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Goldilocks and the Streets of Gold

The difficulty of preaching about heaven.
Goldilocks and the Streets of Gold
Image: JasonDoiy / Getty

Remember Goldilocks? Remember how terrified she was when she awakened staring into the teeth of three angry bears? What you don’t know is that Goldie’s near-death experience later got her to think about eternity. Never much of a church goer before her brush with the bears, she ultimately decided to visit three churches in her neighborhood, attending each one for a full year. She went hoping to hear what happens to people after they die. She wondered how God would judge her and whether she’d be good enough to make it into heaven. More than anything, she wondered what heaven would be like.

Three years passed. Goldie never missed a Sunday. Afterwards, she visited a homiletician at the local seminary. She wanted to discuss what she wrote in her journal about the sermons she had heard. The following captures the gist of their conversation.

‘This Preacher Says Too Much’

For a while, Goldie was delighted with what she heard in the first church. The preacher there talked about heaven and hell like they were real places and they seemed to know a lot about heaven. But looking at the verses from which they drew their sermons, Goldie sometimes felt they said too much. She was genuinely curious about the afterlife, but she thought this preacher speculated more than they should.

Not only that, but the preacher’s descriptions of heaven also dripped with sentimentalism. They sounded like the words from the southern gospel songs at her great-grandparents’ church. Mansions over the hilltop. Streets of gold. A land where we’ll never grow old. It sounded clichéd to her and, at times, too much like a fairy tale where everyone always lives happily ever after.

The homilietician told Goldie that she was fortunate to have happened upon a church where heaven and hell were mentioned at all.

Scott Gibson and Dan Gregory presented a paper at the 2021 Evangelical Homiletics Society after they conducted a digital assessment of selected sermons that were preached around the world at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Someone in the audience asked if the subject of heaven or God’s judgment came up often in those sermons. The answer was hardly, if at all. Later, that same person attended another paper presentation on the subject of lament. During the discussion that followed, he asked the dozen or so people in attendance if they could recall when they last heard a sermon on heaven or hell. Furrowed brows filled the room. Only one man raised his hand—a pastor who said he made a point of preaching a short series on the afterlife every year.

The homiletician then turned and pulled a handful of books from their shelves. They were written by people who claimed to have died and visited heaven themselves or to have known someone who did. Together, the books spawned a new literary genre less than ten years earlier named “Heaven tourism.” Publishers raked in millions. Movies were made. Heaven became a hot topic … for a while.

Eventually, readers began to realize that all those descriptions of heaven didn’t match up. Worse, one of the authors later publicly confessed that he’d made it all up. He hadn’t died and visited heaven. He only wanted attention. In some churches, that created a backlash. They nearly stopped talking about heaven altogether, except at funerals.

Thinking back, the homiletician recalled something one of their Christian college professors shared many years earlier. He had a sister who served as a missionary in Togo, West Africa. She told him that Christians there believed that after they died, they’d go to a place where everyone is fat and happy. For people living in a place where starvation is never far off, fat and happy sounds heavenly. But as the professor pointed out to the class, American believers imagine heaven to be a place where everyone is trim and fit. His point? Culture shapes our views on heaven more than we might want to admit.

‘This Preacher Says Too Little’

Goldie’s experience in the second church was the exact opposite of what she found in the first. Here, the preacher rarely mentioned heaven, except in passing. They seemed more concerned about what happens in this life and how faith in Jesus changes everything.

Goldie heard the pastor preach verse-by-verse through all or parts of nearly a half-dozen books of the Bible the year that she visited. Even when the word “heaven” appeared in the text, the preacher always seemed to relate it back to matters of earth.

She certainly appreciated their insights and could tell that they were a thoughtful person. Still, there was a yearning in her to learn more about heaven than these sermons offered. She couldn’t help but wonder if she was the problem, that she was wanting to know things that everyone else already knew. Maybe, she thought, they had heaven all figured out.

The homiletician quickly assured her that wasn’t the case. They turned to their computer and pulled up an article reporting the findings of a Pew survey from September 2021. It showed that not only do a significant number of Protestants not believe in heaven (anywhere between four to twelve percent), not everyone who believes in heaven can agree on several key points—whether people who don’t believe in God or practice a non-Christian religion can go there. Out of all US adults surveyed who believe in heaven, those who think the people going there “definitely” or “probably” experience the following were as follows:

  • Are free from suffering: 69%
  • Are reunited with loved ones who died previously: 65%
  • Can meet God: 62%
  • Have perfectly healthy bodies: 60%
  • Are reunited with pets or animals they knew on Earth: 48%
  • Can see what is happening on Earth: 44%
  • Can become angels: 43%
  • Are able to have relationships with people who are still living on Earth: 25%
  • Can choose whether to stop existing: 15%

Next, the homiletician pulled down another book from their shelves titled Four Views on Heaven. Handing it to Goldie, the homiletician explained that the contributors to that volume make the study of the Bible their life’s work. They hold earned doctorates in their chosen fields and are considered experts in the study of theology, biblical studies, and philosophy. Turning to the table of contents, she showed Goldie how one writer believes Christians will leave earth behind when they die and live forever in heaven—resting, worshiping, and serving God. Another believes Christians will live forever with Jesus on a restored earth, where they will both worship and enjoy ordinary human activities in an ideal environment. A third writer believes in a restored earth where Christians will spend all their time in worship, while the fourth focuses more on the bliss of seeing God face-to-face.

Seeing Goldie’s confused expression, the homiletician laid the book aside and brought the conversation back to Goldie’s experience in the second church. The preacher there may not have talked much about heaven because they hadn’t studied the doctrine much or because they had studied it so much that their awareness of the different views on heaven had silenced them on the subject. The Bible simply doesn’t answer all our questions about the afterlife, that we’re left to wonder how much of what the Bible does say should be taken literally or figuratively, and that some passages talk more about what’s not in heaven than what is.

Finally, the homiletician suggested something that made a great deal of sense to Goldie. Perhaps the reason that the second preacher didn’t say much about heaven was because they had grown up in a church like the first one that she visited. The preacher had heard so much about the streets of gold, walls of jasper, and ivory palaces as a young child, that they overreacted in their own ministry by concentrating their sermons on the kingdom of God that is now and saying little-to nothing about the kingdom that is not yet.

‘This Preacher Says It Just Right’

As Goldie began describing what she heard in the third church, her expression changed from confusion to delight. Whereas that first preacher said too much and the second too little, this third preacher seemed to her to say it just right.

What struck her most about their comments on heaven was how they spoke them. She described their delivery as hopeful, excited, expectant even. There was an ache in their voice, like the ache of a soldier far from home. The preacher spoke of heaven as naturally as they talked about their spouse and children or the place they grew up.

There was the sound of familiarity there, and yet they didn’t make it sound like they knew it all or had been there. She heard the wonder in the preacher’s voice, like that of someone who had peered into the face of mystery and was awed by what they saw but could not fully comprehend, much less describe.

Goldie recalled three sermons that moved her deeply. The first was a message from John 14:1-6. The preacher began by explaining the cultural background of the passage, talking about arranged marriages, periods of engagement, and what happened during those periods. They described what it was like when the groom paraded across town to collect his bride to take her to his father’s house. Then the preacher related this back to Jesus’ plans for his people, emphasizing their reunion with him in that place that he himself has prepared.

The second sermon was about the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. She had heard the preacher back in that first church allude to the passage often. That preacher emphasized the dimensions of the city, the composition of its streets, and the collection of jewels in its foundation. They tried to paint a picture of how the city looked.

This third preacher did something different. As they talked about the city’s dimensions, they created a sense of its greatness that made her feel small. As they talked about the city’s streets, foundation, and gates, she sensed beauty, radiance, and something akin to how she felt whenever she visited an art gallery showing paintings by the masters or the special exhibit that came to her town displaying treasures from an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb. This third preacher wasn’t content with merely trying to paint a picture to hang on her imagination’s walls. Instead, they sought something more, something deeper. The words in the sermon sought to stir her affections for things higher and nobler and more beautiful than this present world has to offer.

The third memorable message came from Genesis 1. The preacher talked about how much they had enjoyed Gregg Davidson and Kenneth Turner’s book The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One. They learned much from the chapter on how Eden was a temple where God met with Adam and Eve and from where God intended them to go into all the earth to bear his image and expand the borders of his temple. The preacher explained how sin resulted in Adam and Eve being expelled from that original temple but how that didn’t change their mission. They were still to bear his image wherever they went, to subdue the earth for his purposes, and thus to prepare a place where God might walk among them once more.

The preacher went on to relate all of this to Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness, the temple in Jerusalem, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Christians today as living temples, and, finally, to the time foretold in Revelation 21-22 when the earth and heavens are made new, when God comes to dwell among his people again, when Jesus is the temple, and the place of his residence reaches higher than any mountain and farther than Eden itself.

They connected the gold in heaven’s streets and the river flowing through them back to the rivers and gold mentioned in Genesis 2. Goldie said that whenever the preacher talked about heaven, they did so looking back and looking ahead. This preacher helped her to see that heaven isn’t just a place where we go after we die. It’s a place that God intended for us to be from the beginning. Now, she thinks of heaven not so much as being a place to which God’s people are going but a place which is coming.

The homiletician could only smile as Goldie told them about how that third preacher seemed to say it just right and, by doing so, how they had influenced her to join God’s people as a believing and baptized member of his church. Then, after Goldie said goodbye and closed the door behind her, the homiletician couldn’t help but think, I need to put all this into an article someday.

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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