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Heaven and Hell

Category Articles
Date November 22, 2005

While any thought of hell is anathema to most people, the doctrine of heaven is probably the most popular of all Christian teachings. A poll, taken in the United States in 1990, reported that seventy-eight per cent of those questioned claimed to believe in heaven. In a supposedly materialistic age, there is a widespread fascination with life after death. Well over one hundred books about angels are currently in print. Titles such as Embraced by the Light and Caught up into Paradise top the best seller lists. Television programmes dealing with the supernatural command large audiences. Heaven is a fashionable subject.

This is not just a recent development, for belief in an after-life is common to all humanity. God, we are told, ‘has put eternity in their hearts’ (Eccles. 3:11) and human beings seem to know instinctively that there is another life beyond this one. In the pyramids of Egypt the embalmed bodies had maps beside them as a guide for the future world. The Greeks and the Romans believed in a spirit world into which the dead would enter. Native Americans buried bows and arrows in their tribal graves for use in the happy hunting ground. Today we hear of women asking for their make-up bag and favourite magazines to be buried with them. Belief in a life to come is a constant element in human culture.

And yet there is a paradox in all of this. Many people say they believe in heaven, but their interest in it is superficial. This belief does not seem to make any difference to the way they live. It has no practical impact upon their behaviour. To all intents and purposes they ignore that future which they hope to experience and enjoy.

More perplexingly still, we find within Christianity itself less interest in heaven than at almost any time in history. Few valuable modern books have been written on this topic. One of the great text books of Reformed theology is Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, yet Berkhof, strangely, devotes only one of his 784 pages to the subject of heaven. It is not often preached about. Christians, when they meet together, rarely discuss the life to come and the prospect of glory. We may be surprised that unbelievers are so unaffected by thoughts of the heaven in which they say they believe. Yet it is surely more baffling that we, who through faith in Christ have good reason to anticipate going to heaven and being there for ever, devote to it so little time or attention.

Why is the doctrine of heaven neglected? And why is such neglect so harmful?

WHY IS HEAVEN NEGLECTED?

One obvious reason why many of us do not reflect on heaven nearly as much as we should is that we are too preoccupied with this present world. We are surrounded by what we can see and hear, touch, taste and smell. If I take a coin in my hand and hold it close to my eye, it will block out the sun and I will see nothing but that small shiny coin. Now the sun is bigger than a coin, but because the coin is close it blocks from my sight something incomparably greater. The daily realities of life may be neither big nor, ultimately, important, but they are close to us, they impinge upon us. And the danger is that the very closeness of this world blocks out the infinitely vaster prospect of the glorious world which is to come.

Another reason for neglecting heaven is that, at least in the western world, we are too comfortable. For the most part we are comparatively rich, reasonably healthy, tolerably happy. Life is sweet and, without realising it, we are drugged by well-being and prosperity. Tragedy stabs us awake and makes us suddenly and poignantly aware of heaven and hell. A loved one becomes seriously ill and we find in an instant that heaven is no longer theoretical or far away. It is very real and we long to find out more about it. But for much of the time we are content as we are. Other generations of believers had more of the pilgrim spirit. ‘This world is not my home’, they sang, ‘I’m simply passing through.’ They described themselves as ‘pilgrims through this barren land’. But our world is a rich world, a pleasant world, and we have put down roots. We have traded ‘the sweet by and by’ for the prosperous here and now. This is an era of instant gratification and there is so much to enjoy in the present. Society offers us a dazzling range of experiences, from the new technologies of interactive entertainment to ever more exotic foreign holidays. The very comfort of this world makes heaven less inviting.

Or we can neglect heaven because we see it as nothing more than the inevitable next stage in our existence. This is certainly how unbelievers think. But many professing Christians have a similar view. We believe in heaven, it is something that will happen in the future, and when it does we will no doubt enjoy it. But in the meantime, why waste time wondering about it? How will daydreams help us? Heaven will come when it comes. Time enough to think about it then.

We may neglect heaven because it simply doesn’t appeal to us. As a child I had no desire to go to heaven, for it seemed to me a boring place. My vision was of a church service which went on and on for millions of years, while I had to sit in a spotlessly white suit on a marble seat, not allowed to move throughout all eternity. Such a view of everlasting life was of limited appeal to a small boy! Of course, when the subject came up at home I feigned a decent enthusiasm, but it was largely synthetic. I didn’t like the sound of heaven and was in no hurry to go there.

We may have outgrown such childish misconceptions, but we can still be curiously apathetic about heaven, clumsy at understanding or communicating its beauty. Literary critics have commented on the difference between John Milton’s two great poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Paradise Lost is a superior work, more vivid, colourful and gripping, while Paradise Regained is at times bland and rather lifeless. Milton seemed to find it easier to write about hell than about heaven. In some ways, heaven is not attractive to us.

There is truth as well as tragic humour in the story of a woman who was asked about a friend who had died and who answered rather impatiently, ‘Well I suppose she is enjoying eternal bliss, but I don’t want to talk about such an unpleasant subject’!

Christians are sometimes brainwashed into neglecting heaven. We can be too eager to please those outside the church, anxiously asking them what they expect from us and assuring them that we will try to provide it. And the world claims to want what is obviously relevant. ‘If you have nothing practical to teach us’, they say, ‘we don’t want to listen to you. We need help for the here and now, for today and tomorrow. What concrete benefit will your message bring me now? How can I put it to use? Don’t talk to me about ‘pie-in-the-sky’. I’m not interested in an airy-fairy future world.’ And too often in the church we have capitulated to that thinking and have neglected the glory to come. One of the most damaging slogans of Satan has been the criticism that Christians are too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly use. We want to be useful on earth, of course, and we think that the answer is to be less heavenly-minded. On the contrary, as we shall see, it is only those who are heavenly-minded who are ultimately of much earthly use at all.

This accusation has been a master-stroke of the devil. His influence is behind much of our neglect of heaven. For it is in his interest to cause us to neglect it, to blind our minds to this glorious possibility, and to focus our attention short-sightedly on the immediate present.

Finally, we may neglect heaven because it is a reality too awesome for our limited minds to grasp. It is too magnificent for us, too transcendent, too glorious. Our little brains cannot manage heaven. As Paul writes, ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9, quoting Isa. 64:4). It is simply beyond our comprehension.

For these reasons, among others, heaven is a neglected doctrine.

WHY DOES THE SUBJECT OF HEAVEN MATTER?

But does it matter that we do not think of heaven as often as we should? It matters profoundly.

It matters first because many people who take it for granted that they are going to heaven are not. There is no evidence in their lives that they are joined to Christ. They are nurturing a false hope. We hear the flippant comments that are passed when famous men or women die. Someone says that they are looking down from above, pleasantly surprised by the large and impressive attendance at their funeral. We hear about how golfers are enjoying playing golf and fishermen are getting huge catches in heaven. They may have shown little interest in the things of God, they may never have professed faith in the Saviour, but it is taken for granted that heaven is where they now find themselves. To suggest otherwise is to be branded a ghoulish bigot. We talk to people who assume that they are going to heaven and yet they have no good reason for their careless assumption. They are facing a most appalling shock. Their neglect of heaven is lethal.

It matters again because many popular ideas about the life to come are grotesquely inaccurate. Most of the current best-sellers about heaven are a toxic mixture of misquoted Bible verses, New Age philosophy, Mormonism, the occult, empty sentiment and superstition. This hodge-podge of confusion and falsehood is deluding people, not all of whom, sadly, are outside the church. Their minds are being poisoned. ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, and if truth is not taught, error will replace it.

Our neglect matters because, as Christians, we are throwing away one of our most powerful evangelistic weapons. God offers to sinful, miserable human beings an eternity of unimaginable happiness. What a stupendously glorious possibility! But the Church is not shouting this message from the housetops. The French novelist Victor Hugo was inaccurate in his theology but accurate in his sentiment when he wrote, ‘I am the tadpole of an archangel.’ He believed, in other words, that human beings are destined for a greater and better future. Yet the evangelical church today is concentrating on helping people to become better tadpoles. Go to any Christian bookstore and see what so many of the books are about: not about God or heaven, not about the world to come. They are about becoming better tadpoles, making limited, temporary improvements in our life here and now. Is this all the Church can offer —‘Christ can give you peace of mind; Christ can give you a better marriage; Christ can teach you how to train your children’? People can find painkillers and parenting classes that will promise as much. What about the fact that Jesus Christ can bring you to glory forever? We are not telling people that, and then we are surprised when they are not interested in the gospel. We are not using one of the most wonderful truths which God has placed in his Word. Of course it is harmful to neglect heaven.

But, lastly, it matters for our own sakes – for our spiritual growth and our effectiveness in service. By neglecting what the Bible says about heaven we leave ourselves as believers much poorer, weaker and more troubled than we need be. Most of the teaching about heaven in Scripture is not for evangelism but for pastoring the people of God. He explains heaven in his Word primarily for his own children’s sake, to help and comfort us, to encourage and strengthen us, to make us more holy, to fill us with joy. The doctrine of heaven is revealed to shine light on your life and mine here and now, to enable us to be better people today and tomorrow. We cheat ourselves if we do not make use of this wonderful teaching. It is an immense blessing to know much more about heaven. And we can know. We do not need to be left in the dark.Did you spot the misleading partial quotation several paragraphs ago? Mentioning the transcendence of heaven, I quoted 1 Corinthians 2:9: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things that God has prepared for those who love him.’ But there I stopped – inexcusably! For what does the next verse say? ‘But God has revealed them to us through his Spirit.’ How often this passage is misused! Heaven is too great to understand, say the writers and the preachers, and they quote verse nine. But that is not at all what Paul is saying. Quite the reverse. He is telling us that, while heaven is too great for unconverted people to understand, too magnificent to be grasped by unaided human reason, God has revealed these things to us by his Spirit. With his Word in our hands we can know about heaven. He means us to learn about it and to neglect it no longer.

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This brief extract is taken from the Banner of Truth book Heaven and Hell. The book concerns the most popular and the most unpopular of all Christian teachings — heaven and hell. Yet the two belong together and in this book, Ted Donnelly shows how the Bible holds the two together, not allowing either reality to be emphasized to the neglect of the other. The book retails for $11-99 (US), £6-50 (UK and ROW) and can be purchased from the website (go to the book catalogue).

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