A few months back my mind was focused on the doctrine of heaven in the context of an e-mail exchange I was having. My correspondent wanted to know why God would send some people to hell when they are not deeply evil people, just ordinary people doing their ordinary best. Surely only the worst and most heinous of sinners deserve to be sent to hell, while most of the people you see at the local grocery store should be sent to heaven, regardless of what they believe. That, at any rate, was the gist.
It seems to me that, while this is an understandable question to ask, it betrays a misconception of heaven. (Most of my W4 readers don't need me to tell them this, but it seemed to make for a mildly interesting post.)
What, according to Christian doctrine, is the essence of heaven? I have always understood that it is the enjoyment of the presence of God, an enjoyment far clearer and better than anything we are able to experience on earth, limited as we are not only by our un-resurrected bodies but also by the presence of sin and by our remaining tendencies to embrace and cherish sin.
If the essence of being in heaven is the enjoyment of the beatific vision, then it seems highly questionable (at least to me) that we should think of the matter in terms of God's sending people to heaven and sending people to hell. (And of course we always have to keep in mind that, unless we posit something like limbo, which wouldn't apply to the ordinary adult people doing their ordinary best anyway, there is no tertium quid for eternal destiny--only heaven and hell.) If we think of God as "sending" people to heaven, are we not treating heaven as something like the Happy Hunting Grounds, as a lovely retirement center for worn-out humans where God sends his animals to be happy forever when they get old and die? If heaven is really all about being with God and enjoying Him forever, then it seems that we must desire it in order to enjoy it. (What is the experience of the presence of God like to a person who does not desire it? Perhaps something like hell?) While one might say, "Of course everyone wants to go to heaven," this is a truism only if heaven is thought of merely as a place of earthly enjoyment.
Some of a Calvinist persuasion might fear--and with some justice--that my thinking here is leading in the direction of Arminianism, or at least away from Calvinism. For if a strong, Calvinist doctrine of predestination is correct, it would seem that despite the fact that the essence of heaven is enjoying God forever, God can and does simply send people there and does make them like it. To my mind that is not taking with sufficient seriousness the notion that heaven is being one with God as a fully human person. One is led irresistibly to picture something like a puppet soul, previously in rebellion, made by something like spiritual force to desire and love God and to enjoy Him forever, which isn't my idea of the beatific vision. It seems more reasonable and more consistent with what heaven really is to say with C.S. Lewis, "All get what they want. They do not always like it."
Many of you, my readers, are beyond all doubt better read than I in works of theology. I will be interested in your thoughts.