You have heard it said, “The Gospel is not about going to heaven when you die.” Don’t sing about “flying away” when this life is over. Don’t preach about God’s celestial shore or the mansion for His children in the air. These sermons are “escapist” and Christians who listen to them become apathetic about this life, ignore injustice, or shrug their shoulders about the misery of the poor. If we keep preaching this false gospel, the Church will only care about getting to heaven, not doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
That last phrase, taken from the mouth of Our Lord, reveals the issue with this line of thinking. The Lord’s Prayer seems to imply that God’s will is done in heaven in a way that God’s will is not done here. If the angels and saints in heaven are doing God’s will perfectly, we can see with our eyes that the opposite is true here. That’s why we need to pray that line in particular.
Heaven and earth are different, according to the Lord’s Prayer. So is it wrong for a sinner to want to go to heaven? When, if ever, will a sinner be able to go? Can a sinner exist in the presence of God if “nothing unclean can enter heaven”? If it’s impossible to live with the Lord and keep our attachment to sin, the only other option is to exist apart from Him and stuck with sin. That sounds like a decent definition of hell, and no one is asking to go there.
Imagine a preacher who wants to answer these questions for his parishioners. He is in his office writing this week’s sermon. He’s preaching to a room full of liars, cheats, and narcissists (and he is the worst of them all). They know they’re going to die one day and don’t want to go to hell. What does he tell them? Is there any good news that he has to offer?
At this point, plenty of folks have an answer. Don’t preach heaven; preach resurrection! The issue with this suggestion is that the general resurrection won’t happen until Christ returns. Jesus says it is not for us to know when His return and the resurrection will take place. If the preacher takes this advice, he can only say, “Eventually you will have a body again.”
For the faithful, that’s good news. But the resurrection isn’t encouraging to everyone. Christ teaches that the wicked will be raised from the dead, but they will will be “raised unto condemnation.” Jesus thinks there are two kinds of resurrection and only one kind is good. The preacher still hasn’t asked the urgent question that dying sinners want to know.
What happens right after we die? What will things be like in between my return to the dust and Christ’s return to earth?
We know the answer to these questions thanks to Paul. During his ministry, he desired to “depart” and “be with Christ.” He calls it “better by far.” He describes it as living “apart from the body and at home with the Lord.” Paul didn’t make up this idea wholesale. Jesus taught that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the living, not the dead. The patriarchs of Genesis were all buried in the same cave, but to the Lord, they are alive.
That comment makes it sure sound like Jesus believes in life between death and resurrection. It seems possible that the dead can experience heaven before Jesus returns. Maybe that’s why preachers started to use a short phrase for this good news. It’s only eight words: you will go to heaven when you die.
Who has believed this good news for two thousand years? The Church. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches would point out early records of Christians commemorating the saints. They believed that holy men and women were dead according to the flesh, but alive in the spirit with God. Why were ancient Christians so zealous about the saints? Why were martyrs willing to face torture and death? Because they believed in heaven.
If your church cares about the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, they both address heaven. The first line confesses belief in God the Father Almighty who made heaven and earth. Whatever you want to call it (a realm, a place, a state, a condition, a garden-city), the author and designer of heaven is God. Heaven is whatever John saw in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. Heaven is whatever Isaiah saw in his vision the year that King Uzziah died. I’m less concerned about the word “heaven” than the reality. Use your own terminology but if you go there, you will find cherubim and seraphim, falling down before Him.
If you read the Nicene Creed, you’ll find another mention of heaven. “Jesus came down from heaven.” We don’t need to rely on spatial analogies to believe that heaven is real and God’s Son came to us from there. Heaven is Jesus’ origin story. Pretend you are one of the shepherds in Bethelehm on Christmas Day. You are blunt enough to point at the baby in Mary’s arms and ask her, “Where is he from?” She could have answered: heaven. She would be right.
If you keep reading the creeds, you’ll find a third mention of heaven. Jesus is not on earth in the same way He was with His apostles because He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. Whatever else you say, your definition must include the fact that Jesus, forty days after His resurrection, was taken up there. Where is Our Lord now? Heaven.
You can find at least two more hints of heaven in the last third of the Apostles Creed. Protestants and Catholics have alike believed in “the communion of saints.” They can agree that this “communion” is not limited to Christians on earth. The rest of the communion of saints is the church triumphant, men and women who have fought the good fight and finished the race. Where can we find this great cloud of witnesses? In heaven. They are “the spirits of the just made perfect.”
Finally, the very last line of the Apostles Creed promises “everlasting life.” The Nicene creed promises “the life of the world to come.” To be fair, it is an issue if someone reduces these promises to a disembodied existence. But that’s not what either of the creeds say! Why can’t life everlasting include going to heaven when we die and the resurrection of the body? Why can’t the life of the world to come include new and glorious bodies?
All of the hand-wringing about “going to heaven when we die” fails to address the existential question that every mortal will face in this life. We’re all on our way to the grave at one speed or another. Is there a life after death or not? What is it like? Who decides? A preacher, priest, or minister who has no answers to these questions is missing a piece of the gospel.
I suspect, though I may be wrong, that most folks care about heaven and it is their preachers and teachers who are rolling their eyes. Perhaps there are men and women who trust in their careers and health care enough that they can avoid the big questions of life. But most of the human race has lived short, difficult, frustrating, and painful lives. Life outside of Eden has been called “a vale of tears” for a reason. If heaven is real, why not tell parishioners that they can go to a “land where joy shall never end”?
Sure, we may not want to refer to bodies as “prison bars” and souls as “birds” flying to God. But Paul is willing to call our bodies “perishable, dishonorable, and weak.” He preached the resurrection of the body, but he also pulled no punches on the flesh we have now. He could celebrate and even look forward to the day he would “depart” from this body and be “at home” with the Lord.
“Going to heaven when we die” is a message that has helped Christians for millennia. They remind themselves that this life is “just a few more weary days” and then the “shadows of this life” will be behind them. Instead of the rags of poverty, they will be given a white robe of the faithful. Instead of living under the highway, they will be given a home Christ went to prepare for us. Instead of suffering at the bottom of society, they will put on their crown and rule under Christ in the kingdom of heaven.
If ministers preach only heaven, that’s a problem. Preachers need to warn about the possibility of hell, too. If we worry that too much talk about heaven produces apathy, just bring up hell more often! The whole point of Christ’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus is that failing to help the poor puts you in danger of everlasting damnation. Christians who want to go to heaven and avoid hell have very good reasons to care for the lease of these.
If we preach only resurrection, however, we are left with little at the grave side. What do we say about the faithful departed? What do we tell their families? Preachers, whether they know it or not, have a word to speak about the present, not just the future. You don’t have to preach anyone into heaven, but you should tell their families that heaven’s doors are open today. And after the preacher talks about heaven, he can say, “But wait! There’s more. Every Christian who goes to heaven will one day be given a new body. God does not only save our souls. He also will save our bodies, too, just like He did for Jesus.”
The gospel is about going to heaven when we die and Christ coming to earth at the End. It’s one story of God saving every square inch of the devastated world in which we live. Our prayer for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven” is answered when sinners go to heaven and when the dead are raised. It’s not a competition. It’s God’s plan and it’s good news.