When I visited classrooms this past year, some of the most common questions from our school kids were about heaven: What was heaven going to be like? What we were going to do there? And, most importantly: Which pets, if any, went there when they died? I always dreaded the “Do dogs go to heaven?” question when it came up, and it did so quite persistently. But I usually answered it by saying that while we do not know for sure whether dogs go to heaven, we do know for sure that we will be perfectly happy in heaven. And so, if we need dogs be perfectly happy in heaven, we’ll have them. But if I was in a particularly snarky mood, I’d sometimes say that while we do not know for sure whether dogs go to heaven, we do know for sure that cats do not. All the kids who had dogs thought this was funny, and some of kids who had cats thought it was funny as well.
Kids are naturally curious about heaven, as they are about many other things. But many of these other things they eventually learn more about and grow in their knowledge of. Their understanding of heaven, on the other hand, often remains the same. We find ourselves as adults, then, carrying around the same ideas and images we had about heaven as we did as kids. This is true for many aspects of our faith, but I think it is especially true when it comes to our understanding of heaven. Heaven remains for many adults a kind of fairyland. Perhaps it’s updated a little—perhaps it’s an adult’s, rather than a child’s, fairyland, with golf courses and wet bars, instead of ice cream and video games. Perhaps it’s also updated to include not only the friends we played with when we were younger, but the ones who passed away when we were older. But no matter how much it’s updated, it’s still an update. It’s still just a fairyland. It’s just Earth 2.0. It’s just Florida without the humidity. So why should we want to go to heaven? Why should we long to be there? Why should we give it much thought or consideration?
You see, I’d contend—and I know this is a bit controversial—but I’d contend that many of us don’t actually want to go to heaven. And why should we, if that’s all heaven is? If it’s just an adult fairyland? All we want to do, I’d contend, is to return to our normal lives here on earth. That’s the rallying cry of this time: Don’t give us heaven, just give us back our normal lives. How many times have you heard someone say, or heard yourself say, that they just want things to go back to normal? Countless times, I’m sure. But normal isn’t good enough. It’s not what we were made for. “I came so that they might have life and have it normally.” This is not what Jesus said in our gospel. He said, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
Jesus did not come so that we might have a normal life but an abundant life. And this abundant life cannot be created by science nor sustained by technology. It cannot be produced in a lab nor preserved in one. It will not finally arrive when we have cured all diseases and prevented all deaths. Only Jesus can give us this abundant life. Because Jesus Himself is this abundant life. He is both the gate which opens to the pasture and the pasture itself. And the more we grow in our relationship with Jesus here on earth, the more we the sheep follow His Good Shepherd’s voice, the more we will experience this abundant life even now, and the more we will look forward to experiencing it in its fullness in heaven.
You know, when we think about a relationship with Jesus, we often think in terms of what Jesus wants from us: the things He wants us to do, the kind of person He wants us to be. But we don’t often think in terms of what Jesus wants for us. What he wants for us is not a normal life, but an abundant life. It’s as if we normally live in a two-dimensional world all our lives and Jesus wants to bust us out of it. He wants to free us from the drab, flat, and linear world we’ve been living in. He wants to open us a whole new dimension of reality, not just an updated version of an already existing one. He wants us to know the splendor of His Truth, the warmth of His Goodness, and the depth of His Beauty. He wants us to be known and loved beyond our wildest hopes and dreams. This is what Jesus wants for us—an abundant life, not a normal life—and only He can give it.
Friends, we cannot let life go back to normal when all of this is over. What God wants for us does not lie in the past; it lies ahead. It lies in a relationship with Jesus which must begin, if it is to begin at all, here on earth; and which will be perfected, if it is to be perfected at all, in heaven. Let’s not commit to letting life go back to normal. Let’s commit to growing in our relationship with Jesus. If we do so, we will begin to experience even now the abundant life which Jesus came to bring. And once we’ve tasted it, we’ll know that our fairyland conception of heaven pales, and pales so much it disappears, in comparison to the abundant life which God has prepared for us in heaven. Heaven will not just be Earth 2.0., not just Florida without the humidity. If anything, it will be like finally discovering the real earth, our true homeland, of which the first earth was only a rough and two-dimensional sketch. For heaven is nothing other than Jesus Himself, the one through whom, and for whom we were made; the one without whom we can never be at happy; the one with whom we need nothing else to be at happy.