Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Why Christians Need to Talk More About Heaven

Have you ever heard that saying "Don't be so heavenly-minded that you're of no earthly good"?

I hate this phrase, for two main reasons:

  1. It insults Christians who do have a strong focus on heaven.
  2. It implies that thinking about heaven and doing good works are mutually exclusive.

So in this post I want to address both of these issues, and show that instead, a strong focus on heaven is exactly what God wants us to have, because, contrary to the above phrase, being heavenly-minded is precisely the way to motivate Christians into doing good works in this life.

Why Don't We Hear Much About Heaven?

So why is it that we seem to so rarely hear much about heaven in sermons these days? This problem may occur for a number of reasons.

One reason may be because frequently, pastors in seminary do not have a dedicated course on eschatology (doctrines of the 'last things' like heaven, hell, end-times, etc.) Randy Alcorn notes that general systematic theology courses often fall behind schedule and skip over these topics, and/or because the textbooks used in these courses do not talk much about heaven either.1

Or maybe, pastors rightly want to be careful to not endorse un-Biblical ideas about heaven, such as the excessive speculation about heaven that is seen in books about near-death experiences, or in some funeral eulogies. To avoid making mistakes, some pastors err on the side of saying nothing, or saying very little.

But sometimes I wonder if there might not be another subtle reason why pastors might not want to talk about heaven. Maybe pastors fear that the basic gospel message of believing in Jesus so that we can have eternal life is getting old or even boring.

This is probably more likely in cultures where Christianity has had a long history of influence. In these cultures, we assume that most people have heard the gospel message, and so if they're not currently Christians, then it's because they don't want to be, or they don't find it convincing enough. So why bother repeating the same message over and over if everyone's heard it?

This leads pastors to try to find new and exciting ways to present the gospel to attract those who've rejected believing in Jesus for eternal life.

For example, pastors may tap into the trend of 'social justice' by saying what Jesus really wants are the exact same things that many secular people want: abolishment of things like poverty, oppression, inequality, hatred, disease, and also wants for us to care for the planet.

Or alternatively, some pastors may try to draw people in through the so-called 'prosperity gospel' which promises people their best life now, involving success, health, fame, friendships, fun, and at least financial security, if not outright wealth. (But I always wonder: if this life is someone's best life, then what does that say about where they're going after this life is over?)

A more subtle version of the prosperity gospel is to emphasize all the benefits of Christianity that we can experience right now, like peace, joy, love, overcoming sins and harmful habits, having better relationships, healing our inner psychological wounds, etc. It could be called the 'self-help' gospel.

While the social justice, prosperity, and self-help gospels can be easily identified and are frequently criticized by Christians, I'm still worried that the focus on this life frequently overshadows believing in Jesus for eternal life in contemporary Christian thought.

I want to encourage Christians (and especially pastors) to place proper emphasis on believing in Jesus for eternal life, including all the things that eternal life involves: bodily resurrection, life on the New Earth and in the New Jerusalem, and heavenly rewards.

There are several reasons why we should emphasize heaven, beginning with...

Reason 1: Scripture Encourages Us To Think About Heaven

If God inspired the authors of Scripture to encourage us to think about heaven, then we should follow those instructions.

For example:

"If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Col. 3:1-2).

Randy Alcorn notes that in the above verse "The command, and its restatement, implies there is nothing automatic about setting our minds on Heaven. In fact, most commands assume a resistance to obeying them, which sets up the necessity for the command.... The command to think about Heaven is under attack in a hundred different ways every day.... Our minds are so much set on Earth that we are unaccustomed to heavenly thinking. So we must work at it."2

Paul recommends that "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8:). What could be more described by these things than heaven, and those who inhabit heaven?

Abraham is praised specifically for looking forward to the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 11:10), and so were many of the other heroes of the faith (Heb. 11:16). Can we really label these people as 'being so heavenly-minded that they were of no earthly good'? I don't think so.

In fact, Paul specifically notes that "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Cor. 15:19). Indeed, we might as well say "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Cor. 15:32), and go on to live like those for who "their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things" (Phil. 3:19), and who are compared to "irrational animals" that seek one physical pleasure after another (2 Pet. 2:12-13).

So it is the hope of eternal life and heavenly rewards that keeps Christians from living as worldly hedonists in this life.

Reason 2: Scripture Teaches Us To Earn Heavenly Rewards

I discuss the theme of heavenly rewards frequently because I believe that heavenly rewards should be a key driving factor in all Christians' lives. And heavenly rewards are not talked about nearly enough in most churches today.

Some people seem to look down on heavenly rewards, as if rewards are a lesser or 'un-spiritual' motivation that is unworthy of real Christians.

An example of this can be found in a worship song that contains the line "And when I'm doing well, help me to never seek a crown, for my reward is giving glory to You".

While this sounds pious, humble, and 'spiritual', I think it's also partly mistaken. While it's great to be motivated by things like concern for God's glory and other people's salvation, there's nothing wrong with looking forward to a reward also. For if God did not want us to strive for heavenly rewards and wanted us to be only motivated for 'spiritual' reasons, then He would not have told us about heavenly rewards in Scripture.

Yet Jesus specifically commands us "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:19-21).

Thus, we should put all our hope in heaven, and treasure it far more than anything we have in this life.

Let's say Jesus came back tomorrow, and Christians are caught up into the clouds, forever to be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:17). Is there anything you would be disappointed to leave behind? Perhaps that's an indication that not all your treasure is in heaven.

I often challenge myself to consider this scenario, as a way of checking that my heart is unattached to temporary things. If there's something I start thinking about wishing I could take with me when we go, I remember that whatever God has for me in heaven will be far better than anything I have right now, and better than anything that I could ever have in this life.

(If the problem is that I'm worried that someone I love will not be there in heaven, then that motivates me to try to reach out to them more with the gospel while I can. Really, a little awkwardness is worth it, since their eternal future is at stake).

Paul also encourages living life in light of heavenly rewards: "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable" (1 Cor. 9:24-25).

While it might seem that this life is a long time, it really is like a short sprint when compared to eternity. So why not train hard and strive hard to run the best we can, to earn the best prize possible?

Jonathan Edwards once wrote that one of his goals was "to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of".3

So if you're going to look down on seeking heavenly rewards as 'unspiritual', then yeah, you're calling one of America's greatest preachers and theologians 'unspiritual'. I don't agree with Edwards on many things, but I agree that he had his priorities straight here.

And finally, C.S. Lewis wrote:

"If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth 'thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither."4

Thus, Christians should actually aim to be heavenly-minded because the hope of eternal life and heavenly rewards should drive us to do the best we can for God in this life now, knowing that heaven and God's rewards will outweigh anything we might lose in this life.

So please stop repeating that stupid phrase "Don't be so heavenly minded you're of no earthly good"!

Reason 3: Eternity is Infinitely Longer than This Life

It might seem obvious that eternity is infinitely longer than our short lives now, and thus, it should be infinitely more important also, but stating it seems to be necessary.

This life is so short that it is rightly compared to a brief puff of vapor that quickly fades away (James 4:14). Even the entire span of human history is nothing in comparison to eternity.

I remember once trying to think of the concept of living forever. It's a difficult thing to imagine. The last verse of the old hymn "Amazing Grace" doesn't do it justice.

The song goes "When we've been there ten-thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we've first begun".

But really, 10,000 years is still nothing in comparison to eternity!

What if we changed that line to say "when we've been there ten-billion years"? How about ten-trillion years? BUT EVEN THEN, TEN-TRILLION YEARS IS NOTHING IN COMPARISON TO ETERNITY!!

It's absolutely mind-blowing. Can you imagine celebrating your ten-trillionth birthday in heaven? Your trillion-trillionth birthday? It might be best to skip the candles...

So yes, eternity does matter infinitely more than this tiny short earthly life does, because it is infinitely longer. And so when we present the reasons why someone should believe in Jesus as their savior, eternal life absolutely MUST be the main reason for it.

I sometimes hear people say "But the gospel is not just about eternal life", and they are telling the truth, for there are indeed benefits of being a Christian in this life.

But even if there were absolutely no benefits of Christianity in this life, it would still be the most important thing for us to focus our lives on, simply because eternity lasts forever.

Therefore, eternal life in heaven infinitely outweighs this temporal life, and so it should be given appropriate weight in preaching, and in our thoughts and priorities.

Reason 4: Personal Experience

The main reason I'm such a passionate advocate for getting our beliefs about heaven straightened out, and for having it be an important focus in our lives, is because a strong focus on heaven has been one of the major influences and motivations in my life ever since I was a child.

Yes, you could say I'm a long-range planner. But I think everyone should consider their eternal future just as seriously.

Here are just a few examples of how having a focus on heaven has helped me:

I remember when I was little that the idea of heaven and hell being forever was the main reason why I believed in Jesus, and why I paid close attention to not give up on Christianity even when it was unpopular in highschool or university, and tried my best to evangelize to some friends, and got involved with different church groups.

Later, this heavenly focus was partly behind my shift from engineering into theology. Engineering, while it had seemed like it should provide a good future for me, was unsatisfying. I decided I would rather spend my career doing things that can make an eternal difference, and not just a temporary one.

This desire has also helped me slowly get rid of some hobbies and activities that while not harmful in themselves, were not as good of a use of my time as they could be.

For example, I used to be really into certain computer games. But when I looked at the stats on Steam of how much time I spent on these games, I felt bad that I couldn't have done something more useful with my time. Then, I got really into Pinterest, and while it is more edifying than running around killing virtual characters in fantasy computer games, I again realized how much of a waste of time it was.

If in heaven there is some sort of record of my life's statistics, I don't want to see all the hours I wasted on things that didn't ultimately matter (even though I can acknowledge the value of having hobbies that let us relax and avoid burnout).

Having a focus on heaven also helps me put things in perspective, such that I don't need to gratify all my desires in this life.

Yes, I've got a taste for nice houses, cars, interior design, and fashion, but I realize that those things are in the category of things that don't eternally matter. I can get by just fine with less, and delay my gratification until heaven, while using my money in more responsible ways which support the Church and evangelism, which might make an eternal difference to someone else.

Additionally, God's promise that in heaven I will have a new resurrected body helps me resist the messages that advertisements or social media tries to sell, such as the idea that women have to be beautiful and fit and thin, and that I should buy all sorts of products to help achieve this.

I know that this body is temporary, and is slowly getting worn out. Although I try to stay healthy, the promise of a new body means I'm not sucked into the trends of organic food, weird diets, extreme workouts, plastic surgery, botox, fillers, and anti-aging products, and so forth that our society pushes.

Conclusion

I hope I've shown here how setting our minds on our future eternity in heaven is an important and helpful part of the Christian life. It's impossible to be 'so heavenly minded you're of no earthly good', because if we're really considering our future in heaven we will be motivated to make the most of our lives now.

I hope pastors and other Christian leaders would place more emphasis on believing in Jesus for the benefit of eternal life in heaven, and talk more about the beneficial effects that looking forward to heaven can bring in the lives of Christians.

Usually, Pastors want to encourage their congregations to get out there and evangelize, serve, and have peace and joy in their lives. I think the doctrine of an eternity in heaven, and heavenly rewards, is a very effective way to encourage all these things.

Finally, I want to end with one last quote by A. A. Hodge, just to encourage us that heaven is going to be so amazing, that we can confidently place all our hope and treasure there and not worry that we're missing out on anything in this life:

"Heaven, as the eternal home of the divine Man and all of the redeemed members of the human race, must necessarily be thoroughly human in its structure, conditions, and activities. Its joys and activities must all be rational, moral, emotional, voluntary, and active. There must be the exercise of all the faculties, the gratification of all tastes, the development of all talent capacities, the realization of all ideals. The reason, the intellectual curiosity, the imagination, the aesthetic instincts, the holy affections, the social affinities, the inexhaustible resources of strength and power native to the human soul must all find in heaven exercise and satisfaction. Then there must always be a goal of endeavor before us, ever future.... Heaven will prove the consummate flower and fruit of the whole creation and of all the history of the universe."5

Thus, like Paul and Jonathan Edwards, we should strive to do the best we can now in order to have the most happiness possible when we get there.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pubs., 2004), 8-9.
  • 2. ibid., 21
  • 3. Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Vol. 16, ed. George S. Claghorn (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 754, resolution #22.
  • 4. Alcorn, 21, citing C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier Books, 1960), 118.
  • 5. Alcorn, 98-99, citing A. A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: A Course of Popular Lectures (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 399-402.

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