What If There Is No Heaven?

If you pay any attention to the pattern of our Sabbath School lesson studies, it is quickly apparent that the format is formulaic. It doesn’t matter the study context, whether a biblical book or a theme, the authors always find ways to catechize core Adventist beliefs: 10 Commandments, Sabbath, Creation, Second Coming, New Earth and New Heaven. We can go back for at least 20 years, coinciding with when Clifford Goldstein became the editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide in 1999, and the pattern holds. The 4th quarter 2020 study on Education was no different, as it repeated not only the structural patterns, but the same unnuanced positions the church has advocated through the years. While the set-up may pre-date Goldstein, his inability or unwillingness to broaden the scope and theological discussions beyond this narrow ultra-conservative base, is a good argument for changing editors. Twenty years is probably enough, anyway.

The last study of 4th quarter 2020 was about Heaven. It repeated the familiar denominational outline: heaven is forever; those who make it there will know no ills; all our pent-up questions will be answered then because Jesus will abide with the saved throughout eternity, etc. My column today attempts to extend the conversation by exploring perspectives the official study guide would not delve into.

It is attractive but dangerous if we succumb to the seductive joy that we’ve come to associate with heaven – a conflict-averse place of perpetual bliss. The risk is that we can easily, without meaning to, deprecate the world of our experience. Heaven appeals because today’s seemingly unending difficulties make us susceptible to dark pessimism and predispose us to agree with Thomas Hobbes’ conclusions that life, in the main, is “nasty, brutish, and short.” When present existence is viewed this negatively it is not uncommon or unreasonable that we glom onto the forever-happiness premise heaven now represents. But while it may not be unreasonable to see heaven as a solution to our abject existential plight, our conception of heaven should not be so uncritical that it devolves into a cheap escape from reality.

For most Christians, the idea that this world and our time in it might be all there is, is hard to take and seems a colossal waste. Certainly seventy years should not be the sum of it all. Some of this might be ego-driven. We protest when scientists categorize us together with brute beasts.  Seemingly disrespected, we turn our gaze to the stars and declare our immortality. So we commit to belief in eternal life, in defiance of death’s reality which is all around us. Yet we are reluctant, and often uncomfortable, discussing what we mean by eternity or heaven. We repeat variations of the same platitudes – “the ultimate goal of Christian education ... is to live eternally in the new heaven and the new earth.” We do this so regularly that it is now habitual, rarely pausing to understand what we might mean. And when pressed, we run to Paul: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9 KJV) to end the conversation. But this same Paul exhorts us to “prove all things,” and only after, “hold fast to what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21)

So we should at least try to define heaven by terms understandable right here and now because the choices we make that inch us toward or away from heaven are made in this life, based on understandings and associations arrived at in this world. Asking basic questions about what we posit heaven to be should be encouraged.  Questions, and I hope answers, could inform us why we aspire to go there.

For starters, is time operational in heaven? Meaning, when we go beyond the simple notion that heaven embodies timelessness, how do we envision a “day to day” existence in such an environment, in perpetuity? For example, is there chronological aging in heaven? Will there be children? Infants? Toddlers? If so, as a literal reading of some scriptural passages implies, will they grow old? How old? Is there an ideal age when growth stops? Which of our various developmental ages – childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle-aged, elderly – will we personify in heaven? On the other hand, if there is no physical aging, how will we recognize and differentiate people we knew on earth? Will parents know their children and vice-versa? As what? And in what form?

In the absence of negatives – pain, suffering, conflict, decay, etc. – how could we truly experience joy, happiness, peace and rebirth? Can we endure uninterrupted happiness forever? How long will it take before heaven’s inhabitants start questioning whether their blissful experience was real or ephemeral? In this world, one reason we long for peace is because we know its opposite, conflict. We like happiness because we experience suffering. The coexistence of life’s opposites makes choices meaningful and welcome. If there is no more pain, suffering or death in heaven, do we risk, over time, devaluing joy, happiness and life itself? If there are no contrasting experiences, and we have unending contentment, how do we know that such bliss is a good thing? Can created beings, who have the power to choose, endure exposure to only one type of experience, even if it is positive? It is hard to tell. Which shouldn’t discourage us from thinking about it.

Add to this the trickiness of capturing any particular environment, whether in heaven or on earth, for infinity. If rebellion once took place in heaven’s idyllic surroundings, and the Adversary was able to convince one in three angelic beings to join his cause, the threat of recurrence can never be understated. Not when created beings continue to retain their freedom of choice.

I understand that belief in heaven or a hereafter serves as a necessary coping mechanism, inoculating us against life’s harsh realities. Which explains why virtually all human cultures profess some belief in an afterlife. For many, the notion keeps them from despair or worse. So why the pushback?

Because, improperly conceived, heaven could shape our present existence negatively, rendering this life merely a way-station to something better after death. And in the process severely discount the only existence we actually know. How we perceive heaven might shape how Christians order their present lives, perhaps to the extent of “doing good deeds” in order to go there. Even Christian evangelism is heavily predicated on the promise of heaven. If we did not preach about heaven in evangelistic campaigns, would the absence help or hurt those efforts?

Which brings me to a key consideration of this essay: would (or should) Christians behave differently if it could be confirmed that there is no heaven? Meaning, would our motivations for good behavior change if there is no heaven to gain?

I don’t think they should. Jesus hints at this possibility, negating conscious good behavior as a reward for attaining heaven. In Matthew’s (25:31-46) parable of the Sheep and Goats, both the sheep (unconscious) and goats (conscious) did good deeds. But those performed by the goats group were purposeful, calculating and motivated by their desire to go to heaven. Conversely, those done by the sheep were selfless, unaware of, or influenced by the reward of heaven. For the latter, their life of disinterested goodness was its own reward. Though heaven-bound, they had no idea of its allure or the notion that their altruistic lifestyle was the recipe for getting there. Maybe we should replace our Revelation Seminars with symposiums on Matthew 25. And heaven, should we broach the subject at all, would be taught as an afterthought. An unpromised bonus to ordinary living, which comes to us as a pleasant surprise because it was never our center of attention in life.

Instead of focusing on the hereafter and treating this world and our relationship to it only as preparatory to a bigger, better world beyond this life, we should see this world as a gift to treasure. And opening our eyes to it we might then find within – the sick, hungry and imprisoned neighbors who are ours to minister to. When we engage this world deeply we find meaning and purpose, analogous to Jesus’ selfless ministry to his communities, when he walked the dusty roads of Palestine. 1 John’s (4:20) logic could be extended to address our tendency to covet the greener grass in our neighbor’s yard: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” The equivalent is equally true: We should hold on hard to the world we know and make it even better. Then, when we find ourselves in heaven, we will be glad, as we’ve been there before.

 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11010
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I love this topic… and a break from all that political posturing.

Maybe we create our own “heaven” or “hell”. What if we get to live forever just as we have lived… Would that make us create a better world? Yes, it’s just a thought. It would set up layers of existence we make better - a kind of “purgatory”.

Armstrong’s “World Wide Church of God” teaches that some special group (those who belong to their group) will be teaching, for a thousand years, all the other heaven dwellers how God wants them to live - a kind of second chance, (since not all people have actually had a clear choice in the matter.)

And what do we mean by “heaven”…certainly not the vacuum of outer space. Then there are “black holes” so vacuous that not even light can escape - but, there are theories that they lead to other universes. Then there’s the “string theory” and multiple universes.

But we are talking about the Bible, written for folk who could never imagine beyond the specks of twinkling lights above - so, “heaven” is good enough. One correction, however, SDA teaching is we are to live in “the new earth”. That has more realistic possibilities. We get to be born all over again (in some form).

But yes, religious teaching is that this life is terrible, so we must bite the bullet here, so that we can make our way to “heaven” - clear escapism.

Genesis describes God creating this world. That should give this place some value. When God stopped creating, He blessed His creation. I happen to believe the days of creation represent periods of time in which God directed natural creation to take place. The seventh day is the day God rested from creating - and we are living in that day - every day blessed - a time declared holy by God.

What comes next? I trust God has a plan or this is all a not-so-funny joke.

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One of the most insightful articles I’ve read in Spectrum.

The idea of heaven as a “carrot on a stick” reward can be disconcerting and disincentivizing to the point of debilitation where the goal of “making it” eventually causes a person to give up.

Further, working for a prize rather than enjoying the process of moving toward a goal also typically means trying to get a passing grade, rather than attempting to excel.

Most importantly, when we believe the world is not our home, we have no investment in the place and find no need to address the challenge of trying to make “heaven a place on earth”, despite the possibility that “The Afterlife” may be like the ever-receding vanishing point on the desert highway; a chimera where nothing actually disappears and life as we know it, just goes on and on.

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Absolutely we should. It seems that Adventist evangelism is focused either in the past or the future. Dwelling in either of those spaces is not beneficial to personal well being or to the other.

If one carefully observes the state of society in today’s environment, one has to wonder whether our evangelism has present value beyond escapism. What society needs to see now is the motivating principle in Matthew 25, not eschatology.

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Brilliant. This says everything about our journey. It brings to mind the vision experience of Ellen White about that group climbing up that narrow path up into the clouds, where the path got narrower and narrower until, eventually, disappeared altogether. They, those still climbing, had to reach out to grab ropes and hold on for dear life. A picture of this, as I understand, was painted on the wall of the GC office in Washington DC. I hope it’s removed now. What an awful statement about a loving God. It presents a picture of our continual self evaluating behavior, in which we see our selves falling short every day until we finally throw in the towel and say we are not going to be “good enough” or “trusting enough” to hang on. What a fatiguing life. It is the single most discouraging thing Ellen White ever wrote. With this understanding, is it any wonder that so many give up with the realization that their self-serving human natures, that the journey is impossible. I would imagine, because of this concept, we have way more former Adventists in this country than current members. What does this say about God? Why would a thief on the cross get a pass by simply saying he believed, after a life of bad behavior, and an Adventist or any Christian, miss out while spending a lifetime in a struggle to obtain this utopian but elusive heaven?

The end of Matt 25 is the key to everything. It is about our here-and-now relationship with those we agree with and those we don’t. How we treat those who have drawn the short straw in life as well as those who have prospered. It is about whether we look down on or look up to those who are of a different color, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or any differentiating human characteristic other than ourselves. We will make or destroy our own heaven here, which will ultimately prepare us to live in a more perfect world there. I don’t have a problem with discrimination, but I still need to work on how to love those who discriminate. I must still overcome hating the haters. This is my struggle.

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The difficult thing, for me at least, was finding reasons to maintain the above belief. In the end I found that the most powerful, and perhaps only, reason I had was simply that I really didn’t want all of this to be a not-so-funny joke. But in the end I couldn’t rest my life and beliefs on wishful thinking and respect myself.

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The thief may have been more of an innocence, while most Christians have been handed Christianity, as a direct trajectory to heaven. Anyone involved with religion, will have that goal - informed by judgement unto salvation. This can place in suspect all the good we do, making it more difficult to live by the faith Paul talks about. Can a Christian be good for the sake of goodness alone?

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There is no heaven for those who in this life do not enter in through the straight gate.
Heaven begins in this life and it never ends, but if we are never reborn there is no heaven for us now or later. Those who are born again can never die. Thank you Jesus!!!

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Sirje, I guess we’ll not know the answer to what was in the heart of the thief on the cross until we go through that pearly gate ourselves. My point was, I think simply, that God’s grace is a much more important factor than our rule keeping.

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Very progressive Adventist here descended from some of the earliest Adventists. But I wonder if I’m still too traditional or insufficiently intelligent not to find this article confusing and discouraging.

Matthew 25 is the most significant passage in the Bible for me. It begins describing Christ coming in glory. It ends promising eternal life! Why would this not give any Christian believer hope for a better future in addition to calling us to care for others?

I very much dislike the use of “soon” now. Christ did not return “soon”. My ancestors have been saying and hoping “soon” for almost 175 years. Regardless of the fact that we truly do not know when Christ will return, are we ridiculous to maintain hope in the premise of Matthew 25 - that Christ will RETURN and that we will be given eternal life? Are we not to believe in the (I think) clear teachings of 1 Thessalonians 4 that the dead will be raised to eternal life?

This article fractured my faith and hope. I pray that somehow I can, with God’s help, restore that.

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I don’t think the article was meant to fracture your/our faith. The point is (I think) If our Christianity depends on a reward at the end, would we be faithful if there was no reward. Are we obedient, caring, “treating each other as we would be treated” only because we want to earn eternal life? What kind of people would we want to be without the reward? That is an issue distinct from the plain Bible promises. Our assurance in a resurrection is purely a matter of faith. We have no proof for any of this. It all depends on where we place our trust - in our own limited knowledge of reality, or in Christ (as we have come to know him).

Looking deeply into the created world, there is so much mystery. We have faith that the sun will come up in the morning - there are so many reasons why it wouldn’t. For me, existence and time are a huge mystery when you delve into quantum physics. All matter is mostly energy - and time, as we know it, disappears when we disembark from this tiny planet.

My faith is directly tied to Christ. If he died and walked out of the tomb, then, whatever he said to be true, I have to believe. It really comes down to that. And he did say, there was more to know but we weren’t ready to hear it then, or maybe even now.

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My English prof in college used to stamp her papers with an actually stamp she had made, that read, “Be concrete and specific.”

Most religious discussion is made up of religious jargon. Now all we have to do is define “straight gate”, “born again” and “heaven”.

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Thank you for that comment. I agree. Too much of Christianity is dependent on the carrot that is being dangled in front of us and not on living an unselfish life that is concerned with the wellbeing of those around us. The End of Matt 25 is about living as if we have been transformed here on earth, not only looking toward that “reward” for our behavior. I found the article expanding. I had not looked at the sheep and goats with the understanding that they both were “behaving” properly, but that the reason for their behavior was so different. One was behaving for the reward, the other was behaving because of the love they felt for those around them. If this is the differentiating criteria that separates the sheep from the goats, then our motivation is curtail to our salvation, An example of this would be demonstrated by those who give anonymously and those who give to have their name on a building or a list or displayed in a public acknowledgment. The what and the how much is unimportant, it is the why that matters.

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I agree. We have focused on conspiracy theories about last days, heaven and the afterlife to the exclusion of how we should treat others. Remember the chorus: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue…” This world IS our home and we need to focus on how to live as blessings to those around us and pay attention to looking after our environment as well.

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I totally agree we need to rethink heaven. It doesn’t make sense to me to confine God to some physical place up in space beyond the reach of space ships. We teach God is omnipresent. So, yes, I’m open to the idea of multiple universes, or some form of multiple dimensions. I mean radio waves travel and exist in an unseen dimension that is part of our world. Why not God, the angels and/or other intelligent life?

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I will have to look at this article again before the locksmith seals it to see what I’m missing.

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I too enjoy thought experiments. Eliminating heaven is like the convicted murderer serving three consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. One day, the warden calls in the prisoner to convey the good news that the governor has pardoned him and his records expunged. In the eyes of the law, he has never committed a crime. He’s innocent! The prisoner is overjoyed and asks the warden when he will be freed. Replies the warden, “The governor pardoned you but has not released you from serving your full prison term.”

How meaningful are God’s promises to make all things new without heaven? What will I gain from a new heart if it is to decay eternally? If there is no heaven, the love of God is non-existent.

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Thank you, Matthew, for your observations about our Adventist approach to teaching about Heaven. I do agree that we need to broaden our scope and discuss perspectives in our publications that delve deeper than we now do currently.

Regarding the topic of Earth and Heaven, with your connection to Ghana, I would be interested in how you think there might have been a more positive reaction to the message of Heaven had Christians responded more positively to the animist beliefs prevalent in that part of the world. The focus on the supernatural manifestations of a belief in witchcraft rather than on the supernatural nature of photosynthesis was one factor that may have led to a rejection of “anything” African on the part of early visitors from the United States and Europe.

This thought about respect for nature as it might relate to the Akan of Ghana and the introduction of Christianity came to me after the coup d’etat of 1972 and then after the coup in 1974. The soldiers, seeking funds, ordered what were considered sacred forests to be cut down for marketing. The beautiful afromosia and mahogany trees were cut down and the wood sold to other countries. One country bought the afromosia for the making of tooth picks.

Just wondering if foreigners had respected the animist beliefs in a Creator God and in the sacredness of nature, would the message of Jesus been received differently than the perception that it is a foreign religion whose followers really don’t have an interest in preserving the world as it is today?

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In response to the author’s thoughts and the response from Sirje: Most importantly, when we believe the world is not our home, we have no investment in the place and find no need to address the challenge of trying to make “heaven a place on earth."

This article reminded me of a seminary student who suggested that he would like to develop a Theology of Ecology and was discouraged in proceeding with the topic. His reasoning made sense to me, an advisor for Doctor of Ministry students.

The student pointed out that in South Korea, the connecting points for witnessing for Christianity among Buddhists presents a challenge, but the belief in caring for this world could create opportunities to interact for Adventists who believe in the admonition of Luke 19:13 “Occupy till I come.” His thought was for Adventist Christians to fight to preserve the physical environment and respect the natural cycle of life, beliefs of Buddhists, would open up opportunities to witness for the Creator God.

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Permit me to say, you’re missing the point. This is not meant as a whole new definition of Christianity without whatever heaven is. It’s a hypothetical question that should make us think what exactly does our Christianity mean to us. Is it about heaven, purchased by controlled behaviour; or is it a heart supported by the grace of God…

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