It would be all too easy at this point to rehash the “who goes where” discussion that went with Hell or even to set up a “strawman” Heaven, one of unending golf courses, buffets and the like nestled behind the Pearly Gates where St. Peter stands with his clipboard and so on, but that would be too easy and also miss the point. But even without those things, I still have serious problems with Heaven.
The first is with an afterlife in general. The rationalist in me sees it as just so trite and contrived. What do humans fear most? Death. What does God save us from? Death. How handy. Let’s face it, if human beings did invent (not discover) religion, this is exactly the religion that we would invent, one that promises an end to death. Of course many “religions” that are now considered “false” or paganistic or ancient did in fact promise something like that. Now the fact that other folks say almost the same thing as someone else doesn’t mean both are telling the truth, but neither does it say one or the other is lying. But it is true that many religions promise some relief from death to their followers.
So maybe the whole “escape from death” thing is made up. But of course, maybe not. Might really be an afterlife, none of us alive have experienced it, so who knows for sure. But if there is one, I have to say that God does not seem to have a strong grasp on human psychology in telling us about it.
We have certainly seen a classic examples of this lately as terrorists of all stripes used the promise of “heaven” to give them courage for their awful deeds. Convinced their cause was blessed by God and with a glorious new life ahead of them, they used themselves weapons of death and destruction. Surely not what God intended. This is but the most extreme example of the “mistake” of telling (or even implying) that there is some kind of afterlife. I think it is even a mistake when dealing with things on the positive side.
I am reading a book now, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, by Brian D. McLaren Which actually, and somewhat ironically, covers much of the same ground, from a Protestant prospective as GarRy Wills’s, What Jesus Meant. In a later post, I will compare and contrast the two, but for now, I just want to mention a major point from McLaren’s book.
He points out that when Jesus was talking about the “kingdom of God” that often the next thought or phrase was something like “is here now.” I agree very much with his analysis. One of my favorite moments from the movie “Oh God” was when George Burns tells John Denver, that “things can work out.” And Denver goes hysterical about “have you seen how things are out there…” yadda, yadda, yadda. George listens patiently for a bit, and when Denver is done says “It’s simple. Love and nurture each other instead of killing each other.” Indeed.
McLaren takes a lot more pages to say the same thing, but basically says that the kingdom of God is a world — our world — where people love each other, heal the sick, include the outcasts, make peace instead of war (ok, you can figure out the rest). And we can do that NOW. How? Jesus told us: love our enemies, stop with materialism, be meek, humble and forgive people and so on. The only scary thing about McLaren’s book is that he presents this plan as some kind of unique radical solution. Sorry, just about every other culture has figured this out too — just that no one has really figured out how to do it on a large scale. Even Christians. Maybe even especially Christians.
And unfortunately, one of the reasons is that many Christians still seem to think that the “kingdom of God” is in a far away time and place. McLaren even has quite a discussion in his book about Heaven. He quotes C.S. Lewis at length about the incredible gift that Heaven is to us from God. Which I am afraid dilutes the message, the good news, of the first 9/10ths of the book.
And that good news is that the kingdom of Heaven can be here. Now. It is a gift we can give to each other. Anytime. Like, ummmmm, maybe — now.
Maybe if most Christians were not so intent on looking up to the sky or being Pharisees and nitpicking verses from the Bible trying to guess who will and who will not go up to Heaven and so on, the kingdom of God would actually be at hand.
And that to me, is the biggest problem with Heaven.