I Don’t Get It…. Is Heaven Really that Important?

The Church is the Church only when it exists for others . . . not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell people of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.

In short, it is much easier to see a thing through from the point of view of abstract principle than from that of concrete responsibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

When I was a child, I grew up in a rather conservative Christian home.  My parents belonged to the Church of the Nazarene, Holiness people who claimed a Wesleyan pedigree.  The Nazarene influence came primarily from my dad’s side of the family; the Wesleyan Holiness Church of my mother’s family was much more conservative.  Evam so, they held something in common.  They both claimed the Wesleyan tradition.  Don’t get me wrong.  Both sides of my family were quite conservative theologically, which meant that they were both solidly grounded in the Republican Party.  I grew up thinking that if one were a Democrat, that meant they were sinners and far from being able to call heaven their home, they were bound for hell.

My mom and dad’s wedding. On the left is my Grandma Crowson, she was a Wesleyan Holiness preacher, and on the right is my Grandma Anderson. My mom and dad never had wedding rings.

As a child I didn’t understand the importance of the Wesleyan tradition.  From a Holiness perspective, the Calvinists made up a large part of Christianity and the Wesleyans the other part.  Both traditions believed that a person is saved by grace, a belief central to Protestantism, but the implications of that differed.  For the Calvinist, human beings are totally depraved, which means they cannot live a holy life even if they tried.  They are hopelessly sinners, and because of God’s divine providence, some people will go to heaven and the rest will go to hell.  God’s grace is apparently limited because only a few will make it. The Wesleyans, on the other hand, thought that limited atonement made a mockery of God’s saving grace and emptied human beings of their will to do good or do evil.  It was their choice just as it was their choice to serve God.  Called “prevenient grace,” God worked through the miracle of Christ to bring people to a point of choosing, the way of God or the way of sin.  Because of their Holiness background, my parents and their families subscribed to the latter.  We are free and can choose to follow Christ.

The Church of my youth was divided between the two Johns: John Calvin and John Wesley.

But what about heaven?  For the Calvinists, heaven consisted of being in the eternal presence of God following one’s death.  This reward was not dependent upon what they did nor did not do.  They were bound for heaven and if God chose them, they could do nothing to stop it.  From a Wesleyan perspective, this divorced ethics from salvation.  One could live like the devil and still make it to heaven.  To be fair, Calvinists spoke of “civil grace,” which is the merit that comes with a civilized society and a more ethical lifestyle, but still, people and society were inherently sinful and ultimately, could do no good.  Goodness was something that came when one entered the pearly gates of heaven.  While Holiness folk would probably agree that heaven was a place where occupants did good and no evil, they also believed that God’s grace had sanctifying power, which enables a person to live a good, sin–free life here and now.  They did not and should not wait for heaven.

For Holiness folk, a sin-free life was defined by a host of do’s and don’ts.  Called “personal holiness,” their official literature was filled with things that a person would do if they were sanctified and those things a person would not do.  For my mom’s side of the family, this traditionally meant that women would dress like Mennonites while the men didn’t have too many restrictions if their dress was modest.  However, couples were not allowed to wear wedding rings, women couldn’t wear makeup, and wrist watches were considered “worldly adornment,” and hence were prohibited.  Suffice it to say that over the years, both the Church of the Nazarene as well as the Wesleyan Holiness Church strove to work out the details, and interestingly, they disagreed on what was appropriate with the Nazarenes being a little more progressive.  Ultimately, however, all of this was left to individuals to decide, and many picked and choose the rules they abided by with alacrity, which meant that my sister and I were able to enjoy movies and swimming, activities that according to the church were taboo.  It all seemed horribly subjective to me, and I wondered if truly the Calvinists were right.  People sin: That’s what they do.

If God chose them, they could do nothing to stop their trip to heaven.  From a Wesleyan perspective, this divorced ethics from salvation.  One could live like the devil and still make it to heaven. 

As I matured and started studying for the ministry, the emphasis on ethical living stuck with me, but I began to question the necessity of heaven.  As I studied the Bible along with the writings of John Wesley and Wesleyan theologians, I began to wonder what all the hoopla.  Why is an otherworldly heaven necessary?  Broadening my perspective beyond the Wesleyan tradition and engaging more mainline, academic scholars in biblical studies, theology and philosophy, the issue raised by Augustine also arose in my thinking.  Just what exactly is the “city of God” as Augustine put it?  While Augustine embraced a triple decker worldview, with heaven above, the world in the middle and hell below, this stopped making sense to me and smacked of a hopeless dualism that has haunted Western thought both from theological and philosophical perspectives.  If the reality of God and God’s grace were to have any practical meaning, I thought, it had to apply to our lives now not in some mythological and otherworldly place that may or may not exist after we die.  God wants us to love our neighbor and each other now; we dare not wait.  If there is a heaven, heaven is the result of people loving, accepting, and forgiving each other as we work together to make this world a better place in which to live.  Such beliefs hold something in common not only with the Wesleyans, but with all of humanity.  To be human, I thought, was not to be sinful.  It was to live like Jesus and that, not an otherworldly heaven, should be our goal.

The interesting thing is that all of this has important political implications and affects how one lives in society.  To believe that human beings are totally depraved as the Calvinists do, impacts our expectations of others.  Holding this belief, we would not expect others to be good and trust is a rare commodity.  Likewise, because people are hopelessly sinful, we expect politicians to lie, we expect them to be ego centered, we expect them be disagreeable lacking the merit to get along with others even if they claim to be Christians.  We expect them to be xenophobic and our criteria for voting becomes a subjective standard based upon whether they are like us or not.  Indeed, we may even embrace candidates that increase chaos and discord leading to the threat of war.  Such behaviors, people of this persuasion might think, may usher in the end, when Christ will return, and this world will be no more.  Scary!

Violent and conflictual discourse whether made by Russian or U.S. leaders is frightening if Church leaders accept it as the Word of God fulfilling what they perceive to be prophetic utterances.

On the other hand, if we believe people have the potential of goodness leading to ethical and responsible behavior, it is this—not inherited depravity—that will determine our expectations of others.  We will hold them to an ethical standard that hopefully will bring out the goodness of others.  A community of good will, I believe, is heaven and it is this that is contagious bringing a sanctified lifestyle not only to individuals, but social structures as well.  In this, the city of God as an otherworldly place forwarded by Augustine, Luther, Calvin and even Wesley himself is irrelevant.  It is not necessary and otherworldly beliefs may hinder and hide the goodness that is in people and the social structures they form.

I am thankful that I grew up in a family that favored the Wesleyan heritage.  I no longer embrace the churches that were important to my mom and dad’s families, but I do embrace the belief that people have the potential to be ethical and just.  Whatever grace is, it is the empowerment of people to do good and treat all people with love and respect.  Such a perspective, I believe, needs to form the expectations of people in this country and others for then, heaven might have a chance, not an otherworldly heaven, but the heaven created in the here and now.

Published by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.

I am a retired United Methodist Minister and recently closed my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, retiring with my wife to Rancho Murieta, CA. Now I have a blog and several hobbies that take up my time. We enjoy traveling and occasionally spending time at our cabin in the mountains of Colorado.

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