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Is Heaven Fools Gold for the Poor?

Duane McBride, one of the church’s preeminent social scientists, and a member of the Sabbath School class I attend, never tires of reminding us that virtually all cultures throughout history project some belief in the hereafter. The Iliad and Odyssey—both older than the Bible—have elaborate scenes describing a world beyond the grave. Archaeologists worldwide, with excavations from the pyramids as Exhibit A, confirm our penchant to see this life as a transit to a better place. The simple reason we haven’t found mansions of Egyptian pharaohs is not because they did not live in palaces, but rather because their palatial dwellings were not built to last. From the beginnings of their reign, every pharaoh started building their tombs. The ancient Egyptian word for tomb is “house of eternity,” signaling their belief in a better afterlife.  Similarly, in contemporary Ghana, when an Asante chief dies, the elaborate rituals required by tradition to set him/her up in the hereafter, signals a life of ease.

So yes, humans everywhere are partial to life and want it to continue beyond death. And whether through their belief systems or cultural practices, they leave behind evidences of hope in the world beyond the curtain. The question is whether hope, belief, or aspirations, prove that there is a heaven waiting for us at death. So far, outside of imaginative literature and the claims of our various scriptures, no one has credibly experienced death and come back to tell about the other side. Certainly not since the Age of Reason.

In scripture, unlike secular literature, the heavenly canvas is painted with thick idyllic strokes: perfect in every respect. There is neither hunger nor pain in our bibles’ heavens. No one gets sick or grows old there, though it’s unclear when or if growth or maturation ceases. In Heaven, death will become a distant memory. Inhabitants there will walk on golden streets. The lamb and the lion will co-exist in perfect harmony, a symbol of the peaceful cohabitation that eluded humans during their sojourn on earth. This is the environment John’s writer conjures when he has Jesus pledging to his disciples: “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (14:2-3 NKJV)

So there’s enough here tugging at our heart strings and bidding us heavenward. It appears however that, over time, Heaven’s appeal changes, depending on one’s socioeconomic class. The poor and less privileged tend to embrace Heaven and what it stands for far more readily than the affluent and privileged. The well-off often profess belief in Heaven, but their actions demonstrate indifference at best to the concept.

Since formal education became normative in most societies, a close correlation seems to have developed between schooling and wealth/privilege. And over time, we observe that, in general, wealthy individuals and affluent communities are connected by education. We also notice that, by and large, wealthy educated individuals and their communities are less likely to be enamored by Heaven’s promises, at least not to the same extent as their poor and uneducated counterparts. That could explain why religion in general, and Heaven in particular, are “marketed” more successfully to the uneducated poor than the educated rich.

Let’s see how this plays out in a society. On any given weekend, anywhere in poor communities in West Africa (and this is a generalization applicable to all poor communities), a Christian preacher’s discourse is likely to be about Heaven or Jesus’ return, which makes all things good. I read somewhere that an overwhelming 65% of all weekend sermons in Ghana are heaven-focused. Compare this to the paucity of a heavenly theme in Western pulpits.

What accounts for the difference? Poverty vs. prosperity, maybe. In societies where life is relatively hard, the preacher has an easier job. He points heavenward and ask’s his/her congregants to claim its promises. In a way it seems as though both preacher and church have conceded this life, whose problems seem intractable. And because they have already “checked out,” they look forward, with unearned nostalgia, to a Heaven perceived to neatly solve all earthly difficulty. For the poor, who are surrounded by troubled seas, Heaven is the ultimate safe harbor, and they cling to it with desperate hope. Until their circumstances change.

And circumstances sometimes change. A poor person might become rich and soon have an affluent lifestyle, including a changed attitude towards Heaven. A poor villager might move to the big city and then through hard work gradually become rich. That’s when some of the shine comes off heaven’s golden streets, and the newly-rich reinterprets Heaven’s metaphors. I suspect that’s how Europe, once the bastion of Christianity, has almost wholesale given up on the idea of Heaven. When an educated community becomes wealthy, they seem to become content with the “Heaven” in their current world.

But it is the impact of this incessant messaging by preachers, who promise a Heaven “in the sky by and by,” that concerns me here. The psychological effect of believing that better days will come only after death, has a powerfully negative effect on how the poor approach this life. It reenforces a demoralizing “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through” mentality that makes us settlers and content in mediocrity. What’s the point of showing up and working hard if life here is transitory?

Meanwhile others commit to school and hard work—choices that take on a communal character. In time they transform the world they live in and their lives improve. On a macro level—winnowing out the most confounding variables—these competing mindsets could help explain the vast differences in educational commitment and ensuing progress between the Northern and Southern worlds. This then is a plea for us Christians, who find ourselves in poor communities, to temper our exuberance about the aspirations for the hereafter as we “sell” Heaven. Because an overemphasis on the glories of the hereafter does have negative consequences in this life.

Image Credit: Ben Vaughn on Unsplash

About the author

Matthew Quartey was born and raised in Southern Ghana and obtained graduate and postgraduate education in Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States. His academic interests center around post-independence African literature as well as British/American literature of the 19th century. Quartey works in healthcare management and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with his wife Sophia. More from Matthew Quartey.
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