“All creation has an instinct for renewal.” –Tertullian
A few months ago I read about some research done between the Universities of Oregon and Kansas about how what we believe about what God will do in the “end times” affects how we live now.
And it was disturbing.
They discovered that people who believed in Hell were less likely to do bad things, like commit crimes or like Nickelback. But they also discovered something shocking…people who believed in Heaven, were more likely to commit crimes and do violence toward other people.
Maybe you’ve heard the statistics about how, when the Genocide happened in Rwanda, it was (per-capita) the most Christian nation in the world. In fact, it was so Christian that there were other churches that rose up and killed entire other churches that weren’t in their tribe.
As we backed up and tried to unravel how this entire tragedy happened, Christian missionaries discovered that the story about Jesus that Rwandan people had been told was that if you believe in Jesus, then wait until you die, then you will be able to go to Heaven.
Does that sound familiar?
Imagine There’s No Heaven
For the longest time the Jewish faith didn’t talk about the afterlife. In fact, there is a Jewish tradition that says that after someone has died, you shouldn’t say a word about the age to come.
This tradition comes from the recognition of the human tendency for avoiding death. It knows that we tend to want to imagine that there is no death and to give pat answers to complex questions.
But it also comes from the faith that God made this world good, and death was not a part of it. The Jewish Christian faith is a very “worldly” faith. It is a faith about this world, and this life and to speak in the face of death about another time and another place is to dis-regard that this time and this place matters.
I like the way that Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says this:
Judaism is always very “this worldly” oriented. And the moment people start getting fixated on an afterlife, it can have the effect of diverting their attention from their work in this world.
In other words, our focus on the age to come, can actually make us miss what God is doing in this age. And if that sounds strange consider again how rarely Jesus talked about Heaven, he was fully invested in this world.
In fact, I think this is why we need to talk about Heaven a bit more, and quite a bit differently.
Because for most of us, when we think about Heaven, we were taught to think about pie in the sky when we die (by and by). We grew up singing songs about Flying away, and reading passages like 1st Thessalonians 5 in a very different way than the first Christians would have read it.
Think about the way the Bible ends.
Heaven comes down.
The tree of life and the rivers and the garden that we read about in the beginning of the Bible are back. And so is God! Fully and finally all things are made new. Which is different than God making all new things.
God restores the whole world.
Which means that this world matters right now.
The reason that people who believe in Heaven are more likely to commit violent crimes is because what Christians have started teaching about Heaven is nothing like what the Gospel talks about for the Age to Come.
When we disconnect Heaven and this world, then we probably shouldn’t be surprised when people do that in their lives. We probably shouldn’t be surprised when there is actually a correlation between a belief in Heaven and violent crimes on earth.
We shouldn’t be surprised, but we should start telling a better story
The dirt and trees and babies and business and food and wine and friendships and commerce and family and justice and compassion and technology and our acts of service and worship…all of this matters more in the present because of what God’s future is.
There is not going to be a single part of creation where God is going to allow Satan to say, “At least I won there.”
In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons makes the observation that the upcoming generations of Christians will be known as Restorers. They don’t start their Bible in Genesis 3, and they don’t end them in Revelation 20.
They believe that the story is bigger and better than we had thought. And that’s a very good thing. Specifically for people in our particular tribe.
Because we are after all, A Restoration Movement.
Sometimes God lets us stumble into things that are bigger than we thought.
For years, we’ve been using language that connects (in surprising ways) with a whole generation of people, we just didn’t know it!
Happily Ever After…After All
I don’t know about you, but I love a happy ending. I love the stories where the dog doesn’t die in the end and the Hobbits get to go back to the Shire.
But the problem with happy endings is that is rarely how reality goes.
We live in one of the few eras of history that thinks that a happy ending means it must be inferior art. I get why we think that, it seems like any story that is close to reality must also include suffering. But there is a deeper kind of despair to this isn’t there? Most of us have a kind of low-grade gloom about life. We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the bottom to finally fall out once and for all.
Happy endings are for children, and now that we know life is meaningless, the last thing we want to do is be seen as naïve.
Welcome to the world of the disciples on Easter morning.
Death has once again taken someone you love and you know that this is the final ending of all stories. Cancer seems to be relentless. Poverty and injustice are overwhelming. It seems like most marriages start off happily just to end in divorce.
There are days when a happy ending just seems impossible.
JRR Tolkien actually wrote his epic happy ending in a world much like ours. When he wrote the Lord of the Rings, people accused him of telling an escapist story, one that didn’t deal with the harsh reality of the world.
But Tolkien’s response was soaked in the Gospel. He responded to his critics that the reason that people love Happy endings is because they are somehow true to the deepest parts of reality.
In other words, at the heart of the Universe is a God who is telling a story that will resolve in the best possible ways.
But the Gospel is that what God did for Jesus, He will do again. That what God did for Jesus’ body is what He will do for all of us, and for all of Creation.
When the last shoe drops, when the final plot of story line is told, when the final turn comes, all shall be well.
Death itself will die, and Hell will pay back what it owes.
God will be with His people.
And they live Happily ever after.