Heaven can’t be cut out of the garment of faith.

When I was a teenager, I would have been happy to do away with heaven. I felt that it was a disreputable concept.

I had a pragmatic mind, and the idea that Christianity’s value depended on something I could not see or know about, some place vaguely celebrated as having golden streets, disturbed me. I remember questioning a Sunday school teacher on the subject. “But even if there were not a place like heaven, even if life ended at death, don’t you think Christianity would be worthwhile?” I got a hesitant yes, and I felt better. I wanted a faith that was practical and valuable here and now. If I got a bonus after life, that would be fine, but it was not the reason I believed.

Why did I feel this way, which was at odds with the way so many Christians before me had felt? I think the period of my youth, in the 1960s, set many of us apart from the generations before. Through its events we lost any sense that we were part of history. The moon walk, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam nightmare, the new math, marijuana and LSD, encounter groups—all these were, it seemed to my generation, a departure from everything that had ever happened. We had no certainty where they would lead us. To heaven on Earth? To hell on Earth? Both views had their partisans.

Once lost, a sense of history—the continuity with the importance of time out of reach, forward and backward—is very hard to regain. For my generation, Christianity focused around two poles. We wanted at one pole a practical Christianity that helped people form sound marriages, raise their children well, form positive friendships, help their community and their world, work hard, and live well. That was the outside of life. The other pole was on the inside: a faith that cured loneliness, took away anger, filled the God-shaped vacuum with a “sweet, sweet Spirit.” Our churches worked hard to help both poles of life. We held seminars on family life, “God’s will” (which means vocation and marriage plans), simple living. Those were for the outside. We also held seminars on “how to be filled with the Spirit,” “quiet time,” “spirituality.” These were for the inside. Both inside and outside were “practical,” making sense to us and even to our non-Christian neighbors.

But our generation’s Christianity had neither past nor future. It floated in an existential present. What happened in biblical times was relevant only as it helped me now. The future kingdom of Christ was a blurry theological detail (unless you could convince me that it would come within the next year or two).

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Today my view is different. I realize now that you can’t cut heaven out of the garment of faith. Tear it out and you tear the garment at every point. Theologians and scholars know this very well. Heaven is a historic doctrine of Christianity. Jesus taught us to pray to our Father in heaven, that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Apostles’ Creed declares that from heaven Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead,” and proclaims “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” There is no chaff in the creed, only the fundamentals that all Christians believe essential.

Unfortunately, I did not rediscover heaven as a result of reading the Bible, the historic creeds, or the great theologians. What led me to care about heaven was a personal exploration. I was preoccupied with the questions “Where is God?” “How do I know him personally?” I realized, when I asked those questions most frankly, that while God was with me, he was also absent. I lived in darkness as well as light. I could not see his face; I could not carry on a real conversation. This was more than a theological problem, it was a personal problem. I missed God.

Then I found that I was not the first person to feel that way. People in the Bible knew that the kingdom had still not come in its fullness. They felt pain and longing at its partialness and unfulfillment. They also felt expectancy and hope, for they believed that what they wanted was on its way.

Paul wrote in Romans 8:24–25, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” (NIV) The full glory of following Christ was yet to be; when you signed up to be a Christian you joined those waiting at night, lamps ready, for the Bridegroom to come. Christian hope is the expectation that our current world situation is hopeless; it must all be burned up in preparation for something completely different. Jesus is coming. We long for him. This is what gives our faith meaning. This is what makes our “personal relationship” ultimately personal.

The Bible told me wonderful news: I would know God intimately, feel his love as the kindest and grandest of friends. But not in this age. I would know him that way in heaven, the age to come.

My grandparents were missionaries to India and Pakistan, and because they came home only every five to seven years, I did not see them often. Their picture was prominently displayed in our dining room, however, and I remember that picture as clearly as any of my childhod. Their faces looked softened and gentle to me, like old pieces of brass that have been polished so often that the sharp corners have rubbed down. In our family conversation, my grandparents were often spoken of, and their letters were read aloud. I felt personal with my grandparents even though I actually had no memory of seeing them. This would not have been possible, I imagine, if not for a fundamental certainty we all shared: “Grandpa and Grandma will be coming back.” We did not see them, but we knew that we would see them, that when they returned they would come straight to us.

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As a matter of fact, when I finally saw them I got a jolt: they did not look just like the picture. They were not frozen still: they lived, they moved.

Yet what I had known was quite accurate. My faith in them had not been misplaced, for they were kind and generous to little boys. They were the same people whose picture I had grown up with, and whose letters I had read. I knew them, they knew me, and we belonged to the same family. Only I had a lot to learn. Their reality overwhelmed my mental image.

So it is with God. We know him, though in a limited way. More important, he knows us. And he is coming. When he comes, he will come straight to us. This hope lets us call him, with personal assurance, our Father, and say we have a personal relationship with him.

So far, our life here and now sounds grim. We live as aliens in “this wicked age,” and we wait to see Jesus in the age to come. Everyone must choose which to build his hopes on: the present kingdom of this world or the coming kingdom of Jesus. There is no in-between. It sounds as though our practical, sensible, helpful faith goes out the window. Only the future counts.

But the Bible also offers a subtler view. The age to come has already come, in seed form. The kingdom of God is already “in our midst” as well as “at hand,” and it has been ever since Jesus came. This is a most confusing situation. “Which is it?” someone may ask impatiently. “Is life in Christ joy or hope? Do you have Christ or do you expect him?”

It is a hard question to answer, for it is a question of timing. Time is slippery stuff, sometimes seeming to move very quickly, sometimes very slowly, sometimes inexplicably both at once. (It seems, for instance, only a short time since I moved into my house, yet I also seem to have been here forever.) Perspective—where in time we are looking from—makes a gigantic difference.

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Perhaps we can make a little more sense out of the Christian dilemma if we consider the way we normally remember history—that is, how we look at events that have already blown past us. They look different from that angle than they did as they happened, for memory selects, from all the things that happened, only the few that prove of lasting importance.

The history of science may serve as a good nonreligious example. Most science textbooks chart its direction as a steady march upward. Looking backward, it seems to flow smoothly, almost inevitably forward. The timing may be delayed a few years or even decades, but sooner or later someone will make the next jump. Progress does not even ultimately depend on the rare genius of an Einstein. He speeds things up, but so long as there are real scientists practicing real science, man’s knowledge must expand, his mastery increase.

However, historians of science have shown that the scientific process is not nearly so neat to those living in the middle of the events. For every scientist who made a crucial discovery, ten made “discoveries” that turned out to be irrelevant or even false. Fairly often the ten were more renowned, in their time, than the one.

Only looking backward do we separate the wheat from the chaff. As a matter of fact, the chaff utterly vanishes from history, as though it had never existed. The unsuccessful scientists are nameless. Their insignificant or incorrect theories are unknown. Science looks very different from our perspective, looking back over it, than it did to those making it. It is the same with any series of events: a courtship, a career, a war. In the middle of life we see a confusion of grit; we are mainly aware of looking for diamonds in the dirt, not of finding them. But from the perspective of the end, all the dirt is vanished,like a shadowy memory. The enduring product—the gemlike scientific theory, the martial victory, the marriage, the polished diamond—seems to have been sitting fully formed, waiting to be found. Looking back, it seems to have been inevitable.

Now let us try to apply this to our Christian dilemma. According to the Bible, Christ lives in us, and at the same time, we wait for him to come. From which perspective is the Bible speaking, the middle or the end? Scripture, I believe, mainly presents us with a view of life from the end—“the eternal perspective,” we might call it. It is a voice telling us, “This is how it will seem when it is all over.” This view separates what is real from what is unreal. What is real is what will last. Everything else, no matter how real it seems to us, is treated as insubstantial, hardly worth a snort. That is why Scripture can seem at times so blithely and irritatingly out of touch with reality, brushing past huge philosophical problems and personal agony. That is just how life is, when you are looking from the end. Perspective changes everything.

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Even pain and sorrow are transformed by the view from the end. If you walk through a hospital, you can encounter a practical example of this. There is one ward where moans are most likely to assault your ears. Young women writhe in severe pain, but the doctors resist giving them sedatives. The problem is obvious to the eye: these women are suffering from gigantic growths that have swelled their stomachs to the size of beach balls. Their taut skin glistens; as the hours pass, the women’s faces grow increasingly worn with pain. If they were there with any other diagnosis, say cancer, the scene would cut your heart.

Instead, you may feel great joy in a maternity ward. The view from the end is a baby. Because they know this, the women rarely despair in their pain. They may feel as much pain as a woman in the same hospital with stomach cancer. But they look confidently toward the end—a joyful end. Later, they will not be able even to remember how the process felt. A mother may say, “Isn’t it strange how you can’t remember how much it hurt?” The pain that seemed so terrible simply fades away, especially because it came to its proper end: she holds her baby.

We Christians carry the embryonic kingdom of God. Christ is being formed in us, and from the perspective of heaven he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. There is no other realism; everything leading up to it leads up to it, and thus is part of the reality. Anything else is shadowy and insubstantial.

From the perspective of the end, our struggles, pain, and confusion, if they are worth remembering at all, add relish to the triumph. The scientist hardly remembers, except as a joyful joke on himself, how he set up the apparatus wrong three times. The diamond miner barely recalls, except as a nostalgic aside, standing knee deep in cold mud. The Bible is constantly trying to get us to see things this way, problems erased by a greater understanding, pain eclipsed by a greater result.

Psalm 73 presents a frightening view of the wicked: “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man.… They say, ‘How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?’ ” (NIV). Materialism throws up an impressive facade of success and permanence. The psalmist, seeing the view from the middle, ponders this with a bitter spirit. Then, in an insight, he realizes the eternal value of God: “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” The wicked will vanish like shadows: “You destroy all who are unfaithful to you.” The frustrations of life are solved by a glimpse of the future. From that perspective the real may be separated from the arrogant shadows. His bitterness is not contradicted:it is evaporated.

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A great deal of Jesus’ teaching emphasizes the view from the end. How do you tell a good tree from a bad tree? By the harvest, which is not continuous but comes at the end of the growing season. Jesus tells us to store up treasure in heaven—treasure that is indestructible, that has lasting value in the perspective of history. He tells us to build our foundations on rock, not sand. Only a house that endures the flood is a good house. What seems important and valuable to us must be tested by the view from the end of time.

So how do we answer the original question? Is Christ here, or yet to come? He is here, coming. Amid the mess of our lives, amid the broken experiments and the mistaken theories, the joy and the sorrow, is a vein of pure gold. Sometimes it surfaces. Other times it lies buried. But the whole mess will be purified with fire, and when that furious burning is over we will look at the shining gold that is left and say, “So you were there all the time!”

The seed will grow into a tree. The baby will be born. The harvest will vindicate the patient farmers.

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