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Runners Who Fear the Finish Line?
August 9 , 2006

Popular pictures of heaven often invoke images such as angels, halos and harps.

And while such scenarios may be serene, Calvin College author Nathan Bierma says they miss the mark.

"They may be beautiful," he says, "but they are too vague and exotic to give us a meaningful idea of what eternal life will really be like."

Bierma explores that idea, and more, in his new book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: Connecting This Life to the Next (P&R Publishing).

Surveys show, says Bierma, that the majority of North Americans believe there is a heaven. But few people, Bierma says, have a clear idea of what heaven will be like, and few live with hope for heaven in their daily lives.

"Heaven is an odd element of the Christian faith," Bierma writes. "We profess it to be eternally important and then live as though it doesn't exist. We are runners who fear the finish line."

Bierma graduated from Calvin in 2002 and is now communications coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

He believes that a closer look at prophecy in the Bible provides some key pieces of the puzzle of heaven that we tend to ignore. Although heaven is ultimately a mystery, he says, by recapturing some of these key biblical images, Christians can live with a greater sense of purpose.

“The Bible says our eternal life will somehow resemble our current life more than we tend to think,” Bierma writes. “It will be on earth, in human bodies, among culture, and in relationships. Our current lives, and the things that make up our current existence, are not just temporary distractions before an eternity of fluttering about on clouds.”

Essentially, heaven will be a place of restored shalom, the "way things are supposed to be," he concludes, quoting the title of a book by Calvin Theological Seminary president Cornelius Plantinga, Jr, whom Bierma cites as influential on his own ideas about heaven.

"Prophecies are often thought about as forecasting destruction, but more importantly they are wake-up calls to larger truths,” Bierma says, noting that the Greek word “apocalypse” doesn't mean “destruction,” but “awakening.”

Bierma quotes Plantinga as saying that many Christians in the Reformed tradition avoid talking about eschatology, the study of the end times. Even John Calvin decided not to write a commentary on the book of Revelation.

"What I discovered by writing this book is that the Reformed tradition does have some substantive, well-articulated views of eschatology,” Bierma says. “But they are largely untapped resources. Voices like TV evangelists and the Left Behind series have captured the public's imagination, including many in the Reformed tradition, when it comes to biblical prophecy. I wanted to call attention to a very different vision of eternal heaven.”

Bierma, who is also a freelance journalist and writes the weekly “On Language” column in the Chicago Tribune, says he tried to avoid using well-known terms from Reformed theology like “fall” and “sovereignty,” so that the book would seem fresh to those who are familiar with these words, and relevant to readers in other traditions.

But he says his exposure to John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper as a student at Calvin, and his reading of current and former Calvin professors including Richard Mouw, Anthony Hoekema, Quentin Schultze, William Romanowski, and Laura Smit, made their mark on his book.

“The narrow idea that Christianity is mostly about saving souls from hell is a relatively recent idea,” Bierma says. “In the Reformed tradition, we preach what I call a 'big gospel,' the restoration of 'all things' -- nature, culture and human relationships. This broader vision for a new earth, despite all its remaining mysteries, can give more meaning to our life on this earth.”

"It ended up as a sort of summary of my faith from a Reformed perspective, but with the constant orientation toward this neglected idea of heaven,” Bierma says. “For me, the driving question throughout was not necessarily 'What do I believe?' but 'Where are we going? How does this all end up?'”