February 11, 2007
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X)
and Holy Spirit. Amen.
has fallen on evil days – the belief that we live forever in bliss
after we die. This has been perpetrated by those outside the church as
well as by those within the church.
the one hand this is shocking – hearing that those inside of the
church are undercutting belief in heaven. Those who we would think
should be trumpeting heaven and promoting it are actually doing the
opposite. But on the other hand this is not surprising at all since
cynics have been in the church from the beginning. These cynics are
Christians who have gone astray – and they have been with the church
from the earliest times. False Christian teachers, we are told, have
been around from the beginning of Christianity (2 Peter 2:1; 1
Corinthians 6:19-20). So when we read that there’s “nothing new
under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), that goes for cynicism in the
church as well. Debunking heaven then is not just a modern degeneration
– much to the ongoing alarm of the faithful.
after all, that 1 Corinthians 15:19 says that “if for this life only
we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” This
verse needs to be read slowly. It’s surprisingly about those who
believe, those who “have hoped in Christ.” These Christians,
however, are the attenuated, truncated, puny ones who claim Jesus’
name but do not care about his work and words. They say they believe but
they’re far from the truth. This makes them most pitiable. They are
those who have only a “pernicious faith,” as Luther argued, which
provides them just enough Christianity to remain removed and inoculated
from it! (Luther’s Works 26:269).
are the lackadaisical ones who don’t have their hearts in it (Luke
8:15). They are the ones who have the “form of religion” but deny
the power of it. They are the “lovers of self” who refuse to become
“lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-5). And they make for bad days in the
attentuated Christians are still with us – and so they make for bad
days in our churches too. Today they’re saying it’s selfish for us
to want to go to heaven. They say hoping to live eternally in heaven is
blasphemous because only God is eternal and lives forever and ever.
Wanting our lives to extend out in time to eternity is a veiled effort
to take over God’s place. So wanting to go to heaven is actually
wanting to storm the heavens and become God. These cynics don’t deny
eternity and heaven. No, not at all. They admit it’s real. They just
say it’s reserved for God alone. Heaven simply isn’t for us.
That’s what the prestigious Lutheran scholar Krister Stendahl says
(“Man’s Arrogant Concern for His Immortality,” Minneapolis
Tribune, February 13, 1972), as well as the popular
even say there’s a sophisticated metaphysical mistake in the desire to
go to heaven [Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection (1962) pp. 245-246]. It’s based on a
correlation of the categories of space and time. They say that if you
want to go to heaven and infinitely extend your lives out into the
distant future, then you’ll also have to imagine the same for yourself
spatially – infinitely extending your body out in all directions at
once – eventually even to encompass the whole world. But this, they
say, is bizarre and absurd. For only God is omnipresent – or spatially
infinite. Since this absurdity is intrinsically attached to the longing
for heaven – since time and space are inextricably linked – we have
yet another reason to say that longing for heaven is wrong.
skeptics outside of the church share in this conclusion. They deny
heavenly life – or post-mortem personal existence – because they say
there’s no evidence for it (see Beyond
Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, eds. Gary R. Habermas
& J. P. Moreland, 1998, 2004). Just open-up the graves, and you will
see that the deceased remain in their tombs. This makes for an
open-and-shut case. For if there were a heaven, the graves of the dead
would be empty. And since they’re not, but rather filled with dust and
bones, heaven is a fraud.
The skeptics say that if this tough-minded approach is not taken,
we become helplessly gullible. Then people are abused and snookered in
all areas of life. This makes longing for heaven anything but innocent.
It breeds a deadly vulnerability which plays into the hands of criminals
and thugs. So, abandon heaven!
Laying Out the Rationale
A good way to begin this is simply to clarify why we want to go
to heaven in the first place. On this score, just listening to what the
Bible says helps. This is because hearing these words reveals the
rationale or “account” [λογον] honored in 1
the Bible we’re told that the longing for heaven is moral. So thinking
that the heavenly minded are of no earthly good is simply wrong. For the
belief in heaven can actually improve life now.
In Luke 6:23, for instance, it says that when people hate
Christians “on account of Jesus,” we are to rejoice because our
reward is “great in heaven.” Here we see that our heavenly reward
strengthens us. It enables us to endure hatred and unpopularity in this
life. It enables us to stay the course. It prevents us from being
“tossed to and fro… with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of
men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:14).
is a huge asset. It builds integrity. Longing for heaven makes us stable
and trustworthy. It keeps us from being swayed by the winds of fortune,
fads and trends. Having our eyes fixed on “the glory that is to be
revealed,” prevents us from being disrupted by sufferings, traumas and
loss (Romans 8:18). And this firmness helps life flourish in this world.
In addition, Luke 14:14 says not to seek repayment in this life
for good deeds we have done. We instead should expect to be “repaid at
the resurrection of the just.” This inspires us to invite people over
who can’t reciprocate since they’re too poor to be able to entertain
us in their homes. Longing for heaven, then, breaks the back of greed
and deceit. This helps us be more generous without trying, at the same
time, to feather our own nests. Heavenly longings therefore have a
pay-off for the disadvantaged in this life.
in our defense and rhapsody over the goodness of heavenly longings, the
Bible also wants to keep us from losing sight of our duties on earth. We
are told that the laborers are few (Luke 10:2) and so we need to get
going in the vineyard of this world and make God’s ways known far and
wide. We are even expected to be “ambassadors” for Christ Jesus in
this life (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Now St. Paul candidly admits in Philippians 2:23 that it would be
“far better” for him to die and go to heaven than stay here and
suffer, in what Luther called, this “vale of tears” (LW
28:122). But, he then hastens to add, that it is “necessary” for him
to stay here on earth in order to help as many as he can believe in and
follow Christ (1 Corinthians 9:22).
God is Primarily Exalted in Heaven
said, bringing this world to an end and ushering the saints off into
heaven, is still a great good. For in this massive transformation God
himself will be glorified.
How so? Well, when through death we are freed from this life we
are also freed from sin (Romans 6:7). That is to say, we will sin no
more. While on earth we sin over and over again (Romans 7:21-23), even
though we believe in Jesus and have our sins repeatedly forgiven (1 John
1:9-2:2). Death is good because it brings this ungodly cycle to an end.
does death do this? Well, in death there is judgment and judgment gives
us a final disposition or reading on ourselves (Hebrews 9:27). To those
who love Christ, it will mean everlasting blessedness. But to those who
don’t, it will mean everlasting “wrath and fury” (Romans 2:7-8).
Either way matters are settled. We know how we’ll be fixed for
eternity. Judgment does this. There will be no slipping and sliding
around in eternity. This odd eternal life has been called living with
“the cessation of contingency” [Eulalio R. Baltazar, God
Within Process (Newman, 1970) p. 123]. And
This eternal life, whether in heaven or in hell, glorifies God,
for no new sins can plague him there. Evil will be stopped in its
tracks. All violence against the innocent will be ended. Peace and
justice will be firmly established at last (Isaiah 65:17-25). The wicked
will be jailed in hell forever – along with the devil and his demons.
They no longer will be able to hurt the righteous.
In addition to this blessing, judgment will make every knee bow
“in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).
Currently God’s name is taken in vain all over the place – in direct
violation of his command (Exodus 20:7). But in the end all blasphemy
will be stopped and every knee will bow and God will be glorified. Those
in heaven will honor God’s name with high delight. Those in hell –
those living “under the earth” – will be forced to bow. But in
either case, God will be glorified – thereby making heaven, first and
foremost, a blessing to God.
Getting into Heaven
heaven’s so wonderful, how do we get there? Not that we want to jump
the gun and force God’s hand, but when the time’s right, how do we
find a place there?
Do we get to heaven by trying harder to make good on our good
intentions that previously only lead us straight to hell? Is that the
way? Is the way to heaven by trusting in ourselves to do a better job?
Jeremiah 17:8 says no. It goes in the opposite direction. It turns us
away from ourselves. It says that “those who trust in the Lord, whose
trust is the Lord,” they are the ones who will be blessed and end up
But notice carefully what this verse says. It doesn’t just say
that trusting in God gets you there. No, not at all. For if that were
the case, then we could twist our trusting into trusting in our own
efforts at trusting in God. This ploy is snide, but common nonetheless.
And as a result our needed reversal is lost – plunging us deeper into
ourselves. So Jeremiah goes on to say that the Lord is our trust. That
is to say that God trusts in himself for us! Now how about that? Isn’t
that weird? How can God do for us, what we’re supposed to do for him?
How can he be our trust in him?
Jesus Perfects Our Faith
answer to this is in Christ Jesus himself. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to
“look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who… endured
the cross” Here we see that Christ is the perfecter [πελειωτην],
fulfiller or completer of our faith. So we are not left to push and
squeeze our faith extra hard to make it just right. No. The Lord
fulfills our faith for us. Christ makes our faith what it should be. He
is our savior, after all. This is what he does.
But how does he do this? Hebrews 9:26 says “Jesus, once for
all… put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Sin is what holds us
back. Hebrews 3:13 says it hardens us through deceitfulness. This
diminishes our faith. So Christ’s sacrifice of himself does for us
what we cannot do for ourselves (Romans 7:18-19, 8:3, 11:24). He takes
our flimsy trust in God and makes it victorious. He does this by his
immense strength – which enables him to be obedient unto death, even
death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). While dying on the cross he’s
taunted. His enemies pursue him. They try to coax him down from the
cross (Matthew 27:39-44). And he could have done that easily (John
by virtue of his conviction, he stays on the cross and dies. And by
dying on the cross he frees us from our sin and the guilt that burdens
us because of it. Taking away this sin, Hebrews 12:12 says, strengthens
our drooping hands and weak knees. How so? John 12:32 says Jesus’
death on the cross draws us to himself. That drawing (John 6:44)
enhances our faith to the point where we can say with Jeremiah that our
trust now “is the Lord.” In this way his obedience becomes ours.
This makes faith a gift (Ephesians 2:8). So by trusting in Jesus, our
burden becomes his burden and then our burden is eased because it’s
shared (Matthew 11:28-30).
Heaven is Our Home
faith we can say with confidence that “heaven is our commonwealth and
from it we await our savior, Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). But
what does this mean, to say that heaven is our home? How can it be our
home if we are still earthlings, slogging “along as if in a bog,” in
this troubled life (Søren
Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, eds. Howard & Edna Hong,
6:6503, 6842)? In what way is heaven our commonwealth or proper home?
First, it’s the place of our fulfillment. In this life our
humanity is blunted and warped. We are so twisted that we never really
get a chance to live fully. We’re oppressed, unemployed or
under-employed, depressed, sick and stricken (Revelation 3:17). This is
because we are born sinful (Psalm 51:5). This makes us slaves to sin
(John 8:34). We live in darkness – even so much so, that we love it
(John 8:12; 3:19). So this earthly “life is not life. No, it is a
mortification and vexation of life” (LW
8:114). Our bodies even yearn for redemption in the life to come (Romans
abundant living we’re supposed to have escapes us in this life (John
10:10). Even if we’re rich in material things they don’t bless us
(Luke 12:16-21). So we’re trapped in this life (Galatians 5:1).
We’re imprisoned – even if we are free to come and go as we wish!
Our hope for freedom, then, can only be fulfilled in heaven. That chance
is what makes heaven our home – it is our place of fulfillment. There
all tears, pain, loss and sadness will be gone (Revelation 21:3-4). This
makes heaven truly our home. There we will “always be strong and
vigorous, healthy and happy, also brighter and more beautiful than sun
and moon, so that all the… gold bedecking a king… will be sheer dirt
in comparison with us when we are illumined by but a divine glance” (LW
And secondly, in heaven our life with God is brought to fruition.
Isaiah 43:21 says that God created us for himself that we might praise
him. But in this life we give into the temptation to praise ourselves
instead (John 5:44, 12:25; 2 Timothy 3:2-5; Philippians 3:19). So we are
not enthroning God on our praises as we ought to (Psalm 22:3). Instead,
“men kiss calves,” Hosea 13:2 reports with tears. How disgusting,
in heaven this is overcome. There we stand around the throne of the
Lamb, praising God with great jubilation (Revelation 5:6-14). And this
is why we should want to go to heaven, says Psalm 30:9. For we don’t
go there to pursue our earthly hobbies ad
infinitum! Saying I won’t go to heaven unless I can fish there, is
not only funny but stupid and faithless. In heaven our transformation
into the likeness of Christ will be completed – and so our desires
will also be changed (2 Corinthians 3:18). “Otherwise, what would God
really have accomplished,… if man would always have to bear his…
sack of stench with him and eternally stuff himself and eliminate,
discharge mucus,… be lazy and be ill?” (LW 28:172). Pursuing earthly things in heaven, then, would be vile.
That’s in part why marriage has no place in heaven (Matthew 22:30).
This also is the case, of course, because the absence of death makes
to Behold His Face
God forever is the chief reason for wanting to go to heaven. The Black
spiritual, “Just to Behold His Face” [Songs
of Zion, ed. Mada P. Jonhston (1981) hymn 187], says this well:
just to kneel with angels,
see loved ones who’ve gone,
just to drink at the fountain
the great white throne,
for the crown that He giveth,
I’m trying to run the race;
I want up in heaven
just to behold His face.
would agree, for he knew that self-denial (Luke 9:23) extends even into
heaven. So he wrote that it was a bad, “covetous love” that longed
for heaven, “not for the sake of God Himself,” but for ones own
sake. Such self-centeredness clouds over the truth that we are to
glorify God “in all things,” and not just our pet interests –
either here or “in eternity” (LW
25:380-381). So in heaven we’re primarily blessed by “viewing and
looking at God” (LW 28:143).
Pursuing our favorite earthly pastimes in heaven then would be a clear
waste of time.
Meditate on Heaven
says we should “meditate on the law of the Lord… day and night.”
Let that be our good work these days. In our meditation on God’s word,
let us focus on the goodness of longing for heaven. Let our meditation
and thinking be like a cow in the pasture chewing his cud –
“ruminating” on the word of the Lord, as Luther said (LW
30:219). As Christian cows, let us think about it over and over again.
Don’t grow tired of it (LW
26:64). Pray to God for help with this and he will bless you with this
“thorough kneading of reflection” (Kierkegaard’s
Writings, 14:111). Amen.
as preached but with some changes)