I’m a B.U.I.C.K. — a “Brought Up In Church Kid.” I grew up singing about flying away and how this world was not my home. I also grew up hearing from people who weren’t Christians that we seemed to talk about Heaven way too much.
It’s been said that Christians are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. But what if the problem isn’t that we’ve thought too much about heaven, but that we’ve thought about Heaven in the wrong ways?
After all, Heaven has motivated Christian social action for thousands of years. It was precisely because people believed in the Resurrection that peasants and fishermen and uneducated people changed the world.
The problem isn’t that we think too much about Heaven. It’s that somewhere over the past few hundred years, we started thinking about it wrongly. And now the future isn’t what it used to be.
Here are a few examples of how we misunderstand Heaven:
Myth #1 Heaven and Hell are two sides of the same coin.
Truth #1: Heaven and Earth belong together — not Heaven and Hell.
The author and pastor Joshua Ryan Butler recently suggested Christians do an experiment. Search your Bible for the verses that have both the words Heaven AND Hell. Most translations that you search will come back with . . . wait for it . . . zero results.
Does that surprise anyone else? It seems like most preachers mention Heaven and Hell in the same breath. In popular culture, Heaven and Hell belong in the same category, but that’s not the way that the Bible talks about them.
Now, search Heaven and Earth in your Bible and you will find over 200 verses. Hell isn’t the counter-point of Heaven — Earth is. This may sound like nothing more than a bit of interesting Bible trivia, but it is a huge deal in the Scriptures. Heaven and Earth were made together, they belong together, and God will ultimately reconcile Heaven to Earth.
In fact, He already is.
Myth #2: Heaven is all about the future.
Truth #2: Heaven collided with Earth in the form of Jesus and continues to do so in the lives of God’s people.
Last year, I had the honor of going to Bethlehem. I got to see the tiny village where Jesus was born. Today there’s an ancient Orthodox church that has a distinct “touristy” smell that only comes from the kind of body-odor that accumulates after visits from centuries of people eating foods that aren’t native to their digestive systems.
My first inclination when I went to the Holy Land was to complain about the heat and smells and lack of wi-fi, but it slowly dawned on me that this was the precise place where God stepped into history — into the smelly, uncomfortable, suffering world. Christians have believed ever since that God didn’t just leave Heaven, but that in some mysterious way, He brought Heaven with Him.
Think about all the times Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus told us that it was like a pearl, a field, a wedding, a net full of fish, and a seed. Books have been written about what these comparisons mean, but not many people point out the most obvious thing Jesus was doing. Jesus wanted us to see that Heaven is like this world.
Now think about what Jesus didn’t say about Heaven. Jesus never mentioned clouds or harps in some distant, future realm. Jesus just looked around at people and places and experiences in life. And He said, “Here it is.”
The most common metaphor for the age to come in the Bible is a feast. Think about how many times Jesus gathered up all the wrong kinds of people — the back-stabbers, the tax collectors, the immoral sinners, and the Pharisees — at a shared table.
Jesus, like the prophets before Him, was a performance artist. He was doing more than just telling parables of Heaven. He was giving advance previews of it. This is what every church is doing each time we gather, and anytime disciples live out the way of Jesus in the world. Heaven is invading earth.
Myth #3: Heaven is a place to which Christians escape from the world.
Truth #3: God is restoring all things and we are called to engage rather than escape.
A little over a decade ago, I was thinking about walking away from Jesus because of this myth. I was convinced that the Gospel was only concerned with what happened after you died. It was something that you believed in so that you could not feel so bad at your aunt’s funeral.
I believed that the Gospel was mostly irrelevant to this life. But I started to learn that this way of thinking about Heaven is largely a new idea!
In the book of Revelation, John’s description of the end times includes heaven coming down. The heavenly city does not stay in heaven, but rather comes down to earth. There is a reason that Jesus taught his disciples to ask that God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
The Christian view of Heaven is really that we would be doing the kinds of things that bring more of Heaven, more of the will of God to the area of the world we are in and the time we find ourselves.
For over two thousand years the Gospel has been very good news for the world, even for those who didn’t believe it.
Christians have started hospitals, libraries, orphanages, leprosariums and led the fights for human rights, women rights, and abolition movements. From mercy ships to the Red Cross, all have their roots in the Jesus movement and this idea that we should do God’s will on Earth as it is in Heaven.
* * *
I’m a Christian today because of the beautiful, messy, and redemptive history of God working through His people to bring Heaven to Earth. I’m a Christian today because God hasn’t given up on this world, but has entered into it, and hasn’t left it since.
For more, check out the authors’ new book, Bringing Heaven to Earth: You Don’t Have to Wait for Eternity to Live the Good News.