Christian Eschatology and Relational Healing
Is Heaven a Barbecue Joint?
A few weeks ago, I was watching an old episode of the Travel Channel series Food Paradise. A robust man from the southern United States was sitting at a table eating ribs. He described the restaurant where he was eating as “heaven” because of the quantity and the quality of food that it serves.
Not surprisingly, the show made me hungry. But it also made me think. Why is it that we want to go to “heaven,” and what do we hope to find when we get there? Clearly, people answer these questions in a number of ways. Some simply hope to avoid the dissolution of their being in death. Some hope to be cured of painful or debilitating diseases. Some hope to be reunited with people that they love. But it seems to me that, for many of us in the United States, “heaven” is a place where pleasure will be maximized—and without the annoying guilt and unpleasant side-effects that usually accompany this kind of indulgence.
Admittedly, a never-ending pile of barbecued ribs sounds really good. But do we understand what we are saying when we construct the afterlife as an unending and unrestrained pursuit of pleasure? The Bible never describes the final state in this way, and for good reason. There is more to life than pleasure, and our need for God extends far beyond our desire to avoid the consequences of our hedonistic impulses.
Soteriology and Eschatology, Purpose and Goal
The truth is that how we understand the results of God’s saving activity can have a profound impact on how we understand the purpose of God’s saving activity. If we think of the afterlife primarily in terms of the pleasure that it will bring to us, we will think of Christ’s saving activity as merely a mechanism by which we get to “heaven.” Christ’s ministry and teachings will have little impact on our present existence, and the most universal and fundamental needs of humanity will be left unmet.
Fortunately, the writers of Scripture devoted a lot of effort to the task of describing Christ’s purpose. It was not to provide us with pleasure, but rather to bring us “reconciliation” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Christ’s death on the cross made it possible for us to have a relationship with God and made it possible for us to have a relationship with one another. We no longer have to live as enemies of God (Romans 5:1), and our lives no longer have to be dominated by the hostility that we feel for other people (Galatians 3: 26-29; Ephesians 2:11-18). Instead, we all get to be part of one family—God’s family (Galatians 4:1-7).
Of course, every family has its dysfunctional elements, and God’s family is no exception. After all, each one of us brings a lifetime of baggage with us when we are adopted as God’s children. That is why Jesus had another purpose—to bring us “peace.” When the Bible talks about “peace,” it is normally talking about more than an absence of intrapersonal turmoil or interpersonal conflict. It is talking about a well-being that penetrates every facet of our personhood and that expresses itself in relational wholeness. In other words, Christ came to heal us from the inside out, which, in turn, provides the raw material that is necessary for the formation of healthy relationships.
Recalibrating Our Expectations
But what does all of this mean for Christian eschatology? What is it that we will really find when we arrive in the New Jerusalem, if not a mountain of ribs or an ocean of chocolate? First and foremost, we will find the Triune God there. As a result, we will know God in a way that, up to this point, has been unimaginable to us. All of the mistrust and disobedience that used to cloud our understanding of God and inhibit our connection with God will be gone, and it will be replaced by an unwavering faith in God’s goodness, an effervescent hope that each day with God will be better than the last, and undying love for the One who created us and sacrificed so much to redeem us from a much-deserved doom (1 Corinthians 13:8-13).
Secondly, we will find each other there. Far from being a party where everyone is dancing to her or his own tune, the new heaven and new earth will be a place where we find genuine communion with one another. No longer will people be defined by their race, gender, or class; no longer will relationships be built or broken based on whether or not people share the same experiences. Rather, these distinctions will be understood—and celebrated—as manifestations of the manifold image of God.