I don’t expect to go to heaven.
At one time I did. At one time, making myself worthy of heaven was the focus of my life. From early childhood, I learned what it meant to ask Jesus into my heart with the hope of spending eternity with him in heaven. I learned to live for the sake of heaven. I wanted to please God now, do what God wanted now, so that one day, when my life came to its inevitable end, I might enjoy that great reward, life without end in a perfect place.
That childhood faith became my adolescent faith and the faith I carried into young adulthood. By that time, my faith was more informed and articulate and nuanced, but the core of my belief remained the same: faith in Jesus secured for me, and for all who share that faith, the reward of eternal life in heaven.
I don’t believe that anymore.
The seeds of a changed mind were planted almost from the beginning. I never questioned the wisdom of seeking heaven first, of ordering this life for the sake of the next, but, even as a child, I didn’t find the idea of heaven particularly appealing. I knew heaven wasn’t about harps and wings and streets of gold, but it was not clear to me what it was about. Being with God, enjoying God’s company, singing endless songs of praise, something like endless church? Any heaven I could imagine was amorphous and ethereal, a strange and sterile and wholly unfamiliar realm. In contrast, the beauty and substance and energy and delights of this life and this earth seemed a whole lot more attractive to me!
My love for this earth was one of those seeds, a seed planted by my father. He taught me to swim and paddle and sail. He took me hiking and woke me up before dawn to take me birding. My father birthed faith in me, but he also birthed in me an abiding fondness for mountain and stream and lake and forest.
My mother read to me. She read aloud the Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis. The seven Narnia books were a seed, too, framing as much as the church did my early sense of Christian character and Christian hope. It was the last of these novels especially, the one entitled, The Last Battle, that planted in my imagination a vision of a “heaven” that was not foreign and uninviting, but familiar and compelling, a vision of a new world like this one — filled with mountains and streams and forests and familiar faces — a new world that was this one, only bigger somehow, somehow more real, more substantial, more alive.
But the most important seed of a changed faith was faith itself. I expected heaven, but I didn’t believe in heaven. I believed in Jesus. I loved Jesus, not for the sake of what Jesus might do for me, but because Jesus was worthy of my love. I wanted to follow him, learn from him, let him reshape my mind.
And he did. Jesus led me back into the story and that story changed my mind. As a philosophy student and seminarian and young pastor, I began to read the Bible more closely, more carefully, and the pieces of a new way of thinking began to take shape. I heard the creation story, as if for the first time, and its repeated refrain: “And God saw that it was good!” Yes! This is good: this world and all that fills it! This is what God loves! This is what God cares about! This is what God calls good!
I heard the Hebrews’ witness to God’s concern, not for disembodied souls, but for whole persons, for whole communities of persons. I heard the call to do justice for the poor, to welcome the stranger, and to care for the land. I understood that the human creature made in God’s image is an indivisible entity, spirit and body, not the sum of separable parts. I was enthralled with the biblical vision of “shalom, ” a vision of peace, but more than peace, a vision of fruitfulness and bounty and justice and harmony and fullness of life.
And I heard this: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth … I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” Coming down! Heaven comes down; we don’t go up! Those words from the book of Revelation were a revelation.
Of course! This is what God loves — this earth, these human beings. This is what God saves. We don’t go to heaven; heaven — God — comes to us, not to take us away to another place, but to make this place new, to make us new, to make “heaven” of this earth, to make this earth a place of “no more death, no more grief or crying or pain.”
I can’t wait …