What do you believe about heaven?

October 30th, 2018

American belief and interest in heaven

Christians in the United States aren’t the only ones who believe in heaven.

While the percentages of U.S. adults who believe in God, pray daily and regularly attend religious services have experienced a modest decline in recent years, a 2014 Pew Research poll found that 72 percent — more than seven in every ten — believe heaven exists.

This widely shared belief helps to explain why heaven often captivates the public’s attention. Popular culture frequently finds inspiration in stories featuring heaven or its ambassadors. In 2003, Mitch Albom released the novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a sentimental story about a man who goes to heaven and meets several people who had a profound impact upon his life. The book stayed on the New York Times’ best-seller list for 95 weeks. This October, Albom published a long-anticipated sequel, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven. Similarly, the book Heaven Is for Real (2010), about a three-year-old’s near-death experience, was also a best-selling phenomenon. A movie based on the book earned over $100 million worldwide and was honored by a satirical skewering in The Simpsons’ most recent season premiere.

Even this small sampling of popular representations of heaven reflect a wide variety of beliefs about heaven. For Christians, the critical question isn’t how many people believe in heaven but what we believe — and why those beliefs matter.

Heaven as reward

The 2014 Pew Research poll specified that most Americans believed in heaven when defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.” That concept of heaven is at the core of NBC’s acclaimed sitcom The Good Place, which recently began its third season. The Good Place depicts an afterlife in which every person’s actions during their lives either earn or lose them points based on their positive or negative effects. “You are here,” an orientation film informs new arrivals in the first episode, “because you lived one of the very best lives that could be lived.”

The show is ultimately a comedy, not a theological treatise, and its take on the afterlife turns out to be more complicated than it first appears. However, utilizing this vision of heaven — as a reward for virtuous living — highlights how easily understood and commonly accepted this idea of heaven is for Americans.

But does Scripture support this belief? Daniel 12 contains the Old Testament’s only unambiguous reference to a resurrection, claiming many “who sleep in the dusty land will wake up” — some to “shame and eternal disgrace,” but the wise and righteous to “eternal life” (verses 2-3). The New Testament, which was written by and for communities who worshipped a risen messiah, discusses resurrection and the afterlife much more, sometimes linking them to God’s affirmative judgment of one’s earthly life (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Revelation 20:11-15; 22:14-15).

Scripture also suggests that those who will be rewarded in heaven aren’t those who have lived good lives but those who lived hard lives full of poverty, pain and rejection on earth. In one of Jesus’ most memorable parables, Lazarus, the poor, sore-covered man who lay outside a rich man’s gate, is “carried by angels to Abraham’s side” when he dies to receive the good things he never got in life (Luke 16:22-23). Jesus even promises his followers who are persecuted a great reward in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12). Often in Scripture, heaven is God’s great repudiation and reversal of worldly power and privilege. The “last” in the world’s eyes are “first” in heaven (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30).

Eternal life

In his 2004 book For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed, biblical scholar N. T. Wright writes, “ ‘Going to heaven when you die’ is not held out in the New Testament as the main goal.” In fact, Scripture generally seems less interested in how we can go to heaven than in how heaven comes to us and changes this life.

The Bible consistently speaks of heaven as God’s world, distinct from the created world we live in. More importantly, it also testifies about God’s world drawing near to this one. Christians believe heaven came to earth most fully and decisively in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus embodied not only God’s priorities but also God’s own self (John 1:14; Colossians 2:9). “Don’t you see?” Jesus asks. “God’s kingdom is already among you” (Luke 17:21). His earthly ministry, death and resurrection bring heaven close in a unique way.

While the 72 percent of Americans who believe in heaven agree that heaven is eternal, Christians believe we don’t have to wait until the afterlife to begin spending eternity with God. Jesus brings us into God’s world even as we continue to live in this one. Eternal life, on either side of the grave, isn’t a mere synonym for immortality. Eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus, whom God sent (John 17:3).

Living as citizens of the kingdom of heaven

The apostle Paul teaches that we’re citizens of heaven, awaiting Jesus’ second coming to transform us (Philippians 3:20-21). Elsewhere, Paul teaches that Jesus’ coming will free not only us but also the whole creation from everything contrary to God’s good purposes (Romans 8:18-22). The prophet John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) underscores how radical and transformational the Christian hope for heaven truly is.

This hope is about far more than our individual futures. It isn’t exclusively about looking forward to being raised as spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:44) or reunions with loved ones who have died before, no matter how joyful those reunions will be. It also isn’t about finally understanding the great mysteries of life or any of the other grand experiences we envision in heaven. Instead, our hope is about looking forward to the time when, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, God’s will is finally done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NRSV).

Jesus’ prayer implies that heaven is present wherever and whenever God’s will is faithfully done. We don’t need to wait until after death to experience heaven. We have abundant opportunities to show heaven to others right now, giving them compelling reasons to believe and “praise [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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