“On Earth as It Is in Heaven”—or Would That Be Boring?

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for more heaven on earth (Matthew 6:10). But that’s the last thing many people want—at least, it is if heaven is pictured the way so many of us picture it.

Heaven, whether portrayed in the eloquence of Dante’s Paradiso or in the humour of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons, is an eternal worship service. Everyone gathers around God and sings—while some accompany the rest of us on harps—forever.

Not many of us think of this as the best of all possible worlds. The more devout among us might aspire to thinking that it is: “Maybe, if I were just much more spiritual than I am, I would find everlasting praise to be my highest joy.” But most of us, including most Christians, don’t find that scenario compelling.

And because we don’t, we invest a lot more in this life and this world, with its manifold and manifest puzzles and payoffs, challenges and rewards.

A recent New Yorker articlepositively reviewed Martin Hägglund’s new bookThis Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, as posing a much-needed challenge to all such stultifying versions of the life to come. How much of a blessing can eternity be: never changing, never growing, never interesting? Wouldn’t it be a sort of curse instead?

Well, yes, it would. That’s one of the main reasons I’m a Christian: I look forward to an interesting afterlife, not a dull one.

In the grip of ancient Greek ideas of perfection—ideas that really do tend toward the static, geometric, and boring—early Christians and many who followed in their train tended to see the world to come as an unending church meeting. These ideas, especially when coupled with the “you and you alone!” fervour of mystical devotion—the sort of feeling in which the world melts away and only the Beloved remains—gave us the ideal of the “beatific vision,” the common Christian idea that the best we can hope for is endless contemplation of God.

That destiny, however, is not what the Bible itself promises. The last two chapters of the Bible give us the clearest glimpse we have—even as it is only a glimpse—of what is in store.

Revelation 21 and 22 tell us that we are not going to heaven. Instead, the Lord Jesus is coming back to earth, bringing the New Jerusalem with him. Here is a splendid garden city, full of delights. In the vision given to John, the highest and best of his world is the lowest and least of the next: precious stones so large that entire gates are carved out of them, while gold is so cheaply abundant it is used as paving material.

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The MCU as Morality Play

It’s another superhero summer filled with costumed crusaders. At the heart of the fabulous CGI, breathtaking stunts, witty dialogue, amazing physiques, and ever-new uniforms, however, is a timeless mythological core. And it’s a story Christians know well.

No matter how powerful the hero, it seems, suffering and even death come his or her way. Wonder Woman’s partner, Col. Steve Trevor, can save the day only by suicidally guiding a bomb away from his friends. Batman has to sacrifice his good name in order to do what Gotham City needs done. Superman himself isn’t immortal.

Meanwhile, over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU—yes, that’s a thing), Captain America follows the lead of Steve Trevor. Super-spies Nick Tracy and Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. take one for the team. Even Tony Stark rides a nuke out of this world.

—Ah, Tony Stark. As one of my sons argues (they are all ‘way too knowledgeable about the MCU), Tony Stark’s “arc” is the over-arching theme of the huge Avengers franchise. The self-absorbed playboy whose wealth is built on, and whose genius is focused on, building weapons becomes the self-sacrificing hero who gives it all up for the greater good.

(And, as if to underline this trajectory, the Tony Stark of Asgard, none other than the God of Thunder himself, the mighty Thor, undergoes a similar transformation.)

These blockbuster spectacles are ethical tableaux. I once asked my friend, the nice former-Presbyterian-elder Ralph Winter, why he devoted a considerable part of his career to making nine-digit comicbook movies. (Ralph produced the early “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” movies, among many others.) And, while we agreed that “having fun” is, indeed, a human value Christians can endorse—so if we’re going to indulge in entertainment, let it be of good quality—his main interest was in the movies as morality plays.

Only in these movies, it seems, can we deal with good and evil without irony. And in the themes of teamwork-versus-egotism, perseverance-in-the-face-of-disappointment, and vicarious suffering, which together constitute the very soul of these movies, we confront cultural and moral bedrock.

Oh, there are lots of other stories available today that champion very different mores: stories of people setting up empires, making and spending billions, keeping up with the Kardashians, constantly breaking bad and playing an endless game of thrones.

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I’ll Take “Theology for $500,” please, Alex

His millions of fans are thrilled to find that game-show host Alex Trebek seems to be winning an uphill battle against pancreatic cancer. In a recent People cover story, he indicates that his chemotherapy is going remarkably well—so well, in fact, that he attributes the good result to more-than-medical causes:

“I told the doctors, this has to be more than just the chemo, and they agreed it could very well be an important part of this. I’ve got a lot of love out there headed in my direction and a lot of prayer, and I will never, ever, minimize the value of that.”

Trebek isn’t the only one who thinks divine forces may be at work. A Roman Catholic columnist is confident that “prayer isn’t a waste of time. My family and I pray for his complete healing every night and it appears that our prayers (and those of many others) are indeed having an effect.”

In the back of my mind, however, intones the quiet voice of an old friend, a friend who was raised in the same Christian tradition I was but has long since left it for a mild secular humanism. His voice asks this simple question:

“How come God gets all the credit when things go right, but somehow escapes the blame when things go wrong?”

Applied to Mr. Trebek’s case, we might ask: If God is healing his cancer, where did the cancer come from in the first place?

Believers in God trust that God is good—at least, the Christian God is, and so are the Jewish and Islamic versions of God. (Not all the gods in other religions are understood to be good, or only good.) But we also believe that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the whole world, moment by moment. Whence, then, is evil?

Where did Alex Trebek’s pancreatic cancer come from?

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