Heaven is a disreputable topic today partly because it came to be understood as a repressive doctrine of the status quo: the “opiate” that kept the masses in their submissive place. It is “pie in the sky” that supposedly makes no difference in the world here and now.

Indeed, let us admit that the good news of heaven seems to make no difference to many. They say that they believe that the kingdom of heaven is coming, and yet go right on living just as they always have. They neither go up on a mountain to wait for Jesus, nor do they work especially hard in the valley to prepare for his coming. They just go about their business.

A friend, Jack Crabtree, has illuminated this question for me with an illustration. Suppose, Jack says, that you are a 16-year-old practicing basketball in your driveway when an angel appears to you and delivers a message about the future. “Good news! You are destined to be a great basketball player. You will one day be Rookie of the Year in the NBA. You will go on to be recognized as one of the very greatest players who ever lived.”

“So what’s the catch?” you ask.

“Nothing. This is free, a gift from God.”

Suppose that the angel managed, as angels do, to convince you that he was a real angel, and that the message was absolutely unconditional and supernatural. You believed it. Would it make you practice basketball more, or less?

That would depend on what your heart longed for. If the angel had merely happened to find you practicing basketball due to boredom, if you didn’t care much for basketball, his message would make little impact. In fact, it might make you care for basketball even less. “Hey, great. That will be fun. I’ll look forward to it.” You would go off and do the things you really wanted to do, ...

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