In June, my former pastor paid me a visit. Now retired, Bob Macfarlane lives 728 miles from his former parish church. We don't see each other often anymore.

After dinner, Bob cast a backward glance. "If I had it to do over again," he said, "I think I'd preach a lot more about heaven." We talked about the preacher's resources on heaven, from ancient Scripture through Dante's 1321 Paradiso through Richard Baxter's 1650 The Saints' Everlasting Rest to Pope Benedict's 2007 encyclical Saved in Hope and N. T. Wright's 2008 Surprised by Hope. After Bob returned home, I telephoned him and we talked more.

Why preach about heaven? Bob was unashamed to confess: "The most cogent reason in my case is age. As one gets older, one begins to think there is not much of this life left," he said. "Thinking about heaven is a faithful response to the running out of the string."

Resurrection Culture

Teaching about heaven is an important ministry to believers who are getting older. Most pastors know that focusing on the aging does not pay back readily in congregational or budget growth. Instead, a focus on young adults and families often marks the church geared for growth. It is a reality of the religious marketplace. But preparing for death and for life in the presence of God is not something the old should do by themselves. Children, youth, and young adults also need to participate in these realities in order to understand the scope of Christian hope. Creating what CT editor at large Rob Moll recently called in these pages "a culture of resurrection" is foundational to full-orbed multigenerational ministry.

Teaching about heaven is also a good way to keep our vision of justice in perspective. You can't talk about paradise—the time-place where everything is right—without talking about the way things will be put right. That means we can't talk about heaven without talking about the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment.

Our individual memories and our community stories are full of injustices—both those we suffer and those we perpetrate. In this life, there is no undoing those injustices. There can be forgiveness and reconciliation and even restitution, but we cannot recover lost lives and lost opportunities.

Scripture's earliest clear teaching of the resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12:1-3) follows a prophecy about God's people suffering unjust persecution. How will God put things right after his people experience the greatest "time of distress" since the world began? Through a general resurrection and a judgment. "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt" (v. 2).

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Christians talk more about justice now than ever. But lest the overwhelming task make us weary, our heavenly hope keeps it in perspective.

In Saved in Hope, Pope Benedict points to the way the "Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul." As a result, he says, "in the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgment has faded into the background."

"Faith in the Last Judgment," Benedict says, is "first and foremost hope." He calls "the question of justice … the strongest argument in favor of faith in eternal life." It is morally inconceivable "that the injustice of history should be the final word," he says, and when we face that, "the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing."

Christians talk more about justice now than ever. God is on an intergalactic justice mission, and we are God's agents, charged with bringing about a limited and relative justice. But lest the overwhelming task make us weary, our heavenly hope keeps it in perspective. As Benedict writes, "A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope." The restoration of justice is ultimately God's task.

A God whose justice restores lost lives and dreams should lead us to think on heaven. Practice such meditation on the life to come, wrote Baxter, and "you will find yourself in the suburbs of heaven."

In his fabulously insightful Paradiso, Dante visits heaven and its suburbs. In Canto III, Dante meets a former nun named Piccarda, who in her earthly life was unable to keep her vows because she had been abducted by evil men. She was thus assigned to heaven's "slowest sphere." When Dante asked if she wasn't "desirous of a higher place," she claimed utter satisfaction and blessedness. To wish for anything else would be "discordant" with God's will, she explains.

There's the secret. The Christian's future, the world's justice, and the believer's bliss are the where and when of everything and everyone being in perfect concord with God. A taste of that is available now—here in heaven's suburbs. The fullness will come in God's time by God's power. That is worth preaching about.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today articles on heaven include:

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Heaven Is Not Our Home | The bodily resurrection is the good news of the gospel—and thus our social and political mandate. (March 24, 2008)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife. (August 8, 2008)
The Hope of Heaven | Have Christians forfeited their rightful anticipation of eternity? (June 1, 2003)
Heaven Can't Wait | I have seen the electrifying results of what can happen when the reality comes alive. (June 1, 2003)
Afraid of Heaven | We do not yearn to be near God because we do not find sin utterly repugnant or goodness rapturously attractive. (June 1, 2003)

Previous "Past Imperfect" columns by David Neff include:

Stride Toward Peace: The Mideast's Nonviolent Moment | Risking love in a land of violence. (July 12, 2010)
Ardor and Order | The charismatic renewal has disappeared like yeast into bread dough. (May 12, 2010)
'It's Not About the Past' | New Anglican and Lutheran groups need to nurture a positive identity. (March 29, 2010)

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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