Fearing Heaven

The Christian’s duty is to direct his attention to heavenly things, to those promises he will see realized in the life to come. Indeed, he should want his thoughts to be on heavenly life, for it is a life of worship, joy, and bliss. Yet, however odd it might seem, there are Christians who actually fear heaven. They have a phobia few will admit to, and, for that reason, it is seemingly rare or nonexistent. Who, after all, can fear a place of endless bliss? It sounds preposterous. Who would admit to fearing the place Christ prepared for them?

But this fear is real for more people than you think. After meeting one person with a serious and spiritually damaging fear of heaven, I came to meet more. Though strange and seemingly irrational, this phobia deserves a closer look in the Christian community, for its possibility teaches us something important about our present earthly and our future heavenly existence. Further, this fear is more than a phobia, more than something affecting a few to which the rest of us must show patience and support. The phobia uncovers for all of us a vaguely understood or felt feature of the human condition in all its cyclical toiling, rejoicing, and sorrowing—our ever-present contention with time itself and our hope for something firm and final. The rest of us have something to learn from those who fear heaven.

The fear is, from an analytic perspective, irrational, since heaven, as a place of endless joy and delight, cannot be a place of fear. There is nothing in heaven of which one can or will be afraid. All things are subjected to the will of our omnibenevolent God. Yet no analytic attempt to persuade those with a fear of heaven will be effective. They know these truths. They know that heaven is a place of eternal bliss. They assent to the propositional content of heavenly life. Still, they do not see how eternal bliss is possible. They will say, “But it’s endless; you never die. It is never over. celestial cityYou just keep going.” You reply, “Well, yes. But you will be perfectly happy. So what is the problem?” But a lack of propositional truth is not the problem. They will admit that there is something irrational or strange about it. But they cannot get a handle on it; they cannot resolve the problem. The continuous “going, going, going” of heaven is undesirable and even terrifying. Endlessness seems unbearable. The fear of heaven’s endlessness is the powerful sense, usually above clear articulation, of the nature of one’s own temporality in earthly life and the thought that such temporality continues into heavenly life.

This talk of temporality might seem strange and many will balk at what they see as poetic or imprecise language. To understand how a person would fear heaven, however, you must first open yourself up to a certain kind of reflection, namely, on your own lived-experience, especially on your pre-reflective, everyday, and mundane life. When you think of time not conceptually but as a phenomenon, you will discover that the human being is a type of being that is not only in time, but also, and perhaps principally, about time, especially in everyday activity. We are about time even when time is not on the forefront of our mind. Understanding why one might fear heaven requires reflection on how thoroughly our temporality shapes our being in the world. Even those who do not fear heaven might become a little afraid of heaven.

When we bring the concept of time to our attention it is usually to schedule our various future events or to reflect on history. We see time as a thing we are in, as beings moving towards the future and away from the past. Time is sequential, like a series of arrivals or a succession of presents, and we have three distinct and separated tenses. We see the present as stable, the past as fixed, and the future as uncertain. This is one mode of thinking about time, but we also experience time in a related, yet different, and perhaps more primordial way. In our everyday mode of existence, we are not at the present, but are always already bound up in past, present and future. The past is in the present as that which delivers, or determines, the set of possibilities of action for the fulfillment of future ends. The past manifests itself as available options for action to achieve something in the future. It is our ‘facticity’—the facts of our being and circumstances in the world making possible a set of actions. And the set of actions are manifested to us as possible because they are conditions for the attainment of future ends. In our lived-experience past, present, and future are not separated into the abstractions typical of our deliberate attention to time; they are, rather, bound together and inseparably related.

The future seems to pull us towards it. In your typical day, from waking to falling asleep, you are consumed with achieving some future end. You wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, and drive your car to get to work, and at work you do this and that to accomplish some end. You get off of work and complete a set of actions oriented to getting home. You are always already striving towards some future end by means of the possibilities established by the past.

However, when the future end arrives—when it becomes present—it immediately vanishes and becomes past. The future comes and instantly vanishes before we can grasp it or sustain it. An event comes and goes; it passes by and escapes us. This is one of the tragedies of the human condition: we are bound up in a future that, when it arrives, immediately becomes past. The present, then, is the least stable aspect of time. It is nothing but a series of vanishings. Think of a special day, such as a wedding. You think, plan, and hope for that date for months, and when it arrives, and let’s say it goes well, you cannot maintain the moment. You say “I want this day never to end.” But it swiftly passes and you have only the memory. And marriage is only the beginning for all sorts of future ends we strive for. Indeed, the wedding is an event establishing the possibility of a set of future ends for which you can strive. Each futural end is, then, only a relative end, since each end is also a means to further futural ends. All of life, it seems, is a striving towards death: the inescapable terminus of all our future-oriented activity.

Our orientation to the future, however, is not ultimately towards death; it is toward eternity. Our futurality, our continuous striving to futural ends, is a striving towards the rest found only in eternity, since we are oriented towards the Good and the ultimate Good is resting in God. These relative ends are shadows of the ultimate end. The structure of our being that drives us forward to eternity is part of God’s design, communicating to us that we live in the realm of the not-yet. Our striving for the future that vanishes when brought to the present declares that true rest is not found in this world. Only in God is there true rest—an ever-present divine finality. Our relentless and necessary pursuit of ends indicates that even human temporality speaks to our need for communion with God and our ultimate end. Indeed, this feature of human being points to the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and life after death. Our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. Even time speaks to our need for the Gospel.

What does this have to do with a fear of eternal life in heaven? Those who fear heaven have a heightened sense of the nature of our temporality, though they probably have trouble articulating it. They experience the anxiety arising from a constant, never-ending drive towards the future that accomplishes a present that does nothing but immediately vanish and pass by. They say in dread, “Heaven goes on forever without end” because they understand that a place without an end, like heaven, and one with a constant orientation toward the future is a place in which there is no true rest. It is an anxiety-filled place. Earthly life, they vaguely understand, at least has death as a rest from labor. There is finality. With this sense of our temporality, they transfer this temporality into heaven and become terrified of eternity, even eternity with God.

True rest, however, must be a rest from our constant and necessary labor to bring about vanishing presents. True rest is a constant present, a present we can grasp and hold on to. Better put, it is constant finality. The beloved day will not end. Heaven is such a place. It is a wedding reception that does not end. As a place of rest, heaven is rest in an un-vanishing present. Time functions differently. We should find peace in the thought that heavenly life is not like earthly life. You will not constantly strive for what simply passes by. You rest not for something, but in something. You perfectly rest in God. And Christ—who revealed the heavenly kingdom of God, satisfied the conditions to enter into it, and renews unto it the minds of those who trust in him—offers a foretaste of it now through confidence in God’s mercy to us through faith in his finished work.

We cannot know what it is like to experience fully an un-vanishing present or perpetual finality on this side of eternity, so any description or knowledge of heavenly temporality will be inadequate and analogous. We can, however, have foretastes of heavenly temporality while on earth. We have fleeting experiences of it. Encounters with beauty certainly can lift us out from the everyday.  Christians should treat such events as eschatological foretastes of heaven and, when perceived by faith, as transporting. As the puritan poet Richard Steere wrote,

Faith Exercis’d on these is of such force,
As to present our minds with future things,
Faith Soars aloft, and thence (preventing time)
Descends with Samples of those Joys to come.

The ultimate foretaste for the Christian is the corporate worship of God on the Lord’s Day, a time when we cast aside our daily concerns and focus on God and his kingdom in Christ. It is the time and place at which we receive a message from another world and receive a foretaste of that heavenly feast. Worship is not for something. It is not chiefly a means to some earthly success or good. It is principally an end in itself, and the end is the worship of God who resides in the world to come. It is the true foretaste of heavenly temporality.

Though this philosophical reflection is no substitute for pastoral counsel and theological reflection, those with a fear of heaven might benefit from this type of phenomenological analysis. The constant striving for a future of vanishing presents in heaven is a legitimate fear. To my mind, you have a better sense of our temporality and our end than most people, since this future-orientation is a structure of human being pointing us ultimately to rest in God. We need to understand, however, that our temporality will be transformed when we enter eternal bliss. Heaven is a rest from labor (Rev. 14:13). We enter God’s rest: God’s Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:3, 9). The night will be no more (Rev. 22:5).  And while we are on earth we should strive to see, with the eyes of faith, heavenly temporality and, with this foretaste, take comfort that our strivings will cease. Wait on the Lord.

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