The Disappearance of Heaven

The Disappearance of Heaven July 23, 2015

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.

This week, I’m concluding my three-part series on Colleen McDannell and Bernard Lang’s Heaven: A History. You can see the first two parts here and here.

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.

M&L’s final chapter is a fascinating overview of recent trends. Clergy in particular lost most of their interest in describing heaven. Here’s an interesting thought: “Priests and pastors might tell families that they will meet their loved ones in heaven as a means of consolation, but contemporary thought does not support that belief as it did in the nineteenth century. There is no longer a strong theological commitment to the modern heaven.” Except for Mormons, they note! Otherwise, it’s “theocentric minimalism.”

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.


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  • stefanstackhouse

    The truth is that none of us really know what it will be like. God gave John and a few others little glimpses. Our earth-bound language had no words to adequately describe even the little bit they did see, so they tried as best as they could with heavy reliance on metaphor, simile, and symbolism. Too many people have made the mistake of thinking that those poor substitutes actually were the sum and substance of the real thing.

  • cken

    My personal opinion is heaven is being reunited with God and hell is eternal separation from God. What always amazes me is how many people think we will have physical bodies in heaven.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “What always amazes me is how many people think we will have physical bodies in heaven.”

    Christianity has always struggled with this clash of monistic (traditionally Jewish) and dualistic (hellenistic) views of the human being. Paul, caught between the two, tries to have it both ways and talks about “spiritual bodies.” But make no mistake, a lot of the platonic dualism found in so much of modern Christianity would’ve not been a view shared by the Jewish Jesus and his disciples. Even for Paul, the dead before the Resurrection were “asleep” they were not already there. The importance of the physical body was paramount.

  • cken

    That seems to beg for the idea of a purgatory. Doesn’t the soul, the real you, the I AM, have to be somewhere between the time you die and the time the body is resurrected. What if the Hindu’s are right and what some call purgatory is really reincarnation. Personally I think when you die your body is gone and of no use for eternity. Whether your soul goes to Heaven or hell or you are reincarnated and you take on a new body is up for discussion. If there is reincarnation I would like to be born again in America around 1900. That is assuming the Bible and Einstein are right and in the bigger scheme of things there is no such thing as linear time.

  • Andrew Dowling

    It’s an interesting discussion. Personally I’ve always liked the idea of purgatory.

  • 4 WIW

    Glad to say that heaven is alive and well at my church. I attend a church in the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination and while we like every other branch of Christianity have only a very limited understanding of what heaven is like, we do frequently discuss and hear references to the subject of paradise and heaven in our adult education and worship services. The thought of eternity with God in joy and praise are mainstays of our worship.

    With regard to songs on the subject of “just passing through,” here is a link to a 1983 song with a beautifully haunting melody by Petra entitled “Not of this World”

  • 4 WIW

    Hello Andrew. Personally I like to consider the following from 2 Cor. 5 6So we
    are always confident,
    knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the
    Lord. 7For we walk by
    faith, not by sight. 8We are confident,
    yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and
    to be present with the Lord.

    I realize that there may be a gap in time between absenting our bodies and being present with the Lord – but on the other hand there may not be in the sense that our spirits are immediately united to Christ upon our death. Some day, I will know for certain.