September 8, 2015

Learning to Yearn for Heaven

Last week I was putting my children to bed (which I sometimes do when my wife needs a break). Bedtime seems to be the time when my three-year-old has his most "theologically aware" moments. I think it must have been the last lines of our bedtime prayer, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. And this I ask for Jesus' sake, Amen," that caused him to start sobbing.

"What's the matter, Gabriel?" I asked.

"I just don't want to die."

"Oh, you don't have to be afraid of dying. Remember what will happen when we die?"

"We'll go to heaven?"

"Yes. We'll be in heaven with Jesus forever and ever."

"But I just don't want to go to heaven, I want to stay here," he mumbled. "There won't be any food in heaven."

For the life of me, I don't know what gave him that idea, or why it would even occur to a three-year-old to think about his physical provisions in heaven. But I did my best to assure him that Jesus said heaven would be like a wedding feast (something he has certainly had experience with), and so I think there will of course be food. Besides, I continued, the Bible talks about the Tree of Life bearing twelve kinds of fruit.

"Will there be beds?" he asked.

"I don't know, but I suppose there might be," I offered. "Jesus said he was going into heaven to prepare a home for us. And he said there would be many mansions with many rooms."

That seemed to put him more at ease. We talked about streets of gold and the River of Life, and every heavenly picture I could think of. He asked if there would be cars, and whether or not people could fly. (I said that I didn't know about the flying, but allowed for the possibility. What do I know?) But I eventually brought him back to the most important part of heaven—living in the presence of Jesus for eternity. "When you get there, Jesus will wrap you in his arms and say, 'Welcome home, Gabriel. I've been waiting for you since before the world began.'"

He tends to get giddy at that part. I usually have to blink back a tear or two as the thought of that long-awaited moment washes over me.

But I'm always conflicted about these conversations. Because I know that Jesus gave us these wonderful pictures in scripture—not because they accurately describe heaven, but because the reality of heaven is so far beyond our experience—even our wildest imagination—that we could never grasp it if he told us. If we saw it, our language would have no way to express it. St. John seems to struggle when he describes twelve gates, each made of one giant pearl, and streets that are both golden and transparent, like glass (Rev. 21:21). Jesus gives us just enough to keep us hopeful, to make us yearn for a place where no tears are shed, where there is no nighttime or death or sickness or hunger. "Your sun shall no longer go down, Nor shall your moon withdraw itself; For the Lord will be your everlasting light, And the days of your mourning shall be ended" (Is. 60:20).

So I pass these on to my children. Because even if they aren't true in a literal sense, we have to learn to yearn for heaven. I remember a time in my youth when I didn't want to go to heaven. I thought it would be eternally boring: harps and clouds and people walking around in white robes. Who would want that? But I expect that the older I get, the less I will rely on those short glimpses or pictures, and the more I will come to understand that heaven is so far beyond the limits of my imagination that I couldn't possibly be disappointed. Most of all, I hope that I won't care at all what heaven is like—as long as I get to meet the Crucified One. Oh, how I long for that day!

"And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!" (Job 19:26-27).


  1. Lovely post- and we have had similar conversations in our home! One of my sons started crying that he didn't want to go to heaven because "I just really like my new top bunk bed!"

    Another son reminded me that he would be happy to go to heaven when I told him not to run out in the street or he'd get hit by a car....

    a tricky balance indeed! Thank you for your words today :)

  2. and then there's too much literal interpretation and questions we shouldn't be asking answered... like this one...