The idea of a permanent home in heaven has always fascinated me. But then I am a Seventh-day Adventist. And it is in the Adventist DNA to anticipate heaven as our final “reward” and home. This might explain why almost all theological roads in Adventism lead to paradise. Perhaps this is an overstatement, but it is also an observation based on our tendency to end nearly every Bible study, particularly in the quarterlies, by directing our attention to some aspect of heaven. We do this regardless of study content or emphasis and typically end up with a tailored message that invariably points us heavenward.
Week 13 of the 2022 second quarter Adult Bible Study Guide—as well as week 12 of the quarter before—bear this out. In the former, Dr. Jacques Doukhan, apparently following this familiar pattern, managed to make even Israel’s ancient adversary, Egypt, fit the promised land motif. He found in Pharaoh’s Egypt a temporary “heaven” for Israel’s patriarch, Jacob. Below is Doukhan’s full-throttled deployment of the heaven metaphor in his summation:
Ultimately, the hope of the Promised Land, Canaan, is a symbol, a precursor, to the ultimate hope of salvation, of restoration, of a New Jerusalem in a new heaven and a new earth—the ultimate hope for all of us, a hope made certain by the death of Shiloh.
This incessant looking beyond one’s familiar shores in hope of landing somewhere better is not just an Adventist-specific tendency or even just a broadly religious motif. It transcends religion and is etched just as deeply in the secular imagination. The American experiment, as the land of promise, is a good illustration. Millions still heed Emma Lazarus’s plea:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
From every corner of the globe, people continue to follow her utopian vision as they make their way to the proffered haven. Against enormous personnel risks, and seemingly unperturbed that America is now more insular and not as welcoming, they stream to her shores. Perhaps a net aggregate of immigrants who make it to Lazarus’s “New Colossus” confirm her promise of better prospects. But there are also others who, on getting to America, realize too late that the aphorism “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know” has merit. They become only the latest to confirm a version of the same cliché: though the grass in the neighbor’s yard might appear greener, often on approach it proves to be no different than one’s own.
Regardless of power or station in life, humans seem trapped by a pervasive restless angst, which manifests in a general dissatisfaction with life itself. There are many explanations for this common out-of-sortsness. I suspect, however, that the underlying reason for this collective discontent rests in our anxiety about the limits of our aliveness. We share an inability to forget our finiteness, no matter how hard we try to shake off the thought. Humans seem to have an intuitive awareness, almost from the moment we are born, that the clock starts ticking toward our end. But what that end means—cessation or continuation—we don’t know for sure. And not knowing what is beyond the grave. We try to keep death at arm’s length, convinced it’s up to no good.
Yet we know that approach is doomed, as no one escapes death’s reach. So, we opt for the pragmatic alternative of staying with the known commodity and glomming on to the life we now have. It is not an unreasonable choice, the bet that present life is at least better than oblivion. Which, I suppose, is one reason we postulate multiple do-overs of known life, beginning with life as we experience it here, and in a hereafter where life continues, uninterrupted.
Could that explain why we spend so much time on earth groping for a better life? Our search takes us to faraway lands and, when that fails, beyond the grave. Because our expectations in this life are often unmet, we seem to invest our hopes in an afterlife where we construct an ideal accommodating world. Hence in the Christian’s hereafter, life is secure, pristine, endless. Those who inherit this land will never grow old, though the concept of age in a timeless existence perplexes the mind.
Assuming these idyllic conceptions about the heavenly environment are true, why do we seem unwilling to give this world up? Why does death unsettle us? We behave as though the other better place we yearn for is a mirage. Why else do we hold on to this life with such fierce tenacity? Or have we privately concluded that this world, this life, is the proverbial “bird in hand” that should not be gambled for a hopeful “two in the bush?”
Maybe this is why hardly anyone, including and especially our faith leaders, is in a hurry to leave this life in order to go to heaven. People take their own lives, usually out of despair and hopelessness, but they rarely commit suicide as a shortcut to heaven. Humans, like animals, who I doubt understand or believe in heaven, seem to privilege life on an instinctual level. And the reason for this preference could simply be because we have decided that, with all its imperfections, this world and the life it affords us is still the only one we know for sure. And it is good enough to hold on to.
Why then do we in religious communities talk so incessantly about heaven and appear to order our lives with the sole purpose of making it there? Or do we? I suspect much of our posturing about heaven is learned—a feigning we regurgitate through words as propositional belief. We resort to words because they make us feel hopeful. But words alone cannot remake our world. Nor can we create life’s essence by philosophizing or merely talking about it. Hence we stick with life as experienced in the known world. And no number of “belief” statements seems able to dislodge the familiar. So we vote for the known and hold on to this life, having accepted that the everyday hard knocks and occasional joys we experience along life’s path are treasures in themselves.
Which is why I worry that we risk trivializing life when we seek an escape to a utopian consciousness in a faraway land that is presently unreachable. Maybe we should take Jesus seriously in his declaration that “the kingdom of Heaven is within [or] among [us]” (Luke 17:20–22). We should not put the cart before the horse, so to speak, by idealizing a place outside our grasp. Or at least not do so until we have learned to live in this familiar world. As Thoreau admonishes: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” Dreaming is an important part of life, but that should not be the only thing we do. Jesus used words to teach his followers life lessons. But he also fed them when they were hungry, healed them when they were sick, and clothed them when they were naked. Seeking a kingdom beyond our experience should never be at the expense or neglect of the world we live in.
We will be negligent if we fail to recognize that “attaining” heaven is no easy task. It is hard work that demands dedication and single-minded focus. And for some Christians, it is the powerful impulse to get there which often seems to prevent us from doing the simplest “due diligence” about our real motivations to go to heaven. Why do we want to go to that elusive country? For many, the answer, whether stated or implied, is intertwined with transcendence.
However, though transcendence is a strong philosophical lure in our fascination with heaven, I suspect there are other mundane physiological drivers—food, shelter, safety, etc. —that feed our skyward gaze. There is a hint of Maslow in our search to satisfy an ever-ascending hierarchy of personal needs. That might also be why we constantly find ourselves in a state of never-satisfying existence. In the Old Testament, the Israelites, fleeing Pharaoh’s wrath, had to satisfy life’s basic needs: water, daily rations of manna, security, etc., even as that “land flowing with milk and honey” beckoned.
The cruel irony is that a climb up society’s hierarchical rungs is never enough, as there is always another step ahead. Which is why, by the time of the New Testament, a nirvana imagery of a world of unimaginable abundance and opulence, whose streets are paved with gold, takes hold. “Let not your heart be troubled,” John recounts Jesus saying. “In my father’s house are many mansions . . . I go to prepare a place for you . . . I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (14:1–3 KJV). And the author of Hebrews would confirm this: “Instead, they are looking for a better country, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (11:16 NIV).
Over time, this imagery would congeal into a permanent otherworldly state, where goodness is the only norm. No hunger. No sorrow. No death. Neither would any contrarian thoughts ever again enter their minds in this kingdom. Because Jesus will be with them in perpetuity. The marks of his wounds would be a reminder of the redemption’s cost, helping to safeguard against unholy thoughts.
But is such a hyper self-actualized human state sustainable? Invoking Isaiah’s new heaven and new earth (65:17), Paul appears to foreclose on human speculations about heaven by telling us “no eye has seen or ear heard” what is in store for the redeemed (1 Corinthians 2:9). But on this we are allowed to disagree with Paul and side with Job, by giving voice to the nagging questions that won’t go away. For starters:
– What happens if, after getting there, an individual, exercising his/her freedom of choice, decides they no longer desire heaven and wants to decamp? Would such a person be allowed this choice? Or is it: once in, always in?
– In an environment devoid of negatives, how would heaven’s inhabitants know that their state is indeed bliss? On this side of heaven, we make such judgments by juxtaposing our experiences: good and bad, life and death, happiness and sadness, etc. How would we characterize something good if there is nothing bad to compare it with? The conventional explanation points to our memories, but are we still in heaven if we remember the bad stuff from the old earth? How much of our old earth experiences would we remember?
– Is eternity measurable? How long is forever when there is no night in the new earth?
– What do we do with memories of our loved ones who don’t make it to heaven? Do we pretend “as though they never were,” as Ellen White suggests, or will all negative memories be erased from our consciousness? In which case, again, is it really heaven if we have no memories of loved ones who are absent?
There is a cautionary note about all this from Jesus himself in the prodigal son parable. Unlike his profligate younger brother, the older son stayed at home with his loving father. But his father’s infectious love and kind disposition seemed lost on him. He needed to be reminded that the young man who had returned home after squandering his inheritance, and was the reason for the merriment indoors, was still his brother.
We teach in Adventism that Satan was once sinless and lived in heaven with God. For some unfathomable reason, he spurned the majesty of heaven and God’s presence to lead a band of disloyal malcontents. He rebelled and, like Adam and Eve in the garden after they sinned, God ran him out of his Eden, together with a third of heaven’s host. If Satan and a third of heaven would rebuff God’s love in open rebellion, what is the assurance that redeemed sentient beings, their free will intact, would not follow Satan’s path after the dust settles?
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 by clicking here.
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