Heaven for Atheists

An atheist asked his Christian friend, “What’s so great about heaven?”

“Well,” he said, “I don't know where to start, since everything’s great about heaven. It’s beautiful, to begin with. Streets of gold and pearly gates. Takes your breath away. And there won’t be any hospitals or morgues there because we'll be done getting sick and dying. You also get to be reunited with folks who've died, like your parents and grandparents and old friends. I can't wait for that. And of course, there's the angels, and what’s there not to like about angels? There's simply nothing but beauty and goodness and happiness in heaven.”

The atheist mulled this over for a few seconds and said, “You know, that does all sound great. In fact, for one important reason, it's just the place I’d like to be.”

The Christian, surprised, asked, “Really? Why’s that?”

The atheist said, “You didn’t mention God. Now that’s my kind of heaven.”

Peel back the outward layers of churchiness, stick a microphone to heart of Christians, and ask, ''Why do you really want to go to heaven?'' The answer, “to be with Jesus” will be low on the list, if it makes the cut at all.

Give most people a choice between being with God in a one-room shack beside a cornfield in Iowa, or being without God in a mansion beside the beach on an island paradise, and the majority would be packing shorts and bikinis for the hereafter. It's all about the destination, baby.

@@Folks are dying to get there, whether God's in heaven or not.@@ So if you ever wonder how much Christ is really central to your Christianity, ask yourself whether being with him is the principle, all-embracing reason you desire a life after this one. If it's not, let's think about why.

A few years ago, when I was going through a separation that led finally to divorce, I was also separated from my two children by a thousand miles. On my daughter’s birthday I wasn’t there. Months went by between visits. I would talk to them on the phone, but my son, who was only six, wasn’t much of a talker. And even though my daughter and I would speak, sometimes our conversations seemed only to make the separation more tortuous. I wanted to talk to my children face-to-face, to be with them, to touch them. The distance was emotionally debilitating. Choose whatever verb you wish—I craved, yearned, longed, ached, thirsted, hungered—to be with my son, my daughter. They were all I had to live for. They were my life.

There’s a verse in Psalms where David says, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living, God! When shall I come and appear before God?” (42:1-2). The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing an ache as intense as David’s was when I couldn’t be with the two people in the world who meant the most to me. Love that intense creates a thirst that can only be quenched by being with the one you love. There are no substitutes.

To the extent that we love Jesus in this life, to that same extent we long to be with him in the life to come. It’s as simple as that. We don’t miss people we don’t love. Nor do we truly love people we don’t miss.

The reason that anyone would choose a heaven without Jesus, or happiness without Jesus, or healing without Jesus, is because he doesn’t mean that much to them to begin with. He may be useful as a divine tool. We manipulate him into getting what we want. We become God-users. We use him to get into heaven, where what we really want awaits us: a life free from all the crap we have to put up with here, and full of all the stuff we think will make us happy here on earth.

We never stop to consider that we fantasize about a heaven where atheists will be just as at home walking down those golden streets as anyone. We've made Jesus into a disposable Lord.

A few Sundays ago, we were singing a song in church that I’ve sung a thousand times. But for the first time, I truly heard these lines:

Earth has no pleasure I would share,
Yea, heav'n itself were void and bare
If Thou, Lord, were not near me.

I realized that the words spoken by my mouth did not match the thoughts whispered by my heart. Would heaven really be “void and bare” to me if Jesus were not “near me”? Do I honestly have “no pleasure” in the pleasures of earth if the Lord is not “near me”? I may have been singing the hymn with gusto, but not honesty. The reason is found in the opening line of the hymn: “Lord, Thee I love with all my heart." Even on my best days, were I to sing honestly, I would say, “Lord, Thee I love with half my heart. The world has claimed the other part.”

David depicted his thirst for God as a deer panting for streams of water. I know what it’s like to thirst for the presence of a person I love. But I’m still learning what it means for my soul to crave God.

Show me what that means, Lord. Surround my Jericho heart and shout heaven’s shout, that the walls may come tumbling down. Everything that stands in the way of a life wholly devoted to you, raze and replace. Create a clean heart in me—clean of pleasures that bring you pain, clean of idols that make you jealous, clean of desires that you desire not. And in this clean heart, teach me true love for you, thankfulness for your nearness to me on earth, but a thirst for your full presence in the new heavens and new earth.

That place will be paradise for one and only one reason: because you, O Jesus, are there.