What is your vision of heaven?
That was the question over at the Washington Post last week. And one of the guest voices was that of the elder statesman of traditional evangelicalism: Billy Graham.
What makes Graham’s answer interesting is that he plays within the boundaries of the question. He doesn’t challenge the language of ‘heaven,’ as I might, (after all, he practically invented it), but skillfully articulates what is perhaps the most popular and pervasive notion of the afterlife among traditional evangelicals.
And it’s not all bad.
The language of ‘going home’ and ‘flying away’ has come under scrutiny in recent years, and justifiably so. The most famous critique was that offered by N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope. And while Wright is right on the resurrection, he overstates the novelty of his position and is a tad uncharitable toward the (largely, though not exclusively) evangelical tradition on the issue of heaven.
As a representative, consider Graham’s take on heaven.
The Bible doesn’t answer all our questions about Heaven – but it does tell us that it will be far more glorious than anything we can imagine. Heaven is like the most perfect and beautiful place we can possibly conceive – only more so. Only in Heaven will we know exactly what Heaven is like. People have speculated for centuries about what Heaven will be like – some realistic, some fanciful (or even perverse).
As a starting point, a healthy bit of aporia about the shape and structure of the new creation seems appropriate. After all, it sometimes seems like the ‘new’ in ‘new creation’ gets lost. Yes, there’s an affirmation of the created order there. But there’s also a judgment, and given that the ‘new creation’ is inaugurated through the death of Jesus, that judgment is pretty severe.
Continuity, meet discontinuity. An affirmation of uncertainty just isn’t a bad place to start.
But the most essential truth about Heaven is this: We will be in God’s presence forever. And because we will be with God, no harm or evil can ever touch us again. One of the most moving descriptions of Heaven in all Scripture is this: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
This, more than anything, seems to be the evangelical affirmation. Yes, there’s work to be done in terms of articulating a theology of presence (pace the brilliant John Webster lectures). But Dantean-type contemplation of the divine essence at the heart of heavenly activity isn’t exactly problematic on its face. As the Apostle John’s other book reminds us, eternal life consists in the knowledge of God–a fruitful and productive knowledge, but its knowledge that undergirds any other activity.
In Heaven there will be no more fear or worry or stress. We won’t need locks on the doors, or bars on the windows, or sophisticated alarm systems – because everything that causes fear will be eliminated. Evil and Satan and death will be banished forever, and we will no longer be threatened, either by nature or by other people. Conflicts and wars will cease, and all the things that divided us on earth will divide us no more. God’s promise will be fulfilled. In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).
This is pretty standard language for evangelicals. But notice it proceeds by way of negation: no locks, no bars, no alarm systems, no conflicts, no wars. But there is no negation of the existence of doors, windows, or even houses. If anything these negations presuppose a tacit affirmation of the underlying structure of creation.
Heaven will also be a place of reunion. I am often asked if we will meet our loved ones there who have died in the Lord. I have no doubt that we will! This truth has become even more precious to me since the death of my wife, Ruth, almost three years ago.
This is another common theme within evangelical descriptions of heaven, and notice how social it is. While the knowledge of God is the central aspect of Graham’s depiction of heaven, it is by no means the only aspect of heaven. At bottom, Graham–like many evangelicals–has made a choice to emphasize certain aspects of our heavenly existence, which means leaving other aspects in the backdrop.
The most important truth about Heaven for us today, however, is that God wants us to be there! We cannot win our way into Heaven by our own goodness, because we will never be good enough; God’s standard is perfection. But God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to become the final and complete sacrifice for our sins – and when we put our faith and trust in Him, all our sins are erased and Heaven’s door opens before us.
Graham moves from the ‘most essential truth’ about heaven itself to the ‘most important truth’ about heaven for us today. And in both, the God who sent his Son, Jesus, to live and die for us is at the center. The eschatological reality of heaven grounds all of Graham’s missional activity and energy.
Again, there’s a healthy corrective in NT Wright’s work that is important to keep in mind. But if evangelicalism’s most famous figure’s views on the afterlife are at all representative, then they might be a little better than advertised.