Dwelling in Heaven's Suburbs
In June, my former pastor paid me a visit. Now retired, Bob Macfarlane lives 728 miles from his former parish church. We don't see each other often anymore.
After dinner, Bob cast a backward glance. "If I had it to do over again," he said, "I think I'd preach a lot more about heaven." We talked about the preacher's resources on heaven, from ancient Scripture through Dante's 1321 Paradiso through Richard Baxter's 1650 The Saints' Everlasting Rest to Pope Benedict's 2007 encyclical Saved in Hope and N. T. Wright's 2008 Surprised by Hope. After Bob returned home, I telephoned him and we talked more.
Why preach about heaven? Bob was unashamed to confess: "The most cogent reason in my case is age. As one gets older, one begins to think there is not much of this life left," he said. "Thinking about heaven is a faithful response to the running out of the string."
Teaching about heaven is an important ministry to believers who are getting older. Most pastors know that focusing on the aging does not pay back readily in congregational or budget growth. Instead, a focus on young adults and families often marks the church geared for growth. It is a reality of the religious marketplace. But preparing for death and for life in the presence of God is not something the old should do by themselves. Children, youth, and young adults also need to participate in these realities in order to understand the scope of Christian hope. Creating what CT editor at large Rob Moll recently called in these pages "a culture of resurrection" is foundational to full-orbed multigenerational ministry.
Teaching about heaven is also a good way to keep our vision of justice in perspective. You can't talk about paradise—the time-place where everything is right—without talking about the way things will be put right. That means we can't talk about heaven without talking about the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment.
Our individual memories and our community stories are full of injustices—both those we suffer and those we perpetrate. In this life, there is no undoing those injustices. There can be forgiveness and reconciliation and even restitution, but we cannot recover lost lives and lost opportunities.
Scripture's earliest clear teaching of the resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12:1-3) follows a prophecy about God's people suffering unjust persecution. How will God put things right after his people experience the greatest "time of distress" since the world began? Through a general resurrection and a judgment. "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt" (v. 2).
In Saved in Hope, Pope Benedict points to the way the "Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul." As a result, he says, "in the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgment has faded into the background."
"Faith in the Last Judgment," Benedict says, is "first and foremost hope." He calls "the question of justice … the strongest argument in favor of faith in eternal life." It is morally inconceivable "that the injustice of history should be the final word," he says, and when we face that, "the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing."
Christians talk more about justice now than ever. God is on an intergalactic justice mission, and we are God's agents, charged with bringing about a limited and relative justice. But lest the overwhelming task make us weary, our heavenly hope keeps it in perspective. As Benedict writes, "A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope." The restoration of justice is ultimately God's task.
- Jesus' Elevator Speech
- Who Defines Doctrine?
- Misreading the Magnificat
- Downton Abbey's Real Legacy
- The Hymns That Haunt Us