Magazine article The Christian Century

Heaven Comes to Us

Magazine article The Christian Century

Heaven Comes to Us

Article excerpt

FOR MANY thoughtful Christians, meaningful language about heaven has fallen steadily from their grasp. In a scientific age, "heaven" as a place where God reigns and people go when they die has gradually slipped the moorings of plausibility. In 1941, Rudolf Bultmann, his sledgehammer poised against the foundations of the three-story cosmos, confidently said, "There is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense." The official 1930s hynmbook in my denomination included over a dozen hymns on heaven. The current hymnal's index doesn't even list the category.

Good riddance--at least according to an increasing chorus of voices. N. T. Wright recently argued that any thought that Christian hope is about "going to heaven" is biblically unsupported, theologically bankrupt and ethically corrosive. Jesus scholar Marcus Borg once told an audience, "If I were to make a list of Christianity's ten worst contributions to religion, on that list would be popular Christianity's emphasis on the afterlife."

More recently, media-savvy pastor Rob Bell published Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in which he dismisses traditional evangelical notions of heaven and hell, calling them "misguided and toxic." When advance word leaked about Bell's new book, outraged conservatives pummeled him with what the New York Times called "a biblical hailstorm of Twitter messages and blog posts."

Yet the hope of heaven dies hard in the popular imagination. Polls show that nine out of ten Americans believe in heaven, regardless of religious affiliation, and 85 percent are persuaded that they "will personally go there."

Even more impressive is the astonishing success of Todd Burpo's Heaven Is for Real, which has topped the New York Times best-seller lists for several months. Burpo, pastor of a small Nebraska church, tells of how he and his wife nearly lost their three-year-old son Colton because of misdiagnosed appendicitis. The couple experienced the fear, rage and anxiety any parents would feel as their child came perilously close to death--and all of the relief and renewed faith when his life seemed to be miraculously spared.

Burpo then describes how Colton began to tell a mind-boggling story of having been transported from the operating table into heaven. He described his great-grandfather "Pop," dead for more than 30 years, and a sister who died in a miscarriage that Colton had never been told about. He also encountered John the Baptist and saw God and Jesus sitting on enormous thrones. …

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