What if this world is not all there is?
Many years ago, a mournful song made the Top Ten list in my neighborhood. I remember little about it other than its doleful character and the repeated cry, “Is that all there is?” The person who sang it exuded despair, and I doubt anyone could hear it without feeling deep sadness. Over the years, as I have heard more and more people declare that God is my imaginary friend, I know that more and more people must be facing that dark moment when the question arises: “Is that all there is?”
Christians are often criticized for their focus on heaven. One frequent complaint is that Christians use heaven as an excuse not to care about this world. While the preponderance of evidence reveals that Christians exhibit leadership in caring for the weak, the hungry, the sick, the homeless and other people in profound need, there are still many people who claim that Christians only care for people in order to corral them into joining the church. Another complaint is that religious people make the ludicrous demand that people sacrifice present joy for some uncertain future.
Why do Christians care so much about heaven?
The answer lies in a fundamental truth for every follower of Christ. Jesus himself said, “If the world hates you, it is because it hated me first.” Jesus made it very clear that being a Christian is not a picnic, nor is it intended to be a picnic. It may have been the case in the fifties that a Christian in the US could expect little interference with his intention to obey Jesus in daily life, but a Christian in 2014 must expect and live through a great deal of resistance to his desire to be like Jesus. Even in the US, the pressure has increased beyond anything imaginable in 1952, and beyond US borders, it is very dangerous to be a Christian.
Heaven is a valuable and necessary part of Christian understanding. Why? If this life is all there is, a person is wise to make the best deal he can for comfort and peace. If there is no heaven, if this world is all there is, then why would a person refuse to recant his faith in Christ? Without heaven, Christ’s resurrection is nothing more than a dramatic resuscitation.
Think about it. The significance of Christ’s empty tomb is that there is something more to life than this world. Is that all there is? Christ’s resurrection says, “NO! There is much more.”
Christians around the world declare emphatically, “This world is not all there is,” when they stand firm like Meriam Ibrahim and declare, “I am Christian, and Christian I will remain,” even though the outcome may be death. In Nigeria, a Boko Haram militant brutally hacked a six-year-old boy with a machete before beheading him. The boy professed Christian faith and refused to recant. His parents were forced to watch the gruesome execution, and they, too, refused to recant. Would anyone be able to sustain faith in Christ through such horror if this world is all there is?
In Iran, Pastor Behnam Irani was arrested and held for eight years, mostly in solitary confinement. If he were willing to recant his faith and become a Muslim, he could be released. Because he refuses to do that, he has recently been charged with a new crime, “spreading corruption on earth,” a capital crime. If heaven does not exist, then he is insane for holding on to his faith in Christ. Why should he suffer solitary confinement, torture and ultimately death if there is no heaven? Why would he do it?
Secular thinkers are not persuaded. They actually are beginning to promulgate the notion that religious faith is a mental illness. To date, this proposal has not gained much traction outside of hardcore atheist conversations, but in the former USSR, the idea had a following.
The book of Revelation reminds us that heaven is not only real, but it is profoundly more than we can imagine. It is a present reality and a future hope. Today, it is where God is seated in the heavenly throne room where he reigns in ineffable light surrounded by a rainbow. At the end of time, Christ will marry his bride the church and come to live in the new earth, which is a humanly incomprehensible new and perfect world where there are no more tears.
Christ himself is our evidence, the hope to which we cling because of his resurrection. The resurrected Christ transcended time and space, and then he ascended to heaven from which he will come again to judge the living and the dead. The new world he sets up after that judgment will be beyond anything we can imagine. And that world will truly be all there is.