[The Widow Douglas] told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. . . . She said it was wicked to say what I said . . . she was going to live so as to go to the good place. . . . She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. . . . Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it. – MARK TWAIN, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Most human beings believe in an afterlife. And in most cases, this belief involves a good place and a bad place.
If you’re a good person, and you embrace the right beliefs, you go to the good place. If you’re not, and you don’t, you go to the bad place. Seems simple enough.
If you were to ask people what they believe heaven will be like, some would halfheartedly describe it like the Widow Douglas’s harp community. Others think of it as an eternal pleasure factory, where you are always happy, you have amazing superpowers, and you can do whatever you want. In the movie Defending Your Life, heaven is depicted as a place where you can eat all the carbs and fat you want because they have no calories. The TV series The Good Place features a utopian afterlife where angel Ted Danson allows only “good people.” In the initial plot twist, the central character is allowed in by accident and has to fake being good. In the season’s final plot twist, it turns out that Ted Danson is not an angel (should have seen that one coming) and the Good Place is actually the Bad Place.
Most people think heaven is a place where anybody would love to spend eternity as long as they’re allowed in. This view of heaven leads people to wonder, Why doesn’t God let more people in?
The problem with these views of heaven is that they’re not true. People are taking their picture of heaven from movies rather than thoughtful, sober, grown-up reflection on what Jesus said. “Movie heaven” is pretty much a pleasure factory that anybody would enjoy as long as they were allowed in.
But the life after death that Jesus describes is very different from “movie heaven.” Here’s the main truth to know about heaven: heaven will be life with God.
In fact, in heaven, it will be impossible to avoid God.
It’s not like heaven is an immense place and you have to track God down somewhere, like finding the Wizard of Oz. Heaven does not contain God; God contains heaven. So becoming the kind of person who wants heaven—uninterrupted life with God—is a problem because I often want freedom to do things I don’t want God to see. Real heaven means life where my every thought, deed, and word lie ceaselessly open to God. For eternity.
Have you ever committed a sexual sin? I’ll bet you didn’t do it while your mother was watching you. That would have taken all the fun out of it. In order to commit sin and enjoy it, you have to be someplace your mother isn’t. In heaven, there is no place where God is not. Once you’re in heaven, there is nowhere to run to for a quick sin. If you want to gossip, hoard, judge, self-promote, overindulge, or be cynical, where will you go?
Dallas Willard writes of a time his two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter wanted to play in the forbidden mud, so she kept saying to her grandmother, “Don’t look at me, Nana.” Thus “the tender soul of a little child shows us how necessary it is to us that we be unobserved in our wrong.” That’s why the promise of hiddenness sells. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” This is perhaps the real sinner’s prayer, offered before every forbidden act, word, and thought: “Don’t look at me, God.” In heaven that prayer can be neither offered nor answered.
In other words, heaven is the kind of place where people who want to sin would be miserable. A nonsmoking restaurant is great if you’re a nonsmoker but miserable to a nicotine addict. What brings joy to one creature may torture another. C. S. Lewis once wrote that “a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”
Heaven is a certain kind of community where humility and honesty and servanthood and generosity of spirit are as predictable as gravity is here. As John Henry Newman wrote, “Heaven is not for everyone: it is an acquired taste.”
People often criticize Christianity because they think it envisions heaven as an exclusive club that everyone desperately wants to get into and that God is trying to keep people out of. The reality that Jesus taught, however, is that no one really wants heaven.
The hymn “Rock of Ages” has a telling line:
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
It’s not hard to want the “save from wrath” part of the cure. God was so willing to save us from wrath that he sent Jesus to the cross so that he could experience ultimate spiritual death in our place. Anyone would want to be saved from wrath. We’re often a little more ambivalent about “make me pure.”
Our issue with heaven is not so much about getting in; it’s about becoming the kind of person for whom heaven would be an appropriate and welcome setting.
Ortberg, John. 2018. Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum.
Check out the new Bible Study, Eternity is Now in Session. It is available on Amazon, as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. (Like Netflix for Bible lessons.)