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 book, This 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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