In recent years a new pet peeve has arisen in some quarters of the church. I have often encountered, and not uncommonly from good evangelical brothers, an objection to casual references about “going to heaven when you die.” No doubt, much of this angst has trickled down from N.T. Wright, who expresses concern (in every book I’ve read from him) that traditional Christians have not allowed for God-rescuing-and-renewing-the-cosmos theology to really permeate their thinking. We’ve imagined an ethereal eternity of strumming harps and floating around in the great by and by. We’ve neglected the promise of resurrection. We’ve forgotten the hope of heaven come to earth.
Fair enough. I wholeheartedly agree that salvation is about more than being beamed up into the clouds. And yet, the whole heaven thing is pretty critical to folks when they come to their last breath. Dying saints may find it encouraging to know that the whole cosmos is going to be renewed at the end of the age, but they also can’t help but wonder what the next moment will be like when they reach the end of their days.
Where we go when we die is one of the most important questions a pastor has to answer. Good news about what God promises to do years or centuries from now will not suffice. It isn’t enough to tell our people that they’ll live in a new world at the renewal of all things. They want to know what tomorrow will be like. Will they be with Jesus in paradise or not? Paul talked about the heavenly dwelling waiting for him once he died (2 Cor. 5:1-10) and the joy he would have to depart and be with Christ (Phil. 1:19-26), so we ought to have no shame in glorying, as the saints for two millennia have done, that after death we live with God in heaven.
I understand that some good Christians have an underdeveloped eschatology that rarely touches on crucial New Testament themes. But many of these same Christians have a sweet and simple longing for heaven, a commendable confidence that because of Christ they will, in fact, die and go to a better place. Correcting eschatological imbalances is good, but not if it means undermining or minimizing one of the most precious promises in all the Bible; namely, that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Even the intermediate state is indescribably good–better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord is how Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:8).
In trumpeting the good news of cosmic renewal let us not lose sight of the hope that anchors the believer in hard times and is the reality awaiting us on the other side of suffering and death: we really do go to heaven when we die.