Better By Far Or Worse By Far?

It is a subject that seemed to occupy a large portion of our faithful forebears’ thinking.  In fact, we as believers are commanded to think much about it…a command we fail to obey regularly (Col. 3:1-2).  It is a subject that has provided many believers with the requisite courage needed to take a radical risk for Christ even in the face of daunting odds.  It is a subject that provided stamina and encouragement to those called to endure persistently challenging situations.  It’s a subject that has prompted believers to loosen their normally vice-like grip on the stuff of life and give generously.  Jesus indicated that the reality of this subject should keep his followers free from experiencing uptight and troubled hearts despite the trouble producing world we live in. It’s a subject that allowed believers to sing songs of praise prior to being burned at the stake and caused believers maintain their confession of faith when a simple denial would have spared their very lives.  The reality of this subject is seen as a major impetus in maintaining a close relationship with Jesus and to living lives of consistent integrity (II Pet. 3:11-14).

Yet, it is a subject that is rarely discussed today.  It is seen as rather unimportant and it is even viewed as a potential hindrance to being of any “earthly good” right now – contrary to Scripture and to the experience of believers through the ages.  The apostle Paul’s longing for it and thoughts about this subject would possibly have resulted in his being “Baker acted” or at least would have prompted a strong referral to a counselor were he to show up in a church today.

As I am sure you are aware by now, the subject I am referring to is heaven.  It’s been amazing to me as I have thought about this subject and it’s importance how little press heaven gets these days…even in the church and seminary.  We will spend endless hours and untold dollars attempting to figure out eschatology (what happens at the end of time).  Is the Bible amillenial, postmillennial, premillenial?  Will the church be called away prior to, at the midpoint or at the end of the tribulation?  Please do not misunderstand me, I believe it is important to wrestle through these issues yet how much time do we spend pondering what is coming after the end… when the millennium is over?  During my four years at seminary, there were no courses offered on a theology of heaven.  In fact, there was never even a single lecture on the topic of heaven that I am aware of.  We are told when we are saved that we will go to heaven yet for how many of us is that thought a genuine encouragement in our day to day lives.  If we have never thought biblically and deeply about heaven, and I dare say that is the majority of us (myself included), is it any wonder that heaven is rarely a blip that crosses our radar screens and certainly not a significant hope that impacts how we live our lives in the here and now.

John Eldridge in The Journey of Desire says this, “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-a-long 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.”  The unbiblical picture of hanging out on a cloud strumming a harp forever does little to inspire hope in us and it shouldn’t because it is not a biblical view of heaven in the least.

Paul, the apostle who lived a life of adventure, excitement and danger, who had seen many come to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior and who had many significant and deep relationships said that to depart and be with the Lord is better BY FAR. (Phil. 1:23)  The only reason he was willing to stay around was so that he could help others experience the reality of heaven as well.  And Paul should know because his view of heaven was not merely theological or theoretical it was experiential.  He had been there.  He was caught up to the “third heaven” or “paradise” (II Cor. 12:2-4) but was not allowed to speak of it –  because if he had passed on a lot of details to us then heaven would likely become the only topic believers would want to talk about.  He could honestly say that for him to live is Christ and to die is GAIN! (Phil 1:21)

Most of our modern thinking about heaven doesn’t make it appear to be a place that is better “by far” but one that is significantly more dull, uninspiring, and, dare I say it as a pastor, “churchy”.  To leave behind the heartfelt belly busting laughter of a good joke between friends, to no longer experience the awesomeness of standing on a Rocky Mountain peak looking down at azure-turquoise lakes filled with gloriously colored rainbow trout waiting to be caught, to miss the rush of love, to leave behind the warmth of an embrace, to no longer hear the sound of an amazing symphony, to no longer experience the tang and savor of wasabi on a sesame seared tuna filet,  to pass up the joy of curling up with a good book in front of a fire,  to miss the blaze of oaks, birches, elms, poplars, and maples in the fall in the north woods, to lose the joy and satisfaction of seeing a project come to completion after a lot of hard work only to sing Amazing Grace for the 8 millionth time and then sit silently in our heavenly pews just doesn’t inspire too much excitement in many of us.  With our impoverished view of heaven, is it any wonder that increasingly Christians are adopting a “get it all while you’re here” mentality.  If what is coming is worse “by far” then I’m a fool if I don’t go for the gusto now.

I believe the “worse by far” view of heaven (e.g. sitting on a cloud with a harp and other assorted silly notions) is one of Satan’s clever ploys to discourage and render Christians ineffective.  It results in believers having a hard time actually living as “aliens and strangers” here.  It causes an inordinate love for the stuff and pleasures of this world because we mistakenly believe this is the only time we will be able to experience and enjoy them fully.  We attempt to make a “heaven” on earth and it always ends disastrously.   This satanically inspired view of heaven results in our being less willing to sacrifice and love others in a Christ-like manner.  The fallout of our diminished view of eternity is a life more adverse to taking risks because we are primarily seeking security and satisfaction in the present. It can drain our enthusiasm to share our faith.  Why should I share the good news of spending an eternity with the Lord if I’m not honestly looking forward to it myself?  It can cause believers to get overly discouraged when difficult times come because their hope of experiencing all they can in the here and now is diminished.   We grieve more deeply at the death of believers than we ought because we mistakenly think that the relationship we will have with them in heaven will be less satisfying than it was here.  And ultimately, it can cause the venom to return to death’s sting in our own lives because we fear that what lies ahead is somehow less than what we have now.  Death is certainly not assumed to be a “gain” in most of our thinking.   Randy Alcorn, in his book Heaven, shares a story of a man who came to faith asking an older saint if he will have fun in heaven to which she immediately replied, “Oh no!”  That type of misguided thinking is hazardous to our faith.

Satan is a liar (John 8:44) and in Revelation 13:6 we see that the beast that he inspires opens his mouth to blaspheme God, to slander his name, to slander his dwelling place (heaven), and those who abide there.   I believe Satan’s smear campaign against heaven does not only take place then but has already begun and has been rather effective so far!  How often have you heard, “I’d rather be in hell with my friends partying than be bored hanging out on a cloud in heaven!”?  That statement reflects both a satanic lie about the nature of hell (it’s not that bad) and a lie about the true nature of heaven (it’s boring and non-physical).  Hell is a place of relentless torment and anguish and there will be no possibility of great parties with friends. Heaven is a place of unspeakable joy and endless excitement that is very real and tangible.

We live on a “groaning” planet and we are “groaning” people (Rom 8:18-25).  We long for something more.  We often attempt to find it here but those attempts fall short and with U2’s Bono we echo the chorus, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”   Why not?  Because what we are looking for is heaven.  What we are longing for is a relationship with God that is no longer marred and scarred by our sin racked bodies.  What we are yearning for are relationships with others that are open and transparent and no longer burdened with the weight of our own selfishness and deceit.  What we crave is an environment no longer disfigured by pollution, earthquakes, famines, tornados, floods and yes, even hurricanes.  We almost ache in our desire for sustained happiness.  It’s written into the founding documents of our nation.  We experience moments of happiness here and there but a happiness that truly lasts…beyond the infatuation of a new relationship, after the new car smell departs, after the luster of the the new house, new job, new possession, new experience loses its shine…oh, we long for it!  And the great news is that we will experience it – FOREVER – in heaven.

The new heaven and new earth will be a place of beauty beyond description. Take the most awesome vista you have seen and multiply it endlessly.  We will have new bodies that will experience the joys of eating, discovering, and working on meaningful projects.  We will have bodies that will no longer be torn by inappropriate and sinful desires and no longer plagued with sickness and disease.  We will experience incredibly close relationships that bring only joy and laughter.  Certainly there will be worship but most certainly it will not be boring!  Every day there will be new facets of God’s character to discover and cause us to praise him even more.  Every day there will be new challenges to face without the frustrations of work that we experience now.  God will renew an entire universe of unfathomable dimensions to be explored throughout eternity.

Is your mental picture of heaven a place that is “better by far” or “worse by far” – be honest.  If we lean toward a view of heaven that is worse – a place from which we will look back longingly for the good ole days on earth –  then our minds need to be renewed by the truth of God’s Word.  We need to recognize that if we are in this state we are not obeying God’s clear command given twice in the first couple verses of Colossians 3.  “Set your hearts on things above,” and “set your minds on things above.”   This is so crucial for a healthy spiritual life that the Lord commands us to not only to ponder it deeply with our minds but he wants our hearts to be gripped by heaven’s realities as well.  Are your mind and heart engaged?

I’m trying to get them both involved in the process.  It’s not easy, but as I ponder I see how valuable it really is to staying encouraged in my daily life so I’m making the effort.  What made the “Hall of Faithers” in Hebrews 11 so amazing in both exploits of great victory and steadfastness in great trials?  “They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth…they were longing for a better country (better “by far” I would add)a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”  Hebrews 11:13-16  Were they “so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good”?  Nonsense!  It is when we are most heavenly minded that we are prepared to be the most earthly good because we don’t need to be consumed with a frantic and selfish effort to make our own heaven here on earth.  We can give our love and our lives away because we have one who is preparing a place for us beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations!

How do we enrich our impoverished perspective on heaven?  How do we start obeying Col. 3:1&2?  The best place to start is always with the Word of God –  “Open our eyes that we may see wonderful things in your Law” Ps 119:18.  Begin to ponder just a few of the passages related to heaven and eternity:  Isa. 65:17: John 14:1-3; 17:24; Rom 8:18-25; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 3:18; 5:6-8; 6:16; 12:1-7;  Phil 1:21-23;  I Thes 4:13-18;  Heb. 11:13-16; 12:23; 13:14;  II Pet.3:9-18; Rev. 21&22.  I have had my thinking stimulated and have been greatly encouraged through reading Randy Alcorn’s Heaven (Tyndale, 2004) as well.  I’m not going to tell you how you need to go about “setting” your mind and heart on heaven but I will remind you that in God’s curriculum it is not an optional elective, it is a required course!  Enjoy and be encouraged!

If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there,” Martin Luther

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” Paul the Apostle