Heaven sells lots of stuff. Movies: 36 with Heaven as the title, with hundreds more including Heaven somewhere. Amazon features 82,409 books on the subject. In 1941, Helena Rubinstein named a new perfume Heaven Sent. It’s no longer made, which is just as well. It was so baby-powder sweet as to overwhelm the most sentimental of us.
What we as Christians fail to do, however, is sell heaven. In fact, heaven is defined so personally that the variations from those tens of thousands of books doesn’t seem to bother anybody. Mark Twain’s last published short story, “An Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” mocks the traditional white-robed, harp-playing inhabitants of the place sometimes touted in sermons. The Captain comments, “This ain’t just as near my idea of bliss as I thought it was going to be, when I used to go to church.” He’d been dead a while, sailing around the universe as a comet, you see.
Modern art also works us up on the topic. At a Dallas movie shorts event, the final offering was a British film called Gone Fishing. It won awards all over the world and was short listed for an Oscar. At 13 minutes long, there’s not much of a plot. What there is room for, however, is tears: We were all crying at the end. Not that we necessarily wanted to. We were so moved by the tender revelation that our new friends Bill and Simon have “just gone fishing” instead of dying that we lost control of our good sense. Maybe it was the music.
Therein lies the problem. Heaven is not a place to learn to play a harp. No one is sitting around on fluffy white clouds. It’s not a beautiful fishing hole in the Lakes District. In fact, heaven doesn’t exist. No, that’s not heresy. Of course, heaven exists in that it’s where God lives, but none of us has been there yet. Equating heaven with the afterlife is a mistake. Afterlife is the inevitability; heaven, the reward for a life lived well. We are to meet at the great bar of God, but that doesn’t happen until the end of everything else. Paradise comes first; no harps there either.
Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, wrote a bestseller in 2012 called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife. His next book came out in October 2014: The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife. His scientific credibility was seriously questioned after the first book, but the hunger for heaven is real, hence the sequel. Dr. Alexander’s visit yielded three principles: You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong. That last one is, of course, enough to give pause. If heaven is to mean anything, it must also be realistic. Bad guys don’t get to go.
A better book is Todd Burpo’s account of his son Colton’s experience, Heaven Is For Real. It’s more Biblical and offers some great lines: “Jesus died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.” That’s hard to beat and easily bests Alexander’s girl on a butterfly wing who turns out to be his sister.
Still, no matter how good a book, whether we are believers or not, heaven ought to be more than a marketing tool. An astonishing 72% of Americans of all varieties still believe in heaven, according to a 2014 Pew poll, with a much higher percentage among Christians. We could consider that hopeful. Accountability still matters.
So, if heaven is for later, why all the fuss? Perhaps we have forgotten what faith means. If we are assured of a meaningful afterlife and know all about it, we’d have two choices: Either we’d rush in (too suicidal), or we would have no real reason to make right decisions (too obvious).
Faith, in fact, is the point. We have to use it to guide our decisions, if we are faithful. If we’re not, we have no assurance that heaven matters anyway. Doing the right thing doesn’t need a reward no matter what your belief system is. Flowering heaven up with cartoonish clouds and golden harps? It might be a good thing for a skeptic to pause and question, but for Christians to buy in actually weakens the case for faith. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that “Earth’s crammed with heaven…” so we should look closer to home.
The solution is easy: Do the right thing. Whether it earns you a halo shouldn’t matter. Harps? Brutally hard to play. Beauty and rest? Worth waiting for.