Allow me to start this morning by asking you a question — What do you think is the primary goal in life for most Christians? What is it that Christians want to achieve more than anything else? And I think you would probably agree with my assessment that, for most Christians, the primary goal in life is to get to heaven. If we make it to heaven, we have succeeded, and we don’t get to heaven, we have failed. That is our biggest goal in life.
But I want to suggest to you this morning that I don’t believe that “going to heaven” is a very good goal. In fact, I tend to believe that if that’s our primary goal in life, then it’s probably hindering us from living out our Christian faith. Now, that may come as a bit of a surprise to you, so let me explain why I say that.
Suppose you’re a teacher and you have a student in your class whose goal in life is to get out of school on June 9th for summer break. That’s his primary goal. That’s all he thinks about, that’s all he talks about. He can’t wait until school is over. Would you expect for him to be a very good student? Or would you rather have a student who is focused on learning, growing, and developing every day that he’s in school?
Or suppose you’re an employer and you have an employee whose goal in life is to get off work on Friday afternoon and party for the weekend. That’s his primary goal. That’s all he thinks about, that’s all he talks about. “Just three more days, just two more days, just one more hour. I can’t wait for 5:00 to come and I’m out of here.” Would you expect him to be one of your best workers? Or would you rather have a worker who is focused on the work that needs to be done each and every day?
Now suppose there’s a Christian whose goal in life is to get to heaven. That’s his primary goal. It’s all he thinks about, it’s all he talks about, it’s all he sings about – “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be!” “I can’t wait until I get to heaven!” Would you expect someone like that to focus on the opportunities at hand, learning, growing, and serving God each and every day?
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe it’s wrong to want to go to heaven. For that matter, I don’t think it’s wrong to get excited about the thought of getting off work on Friday afternoon, or getting out of school in June. But when that becomes our primary goal, when that becomes our big aim in life, it shapes who we are right now, and it shapes the way we behave right now.
You see, if I’m a student who is focused on getting out of school in June, it’s very easy to fall into a mindset of, “What’s the very least I have to do to get by?” And if I’m an employee who is focused on getting out of work for the weekend, it’s very easy to fall into a mindset of, “What’s the very least I have to do to get by? Because I don’t really care how many widgets I turn out, or what kind of quality they are. As long as I can make it to Friday and pick up my paycheck on my way out the door, I’m happy.”
And if I’m a Christian whose primary goal in life is to get to heaven, it’s very easy to fall into a mindset of, “What’s the very least I have to do to get by?” The burning question seems to be, “If I don’t attend on Wednesday nights, can I still make it to heaven?” And if I’m not careful, I will end up not being all that concerned about how I treat people around me, or showing compassion to those who are hurting, or standing up for those who are being mistreated. All I care about is, “Am I going to make it into heaven?”
I’m sure you’ve all heard the familiar story about the teacher asking her class, “Who wants to go to heaven? And all the kids raise their hand except for one little boy. The teacher asks him, “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” And he says, “Oh, I thought you were getting up a group to go right now.”
It is curious, isn’t it, that what we say we want most in life is not something we want anytime soon. I’ll come back to that thought at the end of the lesson. But, for now I want you to consider that what we think about the age to come impacts how we live today.
The truth of the matter is, Christians don’t always live the way they ought to. In fact, that’s one of the biggest complaints of those who are not Christians. They want to know, if you claim to follow the Prince of Peace, then why are you so divisive, and anxious, and fearful and angry? If Jesus’ life was filled with joy, then why are Christians often perceived as resentful, sour and against anything that might resemble a celebration?
For a group of people who follow a God who entered this world in the flesh, it often seems like we can’t wait to escape this world. Now I realize that doesn’t describe all Christians, but from people on the outside of Christian faith looking in, those are the kind of observations we hear most.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Christians are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” But what if the problem isn’t that we’ve thought too much about heaven, but that our thinking about heaven is too separate from our life on earth?
Some of you will recognize the name Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Mrs. O’Hair was probably the most prominent atheist in this country during 1960’s and 70’s. In 1959, she was called to testify in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that testimony, she said, “An atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy….An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated.”
Her point was that Christians have their heads in the clouds to such an extent that they are disconnected from life on earth. Now it hasn’t always been that way. Most of the hospitals in the West were started by churches. Prison reform, women’s suffrage, child labor laws, the abolition of slavery – all of these were heavily influenced and led by Jesus-followers. Throughout history, God’s people have been active in confronting injustice and working to make life on earth different, better, more just.
But, for much of my life, I’ve heard more focus on, “All I care about is whether or not I get to heaven.” We sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.” We sing about how we can’t wait until we get our gold mansion that’s silver-lined.
And if we are convinced that God is going to destroy this world, we might be reluctant to invest our lives in helping to bring his kingdom to earth. If in the near future, this earth will be obliterated in divine judgment, then we might decide that it’s not worth the effort to bother with combatting human trafficking, or to fight for equality for all races, or to try to protect children from exploitation. If this world doesn’t matter, then why should we really care? Which was Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s point.
How what we think about the age to come will influence greatly how we live in this age. Anthropologists have discovered that there’s not a single culture or society that they know of that doesn’t have some kind of belief in a world to come. Each culture calls it something different and it takes different shapes. But it seems as if God has put eternity on the human heart, that he has put within us a sense that this world is not all there is.
So, throughout the course of Christian history, we’ve talked a lot about the age to come. For the first few centuries it sustained the first Jesus followers in the face of imminent death. Whenever they were threatened by the Roman emperors, they took comfort in knowing that there is life after death.
The Roman catacombs, where the bodies of many martyred Christians were buried, contain tombs with inscriptions such as “In Christ, Alexander is not dead, but lives.” One historian writes, “Pictures on the catacomb walls portray Heaven with beautiful landscape, children playing, and people feasting at banquets.”
But over the past few centuries, the way we visualize the age to come has changed quite a bit. The way we tend to talk about heaven is that it’s a never-ending church service. We just float around in the clouds with nothing to do but strum a harp.
A few years ago, there was a fellow by the name of Joel Stein who was a columnist for the L.A. Times who campaigned to get his quote about heaven put on Starbucks cups and he succeeded. And so, many people found this written on their coffee cups –
“Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than hell.”
And the thing that I find most disturbing about his quote is that he’s kind of right. Because our popular notion of heaven is actually pretty far from what the Bible has to say about it.
And maybe that’s why a few years ago when USA Today did a poll about what most Americans think about heaven. Not surprisingly, most Americans said they believe in heaven but two thirds of us said that heaven was going to be a non-material place and we would reside there like ghosts. But that’s not how scripture talks about heaven.
In fact, the writers of Scriptures use a lot of different metaphors to talk about heaven. It’s as if there’s no one way of talking about Heaven that can give the full picture. And sometimes when the scripture talk about the age to come, they talk about heaven and sometimes they talk about Earth. Sometimes they talk about it as a banquet or a wedding or a city. It’s too big to reduce to any one way of talking about it.
And the reason all of this is important is because what you think about the age to come is going to shape how you live today. Let me give you an example.
Two decades ago, Rwanda was the scene of one of the worst genocides since the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered. And what makes this tragedy even worse is that at the time this happened, Rwanda was the most Christian nation in the world. By that, I mean it had the most Christians per capita – in 1994, ninety percent of Rwandans called themselves Jesus followers.
And yet, we have record of entire church congregations rising up and killing people from another tribe who were also members of Christian churches. And the question you have to ask is — how in the world could something like that happen? How can people who claim to be following Jesus do something like that?
But it’s obvious that Rwandan believers understood the gospel to point to a future reality, heaven, after they died. But it clearly didn’t have any implications for the way they lived on earth. And I wish I could that that was a problem only found in another place and another time, but you and I have seen far too many examples of the same sort of thing with Christians in this country.
For far too long, we’ve been asking people the question, “If you were to die tonight, where would you wake up?” Perhaps the question we need to be asking is this – “If you don’t die tonight and you wake up in your bed tomorrow morning, then what are you going to live for?”
We have often measured our love for another person by whether or not we would die for them. Perhaps the better question is, “Do you love someone so much that you will live for them?”
At the time of the Rwandan genocide, that country was being celebrated by American missionaries as representing a model of success. 90% of them are Christians, isn’t that amazing! But, as it turns out, they were a people who said they believed the message of Jesus, but they had been taught the wrong message about Jesus. They knew all about going to heaven, but they didn’t understand much about the importance of loving their neighbor.
Apparently, we seem to think that Jesus knows a whole lot about how to get us to heaven, but not much about how we should live while we reside on earth. We have separated the world into the physical and the spiritual, heaven and earth. But that is a distinction that Scripture really doesn’t make, and in fact it was known as the first major heresy.
One of the first heresies in the church that we know about was an idea called Gnosticism. It was basically the idea that this material world is bad, that humans are nothing but a divine soul trapped in a material world. And in order to free yourself from this material world, you have to have special knowledge that is available only to the elite.
For the Gnostics, the flesh was the product of a bad creation. They viewed God’s creation as such a bad thing that they started to tell people that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh – that he was, in fact, just a spirit. Because this material world was thought to be so bad, God obviously wouldn’t come to the earth in bodily form. This world, our bodies, and how we live out our lives all are irrelevant, because the real mission and purposes of God are somewhere else – in the future after we die. That was the heresy of Gnosticism.
But we have a biblical story, which begins with a God who said repeatedly that creation is good. God likes what he made. And when the prophets talked about heaven, they never talked about a blurry, esoteric realm located far from earth. They spoke of a new heaven and a new earth, referring to a time in the future when this earth would be restored and renewed.
And Jesus spoke of the future in the same way. In Matthew 19:28 (NET), he talked about the age to come. And I want you to notice the word that he used, “In the age when all things are renewed, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “when all things are destroyed”. He said, “when all things are renewed.” The word Jesus uses there is actually two Greek words put together. It’s paligenesia. Pali is the Greek word that means “again”. And genesia, well, it’s the word “genesis”, beginning. Paligenesia means, “Genesis again.”
Have you ever noticed that the description of heaven in Revelation 21 and 22 looks an awful lot like Genesis 1 and 2? It’s “Genesis again”, paligenesia. You see, God has never given up on his original creation. And we have often overlooked the vocabulary that the Bible uses. When the Bible describes the age to come, it uses words like redeem, resurrect, restore, renew, recover, regenerate. Each of these words means, “to return to a previous state.”
In Acts 3:21, Peter said that Christ must stay in heaven “until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”
Perhaps the clearest text is found in Romans 8. Listen to verses 18-23 as Paul talks not only about our restoration, but the restoration of this earth (I’ll be reading from the New Living Translation): “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.”
Especially notice that phrase – “creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.” Paul says the same thing that will happen to us is going to happen to creation. Are we going to receive a new body? Yes we are! (and thank goodness). But we will still be the people that we are now. I will still be me, and you will still be you. Is creation going to receive a new body? Yes it is. But it will still be God’s creation. Creation isn’t looking forward to the day it will be destroyed, but for the day when it will be renewed and restored.
I like to think of it as a makeover. Home makeovers have become very popular on TV. A family will allow someone to come into their home while they are away and when they return, they open the door and they’re amazed. It looks incredible! It doesn’t look the same way it used to, but it’s the same house. It’s just been renewed, it’s been restored. It’s the “new and improved” version. Scripture talks about heaven being the “new and improved” version of earth.
But there are certain teachings that downplay this biblical emphasis, and instead focus on escaping from this world. One of these teachings that has become very prominent over the past 200 years or so is the idea of the Rapture. Rapture is not something taught in the Bible, and for centuries, Christians did not believe in the Rapture. But in the 1800’s there was a British evangelist by the name of John Darby who came up with this idea and start teaching it.
And the basic idea of the Rapture is that Jesus is going to come twice. His first return is going to be in secret, and he’s going to rapture all the Jesus followers up to heaven, and his second return will not be so secret. You’ve probably seen these bumper stickers, “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.” The idea is that, when Jesus comes, all the Christians will just disappear and escape this world.
The idea of the Rapture became quite popular in this country, especially after Tim LaHaye wrote the “Left Behind” series that was eventually made into a movie. And a lot of people take this doctrine seriously. Did you know that if you’re worried about being Raptured, wondering who’s going to take care of your pets if you suddenly disappear, that there is a group of atheists who offer pet-sitting services for a mere $115. They promise to come rescue your pet if you get raptured.
Now I’m sure the Rapture teaching started out with good intentions, but it’s important to remember that what we direct our hope toward greatly affects how we practice our faith. What you hope for always has and always will shape how you live now. And if you can’t wait to escape this world, it will affect how you view this world.
The escapist idea contradicts not only Jesus’ teachings, but also his earthly life and practices. Jesus was fully God and fully human, and his human side was definitely not removed from our ordinary, troubled world. He enjoyed food and drink with friends and strangers alike. He walked miles in a hot, arid land. He sweated, got dirty, got tired and hungry. He needed friends, went out of his way to reach people, responded to very real human needs.
And while Jesus told his closest followers that he would return to his Father, he emphasized their role and involvement in God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus did not minimize the needs of people by pointing to a future payoff in heaven. Working for justice, being guided by compassion, sacrificing yourself for the good of others in this life – all of these were modeled by Jesus and emphasized in his teachings.
As we consider our responsibility, we find that we haven’t always done a good job of helping Christians to look and act like Jesus. And perhaps one of the reasons is this — why should we really live differently here if the gospel is mostly about being somewhere else?
In the book of Revelation, John’s description of the end times includes heaven coming down. The heavenly city doesn’t stay in heaven, but rather comes down to earth. In a sense, heaven isn’t the end of the world. It’s the beginning of the world as it was always created to be.
Some of you may recall in 2011 that there were a lot of talk about the world ending on May 21st of that year. There was a fellow by the name of Harold Camping who had done all the calculations, found the appropriate math hidden throughout the scriptures, used the correct logarithm and came up with the day – May 21, 2011.
There were a lot of people who believed that was going to be the day that the world would end. A group of them had a tent set up in Little Rock trying to convince people. Jonathan Storment tells about a friend of his who had ten kids. And he went to see these May twenty-firsters who had a 15-passenger van. And he asked them, “Would you mind signing that van over to me on May 22nd, just go ahead and write that on the title, just in case you’re wrong.” And apparently, they didn’t want to do that, but he wanted to teach them a lesson and see just how much faith they had in their leader’s prediction.
And I would imagine that on May 22, 2011, there were a lot of disappointed people who wanted an explanation from the guy who had made this prediction. And I can just imagine he dusted himself off and said something like, “Oops, I forgot to carry the one.”
But it’s happened over and over, time after time, prediction after prediction. The latest prediction was that the world would end on July 29 of this year. But we’re still here. And, of course, we remember that Jesus said in Matthew 24:36, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
And here’s why I think that is. Because what if Jesus doesn’t return on the next crazy date that someone sets. That means that on the very next day, there will still be mass murder in Syria and homelessness in Spring Lake. There will still be kids all over this country and world who don’t eat regularly. There will still be people dying because they don’t have access to clean water. There will still be divorce and injustice and suffering and racism. And the church will still be called to do something about it.
And I think the reason God is intentional about not giving us any clues, about leaving this whole thing a mystery is because he knows us. And he knows that if we knew the day, we would begin to live for then, but the call of God has always been for us to live for this time and this place. To make there and then come here and now.
Lewis Smedes was an ethics teacher in a seminary. And Smedes would often ask his class, “Who wants to go to heaven?” He had a bunch of preacher students in his class and so, of course, everybody would raise their hand. And then he would say, “Who would like to go to heaven tomorrow?” And the hands would come down.
But then Smedes would ask the question – “”How many of you would like to wake up tomorrow in a world where no child ever feared to dance on the street at night, or nobody ever pointed a gun at another human being, or no child ever starved, or nobody ever put you down because you were different, or no mother ever wept over a hungry baby? A world where there’s no more common cold or uncommon cancer? A world that’s not ravaged by genocide and poverty and war? How many of you would like to wake up in that world tomorrow?” And all the hands went back up.
Then Smedes would say, “Then you want to go to heaven tomorrow, because that is what biblical hope is about. God created this world. He is not that interested in getting us off of it. What He is interested in is getting it to work right.”
You see, heaven and earth were always meant to be together, and one day they will be joined fully and finally. God’s plan, according to Ephesians 1:10 is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
So, what is my point? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so concerned about “going to heaven”. Perhaps we should be more concerned about striving to bring heaven to earth, about living in a way that helps others see in us what heaven is like, a place where filled with love, justice, and compassion.