Today I received a newsletter from a rather famous Christian author. The centerpiece was an except from one of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s sermons. The title, “Making Certain of Heaven” left little doubt about its content. As Randy Alcorn remarked, “Can we really know in advance where we’re going when we die? The apostle John, the same one who wrote about the new heavens and the New Earth, said in one of his letters, ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that may know that you have eternal life.’ (1 John 5:13, NIV, emphasis added).” Spurgeon’s sermon and Alcorn’s commentary are focused on this one thought: “Do we not wish to mount above and fly away, to enter into the rest which awaits the people of God?” Spurgeon’s sermon is filled with euphoric illustrations of the restoration and relief we will experience in heaven. The worn-weary mother who will be young again. The day laborer who will cease his toils. The poor man who will wear a crown. How exactly Spurgeon knows all this is left to the imagination, but the picture captures an idyllic paradise, the longing of every person’s dream of endless vacation and perpetual youth. Perhaps Spurgeon listened to Fastball’s tune, “The Way.”
I have no doubt at all that this picture appealed to the thousands who heard Spurgeon. I don’t doubt that many Christians today hope for the same swift transportation to paradise. But I don’t think Spurgeon or Alcorn have a firm foundation for such a claim nor do I believe that Scripture offers tourist packages to our fly-away destination. Since when did heaven become the goal of the righteous? It is seductively popular to portray heaven as the end of the line, the final escape, the endless summer at the beach. But that is not Scripture. That is fairy-tale indulgence.
Consider Alcorn’s use of the passage in 1 John. Does John’s statement claim that we will know that we are going to heaven? No, it doesn’t. It says that we will know we have eternal life. But eternal life doesn’t begin when we reach heaven. It begins as soon as my yetzer ha’ra is domesticated by the influence of the Spirit. It begins here, on earth. In fact, all of my experience of eternal life is worked out on this earth, in my circumstances. I have no experience of “eternal life” on the other side of the grave. Eternal life only becomes “heaven” if I make the supposition that my everlasting existence is held in abeyance until I die. Scripture is hardly concerned at all with the question, “Where will I go when I die?” It is far more interested in the question, “How will I live while I am here?” Heaven is a by-product of a righteous life, not the end-product of a moment’s decision. God’s purposes are served here, not in the bye-and-bye.
Alcorn comments, “The goal of getting to Heaven is worthy of greater advance planning than we would give to any other journey.” That is true, of course, if the goal of life is getting out of here. But what use is planning to leave if we are called to stay? Doesn’t Yeshua actually pray that we not be removed from the world? Doesn’t Peter make it clear that we are assigned the tasks worthy of alien residents? Isn’t Paul at odds with himself about the possibility of leaving this world? Even Yeshua didn’t come here in order to “get to heaven.” But if we focus our efforts on needed right steps for jumping ship, we will avoid worldly entanglements, precisely the entanglements that offer the best opportunities for redemptive actions. I might even question whether it is possible to be righteous while being consumed about leaving God’s created world.
This pervasive idea, the Great Escape, the preoccupation with knocking on heaven’s door, diminishes God’s purpose of Torah-obedience here and now. It circumvents the obligation of the covenant, to live in such a way that we become magnets attracting others to YHWH. What reason would we have for maintaining a life of disciplined behavior if the goal is to get out? If all that is required is confession and forgiveness, and I am on my way to paradise, then why get distracted with all this nonsense about following some long-forgotten code? Those of rules for people who are staying behind, but as everyone knows, those who have been forgiven are on their way up and out. In fact, were it not for the problem that suicide is sin, the obvious solution to this living dilemma would be voluntary early exit. Why stick around if paradise, youth and pleasure are just on the other side of the grave? And if you happen to follow the Qur’an, this option is particularly appealing.
Here’s what we actually do know about what happens when we die. We go into the grave. Our bodies decay. We return to dust. Someday, and only God knows when that day will arrive, we will once again live as embodied persons. God promises this – and that is sufficient to hold us over while we accomplish the assignment He has given us here. But since God’s purposes are not to get us to heaven, I suggest we pay attention to the job that lies before us and refuse to be sidetracked by the illusion of a return to some primordial bliss. Let God worry about that. He’s the only One who can.