When I was in college, both my InterVarsity chapter and my local Baptist church (for clarification, I was never a baptized Baptist) liked to sing “This World Is Not My Home,” at a rapid clip with tambourine. I cannot imagine this anthem had much broad popularity beyond these local settings at the time, but it’s a catchy tune and we sang it with gusto.
It has since occurred to me that proclaiming that we’re “just passin’ through” this world is a rather strange message at a college campus. Most students are, after all, bent on making their future plans and trying their best to enjoy life.
M&L narrate that in the wake of the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic theologians reaffirmed a theocentric heaven. A renewed focus on the divine, in both contexts, overshadowed theological or literary speculation about the heavenly reunion of families, lovers, and saints. Although one can find contrary examples in Luther’s writings, the Protestant heaven in particular became more egalitarian. Same reward for everyone regardless of earthly merit. “Calvin reminded his readers,” the authors explain, “that God acted like the biblical landowner who gave equal reward for unequal work; paying his laborers the same amount for either a whole day or just an hour’s labor.” Eating, drinking, excreting, sleeping, families (for the most part), and sex (although gender would be retained) were also out.
Going forward, Protestant and Catholic visions of heaven remained theocentric in terms of formal theology, but many people found such understandings of the afterlife inadequate. Emmanuel Swedenborg, the influential eighteenth-century Swedish mystic, reintroduced ideas of heavenly hierarchy, communion, progress, and love. By the mid-nineteenth century, whatever theologians said, most American Protestants were thoroughly persuaded by the idea of a heavenly reunion of loved ones and kin (correspondingly, Americans became far more optimistic that fewer people would be damned). Indeed, the eternal bonds of family trumped Renaissance passions. As have other historians, M&L piont to Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s best-selling 1868 novel, The Gates Ajar, in which the characters reject as absurd the idea that heaven is “the harpers harping with the harps” or only human worship of the divine. Essentially, The Gates Ajar is one of many examples of Americans beating Calvinism when it was already on the run. Phelps’s view of heaven was sentimental. “Little children have their gingersnaps, budding musicians their pianos, mechanics their inventions.” Of course, it’s worth noting that the heroine of The Gates Ajar was a Civil War widow. The novel built on many theological precedents, but it was also timely.
Billy Graham provides a good example of this trend. Early in his career, he famously predicted that heaven measured 1600 square miles and that “we are going to sit around the fireplace and have parties, and the angels will wait on us, and we’ll drive down the golden streets in a yellow Cadillac convertible.” In a later interview with David Frost, Graham allowed that his views had matured and that he would “interpret those passages … a little differently today.” Furthermore, he didn’t think any view of heaven contributed much to his core message.
Part of the difficulty for Christians is that we have twin images of a purified (i.e., cleansed of wickedness and much else through apocalyptic judgment) and renewed on the one hand, and the idea of heaven on the other. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what we should most anticipate, besides the beatific of our savior, god, and fellow saints.
Reading M&L’s conclusion made me think of a comment that Tracy McKenzie made toward the end of his history of The First Thanksgiving. He concludes with the observation that unlike the pilgrims, we are too comfortable in the world. American Christians no longer long for heaven. The pilgrims, despite any of their faults, help us remember that we must “set [our] minds on things above” (Col. 3:2) and “lay up … treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). “If in this life only we have hope in life,” McKenzie quotes the apostle Paul, “we are of all men the most pitiable.” The pilgrims encourage us to swim against the tide of a materialistic and present-minded culture that does its utmost to distract itself from the inevitabilities of aging, disease, and death. We have to remember that we are “strangers” and “aliens” even in a land that we love.
Even if not content to just “pass through,” I agree that Christians should set our minds on things above and use our treasures accordingly. Still, Heaven: A History makes it clear that any consensus on what heaven will be has eluded Christians for two millennia.