When my daughter was much younger, she loved this PBS show called “Dragon Tales.” Perhaps other parents out there have gotten a migraine from watching this show as well. “Dragon Tales” is about two siblings (Max and Emmy) that get magically transported on a regular basis to a land full of dopy dragons, including one named (I kid you not) Wheezy. And man, oh man … These dragons have major drama … Like when everyone forgets your birthday or when you really miss your dragon mom and dad. Just like other children’s programming like “Dora the Explorer” and “The Cat In The Hat,” you’d think that these kids’ parents would notice that their kids had absconded to magical lands for extended durations of time and call 9-1-1. During every episode of “Dragon Tales,” the kids would touch a magic dragon scale and chant the magic slogan that would transport them Dragon Land: “I wish, I wish with all my heart … To fly with dragons in a land of heart.” Then the two kids would solve all of the dragons’ drama, much like miniature Dr. Phils, and go back home in time for lunch and naps.
“Dragon Tales” really follows a trope of most children’s literature about magical lands: If you just wish and believe hard enough, then you’ll wind up in a magical paradise. Call it the alternative gospel of wish fulfillment.
One of my greatest concerns about the “Heaven and back” genre of books is an acceptance of the alternative gospel of wish fulfillment. In some cases, this appeal to an alternative gospel occurs rather unwittingly as the Gospel is assumed in writing to a principally Christian bookstore audience. However, part of the goal of the “Heaven and back” books is to describe Heaven as an awesome place and to convince people that they need to go there too. Even entitling a book Heaven Is For Real affirms this argumentation. It’s almost like those anti-smoking television PSAs where a bunch of hip teenagers try to show their audience how awesome life is without lung cancer: “Heaven is such a cool place to be! Free white choir robes for everyone! Hell is for wimps!” While some marginal discussion of the glorified Christ is given, the Gospel message of sin, repentance and trust is minimized, and an appeal to Heaven is emphasized more than an appeal to the Gospel.
Many of the “Heaven and back” books include anecdotes of the narrator’s friends, family and acquaintances converting to Christianity based on a recounting of their purported Heavenly experiences. We find such anecdotes in Don Piper’s 90 Minutes In Heaven, where several sick or dying persons hear an account of Heaven and convert to Christianity. Presumably the Gospel and the person of Christ gets shared somewhere in the midst of the situation, but the person’s salvation experience is left somewhat ambiguous. However, the account of Heaven appears to be the initial impetus for belief.
The question is begged: What are we putting our hope, trust and faith in? And what exactly is the character of saving faith?
One Biblical affirmation is critical: Saving faith is based on a person and not a place. The Biblical Gospel is short circuited when salvation becomes more about a longing for a place than love for a person. Salvation comes from trusting in Jesus, who singularly has the the authority and the power to take believers home. Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8-9: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” The highest and greatest value of the believer is knowing Jesus Christ, who provides to His people a righteousness apart from good works or rule following. Such righteousness is found through faith in Christ. Christ stand victorious and able where we are feeble and incompetent. And if we gain a Heaven apart from Christ, then we have truly gained nothing. Our treasure is Christ.
Let me try to illustrate this point another way. Over Thanksgiving break, our family took a short vacation to an indoor water park. My daughter was extremely curious, asking a mind-numbing amount of questions: “How long will it take to get there? … Will there be hamburgers with onions only? … Can I bring all of my stuffed animals? … How many hours can we spend in the pool? … Why do your fingers get all pruny underwater?” My wife and I showed her numerous pictures from the website. We watched online videos showing the rides and activities. While driving to the drudgery of school every morning until Thanksgiving break, my daughter would groan: “I wish we were going to the water park instead!” But in the end, my daughter never would have gotten to the water park unless she hopped in the Kia and trusted that I would drive her there. Similarly, we will never arrive in a Heavenly destination unless we know Christ and trust that He has the power and authority to take us there. Just because we long for a place doesn’t mean that we will arrive there.
If we’re not careful, believers can wind up being more like real estate brokers peddling a new subdivision than heralds of the conquering King. The world where we live has been horrendously broken by sin, and groans for restoration (Romans 8:19-22). Mankind is longing from escape from the pale specter of cancer, natural disaster and death. Loved ones get hospitalized. Family funerals become more frequent. Dreams crumble. Unrelenting and unforeseen disaster cripples. Living in the world hurts. So people reflect upon Heaven as a gigantic family reunion jamboree where fading memories of papaw fishing and mamaw’s apple pie l will once again be realized. Or Heaven becomes a nice suburban mansion on the corner of Gold and God Street with no mortgage. Or Heaven becomes the place where we can eat Ben and Jerry’s by the gallon and never get out of shape. Simply put, Heaven becomes a mirror of our personal dreams and fantasies instead of God’s design.
Don’t get me wrong: Revelation 21:4 does affirm that our Heavenly abode will be a place without death, mourning, crying and pain. It is a good thing to hope and trust that the curse of sin will once for all be eliminated by Christ. But these things are not ends unto themselves. Even atheists hope that pain and suffering will end on the earth, but their methodology for how that peace will occur is radically different from Christ.
Above all things, the Gospel cannot be reduced to mere escapism. Again, believers must affirm that saving faith is based on a love for Christ and not longing for Heaven. I frequently quote John Piper’s compelling question from God Is The Gospel to my congregation: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation— is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?” I fear that many who claim Christ would answer “yes” to that question.
Make no mistake: Heaven is all about Christ. The worship of Christ is both the central theme of Heaven and our primary activity in Heaven. Every Heavenly description in the book of Revelation revolves around Christ. Christ alone is the glorified Son of God, victorious over sin and the grave (Revelation 1). Christ boldly stands amongst his persecuted churches (Revelation 2). Christ is worshipped as ruler over all Creation (Revelation 4). Christ alone stands worthy to open the seals of judgment (Revelation 5). Christ alone is worshipped by a great multitude from every nation (Revelation 7). The warrior Christ triumphs over all of His enemies (Revelation 18-19). Christ reigns as King over the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21-22). You will find no description of a man-centered Heaven in Revelation or anywhere else in Scripture.
Fortunately, my daughter (who my wife and I joke is 8 going on 16) has well moved on from “Dragon Tales,” and is now devouring The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. In re-reading those tales alongside my daughter, I’ve started to notice the methodology of how the characters actually arrive in the supernatural land of Narnia in each book. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lucy stumbles upon the wardrobe entrance to Narnia during a game of hide and seek, and then evangelizes her three siblings into journeying through the wardrobe with her. In Prince Caspian, the same four children are pulled out a train station back into a Narnia while unassumingly on their way to school. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a portrait of a ship hanging on the wall turns an average bedroom into an Narnian ocean. And the pattern continues: No one comes to Narnia except those that Aslan, the wild lion and Christ-figure of the series, has called to be there. And the timing of his calling is largely unknown and often quite inconvenient. And the way to Narnia is only known by Aslan.
In end of The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, an older Lucy has the following conversion with Aslan:
“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?”
”I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder.”
Christ is the great Bridge Builder. Only He can bridge the chasm of death. Our journey to Heaven is not glorified wish fulfillment. Arriving across safely on the other shore the Jordan is wholly dependent upon loving and trusting the One who has built the bridge. In the words of C.S. Lewis, Christ’s message to worried disciples in John 14:1-7 is mirrored: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going. … I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In this regard, I am also critiquing myself and my own preaching and teaching. I too long for a renewed and restored creation minus all of the suffering and sorrow. I have experienced the death of loved ones and now find my own body slowly falling apart due to the effects of time and self-inflicted pain. I long for the day promised in Revelation 21:4 where Christ will wipe every tear from my eyes. As such, I often find myself hawking Heaven instead of introducing Christ. So I need to be more herald and less real estate broker. The emphasis of our preaching and teaching needs to be more about the One who stands victorious over death than the land where death will be no more. We cannot cross the Great Divide without knowing the One able to build a bridge over the chasm. It’s exceedingly more important to know the great Bridge Builder than to know what lies over the Bridge.
Let us rejoice in knowing the great Bridge Builder.