Heaven on Earth: the Path to Hell
Oooh, baby,” Belinda Carlisle sang in the 1980s, “. . . heaven is a place on earth.” Just reading those lyrics immediately brings to mind images of big hair, crazy colored pants, ALF, and for some reason, skating rinks. As inane as the words of the song are, however catchy the tune, the message is a dangerous one. Bad things happen when we try to establish an earthly utopia.
The well-known and out spoken skeptic, Michael Shermer, in a recent article with Aeon Magazine, details how human attempts at establishing heaven on earth really lead to something more like hell. Whether motivated by religious or secular ideologies, pursuing “perfect happiness” on earth can easily justify removing anything, or anyone, standing in the way. If you need proof of this just look at the horrors of the twentieth century.
A quest for an earthly utopia, or “perfect happiness,” leads to dystopia, a nightmare, Shermer argues.
He’s right. I even partially agree with his alternative vision, which he calls a protopia, a call for small and steady progress in the day to day. But as Christians, we see the clear limitation to even this vision. It could easily be argued that it was small and steady progress that led to the nightmares of twentieth century. I think Shermer’s article, based on his recent book Heavens on Earth, unwittingly illustrates the need for some objective standard, something outside of ourselves, by which we can measure progress.
As G.K. Chesterton once said,“Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision.”
As Christians, we rightly lament the atrocities Shermer describes from humans seeking earthly bliss. Ever since we were kicked out of Eden we’ve been trying to go back in one way or another, I suppose. Our experience shows us it is impossible. We will net get heaven on earth, either by a decisive military campaign or an incremental humanitarian one.
As we seek for progress in this life we understand that sin will infect even our most sincere efforts. Progress without a standard will only lead to more nightmares. But we need more than just a standard. We need a guide.
We need a shepherd who can lead us in good times and bad, beside green pastures and still waters, through the presence of our enemies, and most of all, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
What we all really want is the thing that can fulfill all our wants. Until we find that we will, by definition, always want more. In short, on our own we can never be happy enough. Our progress can never lead us back to Eden. But if we heed the example of King David we can learn to say, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23).
Jesus, our good shepherd, is leading us through the wild and a new Eden, a new creation, awaits us on the other side. We won’t obtain utopia in this life. We can gain this whole world, and lose our own soul. But in Christ, God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. And then some.
I write more on this topic of what it looks like to live in a fallen world in my book Life in the Wild.