Stop turning Heaven into an eternal guilt trip

The other day, I wrote about how some folks want to rescue the biblical characters from themselves. They often end up trying to justify their sin or explain it away. They want their heroes to remain largely unsullied by sin and wrongdoing. Another tendency I have noticed with such people is their use of Heaven to establish their position.

It is a bit of a sneaky argument really because it’s not much of an argument at all. Rather than actually looking at the biblical text and drawing conclusions about what is going on, it is an argument to feeling. Not just feeling, but your subjective and as yet entirely unknown feelings of the future. The argument usually goes something like this: if that is your view of this person, how do you think you will feel meeting them in glory? Won’t you be embarrassed to have held this view about them? The argument is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, it misses the point that how you would feel meeting someone you have named as having done something wrong goes absolutely none of the way to determining whether they have actually done anything wrong or not. A witness in court might feel a bit awkward bumping into somebody they testified against, but it doesn’t change the fact that their testimony was true. In the same way, it might be a bit awkward to bump into David after we called him an abuser, but it doesn’t change the reality of whether he was one or not.

Second, it roots itself in an assumption that we would be embarrassed at all. This assumption might be right, but that’s all it is; an assumption. As it happens, we are unlikely to feel this way (more on which in a minute). But it is rooted in how we might feel in the ordinary scheme of things today. We simply do not know how we might feel ordinarily bumping into somebody about whom we have formed an opinion that is not to their credit. Aside from saying nothing about whether that view is correct, we also don’t actually know how we would feel in the ordinary scheme of things anyway.

Third, however, we almost certainly wouldn’t be embarrassed when we meet them in Heaven. The person we have spoken about will have been perfected with the perfect character of Christ. They will know themselves whether they did the thing and it was as negative as we perceive it and they will respond to other people believing so in the most perfectly godly way. Likewise, we will have been perfected with the perfect character of Christ and – such as we are interested in ever raising these things anyway (more on which in a second) – will raise it in a perfect God-honouring way. Nobody is likely to be embarrassed. We will all be perfected, forgiven sinners who know precisely what we have all been saved from and will feel no shame about it because we will know (and feel) perfectly that is has all been dealt with by Jesus.

Fourth, that aside, we’re unlikely to be worried about these things in glory anyway. Our focus is unlikely to be on whether Gideon was a muppet who should have done what God said first time or whether Abraham’s lie to Pharaoh was actually lying or not. Not only will we all know with perfect insight whether these things are as we perceive them now or not, nobody will care. We will be more focused on glorifying Christ and magnifying his greatness than we will be rehashing old sins from millennia ago and determining whether Jesus had to die for that specific thing or not. The bottom line is that it’s unlikely to ever come up.

For all those reasons, it is a particularly silly argument to make that does not go anywhere near actually resolving the question at hand. And if that was all it did, we could have a laugh about it and ignore people when they bring it up. But sadly, I think there is another reason we should never employ this type of argument. A reason that is actually quite serious.

What we are doing when we make this argument is turn Heaven into a guilt trip. It isn’t your garden variety guilt trip either, but one that will last for eternity. Imagine – goes the logic – having to stand next to Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Samson, David, Solomon, whoever for all eternity having said that about them? Eternal cringe. Everlasting embarrassment. Be careful how you assess their lives lest you end up on a table with them at the marriage feast of the lamb.

I think this is a terrible argument to make. It turns Heaven into Hell. Worse, it enshrines a kind of moralistic legalism into eternity. As if the judgements we make about scripture today will mean that we forever cringe in glory. We are essentially ruining glory for people for the sake of winning an argument by appealing to emotions on the matter.

I think this has two particular problematic consequences. One is that it essentially encourages people to read scripture through the lens of emotionalism. We are essentially telling them that the right reading of scripture is the one that won’t make you embarrassed (thinking as such in your mind still suffering the effects of total depravity). It says you should read the Bible not using sound hermeneutics, but grounded in how you might feel stood next to a particular biblical character. I don’t know if anybody would actually do this, but it does teach a subjectivism that is not at all helpful.

Second, it diminishes the joy and glory of Heaven. If this is an argument we like to use, we need to recognise that we are minimally implying that Heaven will be less than perfect for some of us. I think if we ruin the picture of glory we cannot be surprised if our people don’t get all that excited about going there to be with Jesus and all the people around whom they are going to be deeply embarrassed. If they aren’t all that excited at that prospect, what sort of Christian walk are we going to encourage? Scripture frequently uses Heaven and being with Jesus as a ground to press on in him. If we ruin that for people through guilt trips, what is the end going to be? People uninterested in glory, for whom that is not a grounds to press on, who may well conclude it isn’t worth it after all.

Third, I think it pushes towards a form of legalism. Your experience of glory is not based wholly on Jesus’ saving work on your behalf. Rather, it is going to be based on your works. In this case, how embarrassed you are when you get there is going to depend upon you holding all the correct views of people and not being near them if they happen to have sinned and had the dubious honour of it being written down in scripture. Watch what you say and do because your experience of Heaven depends on it! What a horrible, unbiblical message to send. We may succeed in guilting some people round to our view with this argument, but we may also create little legalists on the way which would, ironically, do far more to affect their experience of Heaven than anything else.