Heaven, what used to be the primary motivator for many to become a Christian or be faithful of a Christian, has fallen on hard times. I wonder what you think about heaven? But I’m not asking about just your theory. Instead, I want to come at this from a pastoral angle:
What would you tell a seventeen year old Christian kid who discovers she has an incurable cancer? Or who has a friend who was killed in a car accident? or the mom and dad of a daughter who died? Or someone older in your church who is closer to the far horizon who asks you a simple question, What happens when I die?
Now some thoughts.
1. Heaven has been swallowed up in our day by kingdom talk, and more often than not kingdom talk is about life on planet earth in the here and now, and that his has diminished discussion and appeal to heaven. Advantages or disadvantages?
2. The old “heaven” has become more focused today on the “new heavens and the new earth,” with the former usually connected to disembodied spirits and souls and the latter to embodied spirits or spirited bodies. Is there that much difference (for the one wondering about what happens they die) between these two? On this theme, see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.
3. In the history of heaven theologies, traced by Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang in Heaven: A History quite well, though their section on Jesus is mistakenly lopsided toward spirituality and religion away from embodied realities, there have been two themes: the theocentric heaven, where the emphasis is the beatific vision or union with God or with worship and praise and adoration, and the social heaven, where the emphasis is more on new heavens and new earth and a social kingdom where we live socially as God wants us to live. How do you fashion heaven in light of these emphases? Where does your church focus?
4. Do you think we will be married or have families in heaven, or will heaven transcend relations so that we become one big family?
5. Conceptions of heaven are shaped by one’s social location and age; Irenaeus though of heaven as compensation for the present lack of safety and persecution while Augustine had a very spirit-y and lack of body view of heaven until later in his life where he had a more relational heaven; and Gary Scott Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination shows that heaven shifted in American thinking from the days of the Puritan theocentric heaven until we have a more therapeutic heaven-as-you-like-it view in American culture today. How does social location influence us today? (Giovanni di Paolo’s heaven is social, as seen in the image.)
6. What do you think of near death experiences? Genuine experiences of heaven or not?