Damned If You Do: The Problem of Heaven

–Daniel S. Ferguson

Yesterday’s post about Hell created quite a stir, which is to be expected. Hell is a hot topic (pun intended #sorrynotsorry). I suppose I should say for the record that I didn’t advocate for any particular view of Hell; rather, I simply provided an argument against Hell as it is traditionally presented. As for what happens after death to those who do not believe in Jesus as Savior…I must admit that I don’t have a coherent belief in that regard. Even my most thoughtful construct isn’t one with which I’m theologically comfortable. I mainly wanted to posit the idea that there might be other notions out there that are just as Biblically valid as the one usually seen.

But I’ll save that for another post. Today’s post is the reverse of yesterday’s. Let’s talk about Heaven.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about a lot of topics inside Christian faith, and Heaven is one of those things that just never seems to come up. Only diehards like Francis Chan seem to mention it (God bless them). They are absolutely in love with the idea of Heaven and take Scripture seriously when it says to sell everything they own for it.

Those are good people, and they’re not crazy, no matter what you may think. I admire them and am actually quite jealous of them. They’re following Jesus with everything they’ve got.

They do so because they’re convinced, not only of Heaven’s existence, but also of its eternal grandeur and joy. I am not convinced of either, and neither are most people I know.

Pew estimates that 74 percent of Millennials believe in Heaven, which is roughly the same as every other generation. That doesn’t surprise me. Heaven is pretty easy to believe in. Eternal joy and happiness and time with the people you’ve lost sounds like a pretty good gig. Compare that with the meager 59 percent who believe in Hell, and I suddenly don’t trust the statistic. There’s too much internal bias in the answerer.

It’s not that we believe in Heaven; it’s that we merely wish Heaven were real–and that Hell weren’t. (Click to Tweet)

The statistic is simply too self-serving for me to trust it. It fails to ask a key question: “Yeah…what IS Heaven?”

And therein lies the problem, because the range of answers to that question is simply too wide.

If you ask questions about Hell, you generally get similar answers. Fire, brimstone, weeping, gnashing of teeth, eternal pain. The imagery is all very similar.

But if you ask questions about Heaven, while you’ll get some similar imagery like golden streets and angels, answer about what actually goes on in Heaven are pretty scattered. Many talk about having a perfect relationship with God, which sounds pretty weird to people who can’t even identify that they have a relationship with God right now.

Even more talk about infinite time with lost loved ones, as if Heaven were some kind of community center with constant family reunions. Some people describe it as clouds; some people describe it as a city. Some people say it has angels; some people say we’re going to be the angels ourselves.

Even though fewer people believe in Hell, its descriptions are at least coherent and largely unified. But Heaven seems to be lost in the muck.

Part of that is the sheer magnitude of descriptions of Heaven in the Bible. Hell gets a paltry dozen or so references in Scripture; Heaven gets hundreds. So there’s a lot to sort through.

But it’s also because people project onto Heaven what they want here on Earth. Comfort, peace, joy, love–we all want these things, but they all mean something different to each of us. And so Heaven gets muddled in each person’s pursuit of perfection.

But many Millennials, myself, aren’t particularly tempted by perfection.

When you see me and others shrug our shoulders about Heaven, it’s not because we don’t want those things, but because we have no idea what those things look like. We struggle with discomfort, strife, despair, and loneliness, and we come out the other side of them stronger (usually).

The story of self-redemption is one of the most powerful Millennial narratives. Heaven seems to take that away from us. (Click to Tweet)

We have been defined by our struggles, and we’ve grown accustomed to those struggles being the most interesting and personally identifying things about us. We define ourselves by them. So when you talk about an eternity without them, you often get one response: BORING.

And since we can’t really point to what any relationship with God looks like, much less a perfect one, we’re not particularly tempted by the notion of Heaven. We like the idea, maybe, of hanging out with people we loved who died, but that isn’t enough, not for me anyway.

This creates a big problem in Christianity today. You tell me that I’m supposed to pursue Heaven like a treasure in the field, like a perfect pearl. You tell me that it’s the best existence I’ll ever experience. But then you describe it in ways that neither interest me nor captivate me.

How can you better excite Millennials about Heaven? Start with WHY it is, not WHAT it is. (Click to Tweet)

Maybe talk like this:

Imagine a world completely without barriers. Where people are free to struggle and learn and thrive without any fear of rejection or judgment. Where there’s always enough time for a great conversation and where everyone wants to have one. Where people really connect; it’s not just small talk. Where you can always find acceptance, no matter what. Where the discovery of self and universe never ends.

Incomplete sentences aside, that might do a better job of making me want Heaven than what I usually hear in church. I want that Heaven, and it’s perfectly in keeping with what the ideas of infinite grace and truth that the Bible describes.

Astute readers will note that I didn’t mention God or Jesus in that description. That’s on purpose. If you can sell me on the first part, I’ll start wondering about it and start asking questions. That’s when you pivot to Jesus and the freedom He provides.

Freedom forever.

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