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In his Time magazine article, “Heaven Can’t Wait,” Jon Meacham contrasts two seemingly competing visions of heaven in contemporary Christianity. One prominent view envisions heaven as the ethereal place one goes when one dies. Images of winged angels, celestial music, golden thrones, pearly gates, and streets of gold variously occupy this vision of the hereafter. Heaven is conceived of as a future paradise of eternal rest filled with peace, light, and love. Everlasting life is seen as an eternal abode in the heavenly realm with God and the angels.
A second well-known view envisions heaven as how you live your life. This standpoint appeals to a younger generation motivated by causes and inspired by heaven to make a positive difference in the world. Guided by this outlook, these young evangelical Christians see themselves as agents of heaven on earth engaged in social justice and peacemaking. For this activist generation, heaven demands stewardship on earth in daily living.
According to New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, heaven is not a future destination but rather God’s dimension in our ordinary life on the earth. For Wright, the hope of a new heaven and a new earth along with the New Jerusalem coming from God in the Book of Revelation should invite work in the world for justice. Wright emphasizes the biblical hope of the bodily resurrection and new creation in the New Testament.
Meacham asserts that early Christians did not understand heaven in the same way as those who now envision a heavenly paradise after death but rather envisioned heaven as a two-step process. First, the soul left the body to a place of rest and peace. Second, a bodily resurrection into a new heaven and a new earth would bring God’s kingdom to earth. Meacham concludes that Christians have largely departed from these concrete beliefs about heaven by Jesus and his contemporaries. For Meacham, Wright and others are bringing this emphasis on the bodily resurrection and the New Jerusalem back to contemporary Christianity. The implication is an active Christianity bringing the Kingdom to earth.
Yet, these two competing visions of heaven and the hereafter need not be mutually exclusive. A vision of heavenly bliss and celestial paradise after death is a compelling way to describe what early Christians saw as the first — temporary — stage of heaven. Immediately after death one returns to God and enters paradise. Notwithstanding, the entire biblical account points to hope in a bodily resurrection and a new eternal life with God in the New Jerusalem. Life with God on earth will be exalted. According to the New Testament, heaven is not the final destination but rather a temporary holding place before the end of the world. One can easily hold these two visions of heaven in tension in one’s faith.
Meacham implies, however, that one cannot believe in heaven as the eternal place of rest and vindication and also work for social justice as an imperative. Thus, according to some, the image of heaven as a future paradise pacifies Christians, most especially the poor and marginalized.
Critics of African American slave religion, for instance, argue that it was otherworldly, escapist, and compensatory. The black spirituals demonstrate the rich imagery of heaven and the hereafter in slave religion as release and vindication in another life. These images of heaven no doubt enabled black slaves to endure hardship and dehumanization. Yet, black slaves also believed in imminent liberation on earth as in the biblical Exodus. They hoped for concrete material and spiritual liberation from bondage in the now.
Rebellious black slave insurrectionist Nat Turner, for example, asserted that blacks should fight for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through revolt. African American Christian slaves held in balance the hope of paradise in another life and the equally significant hope of heaven on earth. They were able to resist slavery in myriad ways by believing in the God of both the hereafter and the present. Thus, black slave religion was both otherworldly and this-worldly. Slaves embraced the hope of a heavenly paradise after death that would vindicate them and erase the pain of the present life. Yet, they also hoped in imminent liberation on earth and the belief that God would initiate a new era of peace and freedom for blacks here in America.
Karl W. Lampley is Martin Marty Junior fellow and a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.