Another reason we don’t talk about heaven

When I was writing my last post, I thought maybe I should write this one first.

My last post suggested that one reason mainline pastors don’t talk about heaven much is because talking about heaven requires us to deal with questions about who does not end up there. I believe there is truth in that, but I’m not sure it is the biggest reason why so many pastors say so little about heaven.

My fear is that many pastors do not talk about the way to heaven because of doubt about the doctrine itself.

This doubt can take more than one form.

The mildest form of this is an impulse to “correct” the flaws in popular piety about heaven. If you read the Bible, it does not take much effort to notice that the Bible speaks about eternity with God not in terms of wings and harps and clouds, but in terms of a physical life in resurrected and redeemed creation. The idea that life after death involves living on as a some sort of ghost among angels is popular but not biblical. The biblical promise is that after Christ returns again creation will be redeemed and heaven and earth will be one. We will live on in bodies of flesh and bone, but free of the death and frailty that so marks our existence now. It will be utterly different than life as we know it, and yet we will still have lungs full of air, stomachs taking in food, and skin feeling the softness of a puppy’s fur.

Observing all these things is mere orthodoxy.

But sometimes, we pastors can be so devoted to clearing away the errors of popular piety about a heaven full of ghosts that we sound like we are calling into question the idea of heaven itself. We want to appear wise more than we want to help our people love God and trust in what they believe.

This can be fixed with more care in the way we speak.

Some problems, however, run deeper than words.

Some pastors don’t talk about heaven because they do not believe the orthodox teaching embodied in the great creeds of the church. They do not believe that Christ will come again and judge the living and the dead. They do not believe that some of us will spend eternity with God and some will be consigned to hell. They do not believe in a final reward for the righteous and final punishment for the wicked.

I love my brothers and sisters in the clergy who struggle with doubt or secretly disbelieve the things we say in the creeds of the church. I do not know how I could stand up and preach every week if I seriously questioned the baptismal faith I am called to preach as a pastor. It would cause me deep pain to be so divided, but I hope that we would all recall that we are called to preach the faith of the church rather than “our own theology” and not let our own doubts keep us from sharing the great hope of heaven and eternity with God with the people who gather in worship with us each week.

I appreciate you taking time to read my thoughts here. I’m curious what you think. Do mainline pastors speak and preach about heaven too little or too much? Why do you think this is so?

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One reason we don’t talk about heaven

I have a theory about why some pastors talk so little about “the way to heaven” in the mainline church. I have no evidence at all to indicate whether my theory has any merit, but since it costs you little to read these thoughts, I hope you might indulge me for a few moments.

I think that one reason we in the mainline talk so little about “the way to heaven” is that talking about it will require us to observe that not everyone ends up there. And drawing attention to that truth makes people — the preacher among them — uncomfortable.

It is easier to avoid saying such things because the moment we say out loud that not everyone goes to heaven, we instantly have a lot of questions to answer.

“What about my son/daughter/husband/wife/mother/father who does not believe and never comes to church?”

“What about me? Sure I gossip and harbor resentment in my heart toward others and refuse to forgive that person who hurt me back in the day, but I’m going to heaven, right? I mean, I come to church every Sunday.”

Questions like these arise out of anxiety and fear, and are unpleasant to confront for all involved. Pastors, as a group, prefer to ease people’s fears rather than heighten them, so our impulse is often to create wiggle room that avoids the hard implications of the truths we believe.

I am prone to this. I am an empathetic person who scores high on the Feeling scale on the Myers-Briggs type indicator. Not only do I want to offer comfort to people who are hurt, but I also want people to like me. So, my inclination is avoid and deflect questions like these. My impulse is to say things like this: “Well, yes, your uncle Bud expresses contempt toward God and church, but I’m sure Jesus is working on him and will judge him with mercy.” My impulse is to shy away from saying what the Scriptures say about Bud because I know that will deepen the anxiety of the person who brings me the question.

But protecting people from anxiety about God is not my job.

If a man came to his heart doctor weighing 350 pounds, smoking every day, and eating nothing but fast food, we would not consider the doctor heartless, cruel, or unkind if he told the man the truth about the likely outcome of his life. Indeed, if the doctor worried about upsetting the man and told him that things would probably be okay, we’d say the doctor had failed to do his job.

When a pastor does that very thing, avoids the truth, we often call it being “pastoral.”

And so why doesn’t the church talk much about “the way to heaven”? One reason — and I know there are others — is because talking about it upsets people. Talking about it always involves talking about the fact that not all ways lead to heaven and, in fact, most of the ways that the world likes to tread lead away from heaven. This makes people uncomfortable and fearful and angry, and we don’t want to deal with that in the church.

But here is the problem. People need to be uncomfortable before they can find comfort in the gospel. If we are too tender about disturbing their hearts, we will find that they often remain impervious to the true blessing of good news and apt to wander far from the road that leads to heaven.

If people never feel themselves to be lost, they will not rejoice at being found.

And so, the challenge I take from these thoughts is this: If my task as preacher and pastor is to lead people in the way that ends in glory, I must not be too sensitive about the pains they might experience along the way. God uses those pains and even causes them. Yes, as pastor, I must find a way to speak always with grace, always with the aim of building up and edifying, but also always in truth. To do anything else is to shirk my calling. Lord, help me.

How I learned to talk about goats

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I found myself using a line in my sermon last Sunday that has been lingering with me. In the midst of my sermon, I said to my two congregations that I did not want them to end up as goats, and from there I reminded them of the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46.

I have to confess this: Ten years ago, I would never have taken that kind of sermonic detour. Indeed, had I been in a pew hearing that, I might have bristled at it.

You see, I came to Christ from secular America and through theological liberalism. Talk of the supernatural and eternal judgment of humanity was alien to me — even a bit laughable, perhaps even contemptible.

There is a line in the TV show House that comes to mind. The atheistic Dr. Greg House is talking with another doctor about what happens after death or does not happen. House’s counterpart asks incredulously whether he believes this is all there is, to which House replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that all *this* isn’t simply a test.”

This is the way we often react to talk of the judgment of God, the coming wrath, eternal reward and eternal punishment. We act indignant that God would cheapen the meaning of life by reducing it to a never-ending test to judge our fitness for heaven and hell.

I get all that.

So why the warning to my congregations about sheep and goats?

The short answer to this is that I’ve spent the last 8 years reading John Wesley and the Bible. I’d read none of Wesley and scarcely any of the Bible before I was baptized in 2001. It was nearly pure experience that got me to the baptismal font and very little in the way of Scripture or Tradition. And it was gentle but powerful experiences of the grace of Jesus Christ that deepened my faith before I got my call to ministry several years after my baptism.

Once I sensed that call, I decided I had better start learning about Methodism and the Bible. And it was this study that helped me name my experiences of grace. Before this, I had only some spiritual experiences that, without the language of Christianity, were nearly impossible to articulate. The Bible and Wesley helped me to understand what had happened to me and what was happening in me. And they gave me the framework of belief that helped me see that this day-to-day life is much more than just a weary grind for a few decades before our bones dry out and we pass into forgotten memory. We are called to be children of God. We are called to that now. We are called to it forever.

Is life more than a test? Yes. Of course. But there is a test. And, as a pastor, I grow more convinced that I do the people in my congregations real harm if I shade that reality or hide it from them. The truth is this. We will stand before God. There will be a final exam. The good news is this. Jesus has already shown us the test. We know the questions and the answers. No one has to fail, but many will.

All this talk is crazy to atheists and those who have grown so wise that they find Jesus’ words in need of updating. It used to be crazy talk to me. As a pastor, though, I dare not treat it that way when given the awesome responsibility of teaching and preaching the Word of God to the people who come to hear it. How can I claim to love them if I act as if our purpose in life is to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?