Every human person is in a process of becoming a noble being—noble beyond imagination—or else, alas, a vile being, evil beyond redemption—"a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare." So says C. S. Lewis in his beautiful and soul-searching sermon "The Weight of Glory."
You would think, then, that we Christians would long for heaven and would seek with determined zeal to draw near to God. But we don't. Why? On one level, we do not long for heaven because we do not really believe it exists. But on another level, we ignore the heavenly possibility because we fear death. Only when we are under extreme suffering or have lost all meaning and hope in life do we long to die and be with our God. Even then, it is not the attractiveness of heaven and the joy of being with God that motivates us, but the despair of soul and the longing to be released from pain and suffering.
For the most part, however, we do not yearn to be near God because we do not find sin utterly repugnant or goodness rapturously attractive. As Lewis noted in his sermon, "We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea." For me it was not mud pies but football. When my mother forced me to sit by the piano and pound away at scales, I found it impossible to dream of the joy of creating music that would thrill my soul. The thrill of the football game going on in the vacant lot next door erased all thought from my mind of the beauty of music. While Lewis's hypothetical child has never seen the sea, I indeed had heard the notes of the piano. But the scales I practiced were too distant from the beauty of, say, Schubert's Trout Quintet.
Thus, we practice our ethical scales, doing good as we know it, unable to envision the beauty of true holiness.
Those who obtain eternal life will know very well the infinite value and ultimate joy attending life in a perfect society in intimate fellowship with a holy God. But, now, for most of us, all of this is utterly alien to everything we know and experience. We cannot imagine it, we cannot anticipate it, and, therefore, we cannot long for it as the ultimately attractive lure to the truly good life.
Nothing to do in heaven?
We do better at visions of hell than of heaven. Even Dante could not make heaven exciting. Hell and purgatory are brilliantly fascinating, but not heaven. Milton could do no better. In Paradise Lost his meter grips us in a way that is emotionally inescapable and unforgettable, while Paradise Regained leaves us with an insipid taste. Heaven sounds boring. There is nothing to do—just "being holy and loving God" is not enough for most people. So the Bible accommodates itself to our insensitivity. Heaven is portrayed as essentially unlike earth—no sorrow, no sighing, no tears, no pain, no sin. Most of what we know about heaven from the Bible is the listing of things we do not like on earth. The one positive theme that runs throughout the Bible is that in heaven we will be with God; and the horror of hell is that it will be a place without God.
A God of justice
One of the most difficult truths about the hereafter, however, is that there will be a dividing of all humans into those who go to heaven and those who go to hell. And that God, as Supreme Judge, decides. Every soul will be weighed in the balance. Those who are found wanting receive their appropriate recompense and are segregated from God's goodly kingdom so they do not spoil its goodness. Those who have been justified by God will be rewarded with heaven, for, in fact, they are the only kind of people who could enjoy it.
Since God is good (holy is the biblical word most frequently used to describe this quality), he must be a God of absolute justice. Wrongdoing of every sort is repulsive to him. By his very nature, therefore, he must reject evil and separate it from himself and his goodly kingdom. That is the reason why some kind of hell is a moral necessity in a just universe. The only alternative is for God to make us machines, preset by the engineer who designed it to perform good tasks. But then we would not have a moral universe, but an amoral one. If man is truly free, then there is the possibility that he will misuse that freedom and choose to become evil. And since God is the just and sovereign judge of the universe, he must punish that evil. He cannot allow it into the open and free fellowship of his good kingdom, or it would cease to be good, and God would not be either a good God or a just judge.
In a universe of free persons, some will freely choose to be saints and some freely choose to be evil. We do not know why an omnipotent God ever allows some to turn away from him. It remains one of the ultimate mysteries of existence. Yet the apostle Paul reminds us of the limited vision we have here on earth and calls us to a fatherly trust in the goodness and wisdom of God who knows infinitely what he is doing and why. Scripture also assures us that God has good reasons, however dimly we may be able to understand them, in permitting evil in this world. Our only reasonable response is to acknowledge that the infinite God knows more than we do.
Christianity, however, is the religion that tells us of a God who longs for us even though we are incapable of longing for him. He takes the initiative to stoop down to us in our sin and spiritual blindness. Out of his love and grace, which we neither deserve nor appreciate, he woos us back to himself. In the startling phrase of the apostle Paul, God "justified the ungodly," so that the goodness that admits us to heaven is not anything in us, but the moral perfection of Christ. He, not we, gets the credit—all of it.
The Christian life then becomes a slow, painstaking, often very painful, and always infinitely complex process by which God structures within us the perfect goodness of Christ. By this regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we are bit by bit restored so as to become prepared for eternal life in God's good kingdom. At death, or at the Second Coming, we shall meet God face to face and, for the first time, see him as he really is, and then, for the first time also, see sin as it really is.
Then, and only then, will the infinite joy and attractiveness of God and his good absorb our soul. In sharpest contrast, a sense of the infinite ugliness and utter repulsiveness of sin and evil will also penetrate our hearts and minds. And so we shall become like God and truly long to be with him in his good kingdom of love and peace and joy.
This article originally appeared in the May 27, 1991, issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Kenneth S. Kantzer was dean of the Christianity Today Institute and an executive editor of the magazine. Before that, Kantzer was editor of CT from 1978 to 1982, taught theology at Wheaton College from 1946 to 1963, and was dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He died on June 20, 2002.
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Other stories appearing on our site today include:
Harleys in Heaven | What Christians have thought of the afterlife and what difference it makes now.
The Believer's Final Bliss | The regeneration of man requires that old things must pass away and all things become new. By John Murray (July 7, 1958)
The Glories of Heaven | While heaven will be glorious, the greater glory will consist in our transformation. By Stanley C. Baldwin (May 22, 1964)
The Hope of Heaven | Have Christians forfeited their rightful anticipation of eternity? By L. Nelson Bell (May 24, 1968)
Illusion or Reality? | Heaven is a place. There is a city we are going to see and walk in. By Edith Schaeffer (Mar. 12, 1976)
Heaven Can't Wait | I have seen the electrifying results of what can happen when the reality comes alive. By Philip Yancey (Sept. 7, 1984)
Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off | As if anticipating the question, "Will life on the new earth be boring?" the Bible points to much activity there. By Anthony Hoekema (Sept. 20, 1985)
What Will Heaven Be Like? | Thirty-five frequently asked questions about eternity. By Peter Kreeft (from Tough Questions Christians Ask, 1989)
The Eternal Weight of Glory | If only we could have the positives of earthly life without the negatives. By Harry Blamires (May 27, 1991)
Other related articles include:
Hell's Final Enigma | Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell? (April 24, 2004)
Christian History Corner: How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife. (August 9, 2002)
What's a Heaven For? | C.S. Lewis saw belief in heaven not as wishful thinking, but as thoughtful wishing. (Oct. 26, 1998)