Hell is not the only doctrine that has fallen out of favor in our day. Heaven has fallen on hard times as well. We used to sing, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.” But these days Evangelicals are more likely to speak of the kingdom than of heaven. Justice is more important to them than the hope of heaven.
To many the notion that heaven might be an actual place seems about as awkward as the thought of a literal Hell. N. T. Wright seems typical of this thinking when he asks what the ultimate Christian hope is and what hope there is for change, rescue, transformation and new possibilities within the world in the present. “As long as we see Christian hope in terms of going to heaven,” Wright claims, “of a salvation that is essentially away from this world the two questions are bound to appear unrelated.” No, Christians today don’t want to go to heaven. We want our heaven on earth and we want it now.
It seems to me that these two things are linked. The church’s neglect of the doctrine of hell springs from the same root that has prompted us to marginalize the hope of heaven. It is a result of being worldly-minded. This is a major cause of all our disappointment with God. We are disappointed because we are primarily interested in the comforts of earthly life and troubled by earthly sorrows. We have forgotten Jesus’ warning that there are other worse sorrows yet to come as well as better joys that cannot be described in earthly terms.
The often quoted observation of C. S. Lewis was right. We are too easily satisfied: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
Our distaste for the old doctrine of hell reflects a similar lack of vision. We clamor for justice but what we really want is a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. We want a heavenly bureaucracy which makes sure that everyone is serviced. We do not really want justice. How could we? If a blameless and upright man like Job, someone who feared God and shunned evil, withered under the faintest breath of God’s justice, what makes us think that we could survive its full blast?
John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.
Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.
3 thoughts on “Between Heaven and Hell”
Hello Dr Koessler,
I love reading your blogs and I sincerely appreciate your insight. And I agree with this article- to a point. I totally agree that Christians are becoming more worldly minded, but I don’t think it is because they are too kingdom focused, as you were saying. In fact, I believe that just the opposite is the case. Christians are becoming too materialistic and worldly minded because they do not care much about the kingdom. It seems that many professing Christians are interested in only the pleasures of heaven- or rather, they only care for the things of God as long as there is something in it for them. In Luke 17:21-34, when the Pharisees were looking for signs and wonders, Jesus tells them kingdom is here among you right now. I believe that Jesus is saying that He is the essence of God’s kingdom on this earth. He established God’s kingdom on this earth through the church. And so the chief end of every Christian, I believe, ought not to look for future signs and apocalyptic events, nor to focus on heaven, but on Jesus Christ alone, for He is the author and the finisher of our faith. I think that once God’s people begin to see their goal as to worship and glorify God in the here and now (and stop worrying about just “getting to heaven”), then there will be much less worldly minded. I think that is also what NT Wright was getting at.
Thanks, Rich, for your helpful comments. I found N. T. Wright’s book Surrpised by Hope to be helpful and encouraging in many ways. His explanation of the Kingdom as tangental to our world was especially moving and reminded me very much of some of the things that T. F. Torrance says in his little book Preaching Christ Today. I agree that Jesus was pointing to Himself in Luke 17:21-34. I believe he was making an offer of himself as Messiah that Israel rejected. When Jesus speaks of heaven in John, he describes it as a location. He came from heaven and returned to heaven (John 3:13; 6:32, 33, 38). Jesus also distinguishes heaven from earth (Matt. 16:19). As a dispensationalist, I look forward to a literal Kingdom where Jesus will reign from Jerusalem. That does not keep me from praying and working for the manifestation of his righteous dominion in the present. I hope you will keep reading my blog.
I see what you are saying, though I tend to view the kingdom of God from a covenantal perspective. Perhaps that is the point of my disagreement. I’ll definitely keep reading your posts- I do enjoy them. Thanks!