Author: Ben Hughes
Heaven has become somewhat of a cliché in our society. We throw around terms and phrases like “the pearly gates,” or “being in a better place” so quickly and cheaply that we, at best, can only half believe that our words actually signify anything. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what Heaven is like, and I have noticed that most of the time these ideas are rather self-catering. One person thinks of it as an all-you-can-eat buffet made of pure chocolate (which is, of course, the healthiest of foods in Heaven), another fills their eternity with the inadvertent attention of their loved ones, yet another dreams of being attended by ten thousand virgins (sorry ladies). Many of us who hope for the beatific vision must admit that in one way or another we play these games. If Heaven is the best of all places, we conceptualize it by picking our favorite things and magnifying it to the greatest possible degree. The danger in this is that for most of us, that favorite thing happens to be our self.
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis offers an alternative view of Heaven that is significantly more Biblical, and radically better than human conceptions. The book is primarily about suffering and Hell, but it finishes with a wonderful chapter on Heaven. Lewis claims that it is impossible to understand or come to terms with pain without the hope of Heaven. In the same way that a mountaintop view makes sense of the dirt and sweat of the hike up, Heaven sheds light on suffering. It is not, however, the simple fulfillment of all human wishes and longings. Rather, many human beings, in their present condition, would not enjoy it at all. Those who do not find joy in true worship would probably be bored.
The news that God never promised to give us the objects of our desires in infinite supply can be a bit unsettling. It was for me. This is, I think, one of the stumbling blocks of the gospel of Christ. We hate to think that our pie in the sky is not, in fact, the chocolate crème-filled one that we wanted. How, in light of such a hard truth, can we still see God as gracious and good?
We must remember that if Heaven is really real (and Lewis emphatically believed that it is), then it must correspond to an ideal that we may or may not like. The most difficult part of this to accept is the fact that, despite what we may have been told, Heaven is not about us. It is about God. Although He has created a place for us that is far better than anything that we can imagine, it probably has little to do with many of our worldly imaginations. Lewis writes, “Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.” The Bible says nothing about chocolate or virgins in Heaven, but it makes clear that those who do not love God would hate it there.
Those who are disenchanted by this picture of Heaven should call their values to account and compare them with God’s values. Some of our desires are left unfulfilled because they are faulty desires. What loving parent allows their child to founder itself on Chocolate Cake? It is not that cake is always bad, but anyone past the age of eight knows that too much will make the stomach sick. All created things are like this. Although they are not bad in themselves, they are too small and their pleasures are too weak to occupy the center of anyone’s reality. God is often not interested in fulfilling our dreams because he knows that our dreams will never fulfill us. Only one thing will satisfy, and this he pours out liberally. It is nothing less than Himself.
Lewis points out that the true joy of heaven and the glory of the Creator is disarmingly self-abandoning. The Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote to the Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The Christ who formed the Heavens and the Earth, who had the keys to every pleasure possible in the universe, made a supreme statement not only about the nature of God, but also about the nature of Goodness, when He stooped in love. His self-sacrificial work of becoming a man and giving up his own life set a tempo for His children to follow. Lewis writes, “From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever.” God’s ideal is not possession, but an eternal dance of loving service. Heaven, if it is truly good by God’s standards, cannot stray from this.