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Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Do I Want to Go to Heaven? by Ed Taylor

Do I really want to go to heaven? The answer depends on what heaven is. If heaven is the eternal presence of God, then that would be awesome. But I do not believe that God resides in some celestial realm. God is in us, all around us, every day. So it is possible to be in God’s presence anytime, anywhere.

According to a recent ABC News poll, nearly ninety percent of the population of the United States believes in heaven. But what do they think they will find there?

One of my misgivings is a tolerance issue. And that may be sin enough to keep me out of heaven, so I don’t have to worry about my life-after-death destination.

I’m positive that heaven is not exclusively for Progressive Christians and other unorthodox thinkers. Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are absolutely certain that they will be there and if that’s true, it is difficult to imagine Fundamentalists and Evangelicals and Progressives being happy in each other’s company. The conservative groups barely tolerate the liberals in this life (and vise versa), so chances are they would not become buddies in heaven.

I know patience is a virtue, but I confess to have far too little of it sometimes. I particularly lack patience with Christians who swallow without question whatever they are told by narrow-minded, seemingly ignorant preachers. I am amazed that the majority of Christian lay people have little or no interest in examining their beliefs – as if questioning was one of the most egregious sins.

I’m confident that patience and tolerance are closely connected. If so, how can those Christians who question their faith have patience with or tolerate those who accept everything regardless of how their beliefs have been questioned and proved without base. They are like those who believed the earth was flat and refused to consider the alternative.

Fundamentalists and Evangelicals believe that the saved, and only the saved – those who have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior – go to heaven. Pastor Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, believes if Jesus Christ is our personal savior, we are assured a place in Heaven. However, if we are not a born again Christian, our chances of going to heaven are practically nil. He also believes that “the purpose of this life is to glorify God and go to heaven.” Our soul wants to go home – i.e. “heaven is our home.”

The complete opposite view is expressed by Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists, who says, “Heaven doesn’t exist… We weren’t alive before we were born and we’re not going to exist after we die. I’m not happy about the fact that that’s the end of life, but I can accept that and make my life more fulfilling now, because this is the only chance I have.”

We really don’t know a lot of specifics about heaven. No one has conclusive evidence that heaven actually exits or if it exists, what it is like.

As some have presented it, heaven might be tedious, boring and dull. Are there hours, days, weeks, and years or is time suspended? If we are conscious of time, what do we do during all those hours, days, weeks and years? If the things we love to do on earth are not there to occupy us, what engages us in heaven?

The following is a paraphrase of an article titled “What heaven’s really like” by Dr. Eben Alexander that was published in London’s Daily Mail in October 2014. Alexander is a neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven during a coma.

Adopted as a small boy, he later searched for his biological family, but his sister, Betsy, had died.

Dr. Alexander admits that he was a Christian in name only and was skeptical of out-of-body experiences, angelic encounters – as far as he was concerned, they were hallucinations brought on by brain trauma.

One morning he woke with a searing headache and within a short time went into a coma. His brain had shut down. His doctors determined that he had a rare bacterial strain of E coli that was eating into his brain. His prognosis was grim and his brain showed no conscious activity.

During the seven days of his unresponsive coma, his inner-self traveled through a series of extraordinary realms beyond the physical world. According to scientific records, he is the only person to have traveled to these dimensions with his brain completely dysfunctional. Medical records show no brain activity, so his journey did not happen inside his head.

First he had a passive experience in which he sometimes heard and saw other entities. After some time, a circular entity descended; it emitted beautiful, heavenly music. When the light opened up, he passed through it into a lush, fertile valley where waterfalls flowed into crystal clear pools. This world was alive with trees, fields, animals and people. There was water – flowing rivers and rain – and there were fish in the water. Nothing was isolated; nothing alienated; nothing disconnected.

He was “as a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing, among pulsing swarms of millions of other butterflies.” Angelic choirs produced hymns and anthems far beyond anything he had ever heard on earth. His senses were blended; seeing and hearing were not separate functions. It seemed as if he could “hear the grace and elegance of the airborne creatures” and actually see, not just hear, the “spectacular music that burst out of them.” The music was the sound of sheer joy; they could not contain it. Experiencing the music was to join it; to hear a sound was to be part of it. Everything was connected to everything else.

There were a vast array of universes and he ascended to the Core, the deepest sanctuary of the Divine, which was filled to overflowing with indescribable, unconditional love.

His guide was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who first appeared as a speck of awareness on the wing of the butterfly. He had never seen her before and had no idea who she was, but her presence made him whole in a way he had never known was possible. Without actually speaking, like a breath of wind, she let him know that he was loved and cared for beyond measure and that the universe was vaster, better, and a more beautiful place than he ever dreamed.

After seven days in a coma and showing no signs of improvement, his doctors were about to discontinue life support, when he suddenly regained consciousness. It was if he had amnesia – he had no memories of his prior life; he had to relearn everything. He, however, knew where he had been.

Word and language returned first. Over several weeks, his earthly knowledge returned. After a couple of months, his prior knowledge of science returned. The things he had experienced while he was in that coma state remained. The image of the woman on the butterfly wing remained particularly vivid. And then, four months after regaining consciousness, he received a picture in the mail; a relative sent him a photograph of his sister, Betsy – the sister he had never known. Shockingly, her face was the face of the woman who had been his guide.

Rich Deem, in “What Will Heaven be Like?,” wrote that heaven “must contain more physical and temporal dimensions than those found in this physical universe… we cannot imagine… what these extra dimensions might be like.”

Mark Twain’s depiction of heaven is humorous, but it contains a lot of truth. In his Letters from Earth, which he wrote during the first decade of the twentieth century, we get a glimpse of what many of the people of the early twentieth century expected heaven to be. Satan writes letters to report to God and his court on his trip to earth and what the human race was like. A PDF of Letters from Earth is available at

Rabbi Neil Gillman, a professor of philosophy at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, expressed Judaism’s perspective of life after death: “…most Jews believed that at death the body and the soul separate, the body is interred and disintegrates in the Earth, the soul goes off to be with God… At the end of days, God will resurrect bodies, will reunite body and soul, and the individual will come before God to account for his or her life.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C. and chancellor of Catholic University, said, “I always think of heaven as being a place where we won’t have any troubles anymore. Heaven is a place where there will be peace and tranquility.” McCarrick also believes our bodies are resurrected, so he is looking forward to seeing his mom and dad and the rest of his family.

90 Minutes in Heaven is a 2004 book written by a Texas Baptist minister, Don Piper. In 1989, Piper was on his way home from a conference when his car was struck by a semi-trailer truck. Once the paramedics arrived, Piper was pronounced dead. He says he went straight to heaven and experienced amazing and beautiful things including meeting family members such as his great-grandmother and joining a heavenly choir.

Mitch Albom, author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, said “If you believe that there’s a heaven, your life here on Earth here is different. You may believe that you’re gonna see your loved ones again. So the grief that you had after they’re gone isn’t as strong. You may believe that you’ll have to answer for your actions. So the way you behave here on Earth is changed. So in a certain way, just believing in the idea of heaven is heavenly in and of itself.”

In Albom’s novel, Eddie, an elderly war veteran is a maintenance worker on rides at a seaside amusement part. On his eighty-third birthday, he died in an accident while trying to save a little girl. When he entered the afterlife, he found that heaven is a place where his earthly life is explained by five people from his former life. From each encounter, he learns how his life affected and was affected by these people.

What is it that we love so much that heaven would be incomplete without it? Our spouse or partner (they may not be dead yet)? Family members who died before we died? Isn’t it possible that the relatives we expect to see in heaven will not be there? And if they aren’t there, what will our reaction be? If only our souls go to heaven, how will we recognize each other?

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, believes “we will be in comfortable homes, reclining on silk couches … so we’re given the delights of sex, the delights of wine, the delights of food with all of their positive things without their negative aspects.”

So will our heaven be incomplete without sex? What about all the foods and drinks we love; can we do without them? Can we enjoy heaven without all the creature comforts that we currently enjoy? What if heaven doesn’t include our favorite pastimes – ballgames, golf, fishing, boating, sailing, hiking, or water or snow skiing? Can we do without reading, cooking, or parties?

Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo, a Wesleyan Church pastor from Nebraska, is about a near-death experience by Burpo’s three-year-old son, Colton. After an emergency surgery in 2003, his son began describing people and events which he said he experienced during a trip to heaven, such as a miscarried unborn sister and details about a great-grandfather who died thirty years before Colton was born. The very young child also claimed to have met Jesus and sat on his lap while angels sang songs to him.

Several Christian individuals and organizations criticized Heaven is for Real and its message. One Christian newsletter criticized the book for being “extra-biblical” and claimed the child was not clinically dead during the surgery. Others criticized the book for presenting an un-Biblical perspective of the afterlife. Still others called the book another “heaven tourism” book that profits “from lies.” Anything that described heaven in any detail would necessarily have to be “extra-biblical” because there are so few specifics in the Bible.

We know what the Book of Revelation says about a “new Jerusalem” that comes down out of God’s heaven. Once God dwells with his people, there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain. This “new Jerusalem” is an actual city; a very splendid place that includes “a tree of life” that yields twelve kinds of fruit every month, streets of pure gold and the city’s walls are adorned with precious jewels. There will be no sun or moon, no temple or church. If this is supposed to be a description of heaven, the only part that appeals to me is “no more death, mourning, crying or pain.” It says “once God dwells with his people;” I believe God dwells in us so God already dwells with his people.

Dr. Calvin Butts, pastor of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, describes heaven as “no tears, no mourning, no suffering. It’s eternal joy and happiness because you are at one with God.” His “description” is almost a verbatim quote from Revelation. As for describing heaven, Butts says it is in an indescribable dimension – a fourth dimension.

Pardon my skepticism, but the Bible writers could not have described heaven accurately. No human past or present has the insight to know what heaven is like without actually experiencing it.

Even if we accept the Biblical writers’ ideas about heaven, the New Testament does not give us many specifics. Heaven is God’s dwelling-place, only the righteous will be in heaven, there will be continual praise and worship, it will be a place of great joy and satisfaction, people of all races, tongues and nations will be represented, marriage does not exist, no sickness or pain, sorrow, crying or mourning, no hunger or thirst, no more death. According to John’s gospel, admission to heaven is simply believing in Jesus; everyone who believes in the Son will have eternal life. Paul doesn’t define heaven. He wrote that “life in Christ” is eternal, but life outside of Christ simply terminates in death.

The fledgling Church realized that the idea of an afterlife was a powerful way to control the people. If the people believed that the Church had the power to determine their after-death destination, they tended to behave and think whatever the Church said was fact. Heaven became a reward for following the rules, behaving, and being orthodox.

We learn a great deal of our theology and, in this specific case about heaven, from songs and hymns. Most of the famous gospel songs and hymns on the subject were written in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Let’s examine a few to see what they say.

In the African-American spiritual “I Want to Be Ready,” the singer wants to “walk in Jerusalem just like John,” speaking, of course, not about the earthly city, but the “new Jerusalem” that is pictured in Revelation.

In Samuel Stennett’s 1787 hymn “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand,” his possessions are waiting for him in “Canaan’s fair and happy land.” Heaven will be very healthful: “sickness and sorrow, pain and death, are felt and feared not more.” He will see his “Father’s face and in his bosom rest” – “Father” meaning God, of course.

In the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River” which Robert Lowry wrote in 1864, the river is in heaven where it flows “by the throne of God. Those in heaven will “worship ever, all the happy golden day.” Those lucky enough to enter heaven will lay “every burden down” and wear “a robe and crown.”

“The Sweet By and By” or “In the Sweet By and By,” written by lyricist S. Fillmore Bennett and composer Joseph P. Webster, was published in 1868. The lyrics sing about “a land that is fairer than day” where the Father is preparing a dwelling place. “We shall meet on that beautiful shore in the sweet by and by.”

Josiah K. Alwood wrote “The Unclouded Day” around 1880. Alwood described “a home far beyond the skies…where no storm clouds rise” – i.e. “an uncloudy day.” His friends have gone to a place where the Tree of Life blooms eternally and its fragrance is everywhere. “He smiles on His children” and drives away their sorrows; no more tears. In this song, as in most of its type, heaven is above the skies.

The next example, “When We All Get to Heaven,” is a hymn written in 1898 by E.E. Hewitt, the pseudonym of Lidie H. Edmunds. Jesus is preparing “mansions bright and blessed” for us. “What a day of rejoicing” it will be when “we all” get to heaven. We’ll see Jesus! In heaven there will not be a shadow or a sigh. “The pearly gates will open” to reveal “streets of gold.”

“When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” was written by James M. Black in 1893. The singer is confident that “when the roll is called up yonder” he’ll be there. The “dead in Christ” will rise on a “bright and cloudless morning.” The “chosen ones” will congregate in “their home beyond the skies.”

In “The Old Rugged Cross,” written by George Bennard in 1913, we will be called “some day” to our “home far away” where we will share his glory forever.

According to “I’ll Fly Away,” that was written by Albert E. Brumley in 1929, after death we’ll “fly away to…God’s celestial shore.” We’ll be released from the prison of this life to enjoy “a land where joy will never end.” This song is reportedly the most recorded gospel song, appears in many hymnals, is a bluegrass standard, and is often performed at funerals. Brumley got the idea for this song while picking cotton on his father’s farm in Oklahoma. He was humming “The Prisoner’s Song” that had the following lyrics: “If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly.” Our heavenly destination, this gospel standard says, is “God’s celestial shore.”

In 1937, Brumley also wrote “This World Is Not My Home,” another gospel song favorite. According to its lyrics we are just “a-passing through” this world headed for where our “treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” When the angels beckon from heaven, we don’t feel at home here any longer. The lyrics ask, “If heaven’s not my home then Lord what will I do?” The singer expects to shake his loving mother’s hand “just up in Gloryland” where they will live eternally. As in the other examples above, heaven is “somewhere beyond the blue” and we will see our loved ones.

Another example is “Mansion Over the Hilltop,” a Southern Gospel song written by Ira Stanphill in 1949. The singer is satisfied with his cottage here and a little silver and gold, but in “that city” he wants “a gold one that’s silver lined.” He has a “mansion just over the hilltop” where he’ll “never grow old.” He will “never more wander” but walk on the streets of gold. He is a pilgrim searching for the city, “a mansion, a harp and a crown.”

In Andrae Crouch’s 1978 repetitious song, “Soon and Very Soon,” the singer is “going to see the King.” There will be “no more dying there” and “no more crying there.”

A much more contemporary song is “I Can Only Imagine,” which was written by Bart Millard in the late 1990s. This is the most logical statement about heaven in any of these songs and hymns. We can only imagine because nobody knows for sure. The lyrics ask more questions than it provides answers. The singer can only imagine walking with Jesus and seeing his face. Surrounded by His glory, will we dance or “in awe” be still? Will we stand or kneel in his presence; will we sing “Hallelujah” or be unable to speak? The singer can only imagine “standing in the Son” and forever worshiping Him.

In conclusion, we don’t have enough information to definitively say if heaven exists, and if it exists, what it is or how those who inhabit heaven will spend eternity. Continual praise and worship sounds tedious. Even though I am a trained musician, I have no desire to sing all day, every day or to play a harp.

I am perfectly happy to remain in this life as long as possible. This is my home, not heaven. I don’t want to leave my wife, my children, and my friends. If God is here with us in this life, we can inherit a slice of heaven now. The more we make our will God’s will, the more heaven we can experience prior to death.

On the other hand, if heaven is an after-life destination, I am confident God will have prepared a pleasant existence for those who qualify for admittance. In other words, I’m perfectly willing to trust God with the specifics. As the song says, “I can only imagine…”

Topics: Theology & Religious Education. 8 Points: Point 5: Non-Dogmatic Searchers. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Articles and Read.

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