Ever notice that when a discussion turns to a recently deceased celebrity, someone invariably says, “I know he’s looking down on us right now”? It doesn’t matter how godless the person was, his peers refer to him as being in a better place and then gesture skyward.
The Righteous Brothers’ 1974 hit tune, “Rock and Roll Heaven,” illustrates such misconceptions: “If you believe in forever / Then life is just a one-night stand. / If there’s a rock and roll Heaven / Well you know they’ve got a h*ll of a band.” The song venerates several rock singers who’d died, including pill-popping, pot-smoking, promiscuous Janis Joplin, along with Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, whose public antics got him arrested for lewd behavior, and whose illicit drug habits put him in an early grave like so many of his peers. What parents and preachers in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s called the devil’s music turned out to have some hellions singing it. Why would anyone, therefore, believe that those whose lifestyles reflected their hearts’ condition are in Heaven?
Conversely, society is unified about the eternal states of villains like Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot, a terrorist on the most-wanted list or even a less menacing drug abuser.
“Far more dangerous, however, is the happy-talk universalism you find in the public square,” said Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Lamenting a portion of the poem “High Flight” read in tribute to the space shuttle Challenger’s victims, Coppenger said not all the astronauts were Christians. “But, we were told that they ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.'” Coppenger recalled a cartoon from a Chicago newspaper depicting sports announcer Harry Caray at the pearly gates, where Saint Peter welcomed him gladly, even though “there was no evidence that Caray was redeemed. Everywhere you turn, culture ignores the Bible to make gassy pronouncements on the afterlife.”
Such secular, cultural perceptions are uninformed by the truth, and seem based on the delusion that one’s eternal state is earned through heinous deeds on one hand, or good poll numbers on the other.
One may surmise that those who assume the dearly departed are in Heaven, because they weren’t nearly as evil as more notorious sinners, do so because they, themselves, are promiscuous, greedy miscreants, but not bad enough for Hell. It’s the old “I’m not as bad as the other guy” reasoning, or God will somehow understand in the end that we were pretty good people, and based on our overall behavior he should let us into Heaven.
Then there’s the late John Lennon’s lyrics: “Imagine there’s no Heaven / It’s easy if you try / No Hell below us / Above us only sky.” Lennon’s musings of 37 years ago are yet contemporary.
“Even those who retain some vague idea of heavenly bliss beyond this life are slow to acknowledge the reality of final judgment and condemnation. Modern men and women live with the mindset that there is no Heaven, no Hell, and therefore no guilt.” David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said in a 2004 address at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
TRONG>Why so much error?
Steve Lemke, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary provost, said it’s because there’s “less preaching now about Heaven and Hell than in previous eras,” and that trend is due to “the upward social mobility of Southern Baptists.”
Lemke said Southern Baptists were mostly rural, small-town folks until the 1950s, with many poor people whose only respite from hardscrabble was Heaven. “So we lived with hope and our eyes on the skies, awaiting Christ’s return,” Lemke said.
But with increased education and income, Southern Baptists inhabit suburbia with “a fairly comfortable lifestyle” and a “focus on coping in this world. We don’t give nearly the attention that we should to eternity. Popular preaching focuses on how to have a better marriage, better relationships and how to cope with struggles,” Lemke noted. “It is important that we address these topics in preaching and teaching, of course, but not to the neglect of a focus on eternity. By this very focus on meeting needs in this world?to the neglect of preaching on Heaven and Hell?we are showing by our actions that this world is more significant than the world to come.”
Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological
Seminary, said there are two causes for the neglect of preaching on matters of eternity, and “both of them reflect the power of contemporary culture to distort the message once-for-all given to the saints.”
“First, our people and pastors are increasingly interested in making Heaven here on Earth. The modern pursuit of material wealth and comfort, alongside the overarching desire to avoid pain or physical problems of any type, is a longstanding and pervasive influence in our culture. Rather than challenging such a mindset, some of us quietly cave into the demand for sermons to consider primarily mundane matters,” Yarnell said.
“Second, the subject of Hell is not exactly the most comfortable subject to address. Postmodernism with its attendant religious inclusivism and aversion to judgment is the dominant outlook of our cultural elite, especially in the media; to condemn non-Christians to an eternity in Hell is considered impolite, even rude.”
TRONG>The church under secular influence
“I think some in our churches are influenced by pop notions of Heaven, with thoughts of a fantasy world filled with humans who have become angels,” said David Nelson, theology professor and academic vice president at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
“Certainly, where the doctrine of Hell is deemphasized, there’s a good chance that this is influenced by the popular rejection, which is more broadly a rejection of the very notion of evil. There is a certain psychological comfort that accompanies one’s forgetfulness about evil and Hell, but of course we know that it’s not really a comfort at all, but is rather a deadly doctrinal amnesia.”
TRONG>Historical and contemporary perspective
“In the 1950s of my childhood,” Coppenger added, “it was easier to preach on Hell because there was more widespread conviction that the Bible was true. Or perhaps it worked the other way around: There was greater respect for the Bible because ministers preached the whole counsel of God, including the reality of Hell, without embarrassment, mumbling, or marketing spin.”
Coppenger said people think about the afterlife, but they need to hear the truth in the midst of the eschatological blather espoused by the New Age movement, Mormonism, universalism, and other false religions.
“Unregenerate cultural elites are masters at coining expressions designed to ridicule or marginalize biblical teaching, and unfortunately,” Coppenger said, “many church members are eager to use these expressions to gain credibility with secularists. Just as ‘homophobia’ is used to denigrate legitimate opposition to the homosexual agenda, ‘pie in the sky’ pictures Heaven as the laughable dream of weak sisters on earth, and ‘Hellfire and brimstone’ is applied to all preaching on Hell, making it seem hateful and wild-eyed. Such stereotypes sting, and the church has often muffled its prophetic voice to escape such hurtful labels.
“Taking our cue from the stylistic churches, we might think that emotional authenticity, artistic prowess, relational intensity, and cultural winsomeness are just the ticket,” Coppenger said. “We’re spending a lot of time on this-w