“I’m bored,” the young man says, setting his golden harp down on the soft, white mound next to him.
His companion sits up quickly, sending small puffs of cloud scattering in every direction, several catching on the shimmering halo that had slipped slightly to one side at her sudden movement. “Stop saying that. You’re going to get us in trouble.”
“But I am bored. There’s nothing to do.” Reaching down he fiddles absently with one of the harp strings, sending soft notes through the golden light and causing the small cloud puffs to float rhythmically around his head. “All we ever do is play these stupid harps and sing.”
“Shhhh. Someone will hear you!” she says, glancing around in a futile effort to see if anyone was close enough to hear. Futile, of course, because in this place, someone always hears.
“What are they gonna do? Kick me out?” Jerking his head, he slaps at the swirling could puffs, looking every bit like an angry camper trying to disperse a swarm of hungry mosquitos. “I almost wish they would.”
She just stares at him, too stunned to reply. After a long silence, she whispers, “You want out?”
He responds with a deep sigh, “I don’t know. Four thousand years is a long time to sit on a cloud playing a harp. A little change might be nice.” Staring down at his white robes, he adds, “I know the other side is for bad people. But maybe they’re at least having some fun.”
I’m sorry to say that the way most people describe Heaven sounds rather boring to me. Ask what they’re looking forward to about Heaven, and many people will say something about finding lost loved ones—sometimes even lost pets—the end of pain and sorrow, finally being able to dunk a basketball, run a marathon, or possibly even fly through the clouds. And these are all great things, I suppose. But I’m guessing that after a few thousand years, they’d all grow a bit stale. I love my friends and family, but after a millennium or two, I can pretty much guarantee that I’d be hiding in a closet every time I heard one of them coming around the corner. It’s possible that I just have an unusually short attention span and get bored easily. But 4,000 years of the same old thing sounds boring.
The problem is that our idea of eternity is badly confused. Ask us about Heaven, and we start describing some ethereal city in the clouds. When people do that, I always ask, “Where are the trees?” After waiting a few seconds for that to sink in, I’ll add, “God made trees, so apparently he likes them. Where are the trees in Heaven?” Then, while they’re scrambling about for an adequate answer, I’ll follow up with, “And don’t forget dung beetles. God made those too, so we should figure out where the dung beetles will be in Heaven.” Finally, pausing for effect, I’ll add, “And the fleas.” That always gets their attention. Trees are okay. Everybody likes trees. But dung beetles sound rather disgusting. And who wants to believe that there will be fleas in Heaven? That can’t be right. Heaven is holy and spiritual. Surely there won’t be fleas in Heaven. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the logic of this argument cannot be applied to cats since they were the result of an evil scientist’s failed experiment and were not actually created by God. It’s true, Google it.)
Since we see Heaven as a wholly spiritual place, we have a hard time conceiving of it having any room for such earthy things as insects. But “earthy” is exactly how the Bible describes our eternal destiny. The focus of the Bible is not on our eternal destiny up among the stars somewhere, but a new city coming down on a new earth completing the plan that God has had in mind since the beginning (Rev. 21).
Our picture of “Heaven” is wrong because we’re looking in the wrong place. Rather than gazing up in the clouds trying to picture what heaven will be like, look down at your feet. Take your shoes off and dig your toes into the damp soil. Reach down and tip the little pill bug over on its back. Watch its squiggly legs kick in the air. Then, turn it over again and let it scurry away. Nearby, see the earthworm wriggling deeper into the freshly turned earth. Look closer and examine the tiny grains of dirt, each a different shape and color, yet combining to form the lush hue of fertile soil. It even smells brown. Turn over the small rocks and explore the exquisite glories that hide in even the most innocuous crevices of creation. I can’t tell you what the new earth will be like. The Bible gives us very little detail. But I can say that this one’s pretty amazing. And, whatever God has in mind for our future, it will not be any less than this.
Who came up with the idea that we’d be disembodied spirits living in some spiritual universe forever? The Bible never says anything about that. Indeed, the Bible describes our future lies as resurrection to a true physical body, appropriately fitted for our new life (1 Cor. 15).
And our picture of eternity is out of whack because we’re selfish. Once again we find that we tend to twist the story so that it’s primarily about us—no more pain, sadness, loss, or loneliness. We can be happy forever. It sounds great. Why wouldn’t it? It’s all about us. For deeply selfish people, this sounds like the ultimate paradise.
But once again we have to remind ourselves that this story isn’t about us. Sure, eternity will be great. God loves us and wouldn’t have anything less than the best for his people. But that doesn’t mean that this is all about us. The new earth is still about God (Rev. 21:22). And that’s good news. As long as eternity is about us, it will be a boring place to be. We’re just not that cool, and eventually we’ll get bored with ourselves and our own happiness. But God? He’s another story entirely. We could spend an entire eternity pursuing him in his infinite mystery: constantly learning new things, being challenged in new ways, rediscovering over and over again how far beyond us he truly is.
Setting his harp down on the velvety soft grass, he looks over at his companion. “That’s enough for now,” he says. “I’m going to go tend the garden for a while. The corn is almost ready.”
“Thank you,” she replies, “that was lovely.” She moves slowly away meditating on the song, already looking forward to sharing it with everyone at the feast later, so they can all sing it together. But right now, she’s going to the lake for a swim.
A dung beetle watches her pass.
Leaning back against the soft cushions, book held loosely in one hand, chocolate chip cookie in the other, coffee cup perched delicately on my knee, I snuggled in and looked forward to a quiet afternoon of reading. Does it get any better?
The doorbell rang.
Normally I would have ignored it, but I was staying at my parents’ house for a few days, and I thought I should at least see who it was. So, with a sigh, I thumped my cup on the table, set aside my barely tasted cookie, jammed a bookmark in its place, and hoisted myself out of the comfy confines of my parents’ couch.
Opening the front door, I was greeted by three older gentlemen in their Sunday finest. One even held a black leather Bible in front of his red tie. Another fiddled with several small pamphlets that looked suspiciously like evangelistic tracts. And, the third stepped forward with a warm smile: “Hi, we’re from First Baptist Church. You filled out a visitor card last Sunday and we’re following up to see if we can answer any questions for you.”
“Oh, I don’t live here,” I responded. “My parents moved to town a few weeks back and they’ve been checking out a few churches in the area.” Looking for a quick end to the conversation I quickly added, “If you want to leave some information, I’ll make sure they get it.”
But, these were men on a mission; they wouldn’t be dismissed that easily.
“Do you know Jesus?” Pamphlet Man asked. It probably wasn’t quite that abrupt, but that’s how I remember it.
Fortunately, I was just about to graduate from Bible college, so I was well-prepared for difficult theological questions like this. With a little smile, I looked him in the eye and confidently replied, “Yes.”
That was four years of college tuition well spent.
But, they still weren’t done. Leaning closer with his Bible clutched in both hands, the third man asked, “But, do you know where you’re going after you die?”
And there it was. The question that trumps all other questions. What could be more important than knowing the answer to a question about your eternal destiny?
Still a bit annoyed that I wasn’t back on the couch with my book, I nearly said, “Disneyland.” But, he didn’t seem like the type to appreciate a joke about eternal destinies. So, instead, I gave him what he was looking for. “I know that I’ll live forever in heaven after I die,” I said, “because I believe in Jesus with all my heart and trust him as my Lord.”
That’s what they needed—assurance that I’d reserved my spot in Heaven forever. So, they gave me some material about the church, shook my hand warmly, and went on about their business.
Too bad. They missed an excellent opportunity to explain what I’d gotten wrong.
Where did we get this idea that the whole point of the story was to make sure that we make it into heaven, and that our primary concern should be where we go after we die? Do you know that if you read through the entire New Testament, you’d end up with only a handful of verses that have anything to do with what happens to us after we die? They are there, and we shouldn’t neglect them. But, why make them such a central part of the story? Why make that the most important question you can ask someone?
Interestingly, that’s the one question Jesus almost never asked. And, he asked a lot of questions:
- Do you really think it’s that impressive if you’re nice to people who are just like you?
- Why are you anxious about little things like clothing?
- Why do you spend so much time considering the flaws of other people and ignoring your own?
- Why are you afraid?
- Why do you think about evil things all the time?
- Do you believe that I can do this?
- Who is truly a part of my family?
- Why did you doubt?
- Who do people say that I am?
- What could you possibly give in exchange for your life?
- Can you endure what I will have to endure?
- What do you want me to do for you?
Those are all great questions, just a few of the ones Jesus asks in a single book (Matthew). And, notice their focus: living faithfully in response to the Gospel today. As far as I can tell, in the entire book, Jesus only once asks a question about a person’s eternal destiny (Matthew 23:33). Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on making people think about what they are doing right now.
Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom. That’s not a message for some far off future, but it’s good news for right now. It has obvious implications for the future. We’d mess up the Gospel just as much if we thought that this story was only about the here and now. That would rob the story of purpose, hope, and direction. But, the mistake we more commonly make is thinking that the most important question we can ask is about where we’ll be in the end.
What’s the most important question that you can ask? It’s not, “Where will you go when you die?” That’s a fine question. And, it’s one that’s worth discussing. But, the most important question? I don’t think so. A far better question is, “Who will you follow while you live?” Answer that question, and the other will take care of itself.
[This is part of my series on unpacking the Gospel.]
I’ve been on a mini blog sabbatical the last couple of days. It’s spring break around here. And, while I never actually take time off for spring break, I do use it to get caught up on all the projects that have been piling up around my office. It’s my version of spring cleaning. But, here are a couple of interesting posts from the last few days.
- Tim Challies discusses the new evangelical virtues.
I have seen evidence of three characteristics that seem to pass as virtues today. In some parts of the Christian world, these are now embraced as Christian virtue: doubt, opaqueness, and an emphasis on asking rather than answering questions.
- Jim West sparked some pushback with his explanation of why people become universalists.
That is, people become Universalists because they need to, not because it’s true. All who become Universalists do so because they fear the consequences of their loved one’s rejection of salvation.
- Kevin DeYoung explains why sometimes you need to get worked up over theological controversy.
No doubt, some Christians get worked up over the smallest controversies, making a forest fire out of a Yankee Candle. But there is an opposite danger–and that is to be so calm, so middle-of-the-road, so above-the-fray that you no longer feel the danger of false doctrine. You always sound analytical, never alarmed. Always crying for much-neglected conversation, never crying over a much-maligned cross. There is something worse than hurting feelings, and that is trampling upon human hearts.
- Jason Hood discusses Idolatry, the Gospel, and the Imitation of God.
The temptation to idolatry is multifaceted and ever-present, and therefore must be fought without respite.Harmonizing Keller, Wright, Beale, and Scripture leads us to three antidotes: (1) the identification of idols and their attractions; (2) the embrace of the gospel and its idol-destroying promises; and (3) the worship and imitation of the One True God rather than false gods.
- James McGrath discusses the historicity of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
It is sometimes stated that the life of the historical Jesus ends with his death, and there is a sense in which this is true. Historical study can only provide access to the human life of Jesus, and his human life, like all human lives, ended when he died. The resurrection per se is not an event like other events in human history, and for this reason cannot be studied with the tools of historical study, either to confirm it or deny it. This does not mean, however, that one cannot attempt to evaluate the historicity of some of the events mentioned in the stories that also include details connected with the rise of Christian belief in the resurrection.
- Roger Olson has an excellent post on what he means by “the new fundamentalism,” the growing “via media” between traditional fundamentalism and post WWII evangelicalism.
What I see emerging, that in my opinion is not being recognized by most evangelical leaders, is a third way–a via media between movement fundamentalism and the postfundamentalist evangelicalism. People from movement fundamentalism are emerging out of their isolation into this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.” People from postfundamentalist evangelicalism are adopting this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”
- Ed Stetzer starts a series on how to offer criticism.
Before you criticize, be sure you understand the person and perspective with which you are taking issue. If you lack understanding you are essentially picking a fight with an opponent who does not exist. You’ll make a lot of noise, sell a few books, or attract people to your blog, but your criticism lacks wisdom and integrity.
- Bob Hyatt continues to describe his church’s journey toward women in leadership.
How much does a person have to write, say, or communicate, before we’re allowed to criticize him or her? Is a blog post enough? A podcast? A short video? Or, do I need to wait until you’ve written an entire book before I’m allowed to criticize you?
A number of bloggers are very annoyed today. Apparently they’re upset because a couple of bloggers, namely Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung, had the audacity to criticize Rob Bell for saying things that sound rather universalistic. No one seems to be questioning whether they should be disagreeing with universalism; these bloggers are upset that they’re criticizing Rob Bell without having read his forthcoming book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in which he supposedly develops these ideas.
Okay now, I’d be the first to agree that we shouldn’t criticize books we haven’t read. That’s never a good idea. But, that’s not really what’s happening here. Both Taylor and DeYoung were careful to point out that they had not read the book in question. Instead, they were commenting on the publishers description of the book, the promo video that Bell produced in support of the book, and the pre-release chapters that Taylor got to read. That’s a fair amount of material, more than enough to offer some good food for thought.
Indeed, it’s far more than many bloggers have in their possession when they criticize someone. I find it interesting that many people have critiqued Mark Driscoll with far less. I routinely see his short You Tube videos subjected to criticisms every bit as harsh. (I’ve critiqued one or two of these myself.) And, I would definitely question how many bloggers who criticize him have actually read any of his books.
So, why is this any different?
On the substance of the concerns, I don’t really have anything to add. From what I’ve seen, it does sound like Bell is encouraging a universalistic understanding of Hell. And, since I think that’s a bad idea, I would have no problem criticizing it. I wouldn’t try to critique the book, since I haven’t even seen the pre-release chapters, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t critique what material is out there. We all do that all the time.
For a good, balanced discussion of Bell’s position, see Trevin Wax’s recent post on the subject.
Until the book comes out, I don’t think we can accurately label Rob a “universalist.” Based on Rob’s tendency to ask edgy questions and then pull back, I expect that somewhere in the book, Rob will affirm that people who don’t want to be part of God’s kingdom won’t be forced to. In the end, Rob will land somewhere between optimistic inclusivism (most everyone will be saved) and universalism (all will be saved).
If you haven’t seen this yet, you should really check out Scot McKnight’s post on “Church Sign Wars,” showing a Catholic church and a Presbyterian church having a “discussion” about whether dogs go to heaven – via their church signs. And, whoever was doing the signs for the Catholic church has a great sense of humor!
My favorite Presbyterian sign: “Converting to Catholicism does not magically grant your dog a soul.”
Outstanding Catholic response: “Free dog souls with conversion.”
Check it out.
According to Boing Boing, there is a breed of jellyfish that has the ability to revert to an earlier stage of its life cycle and start over again. Since I have not yet completed by thesis on the life cycle of obscure jellyfish, I know absolutely nothing about this. But, it sounded fascinating. And a little terrifying. Think about what this would mean in human terms. To live forever, you’d have to revert to infancy and go through puberty all over again. Now that I think about it, maybe this is the jellyfish version of hell.
- Stephen Colbert interviews Lisa Millar about her book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife. Colbert’s interviews are always fascinating.
- Jason Goroncy offers a list of lectures that T.F. Torrance gave on The Ground and Grammar of Theology.
- John Armstrong explains why he moved from credobaptism to paedobaptism. (HT Euangelion)
- Michael Jensen gives 5 reasons why he doesn’t like lists of Bible verses.
- I hate to offer another link to the Ted Haggard situation, but NPR has an interesting piece.
- And, if you want to get your cleaning done faster so you can enjoy your Saturday, try Baby Mop.