Good heavens, and bad ones

Q:What is your vision of heaven? What images – from Scripture, tradition, culture or your personal experience – best describe … Continued

Q:What is your vision of heaven? What images – from Scripture, tradition, culture or your personal experience – best describe heaven for you?

Take the exclamation point off the expletive “Heavens!” and you are left with “Heavens,” which would be a more accurate title for the book Lisa Miller titled “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.” Readers seeking a basic single description of the place and idea of heaven will not find it in her book or anyone else’s. Christian critics who are often distracted by the inclusion of Muslim, Jewish, New Age, and other views than their own in books like hers often accuse such authors of weakening faith by relativizing basic teachings. Why don’t they stick to the Bible? is the standard question. With it comes an accusation: the authors are more concerned with political correctness than teaching the truth about heaven, because they pay so much attention to the diversity of beliefs and pluralism among religions. Have the accusers a case?

Whether or not they have a case, they do have a problem, since the Bible, to say nothing of Christian writings through the centuries, presents stunningly diverse descriptions. Ask fair-minded biblical scholars to focus on the basic “Heaven” in the Book and they will answer: there is none! All cartoonists have decided that heaven is a place where robed new arrivals walk on clouds, listen to harps, and make their case before Saint Peter at the gates. None of these images has much biblical warrant and all of them will help kill off dreams and hopes of heaven for any warm-blooded and brain-active believers. As for differing biblical views, heaven is in or beyond the skies or on a glorified earth; it is a garden or a city, a court or a temple, a mansion with many rooms or a pasture, a place of rest or a scene of many activities–except, in Jesus’ answer to questioners, marrying.

Those who turn to what the gospels’ report of Jesus’ sayings and doings in order to get answers will find that he sometimes reflects contemporary tales, as in the story of the poor beggar who after death gets to trade places with a rich man. At others he treats questions about the details of heavenly life as being irrelevant or as jokes posed by tricksters, not seekers of truth. Thus the reference to marriage occurs in a story in three gospels, where a group of conservative Jews who opposed belief in the resurrection teased him with a question. In their absurdist plot a widow follows Jewish law and marries but outlives a sequence of seven brothers. Whose wife will she be in heaven? To treat the question with no more gravity than that of the questioners, Jesus announces that in heaven there is no marrying or giving in marriage because there will be a new order of angel-like beings for all. His answer was part of his career-long accent on a life so given to the presence of God that even the family will count for less.

Though there is no basic view of heaven, there is a constant focus on that presence of God in the Hebrew Bible, which knows little of a heaven, or in the New Testament, where the afterlife is vivid and eternal. It is marked by the enduring love of God, a reality that takes care of and transcends the questions which imply a search for one clear description. In a medieval parable, a believer dreams of meeting a woman who bears a pitcher of water and a torch. Her mission: “To quench the fires of hell and to burn the pleasures of heaven, so people will start loving God for God’s own sake.”

If Christians’ conceptions of the life to come are so varied in their Bible, history, theology, and folk-lore, what good are they? My first answer some might consider frivolous because it is esthetic, while earth-and-heaven talk usually deals with grave matters. Instead, I’d stress grace, evidenced in the way the imagination of heaven has enriched the art museums, libraries, and concert halls. Religions serve by stimulating wonder, and visions of heaven prompt artists to be creative. The downside of this imagination appears in the cynical line about “pie in the sky by and by.” It did not take a Karl Marx to see that dreams of the afterlife could be an “opiate of the people,” an enslaver instead of an inspirer of work and, if need be, of revolution. Just as often hope of heaven, however, has challenged people to endure prisons and death camps or take risks which benefited others.

A second reason not to look for abstract or vague definitions and descriptions of heaven has a profoundly humanistic edge. Long ago when I was a fledgling pastor, like all colleagues, I was often close to death and the dying, and then at wakes and funerals. It became clear to me as it does to most of them that there were as many varieties of “heavens” as there were sufferers and mourners. The survivors mixed and matched elements from the repertory of options in biblical and religious history and then personalized them. Some of these were unhelpful, but most helped even sophisticated people find comfort and resolve in a time of grief. They all knew enough about cosmology not to look literally “up” for a place called heaven.

When a memorial service included the word of Jesus from the gospel of John (14:2), that “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” where he would “prepare a place for them,” mourners did not evidence bad faith or suggest that they believed in the existence of a particular architectural work at a certain street address. They did, however, have a fresh way of fastening their hopes to something that would otherwise have been abstract and evanescent. Instead they evidently used heavenly imagery to reinforce the common element in their faith. In the apostle Paul’s words (Romans 8:38f.), they believed that nothing–including death–would separate them from the love of God and–heaven help them!–‘Heaven’ helped them.

Martin Marty
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