Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Is Heaven Boring?

[The following is a section from my apologetics book in progress, What Matters Most. It comes from a chapter called "Distortions of Christianity or The God I Don't Believe In." Itis unedited, so let me know if you find mistakes or if you have comments.]

The Christian Afterlife as Unappealing

Although it is seldom mentioned in apologetic texts, some have dismissed Christianity as unappealing partially because they take its view of the afterlife as monotonous and boring. This objection has several dimensions. First, some claim they have no interest in the Christian doctrine of heaven because, if Christianity is true, most of their friends will be in hell. So, they would rather reside in hell in the company of their friends than live in heaven with a bunch of sanctimonious strangers engaged in endless ennui. This misconstrues the biblical doctrines of both heaven and hell. Biblically speaking, there is no opportunity for friendship or enjoyable convocation of any type in hell. An unspecified number of people end up in hell, which is a place of unmitigated torment and regret. In damnation, there is no opportunity for reminiscing or otherwise enjoying the company one’s damned friends. Choosing hell for the fellowship is akin to deciding to join one’s friends in a burning building from which there is no possible escape rather than being united with those who are deathlessly alive and vibrant in perfect love and wisdom in a restored and curse-forgotten universe.

But those who don’t play the “I’d rather be in hell with my friends” card still may reject heaven as bland or pointless. This often stems from half-remembered Sunday school lessons, bad religious art, or popular presentations of people playing harps on clouds for no apparent reason—forever. The root of the problem is a false concept of heaven, which is often perpetrated by the church itself. Biblically understood, the afterlife has two stages: (1) life after death and (2) life after life after death. For the believer in Christ, physical death means the separation of the soul from the body and into the presence of God. Not much is related about his stage, except to say that one is “with the Lord” but nevertheless “unclothed,” lacking a physical body. That is, this disembodied and intermediate state—between mortal life and the resurrection of the body—is incomplete. We were created to be physical and spiritual unities, but death (due to sin) shatters this unity. At death the Christian is freed from the chains of earthly, sin-affected existence, but one has yet to put on the resurrected body promised to the redeemed. There are some descriptions of redeemed spirits praising God in the Book of Revelation, a highly symbolical book, where harps are mentioned (14:2; 15:2). But whatever praise and other activities occur before the resurrection of the dead, they cannot possibly be boring or pointless, since one is giving honor to an object of supreme and final and incorruptible worth. We may praise and honor finite beings to some extent, but even standing ovations for virtuoso musicians end at some point. However, the worship of an infinite and perfect being has no termination, since finite beings will always be in God’s debt and will always have more of God’s endless life to joyfully experience through worship throughout all eternity. That is paradise—to be with Jesus (Luke 23:43).

This worship, however, is not limited to singing or playing instruments. The final state of the creation is “the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (Revelation). Humans were created to cultivate and develop the world and glorify God thereby (Genesis 1-2). This plan was not thwarted by the fall. Christ came to redeem not only humans, but the entire creation (Romans 8:18-26). So, in the world to come, redeemed women and men will take their place on earth to continue the task of cultivation and development. So, in the final analysis, “heaven is a place on earth” (to steal from a popular song and a book title). Moreover, although it is not commonly taught in American evangelicalism, there is a strong biblical case (emphasized by the Calvinistic tradition) that humanity’s cultural achievements will be purified and brought into this resurrected world. “The wealth of the nations” shall be brought into the eternal kingdom. God will purge the planet and purify it of all that causes sin. Yet since God’s image-bearers, whether redeemed or reprobate, have created many artifacts of enduring value, these achievements will be retained in the eternal kingdom, thus giving its citizens ample occasion for enjoyment and appreciation. Beyond these historical monuments to God’s cultural grace are the manifold cultural creations that will flourish in a restored universe which is free of the fall and filled with the manifest presence of God as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9, Revelation 21-22).

So, if one takes the Bible seriously, the afterlife cannot be taken to be insipid or uninspiring. As Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive”—and fully alive people will then be in their glorified state. Nevertheless, the bent nature of fallen mortals that absolutely refuses God the worship and honor due his matchless character and prefers to falsely elevate the finite to infinite status through idolatry (Romans 1:18-32). In this sad state of rebellion against one’s Creator, all true worship is rejected as demeaning and humiliating. But if the case for Christianity is indeed as strong as this book claims, then one should relent before the truth and realize that “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6; quoting Proverbs 3:34.). Therein, eternal joy resides.


Tom said...

I look forward to the book. I think I caught a few typos.

"At death the Christian [is?]freed from the chains of earthly, sin-affected existence, but one has yet to put on the resurrected body promised to the redeemed. There are some descriptions of redeemed spirits praising God in the Book of Revelation, a highly symbolical book, where harps are mentioned (14:2; 15:2)."

"Humans were created to cultivate [and?] develop the world and glorify God thereby (Genesis 1-2)."

"As Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive”—and full[y] alive people will then be in their glorified state."

I may be reading the sentence below incorrectly, but perhaps the word "that" shouldn't be in there...

"Nevertheless, the bent nature of fallen mortals that absolutely refuses God the worship and honor due his matchless character and prefers to falsely elevate the finite to infinite status through idolatry (Romans 1:18-32)."

Susan said...

I am curious what artifacts survive 2 Peter 3:10-12. Do you take the reference to the very elements being burned with fire to be metaphorical fire?

Our friend Gino often says from the pulpit (though I do not know if this is a Gino-original):

"Heaven is not only a place you go, it's a Person you meet. It is not only living forever, it is loving forever."

Douglas Groothuis said...


Thanks I made the changes.

Susan:given other scriptures, I don't think the entire world will be destroyed physically, but purged. Why would God utterly destroy what he created?

Susan said...

Well, I was thinking it would be in order to make it completely new again from the molecular level, like He will do with our physical bodies at the resurrection. It says the purging is down to the elements, not an annihilation, so this would not mean "complete destruction" but only some kind of cosmic-level purging. This would be why we are asked, "What kind of people, then should we be?" In caring for the earth as it has been given to us now, and in attending ourselves to obedience in every other way so that our spirits (already regenerated and given to us anew, if we have trusted Christ) we are matured and formed and ready for what God will do in the NHNE.

God would do it to make a kind of world that suits the kind of creatures that also have new bodies which are not like they are now-- or is there nothing to 1 Corinthians 15:42-54 ? Are our bodies in the resurrection simply given life back again, like Lazarus; or are our bodies new in substance and composition, as Jesus' resurrection body was? A new body like the latter might require a new heaven and a new earth.

Looking at it this way also gives more sense to verses like Matthew 6:20-21

I'm just asking!

gimmepascal said...

I really wonder at Christians who seem unimpressed with the Biblical description of Heaven. I think the problem stems from the fact that for so long now, especially in America, we've experienced unprecedented levels of comfort and ease in our lives. And with Christianity widely becoming just another add-on or accessory to life, as a religion it is retained merely for the psychological comfort it brings in times of distress or melancholy reflection.

This blog reminds me of a passage I recently read in the novel "The Heart of the Matter," by Catholic novelist Graham Greene. The main Character, Scobie, was a police officer in a West African colony during World War II. As he contemplates why he loves the African colony where he works so much, he wonders to himself:

"Is is because here human nature hasn't had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst: you didn't love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed."

I believe this quote partly explains why many people dismiss heaven as boring or monotonous--these same people have separated themselves from and ignored all the suffering and injsutice that goes on in the world, such that the idea of these things being eliminated in Heaven means very little to them. Their thoughts focus on the possible loss of favorite sitcoms and videogames, or things even more trivial.

You will not find an African who considers the idea of Heaven boring. In fact, the promise of Heaven is the hope and vision of of African Christians who long with all of their being for the time when their daily suffering will end.

Have we loved this world so much that the greatest things of God seem small and uninteresting? If this is not a sign that the church in the West is declining, I cannot imagine one any clearer.

As Kierkegaard once wrote:

"Christianity is abolished as follows--life is made easier."

I use to find this statement too harsh and narrow, but now I begin to wonder if he was on to something.

God help us all.

nancy said...

Hmmm....I'll have to reread this a few times but one phrase did catch my attention:

"humanity’s cultural achievements will be purified and brought into this resurrected world"

Would this be limited to purely cultural accomplishments? As I type this I am also writing a bit of code in a software language that truely is a work of art. This elegant software language was originally conceived by a group of physicists who were simply thinking of ways to make life easier for other physicists in the lab. So is that which is redeemed in the NHNE purely cultural or does it include technological advances? And what of the technological advances that were birthed in the defense industry (no more war in NHNE) such as the internet. Anyhow...I've been pondering this a bit and was interested in your thoughts.

PS I had to look up ennui :)