Monday, June 18, 2007

Is heaven overrated?

Apparently, I have been missing out on a controversy in the religious community about the Starbucks campaign, "The Way I See It," which features quotes on various topics from a variety of people on every Starbucks cup. I have personally enjoyed many of these quotes, as they have provided fruitful conversation for Ronnie and me when we interact over our respective lattes.

One such quotation has been particularly contentious, however. No, I am not talking about the one that speaks of homosexuality. I'm not going to touch that one with a 10 foot venti white chocolate mocha. I am thinking of The Way I See It #230, which comes from LA Times columnist Joel Stein. Here's a picture of the cup:

If you can't read it, Mr. Stein says: "Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but Heaven has to step it up a bit. They're basically getting by because they only have to be better than Hell."

Many have found this quotation decidedly anti-Christian and I can sympathize with their concern. I cannot speak to the intentions of Mr. Stein but there is a sense in which his comment is a derisive swipe at the dearly held belief and significant source of hope for Christians all over the world.

Before we tar and feather Mr. Stein, however, we should consider what it is he is criticizing with derision. He thinks that heaven is typified by "clouds," "people play[ing] the harp," "blue skies," and "soft music." It is this version of heaven that he calls "totally overrated." So, this begs the question: Is this version of heaven the biblical version of heaven? Is this really what we're looking forward to?

As I see it, the answers are, no and no. Puffy clouds, soft music, and people playing harps is not how the Bible describes the eternal state. In fact, this bare depiction of heaven has more in common with folk tales and cartoons than the testimony of scripture.

In reality, the eternal state to which we are headed is the "new heavens and new earth" described in Revelation 21 (see also Isaiah 65-66), with the New Jerusalem, the city of God, at the center. Rather than float around the sky as disembodied souls playing music and sleeping on clouds, we will be living in our resurrected bodies upon the recreated earth, within the New Jerusalem. In this place, the powers of evil are no more and death, suffering, sorrow, and tears are banished. The glory of God will be our light and the presence of God will be constantly among us. People from all nations, tribes, and tongues will serve the Lord faithfully and we joyfully live as the community of God forever.

For this reason, I can agree with Mr. Stein's criticism. The cartoonish, mundane, folksy view of heaven as a sleepy tea party in the clouds is definitely overrated and boring. There is no comparison between this view of heaven and the true destiny of those who are in Christ--the new heavens and new earth. Let's not trade the marvelous promises of scripture for the commonplace cartoons that make an easy target for thoughtful people. God is at work to redeem all things--every inch of planet earth and the universe he loves. The New Jerusalem is our future home and God's service is our eternal destiny.

So, what do you think about this? Is Joel Stein right?


Sean Carlton said...

Coming off a week of orchestra camp and listening to the harp being played frequently I can tell you it's a beautiful instrument, and I also like clouds as much as the next guy, but if that's all there is in heaven I will be severely disappointed. When I was a child I used to imagine heaven as a place free of homework where it was summer all year long forever (and that would be nice) but I think now the only way I can imagine heaven is that it will be unimaginable. Meaning that when I think of what it will be like - whatever great things and great people will be there I just have to remind myself that it will be even better than that. As for Stein, it's apparent to me that he's attacking the fairy tale version of heaven, and his "attack" should only be taken seriously by those who either love clouds or love the harp way too much.

Ched said...

Let's not trade the marvelous promises of scripture for the commonplace cartoons that make an easy target for thoughtful people.

A good word.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

The other thing Stein says that I forgot to mention is "[Heaven] should be someplace you long to go, like a luxury hotel." I can say amen to this, too. We need to groan with creation for the renewal of all things. I can't wait for all things to be made new.

Dori said...

I'm thinking you were just looking for a post to write where you could put the labels "heaven" and "Starbucks" back to back beneath it. :)