A little bit of heaven on Earth
Ihave a bad habit of annoying Christians. Partly it’s because I don’t believe in Jesus, and partly it’s because Jesus keeps letting me write columns about how I don’t believe in Jesus.
Last March, after some campaigning, I got Starbucks to put a quote from me on the their paper cups. It said: “Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than hell.” It is, indeed, kind of disgusting that Starbucks sells coffee cups that big.
I wasn’t surprised that I got a lot of angry e-mails and letters. But I was surprised that a stranger cared enough to send me the book “Heaven” by Randy C. Alcorn. In the next few months, four other people sent me the same book -- one of them inscribed to me and autographed. It made me seriously consider writing a column about how I don’t believe in bottles of Chateau D’Yquem.
The first thing I learned from reading “Heaven” that made me feel stupid was that my joke was not only overwritten but really old. Gary Larson did it in a “Far Side” cartoon with a guy on a cloud saying, “Wish I’d brought a magazine.” Mark Twain did it in “Huckleberry Finn.” Isaac Asimov -- who was not even funny -- said, “For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.”
The book is 533 pages long, so I decided to just call Alcorn at his ministry in Oregon. He’s one of the foremost non-dead experts on heaven, having also written “50 Days of Heaven,” “In Light of Eternity: Perspectives on Heaven” and “Heaven for Kids.” Alcorn said that a few outraged people had shown him my Venti cup. It made him laugh. “Not because I thought it was silly, but because I believed it, in essence,” he said. “Hey, I agree. The Christian church has communicated an extremely boring view of heaven. I think it’s wrongheaded and flat unbiblical.”
The clouds-and-harp version came about for two reasons, Alcorn told me. One is Satan. The other is the early church fathers who tried to blend the Bible with Greek philosophy and wound up with a Platonic version of the afterlife stripped of the physical. In the heaven in Alcorn’s book, he imagines we’ll be riding on the backs of brontosauruses and throwing baseballs with Andy Pettitte. This does not sound like it will be heaven for brontosauruses or Andy Pettitte.
But that’s actually the heaven on Earth that only gets going after the return of Christ. Until then, our souls are hanging out in intermediate heaven -- a place a lot less physical and awesome -- and much of our time is spent watching events on Earth. Which sounds pretty boring. “If you didn’t have the promise of resurrection and new Earth, and all you had was this unnatural state, I would say that, yeah, by our present standards, that doesn’t sound exciting to us,” Alcorn said. And remember, some Christians have been in intermediate heaven for about 2,000 years. The brontosaursuses maybe a few thousand years longer, depending on your views on science.
When Alcorn pointed out that I could have conversations with Socrates and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in intermediate heaven, I was pretty sure that I’d get, at best, a book signing from those guys. Most of my time would be spent talking to the kind of people who send me unsolicited books.
Alcorn reaffirmed my confidence in my cup quote. So I called Shelly Migliaccio, who’d sent me the autographed book. She used to go to Starbucks twice a week, but my quote made her so mad that she has boycotted it ever since. Yet she sent me a nice note and an autographed book. Still, all things considered, I’d rather be Starbucks.
“I was thinking it was sad that you looked at heaven that way. I wanted you to know about the heaven I know about and I look forward to go to,” she told me over the phone. “Life here on Earth can be so trying sometimes, and I just anticipate it.”
In Migliaccio’s heaven, the colors are more brilliant, we all have jobs we love, we are free of the lies and horrible stuff she sees on the news. And, at least for the little while we were on the phone, I believed in Migliaccio’s heaven too.