Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
March 4, 2015
Some time ago I received an email from one of my former students – I’ll call her Georgia. She was an adult learner at SPU when I had her in class ten or twelve years ago, and she’s now in her mid-40’s. Georgia has had her share of hardships in life, as we all have. She’s trying bravely to live a Christian life, but finds a lot of what she has heard in church intellectually feeble and spiritually lifeless. In particular, she is nauseated by the way that certain Christian preachers use the hope of a “sweet by and by” to dull the pain their congregants feel in the here and now. Here’s what she wrote:
As I study, it gets confusing as to how to cope through hardship. I get it that one learns great things about oneself, faith, trust, etc., by coping through and with hardship. And humans tend to create our own problems or at least can exacerbate them in our maladaptive ways. I get it that doing our best to do things in a loving manner is how we do our best; and that love conquers all.
What I don’t get, is that to love God, to be loving, doesn’t mean that all things will go the way we want it to, or will happen in ways that are beneficial (in our eyes) or aren’t hurtful. So, the Christian “line” is to hang in there for the promise of being with God through eternity. But if being with God on earth is so hard or “unfair,” how is that promise helpful? You know what I mean? Being with God brings peace in the long run, yes – but not always in the midst of things, especially when one cannot hear what God is saying or cannot discern the message, or we feel abandoned. How will heaven be different? No unfairness? No hardship to teach us how to be better people because we won’t need any more teaching? No free will? No choices, only God’s choice? If we’re all by God’s side, he must be huge, ha ha. Why the big deal about heaven? Or a big deal to live and suffer because of a promise that living for God will eventually mean no suffering, except we are told that suffering makes us better people? Will heaven then, make us perfect? Or bring us the ability to make better choices for ourselves? I guess what I’m trying to say is why live for a future promise? Why don’t people focus on the present and how best to cope? Why do we hang on to that promise? Just to provide hope? Is that some myth to help us hang in there until things get better, which they usually do? Hope is a good thing, but it gets confusing to me. “Love God and your life will get better (which isn’t really true, but the confidence in being loved does make things better), but if it doesn’t, hang on to the hope of heaven….”
My reply follows. (The references to “Marilyn” and “Sarah” are to my wife and daughter, respectively. Georgia knows them both.)
Your question about hope is a very delicate and difficult one. The first thing I would say is that genuine Christian hope concerns a magnificent array of “who’s,” whereas personal wish dreams (which are often confused with Christian hope) typically concern a rather tawdry set of “what’s.” By this I mean that when a Christian looks into the future, and particularly a future beyond the end of this mortal life, what he or she is supposed to look for is not a state of affairs that cannot be improved upon in terms of its endless pleasantness, or even in terms of its perfect sinlessness. Rather, what he or she is supposed to look for is intimate companionship with God and with all who seek intimate companionship with God. It is impossible to imagine in any detail just what that would be like, but I like to think of it in the following way: It takes a long time to get to know, and really befriend, anyone. Marilyn and I are going on 35 years of marriage, and as well as I think we know each other, I’m sure we remain mysterious to each other in many respects – maybe more mysterious to each other than we were on our wedding day. And I’m immensely thankful for that, because it keeps life interesting. Now in heaven, it seems to me, I will have the task – and the privilege – of getting to know and learning how to befriend Jesus and all of Jesus’ untold millions of “best friends.” They will all be as wonderful, and as mysterious, as Marilyn is – and it will take me the whole of eternity to know them as deeply and love them as dearly as they deserve. Whatever great moral and spiritual transformation may need to take place in me before I even qualify to enter heaven, it will not be such as to rob me of the obligation and opportunity to invest myself forever in the friends I will meet there. And since there is nothing more delightful than making friends with good people, I will have both everlasting joy and endless work ahead of me. What fun!
That’s a very different way of imagining heaven, I think, than as a state where there is no real freedom and no real responsibility, and where everybody just sits around forever eating bonbons and singing praise songs. What a colossal bore – even, I should think, for God, who would be responsible for supplying all those bonbons and listening to those wretched tunes! That is, if we think of heaven as a projection of “earthly delights,” or as an extension of “religious duties,” or as the fulfillment of our worldly fantasies, then spending eternity there sounds just awful. But if, instead, we think of heaven as the opportunity to experience the inner truth and inner goodness of a countless host of truly wonderful friends – people like you – then count me in!
But that answers only part of your question. For you also asked whether we need such a hope to live wisely and well here and now. Well, yes and no. Speaking only for myself, I don’t need, or at least I don’t want, such a hope to compensate or console me for all the sufferings I endure each day. Thinking of heaven simply as a consolation prize seems to me to cheapen it intolerably. Consolation prizes are what you get when you fail to get what you really want. But I do need the hope of heaven to motivate me to begin the task of learning how to love people, as I’m going to have to put that skill to use for a long, long time – forever, in fact. If I can learn, here and now, how to love Marilyn and Sarah and my pesky students and my annoying colleagues, then when, after the great transformation that lies ahead of me takes place, I may be a bit more adept at learning how to love all those apostles and martyrs and doctors of the church and ordinary saints who are said to inhabit the heavenly places. Heaven is not the place where your disappointed wants are compensated for. Rather, heaven is the place where you learn how to want what is truly worth having, namely good friends, and how to satisfy that want in a morally healthy way, namely by becoming a good friend to everyone you meet.