Why Heaven Matters

What's the point in believing in heaven?

Heaven has fallen on hard times. Outside of the faith, belief in heaven is the epitome of wishful thinking. Who but most naive among us in our post-Christian age believe in heaven?

But heaven is also dismissed among Christians as well. We're told that old hymns like "I'll Fly Away" are escapist. We're also told that we shouldn't mention heaven to console the grieving. A mention of heaven would be traumatizing and hurtful.

We live in strange, strange times.

And so, we preach a heavenless gospel. The kingdom of God is social action in this life, right here and right now. Christians don't really need heaven the implication goes.

And yet, we do.

For this post, I'll leave aside the hope of heaven, the consolation that death has been defeated. What I want to focus on his how ethics and justice work require an eschatological imagination.

Consider non-violence. Non-violence only makes sense if there's a heaven. If there's no heaven, and the only life you have is this physical life, well, of course you'd have to defend and protect it. Non-violence demands an eschatological imagination, that your death on earth isn't the end for you.

Consider, also, justice work. There are two temptations in justice work.

The first is resignation. The fortunes of history go up and down, so why work for justice if you're not going to be able to see and reap the rewards in your lifetime? Why not just give up and live a self-interested life?

The second is revolutionary impatience. Since the future is uncertain, we push to make the revolution happen in our lifetime. Change has to happen now, we have to see it with our very eyes. Nothing can wait. Incremental progress is capitulation and failure. Consequently, to bring about justice in our lifetime force has to be used. Violence is the price of impatience.

The only thing that rescues justice work from these temptations is an eschatological imagination, the belief, as MLK said, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice." It's that eschatological conviction that pushes against resignation and tempers revolutionary impatience. This is why heaven matters.

To be sure, we've all read enough Marx to know that heaven can also diffuse energy for political change. In the words of the old country song, we can become so heavenly minded we're no earthly good. So our eschatological imagination has to be placed in a dialectical relationship with the prophetic imagination, heaven set alongside "Let justice roll down like a river!"

Still, heaven is a vital part of the answers we are seeking.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply