When I was younger I used to be terrified of the idea of heaven.
Well, it probably wasn’t the notion of heaven per se, but rather the thought of eternity. I know some people imagine the afterlife to be one of unceasing drudgery, the standard cliché being us resurrected into chubby cherub bodies and slowly strumming on golden harps long after the universe has plunged into its chaotic death.
Well, the chaotic death rarely makes it in there, because that would at least be interesting.
However, I wasn’t scared of monotony. Rather, it was the concept of being unending that unsettled me in my deepest being. I would imagine myself standing in a crowd, looking at the faces that I knew would never fade and would never leave. Countless eons would pass by and I would be expecting it to end, but it never would. The linearity of my mind could never be overcome, and each passing moment (as if there would even be anything like a “moment”) just meant the agony of unceasing would linger that much longer. Occasionally I would forget, but eventually that gnawing longing for finality would creep in unannounced, devastating any bliss that might characterize eternal life.
Eventually I grew out of my fear of heaven, or so I thought.
And growing up I found that I had a lot to look forward to. I heard sermons about how we will be reunited with our loved ones, and when the sting of death hits too close to home we tend to take some comfort in this.
I read how there will be no more pain and suffering, and when disease and pain wreaks havoc on our fragile frames the promise of this makes the great beyond a welcome home.
And all of these things are good and true as far as they go. We dream of a better world, a life without pain and suffering, without war or poverty, where good wins out and evil is destroyed forever. After all, we have very little to nothing of that in this one.
But just as hell can become the whipping boy for all the things we dislike about our world, so heaven can become the dumping ground for all of our longings. Perhaps too often it simply becomes our desires writ large, or, perhaps worse, merely a place and a chance where we can finally get what we always wanted.
And thus heaven is the place that we want to get to, the final destination on this short and pain filled journey, the land in which unending happiness exists.
But for me the nagging doubt still lingered, that dark question resisting all forms of solace and unblinking in the face of opportunistic veneers: Is heaven really what I want?
I was thinking back through the parable of the prodigal son, and particularly the attitude of the son who stayed. We normally treat of the prodigal himself and his dramatic conversion (and we’ll get to him later), but rarely do we dwell much on the son who stayed, probably because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we find him to look rather too much like ourselves.
When the prodigal was welcomed back, he was indignant. His father came to him, pleading with him to come and celebrate. After all, how often do we see this kind of life-turnaround?
But the son who stayed would have none of it, and lays bare his deepest self in his petulant response: I’ve served you all of this time, but you’ve never even given me a goat to eat and have a party with my friends!
‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30 NIV)
Most of us can identify with this son, because a lot of us do end up staying. We pride ourselves on not indulging our sins, which is easy to do when the world is replete with examples of prodigals who do.
However, it becomes clear very quickly that this son actually does not give the proverbial rat’s ass about his brother’s sins or that he squandered his father’s money. This really has nothing to do with the prodigal at all. The son who stayed feels betrayed, as if he has somehow been cheated out of that which was due him. All this hard work, he says, and it’s all for nothing!
Under the veneer of faithfulness and integrity really lies a heart that is as much a prodigal as the son in the bed with the prostitute. Ultimately he really cares nothing for his father, and actually has the exact same attitude as the prodigal, in that he expected the money just as the prodigal did. Who knows why he didn’t behave in the same way- perhaps he just didn’t have the courage.
At any rate, in his response he reveals himself to be a prodigal at heart, whose service and fealty is simply a cover to get what he wants for himself; perhaps it only took this ray of light to draw it out of the shadows. In a dramatic irony, the prodigal is willing to give up his sonship and merely be a servant, while the son who stayed considers himself only a servant, having long ago abandoned the relation of love that is meant to exist between father and son.
The father’s response is remarkable:
“My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” (Luke 15:31 NIV)
The son who stayed had made himself only a servant in his deepest heart of hearts, silently writhing in bitterness over the loss of what he felt due to him. He sees his relationship to his father as characterized by what he can get out of it, even though his aspirations are rather dismal; the prodigal at least had the pluck to sin with gusto! He may have stayed with the father, but his heart is perhaps even father away than the prodigal’s, who was willing to come back.
In the end, the prodigal realizes that he has sinned and sinned greatly, but rather than regretting that he has squandered his money and has no future, he finds it most troubling that he has sinned against his father. The love he perhaps forgot he had wounds him deeply, but those very wounds drive him back in humility. He cares nothing for regaining his status or building his wealth back up; all he desires is to be with his father and know his forgiveness.
What he finds, of course, is remarkable: even though he desired nothing but to be reconciled to his father, he ends up receiving everything as well. The father’s words to the son who stayed are thus proved true; to be with the father- not merely physically but in relation and in love- is to have everything that the father has.
Jesus speaks of this in another place when telling those who say they love him to not worry:
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33 KJV)
In light of the father’s words in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus’ teaching here makes perfect sense. To be with the Father is to have everything, while to be apart from him is to lose it all. In another place Jesus builds upon this when he says
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25 NIV)
It is for this reason no one will get to heaven. If we are hoping for heaven so as to see loved ones who have passed on or to be free from suffering or any other thing that concerns ourselves, we are actually not aiming for heaven but rather for hell. This is surely not our intent, and I am intentionally staining the semantics to underscore the point, but sometimes I wonder for myself:
Could I really be happy with just God?
It is perhaps that this is the question that has haunted me for all of my life, that lingering doubt which probably lays bare the deprivation of grace which taints us all. Because the realization, in our most honest moments, is that no, I probably could not be happy with just God. I am too much like the son who stayed, too cowardly to sin robustly but too attached to my own desires and secret sins to be content to be with the father. I believe the pleasures and consolations of heaven to be something due my faithfulness and service, all the while not realizing that those could have been mine all along.
At the end of the day my sin will keep me from getting to heaven, and the most wretched truth of the matter is that it is not actually heaven that I really want. Deep down, hell is where I belong, and not because God eagerly desires to cast me into the darkness but because that is where we who secretly cherish our sins like to live. But unlike the prodigal, we are often content to wallow in the mud, eternally gnawing on the bitterness of entitlements not granted and desires unfulfilled.
If I am like that, how could I possibly enjoy God forever? An eternity of being constantly faced with the One who stands in the way of me getting what I want, because he created me to only be happy with wanting him! Where is the justice in that? Hell demands an answer, and sadly too many of us will gladly spend forever working out the intricacies of how God has denied us our due and how we are right to reject him.
God created us for him and to glorify and enjoy him forever, as the old catechisms say. Anything less than having God as the ultimate object of our desire and happiness simply cannot abide heaven. Our hopes for all the things we want heaven to be are merely the ashes of the inferno, long burnt-out embers of love that couldn’t retain their heat.
But to us denizens of hell, the twisted logic of heaven is remarkable: By desiring God and God alone, by being united completely with him in his will while completely abandoning our own- we actually attain everything! Like prodigals who get tired of the mud of our sins, if we desire only to be with the Father, everything is thrown into the bargain.
When I was suffering through cancer for the seemingly umpteenth time, I felt despair at times that I have never experienced before. When faced with great suffering, it is natural to want it relieved. And most of my prayers were admittedly predictable: God, do something about this. Heal me, make me better. Don’t let me suffer here any longer, don’t let me die in this room.
The same doubts and fears of eternity that shadowed my youth clung to the recesses of my mind in my adulthood, brought scurrying out of the corners in those moments of pain. It is easy to want to make bargains with God, and we can begin to think that if I pray or read the bible more or say the right words or think better thoughts, then all of sudden God owes me what I want.
But even in great pain, this is really just the protest of hell, the retort of the brother who stayed behind and who is knee deep in the pig sty. The awful truth is that our sin doesn’t play fair; it will rear its head at the best of times and the worst of times. My prayers were perhaps not sinful, but they ultimately betrayed a lack of hope.
Because I came to realize a startling fact: In the midst of all my suffering, there is no deal, there is no bargain that can be struck. Whether I am hale and whole or decrepit and dying, I am created for God and for God alone, intended to glorify him and enjoy him forever. In the blinding fog of pain it can be difficult to see, but that stinging clarity meant that my hope could not be in anything but God alone.
Anything less is just wallpaper on the caverns of the netherworld.
In the book of Revelation is a passage I have read many times but never really taken in. In describing the New Jerusalem, John says this:
There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:5 NIV)
The only reason that there is light there is because God is that light. And of course, the only way anything else can be seen is because it dwells within the rays of that light and is illuminated. In the dark we cannot see anything, and thus cannot truly have anything. But when the light dawns and we can see, suddenly we have everything.
The answer to that grating question from since I can remember is not the things that I hope and desire in either this life or the next, whether they spring from the basest desires or the noblest of intents. The reason I feared eternity for so long is that in my sin I knew instinctively that I could not handle being around such all-consuming holiness and love forever. The endlessness of knowing that God’s love penetrated all creation and reached into the recesses of my double-minded heart is terrifying indeed, for I know deep down that I do not yet desire God and God alone. My desire is an admixture of half-hearted devotion and self-centered posturing most of the time, and usually I am hoping the scales will tip more to one side than the other when the gig is up.
Purity of heart is to will one thing, Kierkegaard said, and this profound insight is what heaven ultimately is, and why hell is perhaps so attractive. The Beatific Vision is not one experience in heaven among many but is the entire point of our existence, to be face to face with God in all the blazing purity of his beauty and the raging fire of his love.
If you think about that for a moment, and I mean really think about it, you might get a lump in your throat and feel a bit of terror too. After all, how often do we come face to face with such purity of desire? I can only fall on my face and beg for compassion and mercy, like the prodigal who wanted nothing more than to be a servant, but found himself once again a son.
We are meant to desire and enjoy God, period, and this desire is actually the only way that every lesser desire and happiness can even exist or make sense. It is only when our love and desire is purified and fixed upon its only true object that the other desires that normally characterize our understanding of heaven can become good. For heaven is not really a place to get to, but a person to desire above all else, and the one who desires us more than we could ever imagine.
Which is why there may be hope for us prodigals yet.