Is Heaven an Eternal Church Service?

Man sky

T IS A STAPLE SCENE of my childhood, a big chunk of which was built around Pentecostal youth events. The worship is intense, students pressed around the altar, hands lifted, singing, some crying, caught up in the moment. I am in the middle of the whole thing, the “sacred mosh pit,” but even now I can remember the indifferent kids still in the pews—sitting, watching, uninterested.

The scene is like a parable—the sheep separated from the goats. The man with the microphone can’t handle the tension. He looks at the “goats,” sizes them up, and delivers what has become a standard one-liner in Pentecostal experiences:

“If you don’t think this is cool, you sure aren’t going to enjoy heaven!”

And even though I was worshiping with the sheep, I thought, Really? This is what we’re going to do?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a pastor. I like going to church. I like worship music. I like sermons. But the thought of just doing church for all of eternity seems like an anticlimactic climax to the story of Scripture. And it is that narrative we must understand if we are to conjecture about heaven.

You know the story: a perfect creation for man and woman to enjoy . . . the tragic fall in the Garden . . . the restoration of fallen humanity through Israel . . . the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus . . . and the Church. Then the storyline bends toward its final act—the culmination of all things, when creation is restored to its original glory, and God, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:28, is finally “all in all” again.

But if biblical time is cyclical, doubling back upon itself and moving toward the place where it all started, what are we going to be doing when we get there?

The Bible does not outline our future daily itinerary, but it does tell us what was happening before the Fall. Surprisingly, Adam and Eve were not on a perpetual cruise, lounging on the deck drinking fruit juice and lackadaisically naming the animals. Instead, they were working. They were working with God.

Just one verse after the creation of humanity in Genesis 1:28, God delivers their job description. This is when we find out that humans do different things than animals. “Be fruitful . . . fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (NIV).

God was in effect saying to humanity, “We are going to steward this wonderful creation together, from sea to air to ground. You are going to help Me oversee it, enjoy it, govern it. We are going to take care of this incredible operation together.”

Is it a leap to assume that will be something of our job description when Christ returns to reign over His creation?

The end of the Bible is not God drop-kicking the earth into oblivion so that our spirits can float off into a celestial church service.

In Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, he notes that Scripture unanimously affirms the goodness of the created order that we see around us, and outlines the dangers that come when we attempt to locate the future domain of heaven outside of our present universe. This reality will set the stage for incredible opportunities for co-creation after God restores all things.

Thus, we should not think of ourselves as destined to be celestial bureaucrats, involved eternally in celestial “administriva.” That would be only slightly better than being caught in an everlasting church service. No, we should think of our destiny as being absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort, with unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment.

In order to access this vision, however, we must put away false ideas that project the world we live in not to have a problem, but to be the problem. There is a new Gnosticism lurking in the Pentecostal subconscious—an unstated belief that matter is inferior to spirit. In fact, matter matters to God. Christ died for matter. Matter joins us “in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” so that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19, 21 NIV).

The end of the Bible is not God drop-kicking the earth into oblivion so that our spirits can float off into a celestial church service. Instead, it is a renewed heaven and a renewed earth, with a renewed Jerusalem as its centerpiece. God seems uninterested in starting over, but in finishing what He started.

When this view of the majesty of heaven is reclaimed, it does not make us, as the old saying goes, “too heavenly minded for earthly good.” Quite the opposite. If God is fully committed to achieving the creative arc of the biblical story, and to restoring humanity to our graceful place as full co-creators with God, we are suddenly invested with profound responsibility to start now. This is why our yearning for heaven is vitally laced into our present action in the world. This is our history. As C. S. Lewis noted:

The Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world, that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.

Heaven, a boring place? With a fallen universe filled with unfathomable wonders, we cannot imagine what a restored universe will be like. And God invites us to steward, to discover, to enjoy . . . forever. Truly, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard” (1 Cor. 2:9 NKJV) such a wonderful future that is to come.

February, 2013

Josh Rice, Ph.D., is pastor of community and leadership development for the Mount Paran North Church of God in Marietta, Georgia.