This is the fourth post in a series on heaven, hell, and the relentless love of God.
Years ago I pitched in with a prison ministry called Kairos. Several of us would bring guitars into the prison to lead music during worship for inmates.
Their favorite song? “I’ll Fly Away”
I’m not making this up.
My guess is that the inmates liked this line: Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away. It was their little joke on their guards.
“I’ll Fly Away” is actually about going to heaven. It’s right there in the first line. Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.
And that’s just how lots of people think about heaven. It’s someplace you go after this life is over. You leave this place for another, different place that is infinitely better.
Most people don’t say much about the plumbing of the new place, really. It’s just better. And, oh, did I mention that it’s someplace other than this?
There are, however, entrance requirements.
Living a good life, repenting your sins, believing in Jesus. Get these on the resume! It’s how you get in.
The only problem with this model is that it’s not what the Bible actually says.
Take a look at what St. John says in Revelation: “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev. 21:2)
Souls are not flying away from planet earth up to heaven. The New Jerusalem descends to earth.
John continues, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (Rev. 21:3)
God comes to dwell with his people. Right where we are. On our block. Maybe even right next door.
There goes the neighborhood!
Those of us who own homes know that the character of our neighbors influences the quality of the neighborhood.
When Joy and I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, we didn’t think much of it when our new neighbors across the street rode up on a Harley. It was when all their friends rode up on Harleys—at midnight—and our windows vibrated from the music, that we started to get a little nervous.
The drunken confrontation with the police at 3:00 a.m. didn’t help much either.
We imagined a deteriorating house across the street. Neighbors short-selling to escape violence and crime. Our whole street occupied one house at a time by the Sons of Anarchy, except not nearly so good-looking and articulate.
There goes the neighborhood!
As it turns out, God’s salvation plan for his Creation involves relocation. Only it’s not our individual souls that he transports to some distant plane. He moves into our neighborhood. And the neighborhood will never be the same when he does.
Do you remember praying the Lord’s Prayer? We say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We’re holding God to his promise. He says he’ll move into our neighborhood.
No one is forced to move out of the neighborhood. But God’s very presence repels all of those behaviors and attitudes that make you a dangerous, uncaring, indifferent, destructive or self-centered neighbor.
Racism, greed, murder, rape, lust, robbery, conceit, war, hatred, unforgiveness. They all flee the neighborhood.
God wants us to stay in the neighborhood even if our very souls have to be vastly renovated.
The departure of some of these destructive and self-destructive character flaws and behaviors may leave big gaps in our souls. Jesus stands ready to repair us to a state that is better than we can even imagine.
And yet, if you are so attached to any of these spiritual toxins that you just can’t live without them, then you must leave the neighborhood to keep them.
You may not really know how to see very different people as the beloved child of God, but if you want to Jesus will make it happen.
You may not be able to imagine a life in which you seek another’s welfare before ever considering your own comfort or status, but Jesus will give it to you.
Jesus wants you in the neighborhood, but he will not settle for the kind of neighborhood that feels anything like hell.
If that’s the sort of neighborhood you want, God’s neighborhood cannot be the place for you.
Now I’ve raised the question that’s probably on many people’s minds. How does Jesus figure into all of this? What happens to people who don’t believe in Jesus? That’s the subject of the next post in this series.