You don’t win the race before you’ve run it. They don’t hand you the Oscar before you’ve made the movie. And you don’t get the diploma before the first day of class.
For generations now, Christians have been putting the last before the first. We’ve become so fixated on the final resting place that we barely glance at the current living place. We have to know the answer to the heaven question, as if that will magically and mystically resolve all the earth questions.*
Do you have to go to church to get to heaven?
Is my golden retriever Murphy in heaven?
What will we look like in heaven?
Can homosexuals get into heaven?
Are Muslims going to heaven?
One of the bigger ones: What happens to babies who die without being baptized? That too is a heaven question.
Theologian Chad Bird caught my attention in March 2020 with his article, “I Can’t Wait to Get Out of Heaven.” The subhead says this: “We act and speak as if dying and going to heaven is what the faith is all about. It is most emphatically not.” Exactly. (He makes some assertions on the eternal geography of the resurrection that I am not in full agreement with, but his main point is spot on.)
Certainly our ultimate resurrection and eternal dwelling with Christ is where true faith is leading us, and it most definitely should matter to us, because it matters to God! But let’s not sidestep the life we have now just because we know how the story ends.
We also dare not curtail our sharing and caring just because we think we know where everyone will end up. Satan loves it when we think the battle is over, so we stop fighting, and we stop rescuing those he attacks.
We really don’t have a clear, definitive picture from Scripture what our eternal life is going to look like or feel like, nor any specific descriptions of the accommodations or the residents therein. Even the titles of said domicile are frequently cryptic. Jesus tells the (soon-to-be forgiven) thief dying with Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 24:43). The thief himself had spoken of “Your Kingdom” to Jesus.
This is after Christ had referred to “My Father’s House,” with many rooms, including a “place for you,… that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2). Jesus shows John a “new heaven and a new earth” in Revelation 21, because the old ones had passed away. But beware of translating every word picture in Revelation as a physical, temporal reality. Otherwise you’ll have Jesus with a sword sticking out of His mouth.
God’s Word references heaven repeatedly, but not as the destination on your spiritual GPS. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father [who art] in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9). To oversimplify, heaven is where God is, where we are with Jesus and with all those whom He has graced with His presence. Heaven is defined Biblically by Who is there, not where. And we’ll get there soon enough – wherever it is.
God’s focus for the living is exactly that: living. We were dead in our sins, but then Christ brought us to life, before He brings us to heaven. We are baptized into His death and raised with Him in His resurrection, to live a new life with Him and in Him, without waiting for the coroner to stamp our death certificate.
Even when God speaks of eternal life – the one bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus – that doesn’t start the moment we die. It starts the moment we come to life: when He hits us with forgiveness, with His Holy Spirit, with the gift of faith. We won’t need faith in heaven (because we will see Him face to face), but we certainly need it on this side of eternity.
This is why Christ makes mission our ministry. He sends us to disciple the world by baptizing them into Him and teaching them to live by His Word. He expects us to proclaim His life-giving Word to everyone with ears, so that He might revive (literally, bring back to life) them right here, right now. Together we draw comfort, strength and encouragement from the presence of God-With-Us Jesus, who promises to be with us always, forever.
When Jesus called His disciples to follow Him, He didn’t say where He was taking them. And they didn’t ask. Not until three years later, when Thomas stopped for directions. “I am the Way,” Jesus says. All roads lead to Christ. That’s the place to be.
By grace through faith, Jesus walks us through the valley of the shadow of death. He washes us clean and clothes us with His righteousness. He steps into our pain and empowers us to overcome it. He doesn’t wait for us to die. He breathes into us the Spirit of Life, ready to go, to love, to live.
*Don’t think of it as going to church; think of it as coming to Jesus. And then the answer is yes.
*Animals in heaven, yes; specific pets: I don’t know. It will still be heaven either way, with lots of golden retrievers.
*Don’t worry about looks. You’ll love it no matter what.
*No, homosexuals cannot get into heaven. Neither can liars, adulterers, thieves, gluttons, Catholics, Lutherans or people who yell at the Packers, the coaches and the refs (chief of those sinners, right here). All the labels that define our sin or divide us from each other got canceled at the Cross.
*No, Muslims (or any other followers of not-Christ) are not going to heaven unless they believe in Jesus Christ, the risen Son of God, in life. Only one Way in, so we keep defending and proclaiming the truth about Jesus, one soul at a time. Focus on this life, rather than the next one.
*”Let the babies come to me, because My Kingdom belongs to them.” Baptism is for the living; Jesus takes care of the dead. So keep baptizing. Jesus takes care of them, too.
Pastor Steve Kline was installed as Senior Pastor at SHLC on May 25, 2014, after serving 12 years as Senior Pastor at Zion in Wayside, WI. He was ordained in 1992 and previously served congregations in Pulaski and Hales Corners.