There is nothing necessarily special or divine about the desire to go to heaven. There’s nothing surprising about it. Most religions offer some ideal afterlife as a reward for being faithful in this life. Ask the average Canadian if he would like to spend eternity in a perfect world that has no sickness, no poverty, no pollution, no war, no death. He’d probably say yes, he would like to go there. And ask him if he would rather spend eternity there than in hell, that everlasting fire where the smoke of torment goes up forever and ever. His answer would be even more obvious. Of course he would rather go to heaven than to hell.
Sometimes I think as Christians we limit ourselves to that kind of thinking. We recognize of course that hell is a terrible place and that as terrible as hell is, heaven is wonderful. And in order to escape hell and go to heaven we have to place our faith in Christ. But I think that shaping up the truth of the gospel this way leaves us with an incomplete understanding of salvation. It leaves out some of the most important truths.
To illustrate, I’ll quote a passage from John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. The poem begins with Satan and the angels lying dazed in the lake of fire. They’ve just been cast out of heaven, and it’s a long fall from heaven to the pit of hell. As the angels come out of their daze they begin to gather in a great crowd around Satan, their leader. They want to know what this eternal punishment means, and what if anything can be done about it. So Satan rises to the occasion and in no uncertain terms lays out how this is going to go. He says (with original spelling):
Is this the region, this the soil, this the clime,
Said then the lost archangel, this the seat
That we must change for heaven, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so . . .
. . . Farewell, happy fields
Where joy forever dwells: hail horrors,
Hail infernal world, and thou profoundest hell
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
. . . Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
That’s one of the most famous passages from the poem, famous for how well it captures the essence of sinful rebellion. Satan knows full well the pleasures of heaven. The “celestial light,” the “happy fields where joy forever dwells.” These aren’t just something Satan has read about; these are memories of concrete experiences. Yet they all belong to the place where God is. They all belong to a place where you can only ever be inferior, where you can only ever serve, where your existence is dedicated to the glory of another. And so great is Satan’s pride that he would rather be anywhere else than there. He would rather be, to quote Milton again, in
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe.
Satan would rather reign in darkness visible than serve in the celestial light. But the power of these words is not simply that they depict Satan’s condition. It’s that they depict the human condition. They depict a condition that is not merely distant from God, that is not merely unable to serve God. These words depict a condition that does not want to serve God. Satan knew the pleasures of heaven and yet rejected them for hell. Adam and Eve, too, knew the pleasures of paradise. They knew what it was to live in a world without sin, a world in harmony with God, a world of fellowship with God. But they rejected paradise, they rejected fellowship with God, they rejected life. They knew the penalty for eating of that tree, and they ate anyways. Better to serve myself and die than to serve God and live. And it’s that desire that has captured the human heart ever since. The desire to spend an eternity suffering in hell rather than living in heaven and serving God.
So to return to our average Canadian who would much rather go to heaven than hell. And the response that says that he escapes hell by putting his faith in Christ. You can see that that isn’t the full picture. Even if you stress that he has sinned and offended God and that Christ has taken away that offense, even that is not yet the full picture.
If we saw the fullness of sinful desire in Satan’s words, we see the exact opposite of that in Psalm 63:1. On the one hand, we have Satan saying, “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” But on the other we have the stark contrast of David’s words: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” You can see that this is no lukewarm desire, that this is as radical a desire as Satan’s.
David is not simply thirsty. David isn’t simply thirsty in a desert. He’s thirsty in a desert where there’s no water. You can imagine in that situation how intense the desire for water would be. The one thing you need in order to live is the one thing that isn’t there. In that kind of situation, your basic instinct takes over. Your bodily need takes over your ability to reason, your ability to feel. It consumes your thoughts. All your desire, all your actions and intentions would be bent on getting that one thing. And David is saying, in that way I long for God. My soul longs for God with the same overwhelming intensity that a man dying of thirst feels for water.
And I think it’s these words that give us a full understanding and appreciation of the gospel, and of the work of Christ. Because then the gospel is much more than just, how do I escape a terrible place and get to a beautiful place. Rather, the gospel answers the existential need for God that the Spirits births in our hearts. Because of what Christ has done we can find the water that consumes our thoughts. So having our sins forgiven is not an end in itself. Being justified is not an end in itself. God himself is the end. In Romans 5:1, Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, that which blocked us from God, that which created hostility with God, has now been removed. Since we have been justified through faith, the desire of Ps.63:1 can be fully satisfied.
That is what is at the heart of salvation. Hell is for people who have Satan’s attitude. Hell is for people who want to be there. But the gospel means that no one who desires to be with God has anything standing in their way. The way to fellowship and communion with God is wide open to whomever wants it. And fellowship and communion with God is what everlasting life is. Experiencing the presence of the Lord and the majesty of his power. So if we speak about everlasting life merely in terms of having a body that will never die, and a world that will never be corrupt, then we are missing the point. Like I said, there is nothing special about wanting that sort of place when you die. But everlasting life is a life of full submission to God. It’s a life where you not only recognize your vast inferiority, but you celebrate it. The greatness of God is what gives you joy. Living only for his glory is your greatest delight. And wanting that sort of place when you die, well that’s a miracle. To have in your heart the desire of Ps.63:1, that’s a miracle.
And we find this desire not only expressed in Ps.63:1, but commanded in the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” No doubt this is due to the continued presence of sin even in the lives of believers. We still have to be given a direct order from God to love him. The disciplines of prayer of Scripture reading, then, are not merely important. They are essential to the Christian life. We are commanded to love God; we are commanded to desire God. It’s through prayer that we commune with God. It’s through the pages of Scripture that we glimpse the inexhaustible being of our God. Communing with God, beholding God, these are the things we will enjoy in abundance, and for time unending in everlasting life.
Meditating, too, on the truths of the Christian faith is also a way to behold God. For all those truths are the many paths which our souls tread to that eternal divine Source. For example, in the Nicene Creed the Church confesses that Christ “is of one substance with the Father.” Because if Christ is not of one substance with the Father, then he is merely a very great creature. That would be a very high truth, but not a truth that went all the way to the top. And if Christ was not fully human, then we would not find a truth that came all the way down, either. But in the doctrine of the two natures of Christ we have the very highest becoming the very lowest, the two great extremes of God’s love. We have the extent of east from west coming together in one Person, a manifestation of love that measures to infinity. It is as inspiring a thing to behold as the greatest cathedrals, for it is to behold the love that is God.
But we aren’t only souls. And the first and greatest commandment is not that we must love God with only our heart soul and mind. It adds our strength. We have bodies, and we also love and enjoy God with our bodies. Jesus says that the two greatest commandments sum up the law and the prophets, and a great deal of the law and the prophets is concerned with how to live. When we walk in step with the Spirit and he produces in us his fruits of patience and kindness and gentleness and love, then we are in a way communing with God. In fact, even the phrase “walk in step” implies fellowship. The Spirit of God is teaching us through our activities something of the mercy and truth that we will enjoy fully in God’s presence.
So if I have any message for my fellow fourth-years, and also my professors and fellow students, it would be first of all to pray for an increase of this desire, and cultivate it in your own hearts. And then in whatever station God calls you to, pray for and cultivate this desire in the people around you. Jesus said to the woman at the well (John 4) that he would give water that would never leave us thirsty again. But he also said that this water would produce springs inside of us, too. That we, too, might become sources of life for others. This is the life Christ purchased for us. This is the life the Spirit equips us to live.
But we live in a world that endlessly distracts us from God, that endlessly tempts us to want our lives on our own terms, that makes my hell seem way more exciting than God’s heaven. Jesus said that the way of Milton’s Satan is the broad, easy, and popular way. But the way of Psalm 63:1 is the narrow, difficult way, and few find it. Because if it’s not God that we desire, then we will never desire eternal life. But it is that narrow way of thirsting and longing after God that is answered in the gospel. It is that all-consuming ache that God satisfies with himself forever. So I hope and pray that wherever we end up we would all be sources of living water, and that we would serve to intensify that longing for God among God’s people.
This was the longer version of my final chapel message, March 24 2016.