I’m reading Randy Alcorn’s book on heaven, very appropriately titled Heaven, and while I am very impressed with the scholarship, lucid writing, and accurate picture of the future of God’s people, I am frustrated that the book’s conclusion seems to be something along the lines of "So there’s what Heaven will be like, isn’t that great? Now you can look forward to it."
Now, I understand his purpose in writing was probably more to correct misinformation about heaven than to urge people toward mission or even ethics, and he does have a short section near the end on "Living in the Light of Heaven", but the overall tone still seems to be that we just kind of wait in an ethical optimism for the future. Though he mentions the "already/not yet" paradox of Jesus’ work and the coming of God’s kingdom, he never seems to carry this idea through to its shocking conclusions, namely that we are called, like Jesus our "rabbi", to be people through whom God’s future arrives in the present.
My beef isn’t necessarily with Mr. Alcorn, actually. He’s written probably the finest book on heaven I’ve ever read, and it’s helped clarify a lot of my thought about heaven. But his perspective on what that means for us today simply reflects the perspective of a lot of evangelicals. Namely that the kingdom is mostly in the future, and we mostly just have to wait around until we die or until Jesus comes back to realize its blessing. But Jesus taught us to pray more boldly than that: he taught us to pray for heaven to come crashing into earth. He taught us to ask for the future to arrive in the present. So I think the implications of what heaven will be like are huge, because they inform how we live and what we ask for now.
There’s a tricky line there, though, and perhaps conservatives have wanted to avoid crossing it, so they stay well away from it. When you become convinced that God’s future ought to arrive in the present through us, it’s easy to slip into trying to build the kingdom ourselves. But when human effort tries to "force" the kingdom to happen, you end up with a police state. Some of the most brutal regimes in history were only trying to create "heaven on earth" through their own means. They were trying to force the kingdom to come. It’s a dangerous route to go down, and so I understand why people shy away from saying anything like it.
But the other extreme is still an extreme. Simply sitting back, trying to live morally and thinking accurate thoughts about the future isn’t the answer either. We aren’t to try to build the kingdom, but we are to build for the kingdom. An analogy from N.T. Wright: we aren’t to build the building yet, but we can make the bricks that will make up the building. God hasn’t told us what the final shape of the building will be, but he has told us what kinds of bricks he wants to use, and so we are to build for the kingdom, in this life. And it’s worthwhile because, as Paul said, kingdom-building in this life lasts through to the next. Everything you do now for God’s kingdom matters, lasts, continues on, will not be done in vain.
The focus of my message Sunday will be, I think, on what our future holds (from Revelation 21-22), and how we can be people through whom that future arrives in the present. How can we become places where heaven and earth overlap? How can we bring God’s future into the present? How can we live the life of the future today?
So what do you think? What does a "missional spirituality" look like? How do we become future-now people? How can some of the traditional activities of Christian spirituality (Eucharist, prayer, holiness, worship, etc) be re-imagined in light of this call to bring the future to the now?