“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” This absurd question is attributed to William Chillingworth[i], who was mocking the penchant of some medieval theologians for expending their energy debating meaningless topics.
It has been famously said “Don’t be so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good.”
We’ve expended a number of weeks discussing heaven. Do these conversations and dreaming about heaven diminish our earthly usefulness?
Is talking about heaven the equivalent of debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? What does it have to do with your life? With my life?
Dreaming about heaven is no worthless theological debate over angels on the head of a pin! Our anticipation of heaven has the power to radically re-shape our lives to be more like Christ, looking toward the joy set before us.[ii]
Dreaming about heaven bends our hearts toward God’s heart. The most significant positive impact dreaming and anticipating heaven has on us is shaping our hearts to value that which lasts. Heaven is why we can't seek ultimate fulfillment in this life. And heaven is why so many things that seem like a waste from our perspective are of immeasurable value.
In this series we have reflected on the powerful truths that heaven will be physical, dynamic, and communal. We will learn, we will have relationships with others, we will work, we will explore, we will play, and we will build. If our picture of the new heavens and new earth is distorted: if we imagine heaven to be a place where we will stand in an interminable worship service, for instance, it shapes the way we perceive work, learning, and relationships.
Anticipation is a powerful force. My wife Angel and I have carried forward our parents’ traditions of building up expectations for vacations. When I was young, I remember my grandfather sending clipped pictures of our vacation destinations. We would look at those over and over again and then dig into whatever books we could find at the library to learn about our vacation destinations.
Our family just returned from a trip to California to visit Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. Our kids have had the bug to do the trip ever since they dove into the Harry Potter series a couple of years ago. One of the things that made the trip so sweet was the fact that the kids have anticipated, researched, and prepared for the trip for months.
Leading up to the trip, we went online and saw pictures of the hotel, we planned activities, and we decided which beach we would spend a day at. The kids even mapped out what rides we would go to and in what order at Universal. It shaped our months before the trip: a year out we started saving for the trip; and it shaped our days before the trip: I dug through extra work so I didn’t have to take much with me. By the time the trip came we couldn’t wait to go!
Can you imagine how much better heaven will be than the greatest vacation you have ever taken? Can you imagine how much sweeter your relationships and your work will be than anything you’ve ever experienced?
Our anticipation of heaven shapes our lives as we prepare for heaven. It’s a lot easier to make it through a tiresome day at work in the perspective of the eternal rewards of our earthly faithfulness, it’s a lot easier to do the hard work to pursue reconciliation in the midst of a broken relationship in light of the eternal and pure relationships we are called into, it’s a lot easier to deal with whiny and ungrateful children when you consider the eternal perspective of parenting.
And beyond that! It’s not just easier to make it through, the reality of eternal life brings meaning to even tedious or tiresome tasks. That diaper you are changing? It is an act of love and service toward an eternal being, loved by God. Steering lunchtime conversation away from gossip and to personal and spiritual matters? The eternal fate of souls lies in the balance.
If heaven is just strumming harps, why give up the real fun and adventure now? But if heaven is where the real fun and adventure is, why wouldn't I give up momentary pleasure for eternal joy?
Have you ever had a cheap store-bought cupcake offered to you at work or school? If there is nothing that awaits you at home, it's hard to resist. But if you know that homemade fresh mint ice cream over a homemade chocolate salted caramel tart with toasted pecans awaits you at home, foregoing that styrofoam-like sugar hit isn't nearly as difficult. If God is asking us to give up on our only shot at real fulfillment, then is he really good? But if God asks us to take up our cross in this life knowing that joys untold await us in eternity, that re-frames our sacrifice and his goodness altogether.
CS Lewis once reflected that “A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought of the next… Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”[iii]
May we be those who anticipate and aim at heaven. May we dream of it, talk of it around our dinner tables and with our children, and live lives infused by the wonder of the life we were intended for.
Photo credit: Meric Dagli/Unsplash
[i] What’s interesting is that this debate can’t be found among the scholastics. The closest was Thomas Aquinas, who asked the question “can several angels be in the same place?” There appeared to be no significant debate over even this particular subject. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_many_angels_can_dance_on_the_head_of_a_pin%3F
[ii] Hebrews 12:2
[iii] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, 134.