Sunday’s sermon for our series Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Second Coming included two audio clips of me talking about last things with my two sons, Gabriel and Alexander who are 7 and 10.
You can find those audio clips, here, are by clicking on the links as you get to them in the text below. They’re also in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
Heaven: It’s Not Forever
Sermon on Isaiah 65, Revelation 21
When we first announced that we’d be doing our January sermon series on heaven and hell, I received a handful of emails from you, all asking roughly the same question:
‘How do I explain heaven to my kids?’
Evidently some of you see me as a model of child-rearing and maturity. Which just shows how little you know me.
Now, because I’m a pastor, many of you assume that I sit around with my family and, like, talk about God and read the bible every second of the day. But that’s not the case.
My boys do stare at their comic book bibles as if they were Playboys, but as a family we probably spend more time talking about The Lord of the Rings and making fart jokes.
My boys have attended funerals and burials and even prayed next to an open casket, but to my recollection I’ve never actually talked with my kids about heaven- not in any formal or deliberate way.
So this week, over dinner, I decided to talk to my kids about heaven:
Is there an age when your-anus stops being funny?
I can see several of you nodding your heads so I guess so.
Not that I need to but, just for the record, my wife insisted I be clear about who’s responsible for the potty humor in my family.
It’s easy to laugh at how kids talk about heaven.
But let’s be honest.
And this is the part where I insult you to try and get your attention.
I’ve done enough funerals. I’ve sat with enough dying people- Christians and non. And I’ve counseled enough grieving families to know that virtually every one of you think about heaven and life after death just like my boys do.
And to be totally honest: in most cases your thinking isn’t much more sophisticated than my boys’ thinking.
If I asked you the same questions I asked my boys then, with few exceptions, you’d picture it this way:
There’s a God in Heaven above.
There’s the Earth below, which God has created along with each of us.
We live our mortal lives on the Earth, but, as the bluegrass song says, ‘This is world is not our home. We’re just passing through.’
And when we die, our soul- that eternal, immortal, spiritual part of us- leaves our material bodies and goes up to heaven to live eternally with God.
We fly away, as that other song says.
And maybe you’d add a variation or two, like:
If you believe in God
Or if you believe in Jesus
Or if you’re a good person
Then your soul gets to go to heaven when you die.
But basically you picture it the same way my boys do.
And you assume that’s what the bible teaches.
You assume this is what the Church preaches.
You assume this is what Christians believe and always have; in fact, it’s what atheists think this is what Christians believe and always have.
But it’s not.
Just to make sure you heard me, I’ll say it again: It. Is. Not.
It’s actually what any Jew or Christian, until recently, would have called, without flinching, paganism.
Preachers like me can’t say that at a funeral. I’ve learned that the hard way. Deathbeds and gravesides are not the proper or pastoral place to deconstruct someone’s piety.
It only upsets them.
But, we’re not at a funeral today.
So I’ll just say it: there is nothing in scripture about our souls going up to an eternal home in heaven after we die.
Christians only started talking this way a couple hundred years ago, starting in the Enlightenment when people started disavowing the Resurrection and after the Civil War when this world did seem to be a wicked place that should be abandoned.
The reason so many of our hymns get scripture exactly wrong on this point is that they come out of that very time period.
What we take for granted about heaven and life after death- you won’t find that way of thinking anywhere on the lips of Jesus.
You won’t find it in the words of Paul.
And you do not find it in the vision given to Isaiah.
Or to St John at the very end of scripture.
What we take for granted as biblical, Christian teaching is actually a mishmash of pagan superstition that’s been superimposed on scripture to the point where we no longer notice what scripture repeatedly and unambiguously teaches.
Now that I’ve kicked over all your mental furniture: what is the ancient, biblical understanding of heaven and the life to come?
If this (our souls going to heaven when we die) isn’t what scripture teaches, then what is?
What do we tell our kids about heaven?
I tried with my boys this week. You can have a listen.
When you turn to the very first page of scripture, you read that in the beginning God created Heaven and Earth.
Both of them.
A better way to think about that is in the beginning God created the Spiritual and the Material. They’re both part of God’s creative design and NOT to be distinct from one another or in contradiction to each other.
What God intends in the very beginning is this unity, this overlap, this marriage of the heavenly and the earthly.
And this marriage- and that’s an important word- of the spiritual and the material is present in the humanity God creates too.
Genesis 2 says God created adam, which is Hebrew for the Man, from the adamah, which is Hebrew for earth.
Then after God pulls up the adam from the adamah, God breathes into adam his ‘ruach’ his Holy Spirit.
So in the beginning, God doesn’t just create Heaven and Earth. God creates this marriage of the spiritual and the material within humanity.
And in Hebrew this marriage of the material AND the spiritual that God creates in humanity is called our ‘nepesh’ and that’s the word your bibles misleadingly translate into English as ‘soul.’
But what happens?
Through the catastrophe of Sin, Heaven and Earth, the spiritual and the material, are pulled apart. They’re torn asunder.
Death enters God’s creation, and that curse- as we sing in Joy to the World– comes not just to Adam and Eve but to all of creation.
Everything God created and called very good suffers because of this breach between Heaven and Earth.
And so the plot of scripture- and, yes, scripture is a book comprised of many books but, like any good book, scripture has an overarching, unifying plot to it- the plot and promise of scripture is God’s work to restore what God creates in Genesis 1 and 2.
To undo Death.
To reunite the Heaven and Earth.
Salvation, Eternal Life, is about the reclamation and permanent restoration of God’s creation; it’s not about our disembodied evacuation from God’s creation.
It’s about Heaven coming down to Earth and the two becoming one, once again and forever.
That’s Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah doesn’t see our souls going up, up, up and away to Heaven and leaving behind everything else that God called very good.
It’s about Heaven coming down to Earth so that what God created is restored. That’s what we pray every time we pray the prayer Jesus taught us: ‘Thy Kingdom come…on Earth…’
Jesus gives us that prayer because Jesus is at the center of what God is doing to heal his creation.
Dennis said it on Christmas Eve. In the Incarnation, in Jesus’ own body, is this marriage of Heaven and Earth. He’s our future made present.
Jesus is the beginning of a New Creation- that’s how Matthew and John begin their Christmas stories.
And in his life, his teaching, his faithfulness all the way to a Cross Jesus undoes the curse of Death.
What we call Eternal Life- begins in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit of God’s New Creation. He’s the Second Adam, scripture says.
If it’s just about our souls going off to heaven when we die, then why didn’t God leave Jesus in the tomb?
And just take the spiritual part of him up to heaven?
Why bother with a Resurrection?
As St. Paul says, Jesus isn’t the first fruit of anything if that’s not also what God will do with each of us.
The plot and promise of scripture, from the first page of scripture to the last, is that what God did in Jesus Christ, on the last day God will do for us.
And what God will do for us, God will also do for all of creation.
The promise of scripture is that one day Heaven will come down and be made one with the Earth. That’s why the very last image in scripture is of a wedding, a marriage, between Heaven and Earth. And on that same day all who have died in the Lord, all who are resting in the Lord, will be Resurrected and Restored just like Jesus on Easter morning.
‘Heaven,’ wherever or whatever happens to us right after we die, is not forever.
Heaven is not forever. When I first became I pastor, back before I was the sensitive and pastoral person you know now, I actually said that to a grieving widow. She asked me if I thought her husband was in heaven, and without thinking I replied: ‘Well sure, but he won’t be there forever.’
And she then started sobbing. And, maybe it wasn’t the best moment say it, but it’s still true.
Heaven- what we think of as heaven- is not forever.
When Jesus promises to the thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ The word ‘paradise’ in scripture refers to a temporary state of bliss.
And when Jesus says to his disciples ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms…’ The word Jesus uses is ‘tent.’ A temporary structure. That’s not what we usually think of when we think of Eternal Life. But according to scripture, we have a life after life after death.
What scripture means by Eternal Life isn’t whatever happens to us right after we die.
What scripture means by Eternal Life is our resurrected life in God’s New Creation where Heaven and Earth are made one, once and for all.
That’s the work God began in Jesus Christ, and that’s the work God is doing today in history through the Holy Spirit.
And that’s the work God enlists us to join in today. Now. Through baptism.
That’s what we do here.
If it’s just about our souls going up to heaven, then you don’t need to be here.
Sleep in on Sundays.
But if it’s about God one day reconciling Earth and Heaven, then what we do here as Church,
learning to love,
learning to hallow God’s name,
learning to be satisfied not with our desires but with our daily bread, learning to give and forgive,
learning to recognize and resist temptation,
learning to forgive those who trespass against us.
If it’s about God one day reconciling Earth and Heaven, then the work of reconciliation we do here, as Church, is forever.
Because it’s what God will do when his Kingdom comes to Earth…
That’s what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.
And that’s what we pray at the end of the communion prayer: ‘By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back.’
And his Kingdom comes.
As it is in heaven.