It is a common perception, regardless of belief or background, that things are not the way they should be. A world filled with wars, economic meltdowns, poverty, and disease makes us yearn for something better. Perhaps this yearning, as we speak of justice, is an opportunity to consider heaven afresh. We may have heard of the one who is so heavenly-minded he is of no earthly good, but that may be a caricature of what it truly means to be heavenly-minded. It was C. S. Lewis who wrote in Mere Christianity, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
Heaven is peace from above, surpassing earthly understanding, when everything is as it should be. More than just an ideal to inspire us in the present, it is a promised reality for the end of days. If we think of heaven as the very presence of God himself, the Bible shows it is not just in the future, but confirmed in the past with heaven’s intrusions on earth in real time and real space. We meet the most definitive arrival of the heavenly kingdom in Jesus Christ, in whom risen and to come again, we see the glory of heaven, on one hand strangely absent, on the other mysteriously present. It is this story of heaven that defines our story being written here on earth.
An Otherworldly Ethic
The Black Eyed Peas hit single “Where is the Love?” lamenting a broken world might resonate with many, but one line doesn’t quite jive: “We only got (one world, one world); that’s all we got (one world, one world).” Yet Christians have reason to be far more optimistic, precisely because “one world” is not all we got: while we can sing the same tune as the Peas, recognizing the extent of the mess, we simultaneously hum another tune, a heavenly harmony interwoven with earthly discord, creating real hope.
We might, in proper Pauline fashion, describe heaven as “already and not-yet.” In Christ we straddle heaven and earth, living the paradox at the juncture between the age of conflict and the age of victory. The one we see with our eyes is passing away (1 Cor 7:31); the one we see by faith endures (2 Cor 4:7–18).
The second century Epistle to Diognetus gives this account of Christians:
Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all.
The earliest Christians, socially marginalized and occasionally persecuted, had no opportunity to transform structures and institutions. Instead, they practiced justice in their own situations. Men and women, slaves and masters worshipped together equally. They practiced generosity and hospitality, rescued abandoned children, and nursed the sick, even during epidemics. This was not accomplished by the methods of the world – by the sword, through coercion or legislation – but by those who did not seek their own earthly agendas, not even to preserve their own lives. They loved others and looked not for a city built by human hands, but one built by God (Heb 11:10). By living the reality of heaven, they changed the world.
A Reality Check for World Changers
In this day where Christians have a democratic voice in social structures, there is opportunity and responsibility to participate in worldly power to restrain evil and promote good. But worldly power cuts in ways even the best of us cannot contain. The day Christians gained civil power is also the day they became oppressors. How often have we heard that a system is “terrible, but ten times better than the alternatives”? This sort of futility should remind us of the not-yet aspects of heaven. Living in the light of heaven does not translate into the ability to manifest it perfectly, or even necessarily very well.
Jesus spoke more directly to the heart’s condition than to external structures. Externals are not unimportant, and some political positions may prove more moral or effective than others. Yet Jesus never gave us a complete set of marching orders, nor have we a divine blueprint for a sociopolitical order, except perhaps an obsolete Old Testament theocracy, though even that was imperfect (cf. Heb 7:18; 8:13). We must learn wisdom and the complexities of this world just like everyone else. Hopefully, that will encourage us to be humble to the fact that we are as likely to get it wrong as much as anyone else. L. Nelson Bell, missionary to China and father-in-law of Billy Graham, said this about those who would use pulpits to weigh in politically: “First, they are not competent in that particular field. Second, they have no right to use the prestige of the Church in this matter. Third, we think their advice is dead wrong.”* Heavenly-mindedness neither divides our churches over differing social visions, nor does it lock-step us in political opinion. Instead, what a heavenly testimony it would be to see Democrats, Republicans, and others worshipping the same Jesus, side by side.
In his 2006 Call to Renewal keynote address, Barack Obama acknowledged that government alone is insufficient for real change. When someone goes on a shooting spree, “we’ve got a moral problem. That young man has a hole in his heart – a hole that government alone cannot fix.” No amount of institutional transformation will solve the heart’s corruption or end suffering in accidents. Had schools been properly built to withstand the Sichuan earthquake, thousands of children might have been saved. But in the death of even one child, there will still be parents who must face immeasurable grief.
Social Justice is Not the Gospel
The problem with man’s utopian visions is that none can seem to agree on what that’s supposed to look like specifically. World peace sounds good on paper, but besides the absence of military conflict, when the rubber meets the road what will positively deal with our loneliness, jealousies, addictions, and selfishness? Often our portrayals of Jesus look suspiciously like ourselves. The call to follow Jesus becomes a call to measure up to the bar of our envisioned utopia. For those who discover that they cannot, this hardly qualifies as good news.
In the midst of all our ideas of what a transformed and just world might look like, God himself stepped in and shows us heaven on earth in the most tangible way. It took the form of a broken man, dying on a cross. This is scandalous to those who think in terms of power and influence; it makes no sense to the great philosophical minds of the age. But God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom; the otherworldly ethic turns the thinking of this world upside down.
At the cross, justice and mercy meet. Here, there is no bar of performance: the invitation is to come with nothing to offer but our sin and to look upon the one who became a curse that our own curse might be lifted. Christ bore injustice to ensure the accomplishment of God’s perfect justice. At this greatest injustice, as Holy God is put to death by sinful man, God displays his justice in full (Rom. 3:25). Now we who are wicked can be justified in God’s law court. This is good news for all, regardless of station in life.
And here begins our approach to social justice. Our programs of fixes are at best limited and tentative, but the cross tells of a perfect restoration, striking at our root problem – sin and rebellion. We do not gain heaven through social justice but pursue social justice in light of the heaven already gained for us. The Christian may be all the poorer if neglecting those less fortunate, but it is the Gospel that creates the Christian in the first place.
As Christians, we take up common causes with others as sojourners, eyes fixed on heaven. Changing external situations may facilitate justice, but it is the Holy Spirit who changes hearts and creates real hope. So while we seek to feed the hungry, let that never eclipse feeding the hungry soul with the bread of life. If we seek to loose the chains of oppression and injustice, how much more should we seek to break the chains of sin within us? Fighting for the life and welfare of those who cannot fight for themselves is a worthy calling; how much greater to give the gift of the Gospel of Christ, the power of resurrection that brings the dead into the unshakeable kingdom of eternal life.