17 February 2009

Static Heaven?

I remember once hearing a fellow explain that Lutherans and Western Christians in general have a static view of heaven. I disagreed. I thought immediately of the passage in the Larger Catechism (second petition) where Luther speaks of daily grow here and in heaven! None has explicated this more beautifully than the great Lutheran theologian (and hymn-writer) Henry Eyster Jacobs in his *Elements of Religion.* He there writes:

"The eternal world is not one of simple attainment, without the prospect of progress. When the Children of God are said to 'rest from their labors,' it is the toil and trouble of this life that are referred to, and not the cessation of works of love or of constant progress in ever new enjoyments of Life Everlasting. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, 2 Cor. 5:8, and to be with Christ in Paradise, Luke 23:43, and in this presence, to be holy and unspeakably happy. But the state into which man is then ushered is one of expectancy of still greater blessings.... With man's constantly expanding capacity to know and love and admire, there will be incessant revelations of what Christ, and of what God in Christ is; and with every new revelation, there will be the development within man of new capacities for knowing and loving and admiring. Thus, while the negative side of holiness, freedom from sin, is complete with his entrance into another world, its positive side, or the ever-increasing growth of capacities for new bestowals of grace, ever advances." (Elements, p. 199, 200)

Heaven is not static. Not static at all. There will always be room for growth in love and in perception of God's love and so growth in His praises. When the Church on pilgrimage intercedes for the Church "at rest", she asks for this ongoing growth in the love of God, which is bliss itself. And when the Church "at rest" prays for the Church on pilgrimage, they ask that we might join them in their ever-growing joy, peace, and love, streaming from the Lamb.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Part of the problem with the term "progress" is that progress is a change over time. . . and when we get to heaven, will there be time?

Also, I have heard both ideas around progress and static being described negatively - progress ideas get attacked because some think they imply that in heaven we are not completed, not perfected (which is "finished"). I have also heard the idea of static being attacked mainly because it seems dull and boring.

Heaven is what eye has not seen and ear has not heard. We cannot describe it properly, and in any aspect which we describe, we have to eliminate all negative connotations. Perhaps we are splitting hairs - perhaps heaven is a place of static progression or progressively static. Either way - it will be good.

P.S. My authentication code is "spinit" >=o)

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

My children have asked me lots of questions about heaven, and I’ve given lots of erroneous answers. Their questions ultimately made me realize how little I actually knew about heaven. So, I began to wonder what Scripture actually tells us about our eternal home.

I began searching for books by Lutherans about Heaven and was disappointed that I found nothing that did a thorough job of covering this important topic. Of course there is Dr. Louis Brighton's Excursus "The Restored Physical Creation" from his CPH commentary on Revelation, and C. S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce", but the best and most complete book on the subject I found is HEAVEN, by Randy Alcorn.

There are surprisingly few things I found in this book that we as Lutherans must disagree with. In fact, as I often observe in honest thinking Christians, it seems to me that Randy Alcorn’s theology is headed in a decidedly Lutheran direction.

Please remember in reading the following comments that virtually all of the thoughts are from Alcorn’s book. Also remember that much of this is speculative - and perhaps therefore non-Lutheran from that aspect. However, this is not meant to tell you what you MUST believe about Heaven. Rather, it is supposed to provide you with a well informed imagination - informed by what Scripture actually tells us about Heaven.

Ask some of the people in your parish: "Are you looking forward to heaven?" You might be surprised at the answers you get. Many people fear heaven. Still more aren’t really looking forward to it. Misconceptions make heaven seem quite foreign to us, and often downright boring - and even scary! Alcorn writes:

“A pastor once confessed to me, ‘Whenever I think about heaven, it makes me depressed. I’d rather just cease to exist when I die.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

'I can’t stand the thought of that endless tedium. To float around in the clouds with nothing to do but strum a harp . . . it’s all so terribly boring. Heaven doesn’t sound much better than Hell. I’d rather be annihilated than spend eternity in a place like that.'

Where did this Bible-believing, seminary-educated pastor get such a view of Heaven?”

Alcorn also quotes another author, John Eldredge, from the book THE JOURNEY OF DESIRE:

“Nearly every Christian I have spoken with has some idea that eternity is an unending church service. . . . We have settled on an image of the never-ending sing-along in the sky, one great hymn after another, forever and ever, amen. And our heart sinks. ‘Forever and ever? That’s it? That’s the good news?’ And then we sigh and feel guilty that we are not more ‘spiritual.’ We lose heart, and we turn once more to the present to find what life we can.”

Alcorn notes that in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Mark Twain portrays a similar view of heaven. The Christian spinster Miss Watson takes a dim view of Huck’s fun-loving spirit. According to Huck,

“She went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. . . . I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said, not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”

Although most Americans believe in an “afterlife,” people believe quite a variety of things about eternity. Alcorn writes: “A Barna spokesman said: ‘They’re cutting and pasting religious views from a variety of different sources - television, movies, conversations with their friends.’ The result is a highly subjective theology of the afterlife, disconnected from the biblical doctrine of Heaven.”

“Many Christians who’ve gone to church all their adult lives (especially those under fifty) can’t recall having heard a single sermon on Heaven. It’s occasionally mentioned, but rarely emphasized, and almost never is it developed as a topic. We’re told how to get to Heaven, and that it’s a better destination than Hell, but we’re taught remarkably little about Heaven itself.”

This must please Satan, because “some of Satan’s favorite lies are about Heaven. Revelation 13:6 tells us the satanic beast ‘opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place’ ... It must be maddening for him that we’re now entitled to the home he was kicked out of. What better way for the devil and his demons to attack us than to whisper lies about the very place on which God tells us to set our hearts and minds?”

On page 161, Alcorn gives a comparative chart, the first column of which gives what people commonly and mistakenly assume about Heaven: non-earth, unfamiliar, otherworldly, disembodied, foreign, leaving favorite things behind, no time and space, static, neither old (like Eden) or new and earthly, just strange and unknown, nothing to do, floating on clouds, no learning or discovery, instant and complete knowledge, boring, loss of desire, absence of the terrible (but presence of little we desire).

Then he spells out what he claims the Bible says about heaven: new earth, familiar, earthly, resurrected (embodied), home (all the comforts of home with all the innovations of an infinitely creative God), retaining the good, finding the best ahead, time and space, dynamic, both old and new, a God to worship and serve, a universe to rule, purposeful work to accomplish, friends to enjoy, an eternity of learning and discovering, fascinating, continuous fulfillment of desire, presence of the wonderful (everything we desire, and nothing we don’t).

He spends most of the book making biblical arguments for these claims, and debunking the common misconceptions. He also spends quite a bit of time answering the most common questions about heaven. But one might ask, “Isn’t this all a bit too speculative?” “Should we allow our imagination to entertain ideas not explicitly stated in Scripture?"

Alcorn answers: “We cannot anticipate or desire what we cannot imagine. That’s why I believe God has given us glimpses of Heaven in the Bible - to fire up our imagination and kindle a desire for Heaven in our hearts.”

Alcorn has collected and read over 150 books on Heaven. He says that these books are notorious for saying we can’t know what Heaven is like. In contrast, Alcorn says that “in order to get a picture of Heaven - which will one day be centered on the New Earth - you don’t need to look up at the clouds; you simply need to look around you and imagine what all this would be like without sin and death and suffering and corruption.”

He even makes a biblical argument that God encourages us to imagine what Heaven will be like, using verses such as Colossians 3:1, which reads: “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”

Later in the book, Alcorn returns to this subject when he quotes G. K. Chesterton from ORTHODOXY:

“The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. . . . When I heard that I was in the wrong place . . . my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. I knew now . . . why I could feel homesick at home.”

Alcorn writes:

“I like Chesterton’s picture of feeling homesick at home. We can say, ‘Heaven will be our eternal home,’ or ‘Earth will be our eternal home,’ but we shouldn’t say, ‘Heaven, not Earth, will be our eternal home,’ because the Heaven in which we’ll live will be centered on the New Earth.

“A Christian I met in passing once told me it troubled him that he really didn’t long for Heaven. Instead, he yearned for an Earth that was like God meant it to be. He didn’t desire a Heaven out there somewhere, but an Earth under his feet, where God was glorified. He felt guilty and unspiritual for this desire. . . . In fact, the very place he’s always lodged for . . . is the place where he will live forever.

“To say ‘This world is not your home’ to a person who’s fully alive and alert to the wonders of the world is like throwing a bucket of water on kindling’s blaze. We should fan the flames of that blaze to help it spread, not seek to put it out. Otherwise we malign our God-given instinct to love the earthly home God made for us. And we reduce ‘spirituality’ into a denial of art, culture, science, sports, education, and all else human. When we do this, we set ourselves up for hypocrisy - for we may pretend to disdain the world while sitting in church, but when we get in the car we turn on our favorite music and head home to barbecue with friends, watch a ball game, play golf, ride bikes, work in the garden, or curl up savoring a cup of coffee and good book.”

The most important and comforting eye-opener I took away from reading this book is the fact that there is much good in the present Earth that will be part of our eternal paradise of Heaven - the New Earth. Heaven is not as unimaginable as I once thought.

To read the rest of my review of this book, download the pdf of the full 18 pages. You'll have to be a member of Wittenberg Trail to access it, because I don't have any other means of uploading documents. I can also email it to anyone who sends me a request via email.

I am interested in being corrected on anything I have written that doesn't square with a Lutheran perspective on this issue, so don't be afraid to be critical. I hope this opens a much wider discussion of this topic among us Lutherans.

Bottom line: Pastors need to be prepared to give better answers to questions about Heaven. "We don't know" might be a true answer, but it is a very poor answer, leaving way too much up to the sinful imaginations of God's people. Find out what your sheep are thinking (or not thinking) about Heaven. There are way too many misconceptions about Heaven inculcated by our culture which are just accepted without critique, and these need to be countered with a proper Biblical perspective of what eternal life really is.

Christopher Esget said...

I recall gleaning the idea from Irenaeus, Against Heresies, that man will work in heaven, only his work will be full of joy - what "work" was meant to be. I wish I could remember the passage.

@Pr. Brown: It's hard for me to understand how we will not still experience time. We are created beings, and will continue to be so, so I imagine we will still feel the passing of time, only without the anxiety that time slipping into death and decay now brings.

However it is, I am confident it will be surpass all wonder.

Anonymous said...

"Leaf by Niggle" --JRR Tolkien
(if you'll make allowance for a kind of purgatory, which CS Lewis also thought reasonable)
seems to portray a heaven which is an extension of our best efforts on earth and one which is bigger than we could imagine.

I expect it is that last.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

@ Pr. Esget -- I guess it will be perfected and restored time. . . time without the burdens that are associated with time now? Garden time - eternal time. . . again, don't ask me how it's gonna work, I don't (and can't) know now - but it will work.

And that passage from Ireneaus comes from Book 5 of against the heresies, right around chapter 30 or so, I believe. I know it's book five, and towards the end.

Omar said...

Scratching my head...

Lutheran theology never ceases to puzzle me.... :)

And on I go reading and mining its riches... with much toil... that will cease when I reach eternal bliss...and then turn into something perfected :)

Pax Divina

mlorfeld said...

Reading Jacobs makes my eschatological alarm go off... In speaking like this (and elsewhere), Jacobs seems to make it appear as if some disembodied existence is it. While I certainly haven't come across a denial of the resurrection in Jacobs' writing, I don't see much of a place for it either. Thing is, "Heaven" isn't the point... at least, not if you are going to think of it in terms of a Greek philosopher or a Gnostic. The point is the resurrection... the new creation.