Are We There Yet?

Date: July 26, 2009
Scriptures: Mark 12:18-27
Sermon: Heaven: Are We There Yet?
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Father Agnellus Andrew was the British Broadcasting Company’s advisor on Roman Catholic affairs. There was a producer working on programming to do with heaven and hell. The producer asked Father Andrew how he could ascertain the official Roman Catholic view of heaven and hell. Father Andrew sent a return memo of just one word: “Die.” [The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, Clifton Fadiman, general editor, p. 17]

So, from the beginning, in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject of heaven or hell. And yet, concepts of heaven and hell are very prominent not only in our religious tradition, but in our broader, public culture as well. And so, we venture into this mysterious territory.

For a bit of background, we want to remember that in the early books of the Hebrew Bible, the word heaven is almost always plural, and it refers to a specific place in the scheme of ancient cosmology. Our ancient Hebrew forbears believed the earth was like a platform. There were pillars at the edge of the platform which held up a metal dome, above which was water, and the dwelling place of God, the heavens. The dome was thought to have vents in it, and when God opened the vents, it rained on the earth. It was also thought that below the platform called the earth was the realm of the dead. So there was the realm of the dead below the earth, the earth itself, the sky, the dome, water, and God’s dwelling place, the heavens.

In later tradition, during the time of the exile, the prophets developed the idea of judgment associated with death, and the concept of going to heaven or hell after you died began to gain ground. The Israelites had been conquered; they had been removed from their land, and dispersed into neighboring countries as servants and foreign immigrants. Why had God allowed this to happen? What about the good people who suffered? Why do bad things happen to good people? and Why do good things happen to bad people? So, in an effort to deal with these theological dilemmas, the concept of a final judgment in the afterlife was developed. The idea of going to heaven or hell was a way to conceive of the triumph of justice which had not taken place in this earthly life. If God did not make things turn out as they should in this life, then there must be an afterlife and a final judgment, and that’s when things got straightened out.

Why did this child die in this tragic manner? That’s not right. Well, the child is going to heaven, and will spend eternity in bliss. So this injustice is corrected. Why does that terrible person who has caused all kinds of suffering end up rich, successful, happy in this life? Well, he or she will be going to hell, and will suffer torment for eternity, and so get his or her due. Why were we thrown off of our land and forced to be slaves? It’s not right. It’s unjust. The idea of ending up going to heaven or hell after you die was a way to deal with what feels like injustice in this life. It doesn’t all get straightened out here, but it will in the next life. You might have it good here, but just Or, you’re suffering now, but your reward will come. There’s comfort in this thinking. That eventually, God will set things right. That our physical death from this life is not the end of the story.

This kind of thinking is prominent in the gospel story of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus is a beggar who lives outside the rich man’s gates. The rich man ignores him. Lazarus dies and goes to heaven. The rich man dies and is burning in hell. There’s no changing the situation for eternity, and no way for the rich man to warn his brothers. [Luke 16:19ff]

So, the concept of going to heaven or hell after you die is also motivation for good, moral, righteous behavior while you are living here on this earth. Be good so you will go to heaven. So heaven and hell evolve from becoming a way to redress injustice, to a way to motivate good behavior. And the other side of that coin is to use hell as a threat against bad behavior. Don’t be bad or you will go to hell. Sadly, these concepts which were intended to provide comfort and encourage goodness, became a stick in the hands of religious authorities to force compliance, cooperation, and submission. Do what the church wants, or you will go to hell. So the church used/uses the concepts of heaven and hell to control behavior that it determines desirable. Go to church every Sunday or you will go to hell. Give this amount of money to the church if you want to go to heaven. Don’t get divorced or you will go to hell. Be Christian if you want to go to heaven. All other religions are going to hell. Be heterosexual or you will go to hell. There are a million and one ways the church has used the concept of eternal life in heaven or hell to enforce compliance with its agenda. The church has gone beyond using heaven and hell as comfort to redress the injustices of this life to using heaven and hell as a threat keeping people scared, anxious, and cowering. Sadly, this abuse of religion still goes on today, but it is weakening.

In a recent study by Baylor University, it has become evident that Americans have a broader view of heaven than they did 40 years ago. In the poll conducted by Baylor, 54% of the respondents felt that at least half of average Americans will make it into heaven. 29% said they had no opinion about the eternal fate of the average American. Rodney Stark who worked on the survey, reflected, “I know that when we did studies like this back in the ‘60’s, the notion that only Christians could go to heaven, for example, was much more extensive that it is now.” When it comes to other religions, 72% thought that at least half of Christians would go to heaven. The figures were lower for other faiths: 46% felt that at least half of Jews would go to heaven, 37% felt that at least half of Buddhists would go to heaven, and 34% felt that at least half of Muslims would go to heaven. This is a significant increase over past surveys of this kind. Stark concluded, “I think what you’re seeing is a real level of religious tolerance,” and, “it’s probably going to be higher ten years from now.” [The Christian Century, 10/21/08, p. 20]

So the idea that only good Christians go to heaven is softening. And rightly so. When I was in seminary, we had to write a paper that took a religious question that could be answered in two equally valid ways, and use the Bible to make the case both for and against. Then we had to take a personal stand. The question I chose was “Is salvation universal?” In other words, is everyone going to heaven? You can make a case from the Bible for some going to heaven and some going to hell. You can also make a case from the Bible for everyone going to heaven. I sided with everyone going to heaven, in part because I feel this is more consistent with the teachings of Jesus, and because of how the church has used the concepts of heaven and hell to perpetrate violence and exert domination and control over people. I can’t see reconciling the loving God we see in the life and ministry of Jesus with a God who would send people to burn and rot in hell.

As for people of other religions, one of the great stories of the Christian tradition that we associate with heaven and hell is the story of the separating of the sheep and the goats known as the last judgment. When did we see you hungry? When did we see you naked? When did we visit you? Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. One group goes to heaven for offering compassionate service to the least of these. The other group goes to hell for neglecting to offer compassionate service to the least of these. [Matthew 25:31ff] We tend to focus on the compassionate service and behavior as the core message of this story, and we should. But it is interesting to note who is being sorted at the beginning of the story. This sorting involves not just the Jews, not just religious people, not just Jesus’ followers. This sorting according to compassionate service encompasses the people of all nations, implying all faiths, all religious traditions, all cultures. So the story lifts up behavior not belief as the standard for judgment.

So, in answer to the question about who gets into heaven, a strong case can be made for everyone, and certainly for people of other religions, and a case can be made for judgment according to behavior not belief. Even if your beliefs are supposedly consistent with religious expectations, it’s the behavior that is determinant. All of this can be claimed from the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

Now there was a radio preacher doing an announcement for his next program. “Do you want to learn what hell is?” he queried. “Well, tune in next week. We’ll be featuring our organist.”

So, what is heaven like? There is much speculation about pearly gates, streets paved with gold, harp music, etc. Much of this imagery is taken from the book of Revelation. What we can say conclusively is that we don’t know.

There was a popular book written recently called 90 Minutes in Heaven, by Rev. Don Piper. Piper dies in a car crash and claims to spend 90 minutes in heaven before being revived. Piper calls heaven “a buffet for the senses.” He tells of seeing people he knows who have died before him. He tells of how wonderful it is. He tells of the beautiful music. So is this what heaven is like? It was for Don Piper and he can’t wait to go back. In the book, you almost get the feeling he resents having been brought back to this life.

I don’t in any way deny Piper’s experience. I don’t think he is making it up. This is what he believes happened to him. If I died, would I have the same experience? I don’t think so. For one thing, I believe that our thinking and beliefs in this life shape our experience. So, with regard to heaven, Piper is a Baptist minister who has spent his life singing, envisioning, preaching about a certain kind of heaven, what it is like, and how glorious it is. I believe that his experience reflects his predisposition due to his belief system. Our belief system programs us to see things a certain way. I don’t share Piper’s belief system about heaven, so I don’t think I would have his same experience.

I believe that if there is something, some kind of life after this life, whatever it is, we will enjoy it. And our conception of that afterlife depends on our belief system, our religion, our experience, here in this earthly life.

There’s a story about a woman who called on a Presbyterian minister and asked him if he would preach a funeral for her dog who had died.

“I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that,” he replied. “It’s not consistent with our doctrine. Why don’t you try the Baptist minister down the street.”

“All right,” she said, “but can you give me some advice. How much should I pay him – three hundred dollars or four hundred dollars for the funeral of a pet?” “Hold on,” said the Presbyterian, “You didn’t tell me that your dog was a Presbyterian.”

I have been asked, “Will my dog be with me in heaven?” To me, if you think you are going to heaven, and you love your dog, and heaven would not be complete joy for you without your dog, then, I think you should incorporate your dog into your thinking about heaven. And, by the way, I would be happy to do a memorial service for your pet, as long as it’s a UCC!

The concept of heaven was intended to be a comfort. As the image of heaven began, it was a dwelling place for God insuring that God was part of the human world view. Everything is in God’s hands. As the concepts of heaven and hell evolved, the injustices of this life would be set right. Again, a source of comfort. And of course, the concept of heaven also evolved as a way to deal with the pain of separation from loved ones at death. There is the hope that in heaven, we are reunited with our loved ones. This is a source of comfort and solace especially when someone we love dies. While I do not know from personal experience what happens after we die, what I do feel confident about is that when we die whatever happens will be fine. If there is some kind of heaven, whatever it is, it won’t be disappointing. If your dog isn’t there, you’ll be o.k. with that. Death and whatever goes on afterward will be infused with the same divine love that seeks to permeate this life.

While we don’t know what heaven is like, what happens after we die, we do know that the concept of heaven is a way to talk about and image a state in which reality is fully consistent with the intentions and purposes of God. In the Savior’s prayer, we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are implying that in heaven, everything is as God intends, and that we are striving for this on earth as well. This is our way of saying that we want earth to fully reflect the will and way of the God of life and love.

So the original Hebrew idea of heaven being a geographical location that is the dwelling place of God has expanded into the idea of heaven as a way to talk about what it is like when God has full dominion, when God’s will is fully done, when God is sovereign. So the domain of God evolves into the dominion of God. And while this dominion of God is associated with life after death, in the ministry of Jesus we see this idea of the dominion of God associated with this life. In his first preaching in the gospel of Mark, we are told that Jesus announces, “The realm of God is at hand.” Or “The Kingdom of God is here.” Or “The dominion of God has come near.” [Mark 1:15] There are a variety of translations because scholars can’t quite agree on the tense and intent of the phrase. Is the dominion of God actually here or close by?

The New Testament tells us that Jesus told many stories about the kingdom of God, heaven’s domain, heaven’s imperial rule, God’s dominion. These are all ways of envisioning what it is like in this life when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus shows us what it is like for God’s dominion to be present on earth, in this life. And we learn that it is a significant departure from the way things are currently.

Story after story in the New Testament teachings of Jesus reveal that when life is lived

with unconditional love even for one’s enemy, with compassion, with generosity, with humility, without judgment, with anti-violence, with justice, with forgiveness, we will experience the healing and peace of God. Life lived according to the intent of God gives us the opportunity to experience love and intimacy with God and each other here and now in this life. The teachings of Jesus offer us a path to heaven in this life.

As I said, I don’t know what happens after we die. Like Father Andrew who worked for the BBC, I don’t pretend to be an authority, because I haven’t physically died yet. But I can tell you that I have experienced the presence and power of the God of love in this life, I have experienced communion with God in this life, when I have tried to live out the values and teachings of Jesus. I can tell you that the amazing God of creation and the profusion of life, the God of love and beauty, the God within each and every person, the God of the cosmos, the God of our pulse and our breath as well as the most distant star, the love of that God is endless, eternal, and everlasting. Many scholars believe that the concept of eternal life was not meant to apply to our lives, but the life and love of God. To experience eternal life is to know that the love and presence of God is endless and eternal, not that our lives go on forever. I have complete confidence that whatever happens when we die is in the hands of this God of eternal love and there is nothing to worry about.

A husband and wife died in a car accident. They got to heaven and there was a beautiful golf course, a gorgeous swimming pool, the food was delicious, the mansion they were given to live in was spectacular, there were no taxes, no work to do, and their health was peak. But the husband was grouchy and sour. Finally, the wife asked him, “Honey, what’s wrong? It’s so perfect here.”

“If you hadn’t made us eat oat bran and low fat food, and exercise every day, we could have been here ten years ago!”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t prefer to die just now or any time very soon, but I am ready to experience the dominion of God by seeking to live the way of Jesus here and now. And, if there is some kind of final judgment, involving heaven or hell, I’ll know that I have my bases covered with the good works and compassionate service, the forgiveness and generosity that go with the Christian life. And maybe, just maybe, by living the Jesus life here and now, we’ll bring a little bit more of heaven to this earth. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.