By John Pierce
The strumming theologian Bocephus penned: “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t wanna go. If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I’d just as soon stay home. If they don’t have a Grand Ole Opry, like they do in Tennessee, just send me to hell or New York City, it would be about the same to me.”
In his unique way, Hank Williams Jr. was saying that he prefers the familiar to the unknown — and that he’s enjoying life too much here and now to desire something distant and different. At least that is my interpretation of ol’ Hank’s song.
My own church upbringing advanced the idea that the truly faithful should yearn for the yet-to-come. “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”
The sales pitch ranged from the highly desirable promises of no more pain or sorrow (even though I was feeling neither) to the less desirable descriptions of an eternal destination filled with pearls, gold and other riches.
Another theologian of note, Steve Martin, said publicly years ago what I’d thought but would never have said in my youth in fear of being destined for hell or New York City:
“What if you actually got to heaven and sat around in a white robe while playing a harp, wouldn’t you feel stupid?”
My desire for the afterlife could have been enhanced if the preacher or Sunday school teacher had painted a different picture. For example: Heaven is like being at the ball field with your friends on Sunday afternoon — except you never have to go home and get ready for evening church programs.
Or it’s like going to summer camp and never reaching the last day. No school, no homework.
Or it’s like having a continuous covered dish dinner without having to sit through a sermon first. And no one ever eats up all the chocolate pie before you get to the dessert table.
Shortly after my father’s death in 2001, our daughter was obviously trying to make sense out of the life-after-death idea in her young mind. She piped up from the back seat of the car and asked: “Is Papaw walking on streets of gold?”
I replied: “I guess so, honey. That’s one of the ways the Bible describes Heaven.”
But soon I added that the most important thing for us to know is that he is in the loving presence of God.
There is nothing appealing to me about pearly gates, gold streets, mansions or strumming a harp in suspended time. Experiencing the loving and eternal presence of God — once this good life has run its course — is very comforting however.
My guess is the biblical writers used the grandest images they could find to describe Heaven. But I hope it’s something different and more. Otherwise, I’m with Hank on just staying here — although the Bible never presents that as an option.
Few things are more foolish than to think our finite minds can grasp to any significant degree an infinite God and what might lie beyond our very limited earthly lives. Some preachers think they have it all figured all out through their skilled biblical interpretations.
I doubt it. And talk about limited minds.
But our focus this season on the coming of Jesus gives us enough of a glimpse to know that God is loving and merciful beyond our wildest imaginations and dreams. And as my seminary theology professor, the late John Eddins, use to say: “What we do not know about God is consistent with what do know about God in Jesus.”
Yearning for Heaven is not something most of us do, I don’t think. It probably depends on how much joy or pain is being experienced in earthly living at the moment.
But there is a difference is yearning for something and being hopeful. In fact, it is that great hope — rooted in the promise of God’s unwavering love and eternal presence — that brings greater joy to life in the here-and-now.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.