This is a guest post by Lon Allison, Director of the Billy Graham Center
I’ve been thinking about the brevity of life and the idea of heaven. In the field of evangelism, there is talk about whether the doctrine of heaven is “overused” as a reason for believing in Christ. Some Christian leaders argue that we should “stop talking about the next life and focus more on God’s promises for this one.” I’ve even heard it said that “people don’t care about the afterlife; instead, they want to bring heaven to this life.”
I see their point. Their concerns, in fact, point to a commitment to the advancement of the Kingdom of God on earth. This is good; however, I disagree far more than agree with their view. There is something to be said for focusing more on the doctrine of heaven, not less. There are three reasons I say this.
First, it tends to be primarily affluent westerners who want the gospel focus to be on this life alone. Many churches in the Majority World, where life is more difficult in nearly every way, display a longing for heaven—and a passionate hope that it shall be soon. Their preaching and hymnody are full of this hope. While it is true that the “prosperity gospel” is a major theological challenge in the Majority World, there is not much chance for it to succeed. Why? Because listeners who initially fall for its lie, and sacrificially give to the hucksters asking for their precious money, soon see that they aren’t getting prosperous by doing so. Only the proclaimers of the health and wealth lies get wealthy and maybe, healthy. The vast majority of the poor understand the harsh realities of a world swirling in the darkness of inherited and actual sin. To both the redeemed and the lost, should not our message be full of hope for the next life, while still calling for justice and making a difference in this one?
Second, even in the West, I sense a deepening need for more than this life offers. In 1986, Lesslie Newbigin wrote of a growing disillusionment in the West, arguing that the enlightenment promises were spent and decaying. Neither government, nor commerce, nor education, nor any of the other promises really work. Part of it is cynicism, part suffering.
Today I was on the phone with a committed Christian man of high wealth. He said in passing that he used to believe life was pretty good, but less so now. He is around too much sorrow and brokenness. Some of it is in his circle of relationships. As I get older, I also carry a cumulative growing weight of sorrow about the world. Maybe it is turning 60. But it is more than that. Shakespeare wrote, “The weight of this sad time, we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say…the oldest hast borne the most” (King Lear). The longer we are here, the more we see and feel and experience the badness. Perhaps that is a small part of what it means to “carry on the sufferings of Christ” (Col. 1:24), and the more our souls cry out for the “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).
Third, I confess to deeply missing those I loved and have seen die. Both my parents passed in the last year. The loss is profound on every level. So too did a dear friend and senior Christian leader, Dr. Sterling Huston, leave us. The death of loved ones is a grave assault on the soul. Everything in me longs for reunion. Sin results in death, says Paul, and it hits everyone. And it wounds, terribly, and it isn’t right, and we believe it is not forever.
I will be an advocate for heaven. We are pilgrims here wishing for a home we’ve never seen but know is there. Preaching and teaching and dialogue (the three great forms of gospel speech) should talk more about the doctrine of heaven, not less. And to my friends who chastise us for this wish and call us escapists, I say, ease up a bit. Before long you too will be longing for your true home as well. There is nothing escapist about longing for heaven. It may be that there is nothing quite as real as hoping for that good place.