On Believing in Heaven

by Paul L. Holmer


There are two obvious pressures on any religious address. One comes from the well-established social practice of our day of always assimilating contemporary ideas and modern knowledge. Of course, ideas and knowledge are not always the same; but usually the two are linked, with somewhat uncritical enthusiasm. The result is that social practices, legislation, and even religious ideas are thought to need justification; and usually this means their vindication must be in accord with conceptions and facts now widely touted. The other pressure is more subtle and even more insidious. We are disposed to ask that religion, too, be practically attractive, that it be useful, that it accord with the current view of how things ought to be. We like, therefore, to show that religion can be enrolled in the quest for social goals, that it will magnify personal efficiency, and that it will increase the common good. Religion then becomes one more engine in a society, a "means" which we can recommend heartily; and it soon looms up as a necessity to keep culture thriving.

It is little wonder, then, that a kind of godliness for the life to come has so little to recommend it. For the social consensus is always on the side of the present scene, and the quality of life, by common consent, does not stretch as far as eternity. Our stress is invariably on difficulties widely acknowledged and on resolutions requiring not a change of individual attitude but the fulfillment of socially defined desires. Then the life to come looks like a postponement of ethical striving, and heaven and a lasting blessedness are thought to be only sops. We are persuaded without thinking that immortality, eternal life, even the Kingdom of Heaven are but wish-fulfillments. They are understood as symptoms of weakness, not strength, and they discredit their advocates rather than recommend them. If we are a bit unsophisticated, we probably conclude that an earlier culture made these beliefs plausible but that now they can survive only among sectarians, the deprived, the ignorant, and those who are otherwise quixotic.

So often lately, we have reflection linked with action, usually of a social sort. We tend to think of ideas as plans for action, and beliefs, religious and otherwise, are only credited when they are linked to policies that can take in the ever-changing human scene. The changeless and things heavenly are deemed an escape from reality rather than reality itself. Furthermore, we are accustomed to an almost never-ceasing dirge of woes about orthodoxies, about churches that are pacifyingly indulgent, about devotion that is private, and about the untended causes that, undeservedly, are never served by the faithful. A kind of adolescent prophetism is also easy to come by in our day. We have been flailed quite often by very minor prophets into thinking that religion has to be where the action is, that power centers have to be confronted, and that most of the talk about heaven, hell, punishment, and reward is neither responsible nor profound. At least it does not seem to be relevant to the community.

Of course, beliefs about heaven may be superstitious and only idle addenda. But a superstition is usually a borrowed and second-hand belief, one that neither springs from a form of life nor engenders one. People are trivial and superstitious about science, politics, home remedies, and everyday allegiances, as well as religion. Almost any belief that is assimilated without cost, without a preparation in one's life history, can become only decorative and a bit of flotsam. And to have a belief without paying a price is no bargain. However, there is another kind of peculiarity with the cluster of ideas circling around themes of heaven and life after death. For these conceptions have entered into a kind of popular folk culture, and they thrive there in a vulgar hymnody and a set of verbal crudities that seem to proliferate in the absence of criteria and standards. Again, no wonder that the belief in heaven looks like a credulity one grows out of rather than a conviction that one might aspire to in maturity and wisdom.

There are, in other contexts, distinctions to be drawn between the immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body, between endless time and/or eternal time and eternal life. Also, there are notions of a life to come, a future state of a New Jerusalem, and the kind of life the Apostle Paul describes which is marked by "an eternal weight of glory." But for our purposes here we do not pause for the differences. Instead, we are concerned with the schematic and general notion of a heavenly realm as a place of lasting felicity. That there are various ways by which a general notion like that gets born in us will be the burden of these remarks. That there are big differences which arise will also become explicit. For there is a law of the spirit here, namely, that once we are clear about "how" we seek, then we can also, and immediately, be clear about "what" we seek and find.


An ancient wiseman of Athens had to explain the course of his life to a jury intent upon faulting it. He calmly describe years of obedience to a divine oracle whose wisdom made the wisdom of mankind worth little or nothing. Socrates had a fantastic passion for that divine wisdom and dares even to say that his own reputation for being wise is actually a bit like God only using his name by way of illustration.1 In any case, Socrates is sure he is not wise; and his admission of ignorance is the slight advantage he has over all of those who think they know and truly do not. He tells his hearers: "I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to God." But he talks about the obligation he has lived under, so commanding that it made him oblivious of living or dying but made him think chiefly about the improvement of the soul, his own and others'. He can ask his jury with pathos: "Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth?"

Socrates is governed by a passion for the truth that he is certain will be the wisdom for every life. He defies the multitude and seems oblivious of danger. He even says that the greatest evil that can befall him will be the betrayal of that vocation. No harm can befall a truly good man. His love for the truth is not even besmirched by the fact that he has ever taken money for his teaching, for, again, his poverty is his sufficient witness. And he has, like all people who fight for the right, a private station, not a public one. There is no omnipotence of popular opinion on his side.

Socrates was known for his relentless attacks upon popular ideas and trivial beliefs. He was a champion of a chastening personal morality that took no refuge in average outlooks or the consensus of a multitude. Surely, he was sustained by a powerful passion that framed his whole life and made him a martyr for rectitude and truth even unto his seventieth year. Here was courage indeed. Even Plato's somewhat detached accounts of Socrates' last days in the Apology and Crito dialogues need no rhetoric or labored literary flourishes — all they need they get from the life story of a person whose life was informed by a qualitatively distinct passion.

Socrates was not credulous. Compared to the mobs, he believed very little. But he did not fear death, He thought it, instead, a positive good; for he would be delivered from the present professors of justice and would then converse with Minos, Orpheus, Hesiod, and Homer. These had been truthful and righteous in their lifetime. Socrates believed in heaven and an immortal life. I believe we can say that this scrupulous thinker never did entertain the notion that heaven was conjectural or a good risk. Rather his belief in heaven is certain and almost, by the time he speaks, a natural and inevitable belief. It was all the rest of the compromisers who would think it all hypothetical; for such people, their rewards were also like that, tentative, piecemeal, and gained in devious ways. They were trying to be happy in this life. They had their reward — position and power and money — but Socrates had his poverty and absolutely everything still before him. Again, no evil could happen to a good man; so he is assured that he has not suffered at all with his integrity intact, his vocation to occupy him, and an immortal life of the same quality before him.

Socrates envisioned a heaven where no one would be condemned for loving the truth and no one would be castigated for his virtue. He looked forward to continuing the search into true and false knowledge and finding out what real wisdom is. The context of his concept "heaven" is congruent with his disciplined spirit and dedicated life. It is no surprise that after the poison begins to creep toward his extremities and he knows that death is near, he suggests, almost by the way, that when his sons start to grow up, "Please, dear friends, punish them, trouble them as he Socrates, had troubled the Athenians." Especially if they care about. riches or anything else more than virtue or if they pretend to be something when they are nothing!

Such a passion as this is surely the way the rest of us have learned to define the making of a good human being. The concluding words of the Phaedo seem then so fitting: "that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best." Certainly Socrates' belief in heaven was no superstition. It took an extraordinary life to posit such a context for his future; and his believing was not an escape from anything — rather it made for a bold confrontation with bigotry, with tyrants, and with institutionalized half-heartedness and cruelty. Heaven was no imposition; instead it was a necessity for a life lived like that. What Socrates dared to hope and came to believe with certainty was a function of the relentless search for integrity and truth that made his life.


Centuries later, a student of both the natural and the human sciences also drew the attention of his readers and hearers to the belief in immortality. He was a stern and even austere thinker; but as with most truly great persons of reflection, nothing human was finally alien to him. It is only to mediocrities, caught up in the argot of the hour, that great human conceptions are outside their interest and competence. Immanuel Kant knew science and mathematics, but he was also an imposing theorist of the moral life. Typically, his life, however, was also a bearer of ethics, and he was known by his intimates for a moral stature that matched his sublimity of reflection.

Kant knew what it meant to be obliged, The moral law was categorical, unremitting, and without exception. Little that Jews and Christians have said about the law, positively or negatively, seem to have escaped Kant's perception. Its glories, its delightfulness, are duly matched by its condemnation and its demands. The impressive feature of Kant's writing about these matters is that the relentless logic he follows seems to involve also the first-hand exploration of a moral consciousness. His is no borrowed knowledge nor does he indulge learned clichés. An awesome talent and a conclusive moral pathos combine to give his pages an authority that time does little to erase.

For he had discovered that the world was out of joint morally. Yet he is no journalist spying out the faults of others; he is not merely accusatory of the inequities induced by institutions; and he is no optimist about the potential in political revolutions. The great evils were truly radical, tangled in the roots of our common life, situations, and thoughts. They became apparent only if one had sought to do his or her duty over a long period of time. Then such a disciplined consciousness would discover that the need for happiness was profound and ineradicable. With a truly good life, one can know at first hand when and how a life truly deserves happiness. But oneself and the world are such that you cannot both "deserve happiness" and "yet at the same time. . . participate in it."2 Kant is not complaining about social obstacles nor cavilling about the privileged or the richly endowed. Instead he is saying that if you live with a truly good will, willing the good day after day, you will not find the reward you truly deserve. Morality when it is arduous does not make us happy, but it does make us worthy of happiness. Yet the world and present existence will not supply the felicity.

It is not the ill-will of others nor the institutional arrangements that prevent it. The more perfect our volition becomes, the more apparent this disparity of virtue and happiness becomes, too. A new sadness of the spirit ensues. But, at just such a juncture, Kant thought another possibility. Having seen that, in this life, even virtue and happiness often "restrict and check one another in the same subject," Kant is not prone to think that we need better counseling or group dynamics or even depth psychology. What is the new possibility?

"An endless duration of the existence and personality of the same rational being" — only this can make for the supreme and total good. Immortality of persons will issue in a Kingdom of Heaven, a qualitatively distinct ordering of lives, motives, thoughts, and will in the direction of lasting beatitude. Kant does not believe this casually; he is in the grip of something, and to erase the belief in this lasting Kingdom and the immortality of human beings is like removing the foundation of practicing rationality. All of this starts as a kind of posit, a demand of sorts. It is as though a good person must believe; one cannot deny immortality and heaven any more than one can choose to be wretched or consciously decide to be sick, What looks like a bit of faith — an extrapolation full of risks — turns out again to be a very rational and feasible act.

Heaven is for him a state of affairs, not just a state of mind. And immortality is an essay in real things, not a fiction or an exercise in imagination. Kant, contrary to most of us, reasons from a powerful passion, an encompassing and universal-like passion, from which people are excluded only by the quality of their will. But this passion guides one's thought to the greatest reality, not away from it, as is so frequently charged. Once more, the ideas of immortality and heaven are, here, no escape from anything. Rather they are the instruments for a morality that will stiffen the will and keep fervor constant and loyalty always new. Kant's heaven is for the morally qualified and those who are prepared by a lifetime of moral living to be flt for happiness.

Ardent and personal though this conception of heaven and immortality might be, Kant knew it to be born out of moral striving. It was an idea, indeed; but it had a thoroughly natural origin in the life of morally qualified human beings. It was neither from the Bible nor was it revealed. Apparently, Kant thought it would only occur for those who lived a dutiful life — it needed no divine source and no justification on other grounds. More strongly, the notion of a heavenly and enduring life should be a necessity for everyone qualified by a thoughtful evaluation of how irrational life would be otherwise. Thus, an almost shattering plainness and an awesome simplicity of conviction mark Kant's consciousness of immortality. What keeps a person from slipping into doubt is a deepening of moral concern. And then the picture of life immortal, along with the existence of God, become invincibly necessary truths rather than frivolous ploys. They are not theories at all. Uncertainty is vanquished as moral discipline allows one to see how human life truly is. For the intelligence of a person is aided by rectitude, and one sees more, not less, with a truly good will. One's perception and knowing capacities are changed by one's morals.

Stimulating as this all is, Kant's notion of things eternal is not the Christian conception. Neither is it an idle fancy nor strutting rhetoric. It is not, in the trivial sense, emotive or subjective either. It does not stifle striving nor bestow dignity on idlers. It is not free-floating, nor can it be assimilated as a triviality. Rather, it is wrought within a disciplined self-consciousness and born out of moral agony. Withal, for Kant it is yet a part of the potentiality that makes human life so dramatic and so wrought with importance. Unless we live well, we surely will never believe in heaven nor dare to be immortal.


Contrary to what is often said, the spirit of otherworldliness, even as thus far discussed, is not negative; it is not an imaginary compensation for real weaknesses; nor is it contrary to a concern for the things of this world. When we turn to distinctively Christian conceptions, we do find that the transforming power of otherworldliness gets a still sharper focus. Certainly, if religion is linked exclusively with the deep-rooted desire for success that governs all of us, then this life becomes everything. However, Christian nurture, including the belief in the life-to-come, becomes polemical, and it straightens our flabby disposition while asking us to live more intensely and with a regard for our individuality and everything that we are. It docs this by cultivating in us a new hope. That hope has an objective referent, and the life immortal and the Kingdom of Heaven are much of its content. All the illusions of childhood are superceded; all the fanciful dreams of youth are corrected; even the complex deceptions of maturity — fame, power, money, and learning — that lead to a sense of self-adequacy, are severely chastised. The pain of dying is mixed with the pain of birth to a new and everlasting life.

Surely there is always a danger of separating any dream and hope from one's will. But the Christian expectation of things eternal also takes for granted that the this-worldly is there. That hope is linked with admonitions like "work while it is day." and "now is the acceptable time." The will is strengthened by such an expectation and not enfeebled. The whole of one's life, not just one's early years, is now like a preparation; and the consummation is never anything like a career, and office, notoriety, or even social success. Instead it is life eternal, and it is there for all as a goal and a totally unexpected gift of God's grace. As noble, then, as Socrates' vision is and, as pure and undefiled as Kant's conviction looms up, the Christian's perception is still different. In one respect, the Christian life is far more ambitious, for it makes even the criteria of truth, of moral rectitude, and of personal integrity something lesser. The presence of God is proclaimed, and the whole of life is an inescapable responsibility. Whereas the worldly life is usually but a series of accommodations to circumstances, the Christian life is always a quest for life eternal. But it is not resolved only by the search for truth nor the acknowledgement of the dutiful. It is God, who by the miracle of love, will be present in every human heart and will bring us to both forgiveness and a perduring new life in Christ Jesus. Here we must not only learn our differences but also wear them very lightly, And whatever light afflictions we then suffer are like nothing when we remember that it all transpires to what the Apostle Paul calls "an eternal weight of glory."

The author of The Book of Revelation puts many of these issues in very vivid terms. He uses the metaphorical notion of "light" to describe God's fantastic presence among the redeemed. "And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.. . . The glory of God is their light."3 The new order of ecstatic happiness and an utterly bestowed justice will be like a city of light, with no darkness of spirit, no death, no grief, no sin, no spite, no war. All that we have deeply wanted and spasmodically sought will, of a sudden, be made possible by God Himself. It will all come to us, not because of our efforts, but because the whole world is God's drama. He is the author of the play, and its resolution is in His hands.

But how do we come, then, to believe in heaven? Christian believing cannot be just random and a wild speculative leap. There is nothing to suggest that the grace of God condones irresponsibility and utter relaxation of all concern. On the contrary, if one is taught by the Church and the Bible, one is also, thereby, prepared to discern the darkness and light contending in one's own life. This is where we all must begin. We live in mortal danger of letting the darkness that is sin snuff out all aspiration, all will, and all sense of the goodness and mercy by which we are surrounded. However, by the awareness that God provides, we can become clear about ourselves. Soon the teachings of the Bible and Jesus' own words begin to match the unanswerable and self-evident truths we know about ourselves. Indeed, the match is never perfect, but that is, nonetheless, the direction in which we can grow. The indwelling presence of God fits the Biblical story of His acts and grace. We begin with the small chaos that is our life. As it becomes a cosmos in which God, who is the light, wins over darkness, so, too, does the whole world, a chaos, become a cosmos, under God's guiding grace. Things heavenly are the resolution for both.

There is, too, a kind of threat of things eternal which is very real for all of us much of the time, For the New Testament puts the return of Jesus Christ and His judgement between us and life eternal. God's judgement will not necessarily be our condemnation, but it will be certainly the utter and complete truth about us. If we have done nothing to vanquish the darkness within, if we have never sought the light and the truth about ourselves, we will be utterly disqualified to hear it on that awesome day. But if we are ready for the light, by willing it, by not being content with the darkness, by seeking forgiveness, then the judgement of God will be more in the nature of a happy coincidence. Human evasion and pride, envy and self-assurance, being what they are, we are not likely to be in manifest correspondence. But welcoming the light, which is God Himself, supposes that whatever ray has already fallen has not been refused. There is something lovely in the thought that we can begin to walk in the light as He is in the light, and that this life is not so desolate as to keep us utterly from it. God in Christ is the light already with us and in us, and only the darkness of our own spirit can keep us from Him.

But again, what then of believing in heaven? That solicitude that is God's presence among us also gives us the very motive to believe in immortal and eternal life. Jesus' death and resurrection is like a sign of God's triumph over the darkness of humankind and the ignominy of the grave. Though one thief railed at Jesus as the three hung on their gibbets, the other thief was suddenly clear about himself. Thus, he reminded the scoffer that Jesus had done no wrong such as common thieves. Even that little bit of light brought the response: "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." Something like that can be our privilege also.

One can only conclude that believing in heaven is indeed a superstition if it is an escape from moral consciousness and from the truth about ourselves, (The author of the Gospel of John reminds us at the beginning of his story about Jesus that "the true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.") And it is most often the case that one learns to believe in heaven as one obeys the light that is God. When He dwells in us, the darkness of mind and deed begins to dissipate and we become capable of trusting God even more. As our fear of light is overcome, we seek it all the more. Soon we are living for and with the light, and we become aware that such a God of light can never be extinguished. Eventually we are in the grip of the same energy that made the world. When everything else will perish — institutions, theories, governments, physical things — God has promised plain people the gift of immortality. Then we, too, can rejoice in the thought that the glory of God is our light and that we shall reign for ever and ever.

This is the way the belief in the heaven of our Lord Jesus Christ roots itself in our lives. A wise thinker of the twentieth century once wrote tell me "how" you seek and I will tell you "what" you seek. Believing is a way of seeking and finding. One thing seems to be clear, that if one never seeks at all, one will never find much of anything. A kind of blessedness is in store but only conditionally — if with all one's heart one seeks, then one will surely find even God, life eternal, and heaven itself.

1. The accounts of Socrates here are drawn from Plato's dialogues, especially the Apology, Phaedo, and Crito. Quotations are from Jowett's translations.

2. The remarks from Kant are chosen from The Critique of Practical Reason, translated by T. Abbot (many editions).

3. Revelation, chapters 21 and 22.