If you pay any attention to the pattern of our Sabbath School lesson studies, it is quickly apparent that the format is formulaic. It doesn’t matter the study context, whether a biblical book or a theme, the authors always find ways to catechize core Adventist beliefs: 10 Commandments, Sabbath, Creation, Second Coming, New Earth and New Heaven. We can go back for at least 20 years, coinciding with when Clifford Goldstein became the editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide in 1999, and the pattern holds. The 4th quarter 2020 study on Education was no different, as it repeated not only the structural patterns, but the same unnuanced positions the church has advocated through the years. While the set-up may pre-date Goldstein, his inability or unwillingness to broaden the scope and theological discussions beyond this narrow ultra-conservative base, is a good argument for changing editors. Twenty years is probably enough, anyway.
The last study of 4th quarter 2020 was about Heaven. It repeated the familiar denominational outline: heaven is forever; those who make it there will know no ills; all our pent-up questions will be answered then because Jesus will abide with the saved throughout eternity, etc. My column today attempts to extend the conversation by exploring perspectives the official study guide would not delve into.
It is attractive but dangerous if we succumb to the seductive joy that we’ve come to associate with heaven – a conflict-averse place of perpetual bliss. The risk is that we can easily, without meaning to, deprecate the world of our experience. Heaven appeals because today’s seemingly unending difficulties make us susceptible to dark pessimism and predispose us to agree with Thomas Hobbes’ conclusions that life, in the main, is “nasty, brutish, and short.” When present existence is viewed this negatively it is not uncommon or unreasonable that we glom onto the forever-happiness premise heaven now represents. But while it may not be unreasonable to see heaven as a solution to our abject existential plight, our conception of heaven should not be so uncritical that it devolves into a cheap escape from reality.
For most Christians, the idea that this world and our time in it might be all there is, is hard to take and seems a colossal waste. Certainly seventy years should not be the sum of it all. Some of this might be ego-driven. We protest when scientists categorize us together with brute beasts. Seemingly disrespected, we turn our gaze to the stars and declare our immortality. So we commit to belief in eternal life, in defiance of death’s reality which is all around us. Yet we are reluctant, and often uncomfortable, discussing what we mean by eternity or heaven. We repeat variations of the same platitudes – “the ultimate goal of Christian education ... is to live eternally in the new heaven and the new earth.” We do this so regularly that it is now habitual, rarely pausing to understand what we might mean. And when pressed, we run to Paul: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9 KJV) to end the conversation. But this same Paul exhorts us to “prove all things,” and only after, “hold fast to what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21)
So we should at least try to define heaven by terms understandable right here and now because the choices we make that inch us toward or away from heaven are made in this life, based on understandings and associations arrived at in this world. Asking basic questions about what we posit heaven to be should be encouraged. Questions, and I hope answers, could inform us why we aspire to go there.
For starters, is time operational in heaven? Meaning, when we go beyond the simple notion that heaven embodies timelessness, how do we envision a “day to day” existence in such an environment, in perpetuity? For example, is there chronological aging in heaven? Will there be children? Infants? Toddlers? If so, as a literal reading of some scriptural passages implies, will they grow old? How old? Is there an ideal age when growth stops? Which of our various developmental ages – childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle-aged, elderly – will we personify in heaven? On the other hand, if there is no physical aging, how will we recognize and differentiate people we knew on earth? Will parents know their children and vice-versa? As what? And in what form?
In the absence of negatives – pain, suffering, conflict, decay, etc. – how could we truly experience joy, happiness, peace and rebirth? Can we endure uninterrupted happiness forever? How long will it take before heaven’s inhabitants start questioning whether their blissful experience was real or ephemeral? In this world, one reason we long for peace is because we know its opposite, conflict. We like happiness because we experience suffering. The coexistence of life’s opposites makes choices meaningful and welcome. If there is no more pain, suffering or death in heaven, do we risk, over time, devaluing joy, happiness and life itself? If there are no contrasting experiences, and we have unending contentment, how do we know that such bliss is a good thing? Can created beings, who have the power to choose, endure exposure to only one type of experience, even if it is positive? It is hard to tell. Which shouldn’t discourage us from thinking about it.
Add to this the trickiness of capturing any particular environment, whether in heaven or on earth, for infinity. If rebellion once took place in heaven’s idyllic surroundings, and the Adversary was able to convince one in three angelic beings to join his cause, the threat of recurrence can never be understated. Not when created beings continue to retain their freedom of choice.
I understand that belief in heaven or a hereafter serves as a necessary coping mechanism, inoculating us against life’s harsh realities. Which explains why virtually all human cultures profess some belief in an afterlife. For many, the notion keeps them from despair or worse. So why the pushback?
Because, improperly conceived, heaven could shape our present existence negatively, rendering this life merely a way-station to something better after death. And in the process severely discount the only existence we actually know. How we perceive heaven might shape how Christians order their present lives, perhaps to the extent of “doing good deeds” in order to go there. Even Christian evangelism is heavily predicated on the promise of heaven. If we did not preach about heaven in evangelistic campaigns, would the absence help or hurt those efforts?
Which brings me to a key consideration of this essay: would (or should) Christians behave differently if it could be confirmed that there is no heaven? Meaning, would our motivations for good behavior change if there is no heaven to gain?
I don’t think they should. Jesus hints at this possibility, negating conscious good behavior as a reward for attaining heaven. In Matthew’s (25:31-46) parable of the Sheep and Goats, both the sheep (unconscious) and goats (conscious) did good deeds. But those performed by the goats group were purposeful, calculating and motivated by their desire to go to heaven. Conversely, those done by the sheep were selfless, unaware of, or influenced by the reward of heaven. For the latter, their life of disinterested goodness was its own reward. Though heaven-bound, they had no idea of its allure or the notion that their altruistic lifestyle was the recipe for getting there. Maybe we should replace our Revelation Seminars with symposiums on Matthew 25. And heaven, should we broach the subject at all, would be taught as an afterthought. An unpromised bonus to ordinary living, which comes to us as a pleasant surprise because it was never our center of attention in life.
Instead of focusing on the hereafter and treating this world and our relationship to it only as preparatory to a bigger, better world beyond this life, we should see this world as a gift to treasure. And opening our eyes to it we might then find within – the sick, hungry and imprisoned neighbors who are ours to minister to. When we engage this world deeply we find meaning and purpose, analogous to Jesus’ selfless ministry to his communities, when he walked the dusty roads of Palestine. 1 John’s (4:20) logic could be extended to address our tendency to covet the greener grass in our neighbor’s yard: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” The equivalent is equally true: We should hold on hard to the world we know and make it even better. Then, when we find ourselves in heaven, we will be glad, as we’ve been there before.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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