I remember as a college student back in the 1990’s taking a summer trip to Iowa City, Iowa to visit my mom and other relatives. After my junior year at the University of Washington, I felt like I needed a road trip. So I packed up my black Volkswagon Jetta and made my way east on Interstate 90, eager to experience the heartland.
One conversation with family stands out among the others, a visit with my grandmother Mary. Mary was a librarian at the University of Iowa, a widow, and a devout Catholic. As we sat drinking iced tea in her impeccably clean living room that opened up to what looked like a perfectly manicured courtyard, I intentionally steered the conversation to heaven. I asked something like, “Grandma, what do you think heaven will be like?” She immediately shot back, “Don’t get started with that pie-in-the-sky stuff. I’m more concerned about the here-and-now. You evangelicals are so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” (For context, my mom’s side of the family are all Irish Catholics with me being the sole evangelical Protestant. The black sheep, you might say.)
As a fairly young Christian reared in the evangelical “community” church and parachurch milieu, I was naive when it came to this objection to talk of heaven. I was crazy enough to think professing Christians loved to talk about heaven even as we lived in the world striving to please the Lord. I couldn’t understand why my grandmother had such a visceral reaction to the topic of heaven. So I asked some open-ended questions and began to hear my grandmother’s perspective: she thought evangelicals (and Protestants generally) believed that we could just “check out” of this world and live only for the next. In other words, Mary believed that my longing for heaven was a retreat from the world and its countless hurts, ills, and injustices. My grandmother had no time for Christians with a “bunker mentality” who were only interested in biding their time in the evangelical subculture before the rapture. My grandmother wanted social change, not callous indifference in the name of Christ. My grandmother, I learned, saw evangelicals as basically the priest and the Levite who, unlike the Samaritan, purposely avoided the man left for dead (Luke 10:25-37). And she blamed a preoccupation with heaven.
I left the conversation wondering if my grandmother had a point. Did the gospel, with its promise of forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God in a kingdom not of this world, promote the abandonment of this world and the gross neglect of hurting people? I knew enough of the Bible to know this couldn’t be true, and I couldn’t deny the heart I had for lost and hurting people. Wanting to know more about the relationship of the cross to the culture, that summer I set out to study this issue in greater detail. And what I found, and have only grown in my conviction sense, is the very opposite of what my grandmother thought namely, the more heavenly minded we are, the more earthly good we will be.
THE CROSS AND THE CULTURE
The Bible does not let the church retreat from the world. Indeed, the Lord calls us out of the world so that we might be “salt and light” in the world. Always mindful that we are not to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2), Jesus made it clear that we are to shine for him in the world:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
There is a God-wrought impulse in the Christian to alleviate pain and suffering — temporal and, most importantly, eternal suffering under the righteous wrath of God for sin. Evangelism and acts of mercy naturally flow from the born-again heart. Where this is not the case it is possible there is no spiritual life in the person. The Christian of all people knows that this side of heaven, things are not the way they’re supposed to be. 1For an excellent introduction to sin and its catastrophic impact on the world see, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1996). Sin has wreaked havoc on the world that God had originally pronounced “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Natural and moral evil in incalculable ways plague our world as the whole creation groans under the divine curse for sin (Romans 8:18-25). Sin is at the heart of all the pain, suffering, and hurt threatening to overwhelm the world today — and every day since the fall. And this is where the cross of Christ speaks most powerfully.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). One of the most simple and yet profound verses in all the Bible. Motivated by love, the Father sent his one and only Son to rescue this sin-ravaged world. At the cross, God’s holy-love is displayed to the world. In the death of Christ, the holiness of God is vindicated even as the floodgates of salvation are burst open for all those who believe in Jesus, for anyone who rests in his finished work on the cross. At the cross we learn that God’s holiness demands justice, that sin could not merely be “swept under the rug of the universe” and ignored. Sin had to be dealt with in a manner wholly consistent with God’s holy character if sinners would be saved. God has done this in Christ:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).
Of course, this glorious good news of a God who “did what the law could not do” for us, has tremendous implications for the church as it relates to the world. Working out from the cross we go into the world as ambassadors for Christ proclaiming and serving in the very Spirit of Christ. We do all this “proclaiming” and “serving” — this living in the world — with our minds set “on things above not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2). Why? “For [we] have died, and [our] life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is [our] life appears, then [we] also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4). Through the Spirit’s application of redemption in our life, we’ve died to self and now live with an aim to please the Lord in all things (2 Corinthians 5:9). And what does a life look like that is pleasing to the Lord? One of those catchy evangelical camp songs from Micah 6:8 sums it up well: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
David Wells rightly sees in the cross not only the revelation of God’s holy-love but also his mercy, a mercy embodied in the gospel service of the church to the world:
What we see at the cross is the white-hot revelation of the character of God, of his love providing the price that his holiness requires. The cross was the means of redeeming lost sinners and reconciling them to himself, but it was also a profound disclosure of his mercy. It is, in Paul’s words, an “inexpressible gift” that leads us to wonder and worship, to praise and adore the God who has given himself to us in this way. This is what has led people to give themselves away, too, to give of themselves in service to others, to go to the mission field, and to go into the dark places in life. It is what has impelled Christian believers to give of their substance, and to reach out in acts of mercy to those who need it, and to act with courage against the injustices in societies. 2David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Reformation Faith in Today’s World, second ed. (Eerdmans, 2017), 99.
Looking back on that conversation with my grandma it still saddens me to hear her frustration with talk of heaven. Of course, my grandma is not alone in her thinking. Many evangelicals, it seems, also believe it’s possible to be too heavenly minded. But could it be that the evangelical church today is so spiritually anemic precisely because we’re too earthly minded? Could it be that our preoccupation with this world has not been the sufficient motivation needed to actually serve this world better? Is the evangelical church’s neighbor love so weak today not because we’re too heavenly minded but because, like Peter who Jesus rebuked and likened to Satan, we are not setting our minds on the things of God, but on the things of man? (Mark 8:33)
For the glory of God and the good (both temporal and eternal) of the world, let us be more, not less, heavenly minded. After all, it would be an awful thing to be so earthly minded that we’re no heavenly good.