I was reminded of John Lennon’s tune, “Imagine,” as I read TIME Magazine’s recent cover article on the theme of “Rethinking Heaven.” The title of the piece is “Heaven Can’t Wait”. In Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” Lennon sang of the world being a much better place if we could move beyond belief in heaven and hell, and if people would only live for today. Would the world be a better place if there were no heaven?
Lennon’s song claims that belief in heaven and hell and accompanying notions of religion make our world a far less inhabitable place. Regardless of what one makes of Lennon’s overarching worldview presented in the song, Lennon presents a challenge that religious folks like me need to ponder: if we do not think of heaven being a place that impacts how we live today, but rather an escape from this life, then our view of religion and of heaven probably leads to unhealthy living. Does my view of heaven and hell and religion increase war and violence and greed (themes in Lennon’s song), or does my view of heaven and hell and religion make this world a more livable place?
As the TIME article indicates, many Christian leaders are presenting an alternative notion(s) of heaven than what is often articulated. Contrary to the more common conviction in many Christian circles, many of these leaders believe Christian Scripture teaches that heaven is not ultimately a separate sphere to which people may go at the end of this life to dwell forever there. Rather, they teach that heaven comes to earth. In the end, God will dwell with us here in a renewed or transformed earthly state.
Whether separate or not, imagine what a view of heaven that ultimately discounts this world and our daily existence entails. How has religion and the doctrine of heaven been used to discount living well here and now? I have heard some Christians maintain that we should not care for this world and its sufferings because this world has no lasting value. They fail to give serious account to the fact that God created this world and cares for it, and calls us to be responsible stewards as those created in the image of God to care for the world as well (Genesis 1:26-31). I have read of kings and clergy oppressing people throughout the ages through a distorted teaching on eternal rewards. With them in mind, Karl Marx argued that religion is often used as an opiate to keep the masses in check; he spoke of the ruling class exhorting the common people to continue submitting to their rulers who oppress them, forgoing concern for reward in the present, while encouraging them to hope for heaven when God will reward them at last.
There is a lot of merit in Marx’s critique of established religion at this point. Still, even though religion can function as an opiate that leads one to escape life, a case can be made that Christian slave peoples and other persecuted Christians were able to endure this life and survive situations they could not immediately rectify by singing of the sweet by and by. The sweet by and by helped them survive. Heaven mattered to them in a life-affirming way. Immanuel Kant presupposed a view of heaven and the afterlife as a postulate for moral reason and ethical living. Kant understood that without such beliefs as the immortality of the soul and judgment to come chaos could ensue where people might take matters into their own hands and become moral vigilantes in trying to right wrongs.
Of course, there are many moral people who believe that heaven is wishful thinking. But what safeguards the grounds for their profound moral intuitions about living virtuously? Even Friedrich Nietzsche presented a secular vision of the afterlife, when he speculated on the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche maintained that according to this teaching one’s actions have eternal value because one will live this life and this day over and over again eternally. Nietzsche understood that a belief held for pragmatic purposes is held halfway toward its abandonment; nihilism is right around the corner.
For Christians of various stripes, heaven’s right around the corner or bend. Lennon’s contemporary, Bob Dylan, sang of our need to get our act together because there’s a slow train coming around the bend (“Slow Train” on the album, Slow Train Coming). Lennon did not think too highly of Dylan’s song on the album, “Gotta Serve Somebody” and wrote and recorded a parody titled “Serve Yourself.” Regardless of what one makes of Dylan’s or Lennon’s songs, the view of heaven around the corner or bend should impact our daily lives as Christians.
Whether or not heaven is a separate sphere eternally or a state of being that will be realized in full at the renewal of the earth, all Christians should guard against viewing heaven as an escape from this life that has no bearing on how we live here and now. We need to live now in light of what will be. There will be no more war or violence or divisions or greed there and then; so, we should seek to live peaceably and graciously here and now. Jesus did not say that we need not care for the poor because the kingdom of God has been given to us. Rather, the Lord said that because the kingdom of God has been given to us we should care for the poor (Luke 12:32-34). We can’t take our wealth with us. Besides, God has given us greater riches than we could imagine here by far by calling us to enter into fullness of life through faith in his Son. And so, his Son warns us: where our treasure is, there our hearts and eternal destinies will be as well (Luke 12:34). If our eyes and hearts are set on Jesus’ kingdom that has come to earth and which will one day be realized in full here below or beyond in the final state, we should not cling white-knuckled to our possessions and resources or this life, but live all of life with open hands. What would our Christian witness look like if we took Jesus’ teaching on heaven to heart? Imagine.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.