Lots of people have been talking about heaven and hell lately. Rob Bell deserves some credit for this. Whether or not you agree with his thoughts in Love Wins, you have to admit that he’s stirred up a lively conversation.
Mark Galli responded with God Wins. Francis Chan chimed in with Erasing Hell. And this just skims the surface of book publication activity. There have been even more blog posts, magazine articles, radio stories, and television interviews.
While Rob Bell showers his readers with scores of provocative questions in his book, the question at the center of much of this conversation is this: Can a loving God condemn anyone to perdition?
I’ve discussed this question and related questions in an earlier series. While there’s still much left to be said about all of this, I want to point out an unintended result—at least for some of us—of the revived interest in heaven and hell.
It is finally dawning on people that their nagging dissatisfaction with their lives is that they’ve wanted this life to be what it can never be.
Let me explain by quoting Kevin DeYoung:
Many of us have had it so good that we have started looking for heaven on earth. We have lost any sort of pilgrim attitude. It’s all a matter of perspective. If you think that God has promised this world will be a five-star hotel, you will be miserable as you live through the normal struggles of life. But if you remember that God promised we would be pilgrims and this world may feel more like a desert or even a prison, you might find your life surprisingly happy. (Just Do Something, Kindle location 263 of 1403)
In other words, we’ve been sold the ideal of self-fulfillment from almost every direction. Culture teaches us that anything is worth doing so long as it brings a sense of personal fulfillment.
The point of marriage? Self-fulfillment. My soul mate will make me feel complete. Someone will finally understand me and accept me just as I am. He or she will make me feel safe and valuable. Our intimacy will erase that emptiness that keeps creeping into my heart.
Why do we work? Self-fulfillment. I will change the world. My work will be intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying. It will give me a sense of my own worth and the respect of colleagues, friends and even strangers.
Why do we worship? Self-fulfillment. I will feel uplifted or joyful or empowered or liberated from fear or encouraged. God will pour out blessings upon me beyond measure. I’ll be healthy. My marriage will be happy. My bank account will bulge. My kids will make good grades, excel in athletics, get a free ride at a great college, and never make me want to pinch their little heads off.
And so, when this vision of self-fulfillment inevitably fails to pan out, what do we do? Where do we turn when our marriage goes through a rough patch, our careers flounder, our jobs start to feel routine, and our worship services fail to be entertaining?
Get a new spouse. Find a new job or change careers. Look for a church home where “I feel fed.”
After pursuing this strategy enough times, we might begin to think that we are the problem. We’re sure that all our friends have glowing marriages, completely satisfying jobs, and perfect church homes. We’re just losers that will have to settle.
To quote the Rolling Stone, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” To extend the thought: and that makes me feel diminished and ashamed. I don’t want anybody to know how much of a failure I am, but I’m getting tired of holding this phony smile.
Christians know, or at least we should know, that we can not be completely fulfilled in this life. As St. Peter teaches, we are to live as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) in this life.
The finite things of this world cannot satisfy our infinite desire. As Ronald Rolheiser puts it, life is an unfinished symphony. We will not experience final closure so long as we draw breath and our hearts beat. (See Rolheiser, The Holy Longing)
This is not because we are incompetent or life in this world is bad. We long for a perfect union with God and the children of God. This is the holy longing of Rohlheiser’s title. This perfect union is to be had only in the life after this life.
This does not suggest that who we love and what we do in this life is insignificant. Nor does it mean that we love and work only to achieve a heavenly reward.
Instead, our faith teaches us that we are here to offer all that we do to the glory of God. I am happily married, employed in a career I love, and the member of a wonderful congregation.
In part this is because I do not expect my marriage, my job or my church to fulfill me. Instead, I see them as opportunities to do the good that I can do to the glory of God. At least, that’s what I’m like on my best days.
The Lord has placed us in a world awash with good and yet broken by the fall. To borrow a phrase from John Ortberg, everything and everybody we encounter on planet earth is an imperfect gift (see Love Beyond Reason). We also still yearn for a perfect gift, the gift of an unadulterated, unrelenting love.
So long as we understand that the things of this life can point us to that love but never take its place, we can live with a remarkable level of fulfillment and a powerful hope.
And where do we find evidence of that perfect gift in this imperfect world? Go to Golgotha. You’ll find the Cross of Jesus Christ there.
(The image above is Hieronymus Bosch’s “Allegory of Luxury” contained in the central panel of the triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” found at this site.)