Monday, January 14, 2008

What On Earth Is Heaven For?

During my Senior year of seminary, I wrote a short paper for my final systematic theology course where I suggested that maybe we should be somewhat agnostic when it comes to heaven. I said that we should focus on the present time and let the future worry about the future.

That didn't sit well with a fellow student who had lost her husband in a tragic accident a few years prior. She had to believe there was a heaven, that there was hope.

A few years later, I conducted my first funeral. It was for a guy my age who had committed suicide. I said preached about hope and the "great gettin' up morning" when all the tears shall be wiped away.

I've come back the conclusion that there is a heaven, and afterlife. I have no idea what it will be like or who will be there, but that isn't my concern; and I don't spend too much time thinking about it.

I think in the past, the concept of heaven has been used to get people to not think about the unjust situations they are living in, and focus on "pie in the sky." But I also know that heaven was also viewed as a future hope where death would not have the last say.

In some way, I see heaven eschatologically; I believe that heaven, whatever it is, is the total fullfilment of the kingdom of God, a place where there is no weeping or crying and dying. We experience some of that now, but will see it in its fullness in the not yet.

So why am I talking about heaven? Adam Walker Cleaveland, has a good post by Brian McClaren about what the kingdom of God means to him. McClaren says the kingdom of God is not about heaven.

Now “the kingdom of God” isn’t the gospel. It’s “the good news” of the kingdom of God that is the gospel. And what is that good news? On Jesus’ lips, it was that the kingdom of God was “at hand” - which was a way of saying it is near, or here, or available, or a live option - something you can reach out and touch. In other words, the kingdom of God isn’t something you simply hope for someday. It is something you come to terms with today. That “coming to terms with” means, for starters, that we repent - we rethink everything in light of this message. And it also means we trust Jesus as the king - so we decide to “take on his yoke,” learn his way, and follow him, so we can be like him.

I would agree to a point, but then I am stuck with this question? Does heaven matter? Is it something that now has to be jettisoned?

Now, following Jesus is a lot more than simply getting to go to heaven. I would agree that we are called to follow Christ. But I get worried that we are trying to solve one problem, focusing on heaven to the exclusion of issues of justice, by creating another one: jettison the message of hope expressed in heaven.

If fundamentalists focus too much on Jesus as someone that takes away our sins to the exclusion of the Son of God who brings good news to the poor, then liberal Christians focus on Jesus as some kind of wise teacher who gave us a new way to live instead of God sharing God's lot with humanity.

I have to have a heaven. Not a place with angels where good people go, but a hope that in the end, God will rule; the Lamb who was slain will reign and where sin will be no more. It is that hope that propels me to do justice; not as fire insurance, as someone I knew once said, but in working with God to bring about a bit of that future hope now.

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