Back in the early 50’s Walt Disney envisioned a “magical park” just for families. His vision became a reality on July 17, 1955, in Los Angeles, California with the opening of Disneyland. Disneyworld opened in Orlando, Florida in October of 1971. Over 700 million people have visited Disneyland since it opened (Disneyworld has an average attendance of over 52 million per year). Although many people were involved in building both parks, only one man is responsible for their creation: Walt Disney.
Despite the “Magic Kingdom” being the creation of one man, no one really ever went to any of the Disney theme parks to see or be with Walt Disney. They went (and still go) to enjoy themselves. Can you see where this is going?
There are a myriad of nuances concerning the word “idolatry.” However, all the definitions seem to coalesce into a single thought: idolatry is God replacement. Whatever we use to set God aside is by definition, an idol.
I have heard a lot of sermons, read a lot of books, and had a lot of discussions with people about heaven. My experience tells me that people are excited about reuniting with loved ones, being permanently mended from physical and emotional handicaps, and having all their desires met simultaneously and endlessly (eternal bliss). What seems to be missing from most of the sermons, books, and discussions about heaven, though, is any real longing or desire to stand and then live forever face to face with God Almighty.
Of all the millions and millions of people who have visited Disneyland or Disneyworld few, if any, cared that they did not meet Walt Disney while at the park (while he was alive and certainly not now). People don’t go to amusement parks to meet the person who is responsible for all the rides, exhibits, and shows. Generally speaking, they go to have fun with people they care about.
I fear that heaven has become nothing more than a spiritualized version of Disneyland in the modern church. If the only appeal to heaven is our own personal gratification wherein meeting the one who both envisioned and then built heaven is not really longed for or even necessary…then heaven has replaced God and has become an idol.
Mankind’s existence begins in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are with God. Every way there is to be with Him. And that includes physically. They saw Him. They walked with Him. Then sin entered the picture and being with God was no longer possible. Even getting close to God became dangerous (setting foot on Mt. Sinai; Exodus 19:12, entering the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and later temple; Exodus 28:34-35, or even touching the Ark of the Covenant; 2 Samuel 6:6-7).
The entire biblical narrative is the story of being able to get back with God. The Bible concludes with the electrifying and exhilarating news:
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3).
That is the fulfillment of David’s hope in the 23rd Psalm:
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (v.6).
It is difficult to understand how heaven has been turned into a phantasmagoric everlasting theme park created to satisfy and fulfill all our wants and desires when the Bible makes it absolutely clear that heaven is about one thing and only one thing: being with God.
Consider this statement from Jesus:
In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also [emphasis mine] (John 14:2-3).
In Jesus’ mind, this “place” that He is preparing for His followers is to serve one purpose: “that where I am you may be also.” Now, assuredly, being in His presence will meet every possible need and fulfill every possible desire of each person, but when people are quick to point out what they expect in heaven and nowhere on their list is being with God…there is a problem.
(For the purist and academician I realize that technically New Jerusalem isn’t even in heaven as per Revelation 21:2. The purpose of this blog is to address our inappropriate desires and expectations rather than flesh out the intricacies of life after death [or as N.T. Wright puts it: life after life after death].)
It wasn’t just Jesus who centered the true hope of heaven as being with God. In 2 Corinthians, Paul takes his readers on a journey beyond this life. After writing of our heavenly dwelling and being swallowed up by life in the future, he returns to the present with this word of hope:
Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord [emphasis mine] (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Paul never lost sight of the ultimate goal of Christianity: being with God as we once were in Eden.
I realize how worked up some people get with the “Rapture” passage of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 but once again, I fear we are majoring on minors. Regardless of what your take is on the rapture look at how Paul concludes the news of Christ’s return:
and so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
People have made the transition into the air the big event but with Paul the really big news was, and remains, being with the Lord!
In summarizing the reason for writing the book of Hebrews, the author reminds the readers of how unapproachable God has been to mankind. They are reminded of Mt. Sinai and that if any living creature touched the holy mountain it would die. Then he says,
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…[emphasis mine] (Hebrews 12:22-24).
The benefits of heaven are immortality, perfect wholeness, and absolute fulfillment. They are not the goal. The goal always has been and always will be being with God. The benefits are tied directly to being with God.
The big draw to heaven isn’t what we get out of it. The big draw is being face to face with God like we never have in this life. No veils. No types. No symbols. Looking into our Creator’s face. Reaching out and touching Him. Living eternally with Him.
If being with God isn’t all that central or important to your beliefs about heaven…then you’ve made heaven into a replacement for God. And that is idolatry.