confront the issues still happening here on earth. The people still need food, shelter, medicine, rescue, and love.
Be sure that you develop of healthy and evident relationship with Jesus while here on earth. That relationship, or rather, the health of that relationship will be evident in how you treat Earth’s citizens and the planet they inhabit.
Now go and some eat cake.
Featured Image by Marc Markstein.