February 23, 2006

Why heaven?

Filed under: Theology (other) — Camassia @ 3:25 pm

This post at Verbum Ipsum (and the post it links to) reminded my somewhat distracted brain that I’d meant to give Hugo a fuller response to the debate we were having in this post. For those of you who don’t want to dig through the 50 other comments (and I don’t blame you) I wrote that my own idea of salvation was more “apocalyptic”, because I think it involves more than creating a good community here on earth. Hugo said that he believes in the afterlife but he’s not interested in offering his youth-group members “pie in the sky”, just love here on earth.

The phrase “pie in the sky”, from that old Woody Guthrie song, has a way of getting trotted out whenever you say to a certain type of Christian that the afterlife is important. It invokes the old Marxist belief that heaven is something the powerful promise to the oppressed so they’ll put up with suffering in life and not try to create a better world. So in order to show your solidarity with the workers, you need to downplay the importance of the afterlife.

I’ve been wondering for a while if this is really the attitude of oppressed people, or if it’s just the attitude of middle-class activists who purport to speak on their behalf. Because, in fact, it seems like the attitude of someone whose life is so cushy they’ve never met a problem that somebody couldn’t solve. Famine, plague, natural disaster, death — all these don’t really register on the radar. True, modern technology has given us the capability to alleviate a lot of these things, but there is much beyond our scope; and it must be acknowledged that all those come with costs. (I mean to write a post about the costs of modern medicine one of these days, but that’s another issue.) And speaking for myself, I think my own struggle with problems that even people of the best intentions seem incapable of solving (which I will not elaborate here) makes the promise of heaven all the more important.

But there are a few other points I want to make. One, it’s certainly not necessary to invoke heaven to keep the masses under your heel. In fact, some pagan empires did just that. My religion professor in college remarked that the ancient Egyptian view of the afterlife preserved the social structure on earth, thereby underscoring its inherent rightness. The theme of inversion in the Beatitudes — the exalted shall be humbled, and all that — may be somewhat blunted by being pushed off into the future, but it’s still radical.

For another thing, saying, “You’ll be rewarded for being good by going to heaven after you die,” is only a recipe for complacency if you subscribe to a certain idea of “being good.” Certainly the Mennonite concept of what it means to follow Jesus in this life is not simply to approve of the status quo. That’s why I don’t like the sort of either/or option that Hugo offered: either you believe kingdom is something we create here, or you believe it’s totally unrelated to anything going on here. This dichotomy does not make sense to me. All those Jesus parables about the kingdom being something that starts small and grows into magnificence suggest that regarding the kingdom as either fully here, or fully not here, is missing the point.

Tripp recently reprinted an essay by an Orthodox priest arguing that the Jesus-era belief in resurrection was not opposed to social justice, but was in fact its handmaiden. He uses the example of the Maccabean rebels:

The origins of that hope of the resurrection were probably varied and
complex, but at least one of its chief components was Israel’s inherited
sense of justice. Thus, they reasoned, “How could the just God permit the
continued persecution and slaying of His servants with no hope of matters
being set right in the future?” And they answered, “Well, no, it just isn’t
possible, so there certainly will be a resurrection in the future, at which
time the righteous God will adjust the accounts of history.” …

It is not difficult to trace in 2 Maccabees 7 the argument leading to that
conclusion. … Thus, their testimony, or martyria, commences with the
first brother’s assertion that the righteous man will die rather than be
unfaithful to God (7:2). But this willingness to die makes no coherent moral
sense if death has the last word on the subject. Therefore the second
brother affirms a final resurrection in which God will vindicate the moral
decision of the righteous (7:9).

The promise of heaven, then, affirms that working for justice in the present is the right thing to do even if you seem to be failing horribly. What does the kingdom-now vision have to offer along this line? It does not, it seems to me, make any allowance for failure. The people who are unfortunate enough to live now, in a time of social injustice, are either paying the penalty for not being perfect or are just out of luck. Those who die for the cause may tell themselves that future generations will yet see the kingdom: but even assuming that’s true, why all the luck to those born late?

All this about martyrdom and willingness to die is a long way from Hugo’s youth group, but that’s exactly the problem. Hugo may regard his kids as “saved” by the warm embrace of his agape love, but what if the authorities decided to come around and start hauling the teens off for torture, rape, and murder, and All Saints was unable to stop it? Would that unsave them? I think that the futurism of the New Testament, the sense that things were yet to come to fruition, wasn’t just from the fact they erroneously thought Jesus would come back very soon (as Hugo told me) but that they were facing persecution. Would it really have been sufficient for them to know that their deaths would eventually enable Hugo to create his loving youth group? I don’t know, but somehow I think they died for more than that.

And what of those dead martyrs? In The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Wilken writes that the Roman-era church considered its dead to be part of the congregation: “In the liturgy all the members of the church, past, present and future, were fused into a single community that included the patriarchs and prophets, the Virgin Mary and apostles, martyrs and saints, and those whose names are known only to God. … The company that celebrated the liturgy was not confined to this world.” I admit that the veneration of saints sometimes borders on ancestor worship, but any movement that expects people to be willing to die for it should not regard people as irrelevant once they pass from this world.

Finally, I agree with Lee’s point that regarding heaven as irrelevant elides the biblical connection between sin and death. Why are people so selfish — why do we serve our own interests at the cost of others’? In a world under the reign of death, it makes sense. Agape love may not, when it come to it, be fully possible until we are freed from the world where we survive at the expense of other living things.

Ed Schroeder helped articulate this point of view for me when he said that turning salvation into ethics makes the Gospel “small.” Although perhaps “small” is not the ideal word, since one wouldn’t want to belittle the “universal rule of love and justice in the world.” If such a thing were achieved, it would be huge. But it’s still smaller than what was promised, and that’s the thing. However big our social schemes are, God’s scheme is bigger.


  1. Well, you’ve certainly given me reason for an ample response — I’ll shoot for something tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, than early next week. Thanks for the friendly provocation!

    Comment by Hugo — February 23, 2006 @ 6:24 pm

  2. I can’t help but think that the dichotomy between “heaven is salvation” or “ethics is salvation” is being drawn too sharply. It seems much of the issue sits on what one’s definition of heaven is. If heaven is seen primarily as a reward and escape from this life then one natural outworking is that you don’t particularly care what happens to others here and now because you’re on your way out, hopefully sooner than later (I’m thinking of Left Behind eschatology as an example here). However, if heaven is the Kingdom of God come in full, the same Kingdom Jesus inaugurated and demonstrated in his life and death, then ethics is essential as the church points to that coming Kingdom.

    That said, I do hear what you’re saying, Camassia, that a theology that makes heaven irrelevant is too small. What we taste now, even in agape filled youth groups, is only a shadow of what is to come. Living lives of mercy and love are important witnesses and even embodiments of the Kingdom, but they are still a witness. One day death will be swallowed up, God will be with his people with no need of the sun to light the day, and there will be shalom among all the nations of the earth. That’s a big vision; one that Christians hope and long for, but one that won’t come in full while the earth still groans under the weight of sin.

    Comment by Jason — February 23, 2006 @ 11:11 pm

  3. I see your point, Jason. It’s true that some people seem to see heaven as almost a negation of this world; “this world is not my home, I’m just passin’ through,” and that sort of thing. Back in the discussion with Hugo I wrote that I personally tend to see heaven less as a reward than as a fulfillment of the earth’s development (that whole seed/plant metaphor again), so the “You’ll be rewarded for being good by going to heaven when you die” line is a cruder statement than I would make myself. The point I was trying to make, though, is that it does not necessarily lead to acceptance of the status quo. It was interesting to read about its Jewish origins, actually, because Judaism has always been very pro-this-world, as opposed to the Platonist influences that tended to cast this world as illusory or evil.

    Comment by Camassia — February 24, 2006 @ 8:08 am

  4. I worry about the dearth of belief in the supernatural in mainline denominations and in an overarching sense of meaningful Time.

    But as a recovering Fundamentalist, I think it very important to resist the fatalism and escapism of premillenialism. As I was taught, history is a horrible war that will end soon, and most will perish. Social justice could not be more irrelevant if, say, decent health care is provided for people who will soon suffer eternal torment. As Dwight L. Moody famously asked, “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?”

    There must be some way to marry a sense of Christian Time with the here-and-now, and not eliminate one or the other.

    Comment by Troy — February 24, 2006 @ 9:52 am

  5. I agree with you Troy, and actually that’s another reason I think it’s important for other types of Christians to talk about heaven. I’ve complained before that too often the Christian left lets the fundamentalists define the terms, so that if pre-millenialists define the End Times, then we just won’t do the End Times. I think that’s a big mistake, because of course Jesus should be the one to define the End Times.

    I was surprised, when I first started studying the Bible, by how vague it actually is about the afterlife. I think like a lot of outsiders I got the impression that the whole heaven-hell system was the main focus of Christianity. I wonder if there’s some way to defend the importance of afterlife while also defending its vagueness; that is, preserving the idea that God will set things right in that way while resisting the temptation to develop our own theories about exactly what it will be like and who will be where. That seemed to be the attitude of the early church, but it proved remarkably difficult to maintain.

    Comment by Camassia — February 24, 2006 @ 10:54 am

  6. Okay, in my own meandering way, I’ve replied — and done nearly a 180 from my previous position. Thanks, Camassia, for provoking me this morning!

    Comment by Hugo — February 24, 2006 @ 11:27 am

  7. You remind me of what I was reading in Moltmann’s Theology of Hope (before I gave up and realized that now is not the time that I’m actually going to read through it – the book’s kind of heavy).

    Comment by Lynn Gazis-Sax — February 24, 2006 @ 12:21 pm

  8. This insightful post, and the comments, clarify some issues for me as an “outsider” while enjoyably raising others — exactly what a good discussion should do. I’m powerfully drawn to your image of afterlife as a plant in full flower, rather than a reward.

    “But this willingness to die makes no coherent moral
    sense if death has the last word on the subject.” I think it does make a lot of sense from the existentialist standpoint — and requires more courage than a belief in an afterlife does.

    But of course none of this theorizing has the slightest impact on whether there really is an afterlife or not…

    Comment by Richard Lawrence Cohen — February 25, 2006 @ 7:52 am

  9. Hi –

    1. I am reminded of Paul in Romans 12 (?) “Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.” Functionally, heaven (and hell) are God’s promise and guarantee that the world will be put to rights. Such a concept is naturally antithetical to Marxists and whoever else would baptize revolutionary violence in the name of achieving justice on earth. Ironically, Jesus and the Maccabees seemed to have the same idea about resurrection, but Jesus eschewed revolutionary violence. For the Maccabees, the Resurrection served as the answer to an unsuccessful revolt. For Jesus, the Resurrection permitted him to love with open hands. Mennonites could and should resonate with this.
    Ironically enough, Luther opposed both the followers of Thomas Muntzer (for believing that violence to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth could be baptized) and the Mennonites and other Anabaptists (for believing that force to ensure civil order was unChristian.)

    2. Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est has quite a bit to say about the Marxist and semi-Marxist views of justice versus the Christian idea of mercy. This can be found in chapters 26-28 of the encyclical at He first describes the Marxist elevation of justice vis-a-vis charity, and goes on to affirm that the primary responsibility for justice is with the State, with the Church as an advocate for justice. “A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.” He goes on to say that even if justice were achieved on earth, charity would still be necessary, if only because “There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable…In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.”

    I think that one of these works of charity (or love) is the consolation of the Gospel and the promise of the Kingdom of God, empowering others to live in the present, but with a horizon beyond today.

    3. Finally, I think that C.S. Lewis once said something about the only reason one would want to live as a Christian in the present is knowing that the kingdom of God was the only real thing in the present and the only thing in the future. “If for this life only have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15)

    Comment by Maurice Frontz — February 25, 2006 @ 8:44 am

  10. Richard, it’s true that some people sacrifice themselves without believing in eternal reward, and this may be more purely altruistic (though at least going by the old warrior tales it’s amazing what people will do for glory and renown that they won’t be around to enjoy). However, in terms of social justice I think there is a relationship between how a society is ordered and how the people in it believe the cosmos is ordered. The beliefs of pagan Egypt I gave are one example; also the tie between the Hindu caste system and its belief in karma, the Chinese belief that the emperor had the “mandate of heaven,” and that sort of thing. You can debate about what causes what, but I do think that despite the fact that you hear some folks say you shouldn’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, people do it all the time, because it’s actually a pretty sensible thing to do. I don’t know what a society based on an existentialist cosmos would look like; from what little I know of existentialism, such a thing may be impossible.

    Maurice, lest I was unclear, I’m not saying this means that Christianity and Marxism are somehow in harmony. But the Marxists don’t even really own that critique of the afterlife any more; it’s become a sort of conventional wisdom in some circles. Nor do I particularly see the Maccabean revolt as a model to emulate; it’s just illuminating as to how the Judeo-Christian idea of the afterlife did not exactly develop from their experience of being overlords.

    Comment by Camassia — February 26, 2006 @ 8:39 am

  11. Camassia, I didn’t have the impression that you were saying either of those things. I agree with you that the Marxist critique incorrectly assumes that the privileged classes always used the idea of heaven as a prop when in reality it was very socially threatening.

    Comment by Maurice Frontz — February 26, 2006 @ 11:18 am

  12. I would make one more point that I think often goes unappreciated. Salvation as Christianity (especially in its Lutheran/Reformed version) understands it actually “relativizes” ethics in that it makes it a penultimate rather than an ultimate concern. Ethics becomes a kind of interim affair aimed at improving life here (by living in service to the neighbor and as witnesses to the reign of Christ) rather than either a way of earning salvation or a way of creating utopia. It therefore can provide an antidote both to self-centered works-righteousness (“I have to be good so I can go to heaven!”) and the kind of fanaticism and tyranny bred by a determination to realize the kingdom or some kind of political utopia by hook or by crook in this world.

    Comment by Lee — February 27, 2006 @ 9:04 am

  13. I may be way-off here, as I haven’t read the other posts yet, but I tend not to think of Heaven as our final destination anyway.

    If the resurrection sees us either on the New Heavens-Earth or fading away, then I think the dichotomoy is not so sharp. That is, there is a continuity between what we (or, better yet, God-and-us) are working towards and what is to come.

    Comment by graham — February 28, 2006 @ 2:06 am

  14. Yeah, that was what I meant by heaven as the fulfilment of the earth’s development. It may be somewhat confusing here because the word is used variously for the idea of where God and the angels abide, where souls go immediately after death, and our state of being after the Last Judgment. These may well not be the same thing, though most people seem to equate them.

    Comment by Camassia — March 2, 2006 @ 10:39 am

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