After spending decades barely mentioning the details of heaven in anything but euphemisms, the Internet’s effect on young people leaving is forcing the church to address seemingly difficult topics. I have read blogs written by various preachers about heaven recently, and I have also watched video and sermon series of others as they each shared their view on the afterlife. Perhaps not ironically, each of these presentations parrot one another, the overlapping thesis being the words of Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter and John taken literally. That is incredibly odd, since each author, in trying to lift their audience’s weight of tribulation, presented different spins on the same metric. No two were the same, because the circumstances of each audience were geographically and theologically different.
Assigning teachable moments in Scripture as literal, related to future events has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, which is why the attempt is never made to explain their conclusions, biologically or metaphysically. Thinking that there will physically be a new heaven and a new earth, and that the coordinates for heaven will be moved from the sky to terra firma when Jesus returns is, well, bizarre, especially since young people have effortlessly traveled from one to the other most of their lives.
During these presentations, it is often said that the holes they can’t explain were things we weren’t meant to know. That always occurs when metaphoric things are defined as literal. Taking Jesus’ parables as literal creates the same cross current. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, how could the rich man talk to Abraham across such a large chasm without a phone or bullhorn? Of course, that wasn’t the intended lesson, but when people try to assign anything to any parable outside the points Jesus was making, the same theological mess is created because they are figurative in nature, and not literal events. Teaching that incinerated and cremated people will be given new bodies, without explaining the biometrics of how that will occur, leaves reasonable questions unanswered.
In this new world order, the earth is supposed to be a perfect place, but hell is never explained. And why would the new earth need such an enormous wall if God is in control? The way the new earth is described appears to come out of a science fiction novel, with far-fetched and unexplained renovation plans, suited to a very small geographic component of its existence.
It’s hard to believe that men who supposedly know the Bible would present something so bizarre to people looking for answers. If this was done in hopes of appealing to college students and millennials, it probably has the opposite effect. While the church has been debating pre-millennialism and post-millennialism for decades, perhaps it should focus on why millennials are walking out the door, looking for answers in other places.
Let’s give young people in the 21st century a view of heaven they can get their arms around, for heaven’s sake.
I don’t know when the word “heaven” was first coined in human speech, but it likely just referred to the sky and whatever might be above the earth, based on its etymology or construction. By definition, that includes clouds, stars, planets, the sun, and anything else floating around “up there”. Thousands of years ago, that also included each culture’s gods and mythological creatures, overseeing human activity and behavior and even competing for human devotion.
Because the sky created an incredibly large canvas, and people in those cultures were so superstitious, nothing was off-limit to their imagination. Since the details of stories set in unknown environs can’t be disputed, the sky served as a storehouse for fears and dreams for centuries, of people daring to wish upon one of its stars. Although God is spirit and, therefore, does not reside in the sky, it none-the-less provided the perfect training ground for teaching His gravity-laden disciples how to soar above their own human limitations. When the Wright brothers won the battle against gravity, they inadvertently unleashed a star-gate of discoveries from explorations of the heavens that people in the first century could not have possibly imagined.
The audiences of the inspired writers had never soared across the sky at 40,000 feet, witnessing God’s creation set against that canvas. They had never traveled at the speed of sound, nor had they seen vivid pictures of distant galaxies from space telescopes. Imagine how differently the Bible would have been written had they landed on the moon prior to its compilation. Had the Bible been written today, Jesus’ teaching illustration about heaven would have likely included something other than him ascending into the sky, dodging Boeings and Cessnas.
Back then, radar could not predict life-threatening weather to avoid. In fact, their lives had to be experienced in the moment because it was impossible to see into the future. They could not rush sick children to a hospital because of illnesses they could not explain, and they had no way to protect their crops from famine. For them, space was not the final frontier; the future was. The reality is that trying to live in the moment while being worried about the future can be overwhelming in an uncertain world, when death can occur with little or no warning. And if their world started crashing in around them, they could not simply get on-line and book a flight to carry them across the country or around the world at the drop of a hat. Any way you cut it, we are not them, and they were not us.
So why did the inspired writers of Scripture mention heaven in the first place? To give them hope. The sole reason for telling these stories was to encourage and motivate their audience to look beyond their current circumstances, by showing them a glimpse of something beyond themselves. The anticipated result was that they would be able to bear up under a heavier load, inspired to run the race to its completion. This would help them focus on the future, instead of being afraid of it, since fear is paralyzing. With this in mind, their purpose was not to foretell the future; it was to alter it.
When John sat in exile at Patmos, his stated goal was to inspire and encourage the troops back home, who were like a ship without a rudder. Times were tough in the Roman world for Christians at the end of the first century, and things were about to get a lot rougher. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he noted that if that much adversity could happen while he was alive (a green tree), imagine how bad things would be when he was gone (a dry tree). In John’s day, they were facing a forest fire.
What words could John write to channel the emotional energy of the churches of Asia Minor into a sustaining hope, without offending his captors, who would be censoring his mail? To accomplish both, John produced a vivid, action-packed movie that would entertain his hosts but have a galvanizing effect on his followers. Just as screenwriters today draw from things of which they are familiar, John’s description of hell in his Revelation letter was eerily similar to their trash dump called Gehenna just south of Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom. Having no bulldozers to cover this pit of death and destruction, it continuously burned, like a lake of fire, metaphorically speaking. In addition to the city’s garbage, the dead bodies of the city’s lepers and unclaimed bodies were also burned, creating an awful sight and smell. Jesus used this visual in his teachings to describe worm-ridden bodies in the second death. Had John’s letter been written to us today, he probably would have painted a vivid picture of a nuclear holocaust to create an equivalent emotional quotient.
To describe the final battle called Armageddon, John used an ancient abandoned battlefield in Israel to create its backdrop. Tel Megiddo was a hill overlooking the Jezreel valley, where many important battles had been fought. However, by the time John wrote his letter, it had been abandoned for nearly 700 years, the last major battle fought there resulting in the demise of King Josiah. What an incredible place to locate his story of a battle to the death for humanity! It is interesting to note that “Armageddon” is the Greek word for Tel Megiddo, Patmos being a Greek island. I guess had John been carried off to a place like, say, Japan, we would be calling the end-of-times battle by Tel Megiddo’s Japanese name.
Because his friends in Asia Minor were under extreme hardship from the Roman Empire, the temptation for some to abandon their faith was overwhelming. That seems to be why John included Jesus’ notation that those events would happen “soon”; that they were imminent. That they wouldn’t have to hold on for very long. But, obviously, for them, they weren’t actually imminent. In fact, they never happened. But that didn’t keep those stories from being extremely inspiring to those who needed to hear it the most.
The reality is that none of the things John wrote ever had to happen to accomplish his goal of encouraging them to stay the course. That doesn’t mean these things will or won’t happen, but it should serve as a reminder that our primary focus should be on growing God’s spirit within us, which can manufacture more hope than any prophecy ever could. If God lives within us, heaven becomes our dessert. And when each of us takes our last breath, Jesus came.
Here are ten clues about understanding heaven in the 21st century:
- The Bible was not written to us. It was inspired by God, not written by Him. Big difference. We were not the intended audience.
- Heaven is not a goal or destination; it is an integral part of the journey. When God lives in us, we are in heaven.
- Heaven is a spiritual place. Heaven is not a physical place in that it has no coordinates. God is spirit; God and heaven are inseparable.
- Stories about heaven and hell were not written to foretell the future, just alter it. Coaches know that some players respond best with praise while others are motivated by fear of punishment.
- Being one heartbeat away from death for us, equates to “soon” for them.
- Jesus is currently here on earth. Jesus is in us and among us (two or more gathered in his name…). So he never has to return, right? What form is Jesus today?
- God, being the world’s greatest teacher, can utilize any teaching metric to encourage. Including metaphors, embellishment, hyperbole and exaggeration. Teaching without boundaries, like our favorite coaches and teachers did.
- Paul thought Jesus would return in his lifetime. So has every generation since.
- The inspired writers shared stories of heaven to create an emotional reaction toward God’s nature. Like anything else, the heart must buy in before the mind will go along.
- None of the prophetic words of Scripture have to occur to achieve their desired effect. But those words have inspired every generation from then to now.
Whatever you teach young people about heaven, be sure there are no holes in your description. Otherwise, their faith can fall through. Give them something they can believe so that hope can sustain their faith.