In a previous post entitled “The Bible’s Best Kept Secret” I summarized the logic of redemption in the Scriptures—that God loves this world and intends to redeem it. Grounded in the holistic worldview of the Old Testament, the New Testament envisions God’s renewal of creation at Christ’s return, rather than God taking us out of this world to “heaven,” conceived of as an immaterial realm. Indeed, contrary to much popular eschatology, nowhere does the Bible ever say that “heaven” is the eternal destiny of the righteous.
The Eschatology of Classic Christian Hymns
So why do so many in the church assume a heavenly afterlife? The answer lies in Christian hymnody. It is primarily from what they sing that those in the pew (or auditorium) typically learn their theology, especially their eschatology. And the trouble is that a holistic vision of the future is found only rarely in popular Christian piety or in the liturgy of the church. Indeed, it is blatantly contradicted by many traditional hymns (and contemporary praise songs) sung in the context of communal worship.
Preparing for Heaven
From the classic Charles Wesley hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which anticipates being “changed from glory into glory/ till in heaven we take our place,” to “Away in a Manger,” which prays, “And fit us for Heaven, to live with Thee there,” congregations are exposed to—and assimilate—an otherworldly eschatology.
Some hymns, like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” inconsistently combine the idea of resurrection with the hope of heaven: “On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,/ And the glory of His resurrection share;/ When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,/ And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.”
Some hymns even interpret resurrection without reference to the body at all, such as “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” which in one stanza regards death as liberation (“Till death shall set me free”) and in another asserts: “O resurrection day!/ When Christ the Lord from Heav’n comes down/ And bears my soul away.”
A hymn like “When We All Get to Heaven” may be too obvious, but notice that “The Old Rugged Cross” ends with the words, “Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away/ Where his glory forever I’ll share.”
A Perpetual Worship Service
This notion of a perpetual worship service in an otherworldly afterlife is a central motif in many hymns, like “My Jesus I Love Thee,” which affirms that “In mansions of glory and endless delight,/ I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.”
In a similar vein, “As with Gladness Men of Old” asks in one stanza that “when earthly things are past,/ Bring our ransomed souls at last/ Where they need no star to guide” and in another stanza expresses the desire that “In the heavenly country bright/ . . . There forever may we sing/ Alleluias to our King!”
From Hymns to Contemporary Praise Songs
Thankfully, most hymnals no longer have the sixth verse of “Amazing Grace,” which predicts: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,/ The sun forbear to shine;/ But God, who called me here below,/ Will be forever mine.”
Yet Chris Tomlin’s contemporary revision of this classic hymn, known as “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone),” reintroduces this very verse as the song’s new climax, ready to shape the otherworldly mindset of a fresh generation of young worshipers unacquainted with hymnals.
And this just begins to scratch the surface of worship lyrics that portray the final destiny of the righteous as transferal from an earthly, historical existence to a transcendent, immaterial realm.
As the popular theologian and preacher A. W. Tozer is reputed to have said: “Christians don’t tell lies; they just go to church and sing them.”
Perhaps that is too harsh; nevertheless, I can testify to the steady diet of such songs that I was exposed to, growing up in the church in Kingston, Jamaica, which certainly reinforced the idea of heaven as otherworldly final destiny.
An Alternative Vision of the Future
I am, however, perpetually grateful that along with such exposure I came to know, through sheer proximity, the this-worldly theology of Rastafarianism, especially as mediated through the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. While I am a committed Christian and thus cannot affirm everything found in Rasta theology, I nevertheless discern a deeply rooted biblical consciousness in the lyrics of many Wailers’ songs.
For example, the song “We an’ Dem” (on the Uprising album) claims that “in the beginning Jah created everything/ and he gave man dominion over all things” and “Pass It On” (on the Burnin’ album) asserts that “In the kingdom of Jah/ Man shall reign.” These lyrics express (in androcentric language, admittedly) the biblical vision of this-worldly dignity granted humans at creation, a dignity which will be restored in the kingdom of God.
And Peter Tosh’s version of “Get Up, Stand Up” (a song he co-wrote with Marley), understands well the implications of eschatology for ethics, when it contrasts the doctrine of the rapture with a desire for justice on earth:
“You know, most people think,/ A great God will come from the skies,/ And take away every little thing/ And lef’ everybody dry./ But if you know what life is worth,/ You would look for yours/ Right here on earth/ And now we see the light,/ We gonna stand up for our rights.” (From the Equal Rights album.)
But if Tozer is right, it isn’t just the preacher who is lying, but also the worshipers who blithely sing hymns of escape to an ethereal heaven—when the Bible teaches no such thing.
What the Bible does teach is the theme of my new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014).