All one need do to
know Easter is upon us is to look at the covers of the current
editions of Time
magazines. The cover of Newsweek boldly declares, "Forget the Church: Follow Jesus"; Time's
provocatively states, "Rethinking Heaven". The publishers understand that religion sells;
particularly, during the week of Easter (Read our article "The
Controversy Over Hell").
This is not
the first time one of these publications has offered to help
"rethink" an issue of faith or religion. The Easter edition
in 1996, proclaimed, "Rethinking the Resurrection: A New Debate
About the Risen Christ". As with this 1996 article about the
resurrection, Jon Meacham's article in Time proposes there is a new
debate in the Church about heaven.
writes, "...a running debate about the hereafter is raising new
questions about the definition of heaven and what is says about the
meaning of life." The article calls into question, what is
referred to as the long-held belief among Christians, the idea that
heaven is a place in the clouds, a kingdom apart from this world -
sealed behind "pearly gates".
The divide is
described as, "...whether believing Christians see earthly life
as inextricably bound up with eternal life or as simply a prelude to
a heavenly existence elsewhere". In other words, is heaven a
remodeled and better version of this present earth - somewhat of a
heaven come to earth - or is it a "paradise in the sky" we
are waiting to enter?
the former was the view of first century Christians and the latter
developed as the church aged. Regarding early Christian theology, he
states, "Those who believed in Jesus were to be saved, which did
not mean a glorious eternity in an ethereal region. It meant,
instead, a two-step process. First, when a believer died, his body
was left behind and his soul went to a place of rest in preparation
for the second phase: a bodily resurrection into 'new heavens and a
new earth'-not simply a heaven."
So, how does
he explain the more popular and divergent view, held by many
Christians today? Meacham states, "After Jesus failed to
inaugurate the new kingdom in the lifetimes of the disciples and
early apostles, subsequent generations of Christians-now two
millennia's worth-were left to speculate about the nature of life
after death. And the further believers have moved in time from the
New Testament era, the further many Christians have moved from New
Testament understandings about heaven."
In support of
his premise that there is an ongoing debate on this issue, scholars,
pastors, and Christian leaders of each persuasion are quoted and
referenced, including: former Anglican Bishop, N.T Wright; evangelist
and author, Billy Graham; renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking; and
popular pastor and author, Charles Stanley. Meacham even references
the book Heaven Is For Real - the story of a four-year old who
visited heaven while undergoing surgery.
the child returned with vivid memories of his visit and offered an
account in support of the popular view; one, most likely, also held
and preached by his father, a Wesleyan pastor. The book is not
without its detractors; however, at one point it was the number one
bestselling non-fiction book on the New York Times list.
Meacham is correct as regards there being a debate about heaven
taking place today; how new and how wide ranging it is, may offer the
better debate. However, as is also true of the Sullivan article in
Newsweek, it is obvious that covering a "major" news story
was not the publisher's intent. What would have been, at any other
time of year, merely a filler story has been packaged and presented
in such a way as to be little more than a marketing ploy aimed at
selling more magazines through a controversial topic.
unfortunate. For, both of these writers offer some interesting
observations which the Church and Christians, generally, may do well
to consider. However, when packaged in a controversial story - that
calls into question beliefs many Christians hold sacred - there is a
tendency to only see those controversial points.
And, all too
often, if someone even hints at something we believe is controversial
or questionable (much less wrong) we tend to dismiss it, or go into
"attack mode". In so doing, we miss the opportunity to
engage in further dialogue and possibly learn how to better defend
and present our own beliefs.
The fact of
the matter is none of us really know what heaven will be like.
Meacham is probably correct that many times one's view of heaven is
shaped more by one's present situation and need than by Scripture.
Maybe the four
year-old got it right. Perhaps those who espouse an earth more like
we have today - only perfect - are correct. It really doesn't matter
to me. I don't think any of us who believe in heaven will ask to be
deported from it if it doesn't match the theological view we held
while on this earth.
I have often
heard Christians say someone is so heavenly-minded they are no
earthly-good. I think there is wisdom in that; especially as pertains
to this so-called debate. Meacham seems to have reached a similar
conclusion from his research when he makes this observation:
the scholarly redefinition of heaven as a manifestation of God's love
on earth has been illuminating...[it] should inspire the religious to
open their arms more often than they point fingers...It is not
paradise in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring
God's sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy
until, in theological terms, the unknown hour when the world we
struggle to piece together is made whole again."
which view of heaven one holds, surely we who call ourselves
Christians can agree there is much we have to do on this earth in
serving our Lord and others. In fact, we would do well to remember
that Jesus said much more about loving others and serving others than
he did about heaven. Is there really any question as to where he
would most call our attention?
For those who
have heard the gospel and responded to it - who have trusted Christ
for their salvation - Easter is a powerful reminder that heaven is
real and is promised to all those who know Christ; it is the offer
and assurance of eternal life. It is also a reminder that Jesus
stretched out his arms on the cross on our behalf so that we could
have life now and share that good news with others.
At the end of
his article, Meacham points out that Paul's great address on the
resurrection in I Corinthians 15 concludes with these words:
"Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because
you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." In his Newsweek
article, Sullivan makes a similar point when he asks, "What does
it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines
if you do not live as these doctrines demand?"
While we may
not agree with all the points they make, each has picked up on the
fact that, for many people, the Church appears to be made up of those
who have punched their ticket for heaven and are waiting for the
train to depart. Now, we can deny this and move on about our
business; or, we can give it proper consideration and make any needed
adjustments to live out our faith in word and deed until the day we
depart this world.
is right. Perhaps we need to open our arms more to embrace those in
need and point our fingers a little less. It surely couldn't