This world is full of fake-Heavens.
Or, more positively, it’s full of imaginary versions of Heaven that give us partial glimpses of the future Heaven’s joys.
But either way, I feel these fake-Heavens sometime serve us better as reminders of what Heaven is not.1
For example, for one of the most infamous fake-Heavens in the world, see The (increasingly Borg-like) Walt Disney Company. The other day a friend sent me this advertisement for the Walt Disney World theme parks’ upcoming event. They’ve called it, rather cultural-appropriatingly, “Joy Through the World.”
This at once makes me feel two emotions.
First, I do feel a little whimsical and genuinely happy.
That’s because I still fondly remember a Disney character–themed Christmas sing-along cassette (or was it a VHS?) tape that included the song “Joy to the World” with nary a lyric censored. I also have plenty of positive Walt Disney World memories, similar to the ones Mark Carver shared in his recent article “Just Imagine…“.
It’s okay to affirm those good things—not to mention the real creativity and engineering mastery on display at well-run theme parks.
We must deconstruct fake-Heavens.
Second, however, I also feel a sense of annoyance.
As a fake-Heaven, Walt Disney World is just not the best. Unless your version of Heaven costs thousands of dollars for a few days’ of vacation, not including lodging or dining. And includes wanton consumerism, sweltering days, potential for literal and figurative headaches, and of course the infamous waiting-in-lines, even for theme-park pro commandos (such as I have been).
Nah. My best fake-Heaven is a bit more homebound. It has lots of family, great food, and beautifully hostile and cold weather outside that will keep you inside. Christmas is probably going on. And no one ever suffers long work hours, or car breakdowns, or Drama.
Well, just describing the fake-Heaven aloud is sufficient to deconstruct the thing. And deconstruct we must, lest we end up in idolatry or false idealism. Walt Disney World costs hundreds of dollars, minimum, for one person. And those otherwise wonderful family Christmases must still come with some disclaimers (which, pleasantly, forgiveness and flawed human memory can clear up by next year).
Our conclusion: Any “perfect world” here, in this groaning era (Romans 8:22), cannot satisfy the human longing for a perfect place—a Place that is at once perfectly cozy, yet exciting; a place that is somehow perfectly Home, yet also an adventurous Out There.
But don’t deconstruct the real Heaven too!
At the same time, I wonder if we take this “deconstruct the idol” impulse too far.
I mean that this rightful impulse—to tear apart the idol and show it for a fraud—goes all wrong when we try to apply the same policy to the genuine article.
Here’s one example: Some people (including our anti-heroic “exvangelical” apostates) are wholly biblical when they deconstruct abuses in the Church. When critics of Christianity point out how bad leaders co-opt the system to teach false doctrine, or spiritually/emotionally abuse other people, this is a good deconstruction. However, they then get hooked on this habit of deconstruction. They start pulling apart not just Scripture-twisting, but Scripture itself, and they can’t stop at yanking off the terrible ’70s wallpaper off the church walls without also deciding to yank down the whole pulpit, instruments, pews, and sanctuary walls because it’s all idolatry, right? and so it’s all got to go yesterday.
Now, coming back to Heaven: sometimes, when we (rightly) deconstruct fake-Heavens, we might accidentally also start tearing down the real Heaven.
These three examples sound a little cliche to me, but they’re still common among well-meaning Christians.
1. “Heaven will be beyond what we can imagine.”
To be sure, there’s some truth to that. Our God is so miraculous and epic and incredible. So it really does seem silly to suggest that Heaven will look exactly like the Earth we see around us, only with the bad parts cleared out.
At the same time, Scripture insists so often that we imagine Heaven in earthly terms, including images of like fields of crops, vineyards, kings, cities, and even products of human culture (see Isaiah 60, 65–66; and Revelation 21).
So, while many (well-meaning) Christians are off issuing disclaimers about these images, Scripture doubles down and even labels this eternal state, in both Old and New Testaments, the New Heavens and New Earth. How much more “earthly” can you get? What else would Scripture need to do to persuade us that the New Heavens and New Earth includes, in some way, an actual and physical Earth-made-new?2
2. “We might not remember our lives in Heaven.”
Mark Carver on Wednesday phrased this idea plainly:
All pain and sorrow will be forgotten and God will be the joy of our existence. We don’t know if this means we won’t know one another in eternity, but there will be no memory of past hurts or sins. Every moment will be pure joy in the presence of God.
I’ve thought about this long-running Christian idea for a while, and I’m not sure what it means to deconstruct.
Do people idolize their lives here? Sure. Could memories (bad or good) in this era distract us from worshiping God? Most assuredly.
Yet this is not how the Bible treats human memory—or any good gift that God has given us.
In our Old-Earthly lives, Jesus is changing his people into his image, even using suffering and trauma. Will these memories be wiped?
The Old Testament saints and New Testament apostles have their parts in God’s story immortalized in God’s eternal written word. Will their memories be wiped? Will the apostles Paul and Peter have to re-learn about his own sufferings and beatings by reading their own letters?
Jesus himself will, it seems, carry the scars from His crucifixion. Will our memories of the gospel reason why he suffered also be wiped?
I think Christians mean to honor the biblical texts that say “the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17) when they suggest these memory-wipe concepts. But our interpretations of these verses, which pull in ideas of “we won’t remember our suffering,” stray too far from the Bible’s constant emphasis on God’s use of suffering as redemptive and eternally significant.
So, again, this seems an unnecessary deconstruction not just of a fake-Heaven, but of the real Heaven.
Anyhow, I think we have better answers for these texts—which seem instead to say that God will remove every immediate suffering or consequence.3 Revelation 21:4 says Christ will “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.” It does not say that he wipes our memories so that we would not have even been shedding tears in the first place.
3. “Heaven is described as a bright city and that’s all.”
Finally there’s the issue of our guiding image for Heaven. Revelation 21 presents this image as a glorious golden city that “[comes] down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2). Mark Carver in his article suggests this city represents Heaven in totality, and suggests:
This seems to be in contrast with how God’s creation was originally set up, with man and woman living in a garden to cultivate. It seems like a poor use of the world’s space to corral everyone into a city, especially with no more sea.
Whereas the city—real or metaphorical—is pretty clearly a subset of New Heavens and New Earth. A few questions flush this out:
- If the city comes down from heaven from God, where does it “touch down”?
- If the city represents Heaven in totality, how can “kings of the earth . . . bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:24)?
- Why even reference a “New Earth” if there is no longer any physical planet earth?
- Why would Old Testament prophets constantly reference eternal versions of real-world locations in Israel?
- Finally, why would Paul in the New Testament promise “the creation itself” will be set free from its enslavement (Romans 8)?
I think this also explains the apparent biblical contrast that Mark notes between garden and city. Biblically, gardens don’t go away. They’re still out there: within the city, and outside the city. Because that heavenly city (again, real or metaphorical) isn’t all of Heaven in totality. It’s either one symbol, or one literal place, within a greater and literal physical paradise: the New Heavens and New Earth.
Deconstruct fake-Heavens, but construct the real Heaven biblically.
By “New Earth” this we mean a real Earth, this-actual-Earth-made-new.
It will have other cities, gardens, mountains, other natural wonders, rivers and oceans, seasons, and ongoing human culture and technology and science and God-glorifying art—oh, and a vast unexplored yet equally redeemed universe of stars and planets beyond.
Christians may certainly discuss the details. (Such as my inclusion of oceans and mountains in the above list, which I can defend.)
But I think we ought to agree that it’s healthy and even commanded to construct our Heaven-images biblically.
I also think we ought to do away with this pseudo-spiritual nonsense of “it’s bad to imagine Heaven” (when Scripture encourages us to), or “Heaven will be so unlike Earth” (when Scripture constantly describes eternity in Earth-like language). These are not healthful or biblical deconstructions of idols. In fact, they’re deconstructions of truth that do real harm to our biblical worldview and imaginations today.
So let’s deconstruct fake-Heavens and all idols, to be sure. But let’s also deconstruct bad deconstructions. Then let’s get to work constructing real portrayals of Heaven—that is, the New Heavens and New Earth—not from our own wishful thinking, but from Scripture itself.
- I feel inspired to take on this topic thanks to Mark Carver’s article last week “Just Imagine…“. This article serves as a part-rejoinder, part-rebuttal. ↩
- Scripture does occasionally seem to speak about physical features (which the Earth needs to go on being Earth) being removed, such as the sun and moon (Isaiah 60:19–20). But these texts are pretty clearly referring to (1) the environment inside a city (actual or metaphorical) within the New Earth, (2) the metaphor or reference of some physical feature no longer being necessary for eternal residents because of God’s very presence, or a change in the Law’s efficacy. ↩
- See one of Randy Alcorn’s responses to this question here. ↩