I Just Can't Imagine
Imagine No Heaven!
In the music business musical groups come and go. They release a few albums, go on tour and then fade into the musical abyss. They may have been very popular for a short period of time but we now can barely remember their names. The Ventures played Sandcastles, The Grass Roots “Lived for Today” and held “Midnight Confessions.” The Turtles were so “Happy Together” that they went on to record songs “You Know What I Mean,” “She's My Girl” and “Elenore.” And then came the Monkeys came “Walking Down the Street,” singing “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I'm a Believer,” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” These groups and tunes were once very popular. The tunes were heard every few hours on the radio but now they are distant memories. Few of us remember them. But every once in a while a song is composed that transcends generations, cultures, religions and languages. In 1971 after the most popular rock group in history disintegrated into a cacophony of internal jealousy and arguing, one member of the group released a solo that not only became an immediate hit. John Lennon wrote
Imagine there's no Heaven
The Rolling Stone magazine called it the third greatest song ever written. When the Liverpool airport was named after Lennon, a phrase from the song, "above us only sky", was painted on the ceiling of the terminal. Former President Jimmy Carter said that in his travels through 125 countries he would often hear the song played alongside the countries national anthem. Several Hollywood movies include portions of song in the movie. It was used in the last sequence of the 1984 movie the Killing Fields. The 1990 movie Quantum Leap and Mr. Holland's Opus also included the song. It was also performed in the show commemorating the 30th anniversary of the sci-fi series Star Trek. On the fateful morning of January 30, 2003, the crew of the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia woke to the voice of the minstrel of love. The message of love, unity and equality even infected the Working Communist Party of Iran who sing the song as a protest against the materialism of the culture. On New Years Eve at the start of 2006 and of 2007, "Imagine" was played in Times Square, New York City in the minutes before the clock struck midnight.
Lennon does not attempt to hide his message. He once said Lennon commented that the song was "an anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic song, but because it's sugar-coated, it's accepted." I commend Lennon for his attempt to shift the world's vision to a better future; to a time in which greed, power, and hate will be eradicated; to a place in which people can stand together and live together in love and harmony. However, John Lennon could never accept the idea that without a heaven such a place could not exist. Without an eternity, such a time would always remain a hope and never become a reality. John Lennon just would not accept that this world had to pass away and new heaven and a new earth had to emerge before all the people could live as one. Fortunately the author of Revelation saw that new heaven and new earth.
A New Vision of the Old Vision
The reader of Revelation will notice that John has devoted seen the tribulation and suffering that will come as the present age comes to a conclusion. He has seen the doom of the wicked and now he catches a glimpse of the “bliss of the blessed.”1 God offers to the writer a vision of the promise that he offered to the prophet Isaiah.
Behold, I will create
Yesterday, the youth group attended worship services a the Bet Ahm synagogue. In his sermon the rabbi talked about the ancient practice of putting a loaf of bread on the altar that stood in the Tabernacle for priests on Sabbath or Saturday after the worship service. This bread was dedicated for the priests but they were not to eat it until the next Sabbath. He often wondered how the bread did not become stale. He told his congregation that the bread served as an allegory for spiritual life. Everything we do is an act of worship and like that bread has the danger of becoming stale. This is true in every religion. The symbols, rituals, ideas and concepts that we hear Sunday after Sunday can easily become old and stale. This is true of our understanding of heaven, that time in which we will enter the joy of our salvation; when God will wipe away every tear; death will be no more, all the pain and sorrows of life will vanish and we will enjoy God's presence forever. Except for the former Beatle and a few others, everyone else knows that and believes. That is the problem. We so assume not only the reality but the entitlement of heaven that it has become stale bread. It has sat before us for so long that it has become a hard, dry crust. The challenge before us is how do we transform our heavenly vision into a compelling, fresh, dynamic vision that inspires us to live for the glory of God.
In considering the options from various teaching, I always take into account the fruits of their labors. I am not going to take golf lessons from someone who cannot break 100. Nor will I pay good money to be taught bowling from someone with an average that is less than 100. The same is true in the spiritual life. Many teachers and preachers offer various advice but I want to learn about the circumstances of their life to see what type of fruit their teaching produced. By that I do not mean, how many did they convert or how many attended their worship services. My interest lies in how well did the person handle adversity. How did the person respond to difficult circumstances? Were they able to ministry in Christ's name even when the events seem to conspire against them?
When I consider those question, one man always stands out for me, Richard Baxter. He pastored a congregation in Kidderminster England. The townspeople were so appreciative of his ministry that they erected a statue in his honor upon his death. Baxter was an amazing man not because he drew large crowds to hear him preach but because he was able to minister in the presence of severe pain. He refused to use his affliction as an excuse. He records that he had not been without a year of suffering since the age of fourteen and seldom did he enjoy two or more days pain free. Later in a letter to a friend, he mentioned that relief from pain came only once a month for a few hours. When he was thirty-five, he became bed-bound with a disease from which few expected him to recover. During his convalescence he meditated on the joys of heaven and the age to come. He began to write his thoughts down and when he recovered he published them into a book, The Saint Everlasting Rest. He writes “Keep close to this reviving fire, and see if your affections will not be warm.” Baxter believed that my daily meditating on the coming glory, we could keep our faith fresh and vibrant. The writer of Revelation helps us in this matter by recording his vision of the the coming age.
The first heaven and earth were built for the first man and woman but they failed the text. They committed the one act of disobedience that tarnished his earth. Since that day in which the man and the woman fell from grace, this creation has been in pain waiting for the coming of the new age. This earth is not our home. That does not give us freedom to abuse and misuse its resources but it offers the hope that one day we will day in a age without the corruption of sin.
The idea of heaven conjures up different images for different people. Some see a blissful meadow, others a quiet brook or a walk along the ocean. The more material focused may see and endless shopping spree or a lavishly furnished house. Some that they will be enjoying their favorite sporting event, hobby or other recreational pastime. I cannot and will not say specially what it is but I cannot say with confidence what it is not. It is not the place of sin. Think about what it would be like to live without sin; to be able to enjoy the company of others without worry about their ulterior motives. Think for a moment about how enjoyable it would be to live without anyone striving to get ahead by pushing you aside. Baxter writes “if thou be once in heaven, thou shalt sin no more.”
We claim that we enjoy this world but consider the havoc that sin has caused. The suffering that stems from greed and corruption. The destruction from the hands that have sought power. Consider also the mistakes that we have made. The hurt that we personal have caused. Once in glory all of this will be removed because a new era will have dawned.
The new creation will also include a new presence. The author of Revelation writes “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev. 21:3)” In the beginning we were once made to dwell with God. We once enjoyed intimate fellowship with him. That relationship will one day be restored. We will once again know without doubt, without faith, that God is present with us. We will never have to say, “Oh, it would be much easier to believe if I could just see evidence of God's presence.” We will not only have the evidence but will also have the essence.
The presence of God will offer us a long sought after gift. He will wipe away our tears, he will take away our mourning, and lift all our pain. Baxter writes:
“Thou, poor soul, who prayest for joy, waitest for joy, complainest for want of joy, longest for joy; thou then shalt have full joy, as much as thou canst hold, and more than ever thou thoughtest on, or thy heart desired.”
Consider the pain in your soul for people who have been beat up by the struggles of life. You will then know joy. Consider the sorrow you feel for those who have suffered. You will rejoice for the gift of love and and honor of grace that God gives them for their faithful endurance. Considered heartache you feel for those who struggle with addictions. God will change it to joy because you will know that their suffering has ended. Consider the aliments that have afflicted you for so many years. You will finally know a pain free life.
There is No Escape
Often the critic attacks the Christian faith because of our focus on an afterlife. They claim that this causes people to neglect their responsibility to work for the betterment of humanity. The critic contends that our “pie in the sky” faith causes a person to tolerate injustice because of the promise of a future day. I do not believe that is the case. John Piper writes
If somebody falls out of an airplane with no parachute on and you don't have one either, you aren't going to jump out after them. It won't do any good. Two deaths aren't better than one. But if you have a parachute on, you just might try one of those awesome rescue attempts, and free fall like a bullet to catch the helpless and pull your cord. It's the hope of safety in the end that releases radical, sacrificial love now.
Only the person who is confident that his/her future is secure will be able to live without complete commitment and total abandonment to serving others. Only when our minds are so filled with the promise of our heavenly rest are we able to labor tirelessly in the service of our Lord.
No, John I just cannot imagine a life without heaven and praise be to God, neither could the author of Revelation.
1The Revelation of John : Volume 2. 2000, c1976 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. (197). The Westminster Press: Philadelphia
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