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Years ago I preached a chapel sermon at the university where I taught on different visions of Heaven. In theological terms “eschatology,” meaning the study of last things or perhaps “the end of the world as we know it,” and specifically whether or not we really will be “just fine.” Well, I hadn’t thought of it in years until recently out of nowhere, two people who crossed my path independently said to me “Didn’t you once preach a sermon in chapel on heaven?” And then both proceeded to remind me of things I’d said and how it had left a lasting mark on them. Well, when things like that happen, you don’t have to have a highly-developed sense of spirituality to realize that it’s something you should listen to. So The Saintly Mule sat down and edited that sermon to a manageable length, and with much vacillation and indecision is offering it here in the hope that someone may find it useful.

Welcome to The Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.

It was my first semester teaching undergraduate Christian theology. I still wore about me that marvelous and short-lived aura of omniscience that follows a seminary graduate across the stage and out the door. As I sat in my office, there was a knock at the door, and I saw one of my students, a young lady, “coming to drink from the fountain of wisdom.” She came in, poured herself into the chair, and began to weep violently. I suddenly wondered why in five years of graduate theological education, no one had every told me what to do with a crying student. So much for omniscience. I couldn’t even offer her a Kleenex. I’m a guy. I don’t have one.

I’m sure I attempted to say something very pastoral, something very Julie Andrews-like, “There, there, dear, whatever is the matter?” I’m sure what came out was something more like, “What’s wrong with you?”

Understandably, it took her nearly five minutes to collect herself sufficiently to look at me and say, “I don’t want to die.” Now this was in the days when we didn’t think about what that might mean. What came to the mind of the recent seminary graduate was “Here’s a girl who feels herself a spider dangling over the flames of hell and fearful to meet her maker in her spiritual state.” Well, she looked up at me and reading the arrogance in my face, said as follows, “No, I know I’m a Christian. If I die, I know I will go to heaven. If Jesus comes back I know I will go with him. That’s the problem. I don’t want to go.”

Ah, now this was something I did understand a little bit. As the story came out, she had come from a very rough background, had endured a great deal of suffering in her life, and now, having come to university, had gotten free of all of that. New friends, new acquaintances, new joys, new labors, a new life opening up before her, free of all of that sorrow, and in her words, “If Jesus comes back today, I lose it all.”

Now her comments are theologically lamentable to be sure, but they are understandable. At least they are to me. I too have had misgivings. If you are a reflective and honest person, you probably have too. At times wondering whether or not God was offering us a future that we don’t really want.

Yes, we experience a curious admixture of longing for and dread of the end of this story. But at time featuring fear that it won’t measure up to our expectations and, if honest, would we rather be perfectly happy here where things after all are not so bad. Many of my generation and background walked this path…are still walking.  A journey were one vision of “What God had promised” gives way dramatically to another.  Many of you will suffer or have already endured a similar upheaval in your time at university. This morning, I would like to do little more than set that journey into a particular frame.

I would like to give you an autobiographical account of my journey from one eschatological vision to another.

By a rapid and impossibly inadequate survey of a couple of eschatological visions, I would like to consider this young lady’s experience as well as my own journey as well as many of my generation who walked this path.

You should understand, I am not interested here in which eschatology is true. That is a fine question, just not one I’m interested in. My project is far more humble— a story of my quest to find a place to stand in understanding what God has in fact promised us.

You must understand that every thought a human can think—every belief you can hold has—beyond it truth or falsity value, consists of something gained and something lost. Some good underlined, and some good marginalized—a flowering in one place at the expense of a withering at another. That is what I’d like rehearse today. To get a feel for these eschatological gains and losses of certain visions of what God has promised

What do each of the 3 ½ visions gain by being what they are…and what do you lose by believing in them?

The first eschatology I embraced, that my youth, as well as many of my generation, I’m going to call…The Fundamentalist Eschatology.

This is a singularly unfortunate label, problematic as all labels are. Implying hegemony where great color and variety. Better to think thoughts than have labels. Yet it is hard to draw important distinctions without the shorthand that labels provide, so I summon the shade of Hippocrates to come to my aid and prevent me from doing additional harm in my attempts to do good.

What is the Fundamentalist Vision? Or collection of Fundamentalist visions, because they’re not all the same.

In all its permutations it rests upon the idea of that God’s people in this world are enduring great injustice—That they are sorely tempted, marginalized, troubled, abused and afflicted by a world that hates the gospel and its Lord…and therefore, as John predicted, hates us as well.

It rests upon a certain hope that the rebellion of men will not always endure. “Though the nations rage, the one who sits in the heavens shall surely have the last laugh.” {Ps 2} It is the vision of a sinking ship, floundering on the ocean, from which no human effort can save it, for it abides under a judgment as sure as Sodom and just as complete.

And yet, from this breached Titanic, the holy shall be rescued. We shall then under the enchantment of this eschatology, “fly away, like a bird from its prison, Oh glory, to be caught up to be forever reunited with our Lord.”

Now I’d like to suggest to you that there is a central good and glory that flowers in this vision.

It is the vision of Rescue. Thus, this vision flowers in the promise that the People of God can look forward to a liberation from the oppression of the systems that hold then in bondage.

There is an irony here, because it is fashionable to point to the idea of rescue, not, as I’m suggesting as the proper glory of this vision, but as the very place of its withering. I hear labels casually applied to it such as “world-flight,” “life-hating,” or “neo-platonic”—an interesting and nondescript label that seems to be a simple synonym for “wrong-headed” “silly” or “false,” “Surely we don’t believe that anymore. We’ve outgrown it.” That’s too simple. It’s too reductionistic, too easy. I believe we do great harm by not extolling the virtue of this rescue motif in its wholeness.

For one thing, it is entirely biblical. The longing that it creates is entirely good and consistent with Hebrews, I Peter, and John in the Revelation. More than this, it is exactly the point that the marginalized Fundamentalists of the 20th c. shared with every other marginalized Christian community—consider African-American spirituality and its desire for liberation, or of the suffering church in Russia, China; consider the disenfranchised and impoverished churches of the 2/3’s world of which we have so little experience. All agree that the only hope comes from God’s intervention to rescue the chosen people from underneath the authority of the diabolical power systems that govern this world as we meet it.

The great glory of the Fundamentalist vision is that is produces hope in the heart of suffering Christians.

The great glory of this vision is that is produces hope in the heart of suffering Christians. It gives endurance in the hardest of times—It rests upon the promise made by God that God will come and rescue us from situations that seem to the individuals suffering them completely unredeemable.

To brush aside a with the pejorative flourish “Platonic” or “Fundamentalist” a belief that has nourished and sustained the faith of Christians enduring horrors from which we are preserved, seems to me at best sloppy and perhaps even mean. We must be more precise.

Since this is autobiographical reflection, I will risk being sufficiently uncharitable to make the point clear. In my experience I most often find the complaint again the “rescue” motif on the lips of the predominantly affluent, predominantly well-educated, predominantly white middle-class Americans—those who apparently, in the midst of their relative comfort, do not believe themselves in need of rescue from anything. But consider how absurd such a claim sounds in any other part of the world at any other time of history.

To anyone who has both read the scriptures and suffered greatly under the powerful and predatory systems of this world, there is little question that the people of God stand in need of rescue. And more, that we shall be gloriously liberated from this world and its present powers.

And yet, I too have hinted at a withering. I don’t disagree with the detractors—I only desire a better method—less cynicism and more precision, care, and justice in identifying it. For despite this proper and hopeful glory of the rescue motif, it does have a soft under belly, that, unless great care is taken (and it often wasn’t), it will turn into the very thing for its detractors accused it of.

It took me long to discover it, and I, like many of my generation were scandalized to discover that the faith of our youth, while causing us to long for heaven, seemed to engender a sort of apathy for the plight of the world we are presently in.

That is, it did not just engender hopefulness, but also a kind of Hopeful Indolence

For it has been noted by many, that while the Fundamentalists were quick to build churches, mission agencies, and colleges (such as this one), they built far fewer hospitals, soup kitchens, and concert halls. While they were faithful to proclaim a liberation and rescue from suffering one day, they tended not to value liberation and rescue for the hungry, enslaved, and marginalized here and now. And even less interest in the glorious things that enrich human life—music, arts, literature, architecture, food (well, no one is entirely consistent).

The Fundamentalist vision tended not to value liberation and rescue for the hungry, enslaved, and marginalized here and now.

Though lamentable, it was understandable within their vision. No one wastes time swabbing the deck of the Titanic, no one paints the walls of a building scheduled for demolition. Why bother learning to play the violin… just to fiddle while Rome burns?

Thus the great virtue of the Fundamentalist’s passionate hope for a future rescue, often ended in an undervaluing of the more immanent needs of those who need rescue now. And without this motive for action, Fundamentalists were often found themselves in a posture of waiting for God, as opposed to active working.

Stated differently, this vision teaches well what we are saved us from, but struggled to articulate what we were being saved for. We knew well what we were coming out of, but not what we were being brought into. Rescued, but then what? Vague promises of cloudy and incessant hymnology with Jesus that understandably held no interest for the young lady in my office…nor for me, nor ultimately for much of Evangelicalism.

So there was a casting about by many of my generation looking for a new eschatological frame through which to view these things, one that sought to provide room and motive for meaningful work now—searching for the answer to what we were being saved for. And many found it—a great flowering—in another tradition.

I shall give it the equally dissatisfactory label of Reformed —which has the virtue of pith, but little clarity—for many denominationally Reformed people would feel abused by my use of the term, and many who shun the denominational epithet would embrace the contents. It has alternatively been called “Neo-Kuyperian,” which suggests a possible bibliography, but little else.

But vision has become so ubiquitous in the Evangelical community that it’s impossible to keep up with all the new books that treat it. It is, I would observe, most likely the dominant frame through which most your education will pass.

As such, it seems prudent to place it under the same critical lens, for it like its predecessor boasts a lovely and fragrant flower, but is likewise susceptible to a pathogen that can wither it root and stem.

If we are less aware of its dangers of this vision, it is only because it is the vision we happen to hold to at the moment, and we are always more critical of phases we’ve emerged from than phases we’re in.

The enchantment of this vision rests almost in the opposite direction to that of the Fundamentalist one. It is a vision, not of rescue, but restoration. That God, in Christ, desires to give back all that sin took. And though diversely imaged, it usually begins with the reminder that there will not only one day be a new heaven, but, oh by the way, a new earth as well.

It presents a renewed creation filled with meaningful work. And not just one day far away, but in some foreshadowed sense, in the here and now. God loves the work of the divine hands—and as such our role and place in the world as divinely appointed caretakers and world builders still applies—still our first vocation.

The final vision is but a consummation of that work we ought to be about every day. Why do we write music? Because God made us musical creatures, and will one day perfect us so that we might perfectly enjoy music? Why do we cultivate diverse cuisines? Because God made us creative creatures who eat, and will one day perfect us and this world so that we may perfectly enjoy food. Why do we build, create, love, labor, laugh? Because God has so made us, and will one day perfect us and the world so that we may enjoy these good gifts perfectly.

In one glorious sweep the whole of the created order has been given back to us in Christ. Our work, rest, and play; our hobbies, our relationships, our habits—are all brought back under the rule and reign of Christ—to be enjoyed for God’s glory.

It answers precisely that question the previous eschatology did not—What have we been saved for? All things. All things.

And it has been the source of a great cultural Renaissance within Evangelical and other communities. It teaches us to see the Not Yet in the very midst of the Already—the Kingdom enjoyed now, not just one day. It bids us to work and labor for the glory of God now, knowing that God will one perfect, establish, and honor that work.

It is in every way efficaciousit promotes work and labors in God’s name and for God’s glory.

The great glory of the Reformed vision is that it promotes work and labors in God’s name and for God’s glory.

What a flowering! It means that every area of life and humanity—from culture, to politics, to business—counts with God, and I have a right and responsibility to engage them.

What ill could be said against such a profitable and humanizing vision?

I’m not a prophet, not the son of one. But since the day that young lady walked into my office, I have interacted with dozen of students, Christians, and even ministers, whose embrace of this vision was just as uncritical as any Fundamentalist was before them.

Here, my friends, is the goose in the grain. This young lady illustrated for me a problem I was already beginning to diagnose within myself. A chilling realization that, while I had gained a great good I was not ready to let go of, I had lost something too.

She had learned to love the work of God’s hands—people, music, food, work, art, nature, laughter, and so on—and to throw herself robustly into them with such a vigor that she had ceased to long for anything greater. No, nor to even suspect that there could be something greater.

She had forgotten amid the flurry of her newly discovered humanity that the final and fullest restoration of her humanity would be to God.

Is it possible to love the good works of God’s hands with such fervor that one loses the passion for God? I now think it is. She had succumbed not merely to a vision of efficacious labor, but a myopia that confused the means with the end. Indeed, the idea of beholding unendingly the presence of God’s face was repugnant to her. It was what she didn’t want. It implied the loss of all the good things God had done.

The Reformed vision made it possible to love the good works of God’s hands more than God.

“Others and creation” she would very much like to have restored—for that’s where all the fun is, but she had no longing for God, simply as God. Only God as means to enjoying her renewed humanity. She labored under the unconscious idea that very presence of God would disrupt and intrude upon her enjoyment of all these other good and noble pleasures that God had made for her. “If Jesus comes back now, I lose it all.”

Now she, of course, did not say it these terms. No one does—we know instinctively that God is more important than things. But I have learned both from careful examination of my own Neo-Kuyperian heart as well observing the currents of Evangelicalism that persons under this enchantment spend a great deal of time considering and defending their enjoyment of God’s good world, and much less time reflecting on the central passion that enlivened the spirituality of ancient, medieval, and reformation Christianity—“take all else from me, but let me have God.”

We touch here upon a third vision, we have no time to discuss—only to suggest what might be called a Classical Eschatology, that traded almost entirely on this this beatific vision, or the everlasting journey into God’s self, for which we are being prepared. But its proper glory was to constantly remind us that ultimately we were made for God, to enjoy God—and nothing short of God will satisfy. That to love anything more than God—even a renewed creation and renewed humanity—is idolatry. In fact, more disturbingly we shall only experience both rescue and restoration, if we learn to love God more than either.

With more time, I believe this vision could bring to us a kind of healing—even though it too features a withering. It is not perfect. It gives up something too. But with the few minutes remaining, I would rather move on, for I think I have set the stage to close with a more disturbing challenge—the .5 of an eschatology. For I feel as though in the last year or so, I have stood upon the event horizon of an eschatological singularity, that threatens to overwhelm all these conversations rendering them moot.

An eschatological vision I can describe intellectually, but am not holy enough to embrace and rather ashamed to admit. I give it you now to tantalize your imagination, and inspire you to contemplate what it might mean.

I was introduced to it by a sidelong statement made by C. S. Lewis in his spiritual autobiography entitled Surprised by Joy, wherein, in the midst of a great dynamo of words on an unrelated subject, he releases this eschatological tsunami… “For it matters more that heaven should exist than that we should ever get there.”

“For it matters more that heaven should exist than that we should ever get there.”

No. No, Clive, you cannot mean it. That it should be more important to me that God be proved right and true? That all God’s words should come to pass? That God’s heavenly name and will should be vindicated by the establishment of that divine kingdom? That this is of greater value than even my own participation in it?

Dear Lord, I am not ready for that sort of sacrifice—theoretical though it be. For my pride is not yet that dead, and deeply down I still believe that in me, God is gaining something worth having.

And yet, in my ears the voice of Moses is ringing, “Oh Lord, preserve your reputation by forgiving the sins of the people, or blot out my name from the book.” (Ex 32:32) I hear Paul weeping, “Oh, if only God’s Christ could be vindicated before by my Jewish brothers, I would willingly be accursed.” (Rom 9:3)

Oh the weight! Who but the holiest of saints and not all of those could contemplate such a degree of abasement for the greater glory of their God? And yet, would not such a one be the most faithful follower of Christ, who himself was humbled to death—even death upon a cross—for the singular glory of his Father’s name, will, and kingdom?

My friends, I know not where such a journey can end but with the very death of the self for the greater glory of God. But perhaps… just perhaps… this truly is” the chief end of Man”—that the very act of learning to desire God more than all other good and holy things is the very means by which we are made fit to enjoy God forever. 

The saintly mule would like to thank you for listening to his ravings. If you don’t want to miss any of them, be sure to subscribe to the podcast at ITunes or Google Play and if you’d like to support the production of these little essays, please visit his Patreon page.

We’ll catch you next time at The Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.