I think perhaps the fact that this is my first Easter without my father has caused me to think more intently about the reality of heaven. But as I reflect on that subject my mind turns to a statement that my children made to me often when they were young: “Daddy, when I get older; Daddy, when I am five, when I am seven, when I’m nine, when I’m twelve, when I’m sixteen, I’m gonna do this . . .” Children are instinctively oriented toward the future. They assume that next year they will be older, bigger, faster, wiser, stronger, and smarter. The truth is, even for adults for whom the prospect of becoming older and bigger is not exactly enticing, we, too, are oriented ineluctably toward the future. When we sit down to our Easter meals today, the talk will inevitably turn toward the next holiday, maybe even the next Easter. We are instinctively wired constantly to look forward, which means that as Christian believers our vision is thrust toward heaven.
Of course, we must admit that heaven is a mysterious, almost impenetrable, inconceivable subject. That is part of its charm. We would certainly be skeptical of any faith that spelled out the hereafter in graphically specific terms. Heaven’s mysterious nature, its inconceivability, gives it its challenging allure, forcing us to expand our spiritual imaginations.
Indeed, in reality, heaven is actually not a theological doctrine. Heaven is simply an assumption in the New Testament. Paul talks of the Spirit lifting him up into a certain level of heaven – but he does not, cannot, describe the experience. Our Lord talks of going to prepare a place for us – but he does not describe the place. Our Lord prays, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” but he adds no details. The book of Revelation depicts heaven as a place of transcendent glory and celebration, but its description is not embellished. Running throughout the New Testament is the assumption of heaven as our ultimate destination, supported by the conviction that all that we do has everlasting consequences. So it is, Paul could assert, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
I should note that some consider the Bible’s reticence about heaven a frustrating and puzzling omission. If heaven is so important, why doesn’t the Scripture give it a fuller treatment? In truth, our Scripture’s scant mention of heaven is one of Christianity’s noblest virtues. The Christian faith does not try to buy our faith through lavish promises. Sure, there are critics of Christianity who charge that our religion tries to recruit people into faith with pie-in-the-sky blandishments. But what Christianity’s critics don’t understand is that certain rewards are congruent with certain pursuits and passions. We who practice the Christian faith, knowing that we see through a mirror dimly, naturally aspire to embrace a time when we will know God fully and be fully known by God. Heaven is the natural, congruent destination for those of us who live and love and believe and serve God in hope.
Think about this for a moment. If a woman marries a man for his money, we call her a gold-digger. If a soldier fights for money, we call him a mercenary. We recognize that certain rewards are not congruent to certain actions. If a brave soldier receives a Purple Heart, having shown valor in battle, that is a congruent reward. Likewise, we know that money is not the congruent reward for romance. The true consummation of romance is marriage. So, too, heaven is the congruent reward for our faith. We who labor on behalf of God’s Kingdom, knowing that we don’t fully understand the impact of our service, knowing that the glass of life is dim, have a natural instinct to anticipate a time when our God will know and love us fully, and we will know and love God fully, too.
Of course our imaginations are not fully capable of imagining the ultimate end of any activity when we first engage in it. We often cannot envision the end of a journey when we first begin it. None of us knew that we were on the first date with our future spouse when we were on the first date with our future spouse. We couldn’t have anticipated how that initial relationship would ultimately culminate. The fact that we often begin a journey with no clear destination of how that journey will evolve means that sometimes our participation in that journey appears mercenary when it really isn’t. When my daughter Clara was young, she saw dancers on television. She resolved, “I want to take dance.” But then she discovered that the discipline of dance was hard. Left to her druthers, she would have quit dance pretty quickly. But her mother and I saw a poise in Clara, an improved coordination and gracefulness that emanated from her dancing. So I decided to provide Clara with what I called “motivational inducements” – some people call them “bribes,” but bribes have a certain negative connotation — so I preferred “motivational inducements.” For her to continue in dance, I would provide her with new Barbie dolls. I knew that there would come a time when I could no longer buy her compliance with new Barbies, but I hoped that there would come a time when a transition would occur when she would cease to dance for Barbies and would start dancing simply for the love of dancing. That is precisely what happened. At some point, some invisible Rubicon was crossed, and she began to love dance for dancing’s sake; she began to love dancing with her friends. So she continued to love to dance throughout her high school years because she simply loved to dance.
For many of us, the story of our faith follows a similar narrative. Many of us started coming to church because we were brought by our parents or grandparents. Maybe friends invited us. Maybe there was a boy or a girl that we liked, so we came to church because that was a place where we could be with them. Who knows how a pilgrimage begins? But somewhere along the way we began to love God simply for the sake of loving God. Some invisible, spiritual Rubicon was crossed. We pray to God for happiness, protection, healing, guidance, strength and wisdom. But that is not why we love God. Somewhere along the way we simply came to love God for the sake of loving God. Serving God became the delight and ambition of our lives. Trusting God became the foundational relationship of our lives. Living as a disciple of Christ came to be our discipline and our joy. Fashioning our lives around God’s values became our touchstone. Who knows when that transition occurred in our faith pilgrimage, but somewhere along the way we simply came to love God for the joy of loving God. So heaven became the natural focal point of a pilgrimage we have been on throughout our lives, even though we didn’t begin that pilgrimage thinking about the joys of heaven, and even now in our journey we seldom stop to think about it, aspire to it, or reflect upon it. Heaven represents for us the natural and logical conclusion of our lifelong pilgrimage unto God.
The Bible describes God’s creativity as fashioning us out of the dust and breathing into our nostrils the breath of life. I have often made use of that image. In a former church we established a memorial garden where the ashes of members could be distributed, and we would then place their names on a plaque affixed to a wall. Often I would invite families to concentrate for a moment upon those ashes, which, I reminded them, represented the scant remnant of a beloved person whose vivacity and e’lan and humor and accomplishments had left such an impact upon us. I then reminded them, if God could fashion such a beloved person out of a pile of ashes, imagine what God can create out of that person’s resurrected life! That is why we don’t talk much about heaven, because there is no way our imaginations can conceive what God will make out of the resurrected us! It boggles our minds even to think on it.
Naturally, there are those who say that just because we harbor a strong desire to survive death does not mean that we actually do. But such an argument seems to miss the point. Certainly a man floating on a raft in the Atlantic could starve to death. But that would only mean that he was made for food and didn’t find any. Yet it would be odd indeed if we had the innate impulse for hunger yet were not created to eat. It would be truly strange if we were made to thirst yet were not created to drink. So, too, it would be very strange for us to value a relationship with a beloved despite the fact of their death if we did not have an innate yearning to see them again. If you have lost a beloved family member or cherished friend, does the fact of their death make you love them less? Did your love for them end when they stopped breathing? No. In fact, our love for them, our desire to fellowship with them, often intensifies with their death. Indeed, it would be very strange if we felt an innate instinct to see further fellowship with a deceased family member or friend if that instinct was not satisfied by the God who placed that instinct within us.
Here C. S. Lewis introduces a marvelous insight. He reminds us that we yearn for heaven because we are created by God with a “thirst for glory.” God has placed within us all a thirst for glory. This thirst for glory is not for glory in the sense of earthly fame, the desire that you or I might have more earthly celebrity than somebody else – that’s not a spiritual instinct. Nor is our thirst for glory drawn from the Biblical concept of glowing with the splendor of God. As Lewis aptly noted, who wants to walk around glowing like a light bulb? Rather, we were made for the glory of being known by God. Our thirst for glory, a thirst placed within us by God, is the desire to be acknowledged by God, accepted by God, affirmed by God, cherished by God. The glory for which we aspire and for which we are made is the glory of receiving a heavenly good report. The greatest accolade in the New Testament is the one handed out by Jesus at the end of a parable: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” What are the most devastating words spoken by Jesus? They are the words: “Depart from me. I never knew you.” To be acknowledged by God, accepted by God, affirmed by God, encouraged by God, respected by God, that is the thirst for glory that God has placed within us.
When I first encountered Lewis’ insight, a flash of recognition coursed through me. I understood. I understood perfectly, for I had experienced a parallel situation as an adolescent. When I was in the ninth grade, about to anchor the mile relay for my junior high team, the high school track coach, a successful man greatly feared and respected throughout the region, walked by me and growled, “Kremer, I want to see you run today.” The fact that this man even knew I existed, much less knew my name, was shocking. His words of encouragement, such as they were, created in me an electric motivation. And as I entered the homestretch of the race, anchoring the relay team, that high school coach was positioned at the top of the curve and growled again, “Kremer, let’s see you really run!” And I ran . . . not only to win the race but to earn the respect of someone I already feared and respected – and would one day come to love greatly. But our relationship began with a kid’s desire to be acknowledged by someone he respected. So, too, we seek to serve God because we thirst for the glory of being claimed and known and accepted by God.
Paul said this truth so sublimely: “We all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” As we serve our God, as we orient our being around God’s values, as we commit our lives whole-heartedly to the furtherance of God’s Kingdom, God through the Spirit is transforming us into the likeness of our Savior. We are being transitioned from one stage of glory to another. And so the great theologian Irenaeus could assert, centuries ago: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive, and the life of humanity is the vision of the glory of God.” The glory of God is humanity living fully alive . . . and the life of humanity is ever keeping our eyes focused upon the vision of the glory of God! We are made to feel in the marrow of our bones the thirst for glory. Strange as it might seem for those of us who live and labor daily in faith, we must keep this truth ever before us: we are slowly but surely, inexorably, being transformed from one level of likeness of God to another, because our resurrection has been secured by the Christ who stands as the first fruits of those raised from the dead by his heavenly Father. That is why we exult on this Easter morning, He has risen! He has risen indeed!