Chapter 2

Thinking About Heaven

In an old Twilight Zone episode, the opening zooms in on the debauched life of a second–rate gangster named Rocky Valentine. Having robbed a pawn shop, Rocky is shot by the police and as his dreadful little life comes to an end, he awakens in the afterlife. There he’s greeted by a portly man in a white suit who introduces himself as Mr. Pip. Pip is some kind of a celestial butler whose job, apparently, is to tend to Rocky’s every whim. Whatever he wants, he has only to ask, and so he asks. He asks for women, cars, alcohol, money … everything his degenerate heart wants, it gets.

But then guilt and confusion begins to nag him. “Why do I get to be in this amazing place when I was such a horrible person in life?” So Rocky goes to the great Hall of Records in search of his file but when he finds it, he’s more confused than ever. According to his file, there is no mistake. Rocky is exactly where he’s supposed to be. “But how can this be?” he wonders. It’s then that Pip appears and Rocky pleads with him for an answer, “Why, Pip, why? I shouldn’t be here; I don’t deserve to be here; I should be in the other place.” Pip, now appearing more sinister, looks at Rocky in disgust and says, “You are in the other place.”

The reality is, we all have ideas of eternal life that are seriously distorted—shaped by fears, books, movies, paintings, cartoons, dreams, childhood images. Our imaginations have been vandalized by harps and halos, and a good bit of what we picture may be more in keeping with “the other place.” Evidence of this lies in the fears many of us harbor of what life “after–here” will be like. When we think of the life to come, we do not merely think imaginatively but analogically, that is, we infer or extrapolate from the world we know to a world we don’t. But the stakes are high—this is our hope we’re talking about—and any faulty thinking along the way gets monstrously magnified because we’re multiplying everything by infinity. In heaven we’ll eat ice cream (good fun!) forever (good Lord!).

Our imaginations have been vandalized by harps and halos.

The human mind is not well suited for pondering eternity. Our logic is based on the mathematics of finite sets, not infinite sets and the odd paradoxes they create. While today we casually say that nearly everything is “awesome,” the experience of “awe” is much more specific. What we call “awe” was formerly known as “the sublime.” The term described encounters with omni–powerful oceans, endless vistas, fathomless depths, and incomprehensible size and grandeur. In this encounter, the mind is confused and confounded because it cannot assimilate the notion of “boundlessness.” In chemistry “sublimation” is when a solid is transformed to a gas. Similarly, “awe” or “the sublime” is the experience of physical reality encountering the spiritual, the temporal confronted with eternity.

Our thinking on eternal matters is handicapped from the start, and there is no possibility of us “getting it right.” There are only better or worse ways to conceive of eternal things, errors to avoid, and postures to embrace. When it comes to the errors we wish to avoid, I suggest three that have profoundly compromised our view, and so longing, for heaven.

Our thinking on eternal matters is handicapped from the start, and there is no possibility of us “getting it right.”

The first is a tendency to think of heavenly existence in terms of what it is not: what won’t be there, what it won’t be like, and what we won’t be doing there. This way of negative (apophatic) theologizing was popular in the Middle Ages, and while its stricture kept from saying something wrong about God, it offered nothing right or positive to ponder in its place.

C. S. Lewis gave this insightful illustration of how imagination, fueled only by negations, impoverishes our hope.

Our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it.

Thinking of future existence as merely timeless, painless, sinless, or sexless only calls to mind the notion of sleep, or perhaps sitting in a rocking chair, as these are our only referents for actively doing nothing. It’s a benign image but equally impotent to stir hope or spur endurance.

The second error of analogy and imagination is seen in the Twilight Zone illustration above—a view of eternity so earthly, carnal, and hedonistic that it’s more like a commercial for Carnival Cruises. This is what so clearly identifies the “heaven” of other religions as works of human fiction and fantasy. It is, in fact, astonishing to compare the concept of heaven found in other religions with Jesus’s description in John 17:3: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (NIV). When envisioning heaven, human minds don’t invent John 17:3, they invent Mardi Gras or the Super Bowl or something like it.

The third error of analogy is to conceptualize our future home in terms of the symbols the Bible uses to describe it. A biblical symbol is like an icon or emoji—a simplified model of reality meant to convey a central truth. Prophetic and apocalyptic books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation are difficult to read. You don’t always know the ground rules of the genre, and these books have genres within genres within genres. An icon or symbol viewed as flesh–and–blood reality—think Ronald McDonald in a business suit—is particularly disturbing to the human psyche. This unnatural blend of person and thing is what Augustine defined as “monstrous” or “monstrosity” and many popular books and movies dealing with heavenly themes are, in the true sense of the word, monster movies. They don’t inspire hope, they subvert it.

Many popular books and movies dealing with heavenly themes are, monster movies. They don’t inspire hope, they subvert it.

Being all but impossible to remove ourselves from the world, from its media, images, and imaginings, hope for all of us has in some way been denigrated by the world and these three distortions. Heaven is our hope and our home, but if I’m honest, sometimes I’m scared to go home. It is important to recognize this and be honest about it, because our notions of future reward rest on and scaffold up from our notions of eternal life, heaven, and the kingdom to come. If our thinking about heaven is skewed, so will our thinking on eternal reward.

What are we thinking?

To speak of heavenly reward is to reference those promises of Scripture for faithfulness and obedience that exceed the eternal life freely given us in Christ. First Corinthians 3 highlights this distinction:

… each one’s work will become manifest, for the [judgment] Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:13–15 EVS)

The text is clear: our labor in Christ will be judged and some will receive, in addition to salvation, some kind of reward. This accountability and commendation is meant to motivate us, and probably would, if it didn’t fly in the face of certain beliefs we hold about heaven.

Eternal life, we know, is an undeserved gift, but rewards seem to smack of a meritocracy; heaven, we imagine, will be a place of perfect happiness, but it certainly sounds like some will be happier than others. We might also assume that everything done for Christ is done out of gratitude, so why the promise of recompense and recognition? How do we harmonize these apparently conflicting notions? Not very well, I’m afraid.

More commonly we ignore the topic as well as the conflict. We know we’re going to heaven and, hey, that’s good enough, right? But good enough for what? To motivate a middle–of–the–road, mediocre kind of Christian life? It’s definitely sufficient for that. But the problem with “who knows?” is that it’s inches from “who cares?” and apathy is the opposite of the motivation we are seeking to live wholeheartedly for Christ in the day–to–day drudgery of the world.

Another solution is to sequentially separate our reward (or lack of) from our heavenly existence—just one long, stern day of accountability and judgment followed by an eternity of egalitarian grace. But who can’t live with a 15–minute sit–down for a bad report card? As far as motivational fuel, judgment and reward lasting merely the duration of the reward ceremony is about as generic as it gets, so that can’t be right.

Or we can look to resolve the tension by marginalizing the rewards—thinking of them in terms of commemorative crowns because, let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be catastrophic not to wear a crown. But even in this life, the significance of a crown is the position, honor, privilege, and power it represents, not the crown itself. So we cannot mitigate these crowns to something merely commemorative, like a trophy or a retirement watch.

These ways of integrating the notion of reward and loss with the concept of heaven’s unlimited joys do not really solve anything, nor do they retain any motivational force, so where does this leave us? Honestly, it leaves us where we’ve been—completely unmotivated by eternal rewards. But seeing how we got here will help us reclaim our reward and the motivation it was intended to supply. Having surveyed the problems, we are well situated to reconstruct a biblical model. We’ll start with a few foundational thoughts on heaven.