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by Ted Schroder
November 4, 2007

Jeffrey Burton Russell, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How we Can Regain It (Oxford University Press, 2006) It is a brilliant description of the secular mindset that has attacked religion in general, Christianity in particular, and the concept of heaven. He shows the contradictions, the fallacies and the depressing arguments of the skeptics, in contrast to the reasonableness of faith.

Here are some of the comments he makes about heaven. "The classical concept is that heaven is where God is, in love and desire....What happens when we die? According to Christian belief, we are eternally present in heaven with God. Heaven is what we are made for; it is complete fulfillment of all our potential in complete joy....Our share in God's heaven is eternal. It consists of being in God's presence in a state of complete fulfillment....In heaven, individuals never cease to be individuals, yet they are also united in a community throughout space and time. This community, traditionally called 'the communion of saints' (meaning all the blessed souls past, present and future), is the community of all those throughout time who love God and his creatures."

In opposition to this view of reality is, what he calls, physicalism. This is the belief that only the physical has any meaning or truth. We must make a choice between two world views. Either this is a cosmos in which there is nothing but the physical, or this is a cosmos in which there are things beyond the physical. Physical science cannot answer this question because it is a metaphysical question.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

"Earth's crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God."

Fyodor Dostoevsky said, "if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love, but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up."

Sigmund Freud taught that since religion is nothing but the projection of internal neuroses upon the external world, God and heaven are simply infantile fantasies that shackle us with promises of happiness in another world. But it can be argued to the contrary that there are deep longings for fulfillment, and our deepest longings may be for the deepest reality: God in heaven.

For the atheistic philosophers there is nothing beyond the grave but extinction. They say that our attitude should be that of unyielding despair because there is no plan or purpose, no divine destiny, just this world in which we seek to find fulfillment through material success, competition, and the survival of the fittest.

Without Christianity, or some other religious faith, "Many contemporary Western persons, conceived in and suckled on materialism, were simply deprived of the imaginative basis for understanding heaven. Their lives were individual, functional, sensual, and indifferent, taking away their capacity to imagine a heaven of spiritual depth and shared ecstasy. They were also deprived of a sense of need for heaven, since they were convinced that they would live longer and longer, enjoy more engaging employment, be ceaselessly entertained, and acquire increasing numbers of toys."

Russell concludes that "Heaven is the ceaseless, dynamic, restful, harmonious opening up to God and his cosmos in love, gratitude and generosity.. Heaven is liberation, freedom, fulfillment of the individual self in vast horizons, fulfillment of the social self through participation; and liberation of the divine self in the presence of God. Heaven is the human being perfectly fulfilled. Heaven is the fulfillment of what we most value: love, knowledge, integrity, creativity, openness, kindness, dynamic transformation, above all joy."

Some critics of Christianity claim that belief in heaven makes people care less about what happens in this life, so that it does not matter what you do to people. To the contrary, belief in life after death motivates the believer to prepare himself for evaluation of how he has lived his life by seeking to do good and to love his neighbor as himself. It is a reminder that our life goes on, and that there are consequences to how we live now. We are not free agents to do what we will with the life granted to us. We are accountable to God, stewards of the gifts he has given us. Belief in heaven far from being harmful gives consolation to the bereaved, hope for the dying, motivation to the morally tempted and courage to those who are afraid.

Heaven is communion with God and the saints of all ages. St. John is given a vision of heaven in which he sees a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb (Revelation 7). They are worshipping God with the angels, the leading representatives of the people of God, and all creation.

They have endured much suffering and persecution for their faith. Life has not been easy for them. They have come out of the great tribulation. They have had many troubled times in their lives. They did not live fulfilled lives on earth. They were deprived of many things, of happiness, of love, of opportunity, of understanding, of acceptance, of comfort and joy. But after death they are promised that never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst, never again will they suffer from the elements that would beat them down. Instead the Lord will shepherd them, he will refresh them, he will comfort them by wiping away every tear from their eyes. The absence of hunger and thirst means that their desires will be satisfied - their longings will be fulfilled. They will be delivered from every ill. They will enjoy fellowship with Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by his death on the Cross. His loving concern for them will provide for their every need.

But should I say "they"? This is picture of all those who have put their faith in Christ, who have invited him into their lives when he has knocked on their door requesting admittance. It is he who is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, the Living One who was dead and is alive for ever and ever, who has the keys of death and Hades, who has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers, who promises to us the gift of eternal life. "For God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

One day we will join the communion of saints in heaven if we enter into the kingdom of heaven in this life. To do that we need to be born anew, born from above, be open to receive the washing and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom God pours out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7)


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