Getting ready for heaven

Theologian Gary Black Jr. was at the side of Christian writer and philosophy professor Dallas Willard (1935–2013) during his final days.

In late 2012 Dallas and I began working together on his book The Divine Conspiracy Continued (2014). Just a few months later he was diagnosed with terminal cancer; we began to talk about his thoughts on heaven. He had taught a class many years prior on death and immortality, now a much more personal subject.

I spent the last four days of Dallas’s life in the hospital with him. His family was there during the day, and we spent nights together alone. He relayed experiences to me about being in a “hallway” between this life and eternity, meeting people, and building his understanding of the great cloud of witnesses—all of which was prior to him receiving any psychotropic drugs.

In his class Dallas used the book Tuesdays with Morrie to give his students an example of a good death. I’m now finishing a book based on my conversations with Dallas that’s kind of like Tuesdays with Morrie: it describes Dallas’s last four days and his theology of heaven. We tend to think that in the moment of death we’re going to be perfected in every part of our character. Dallas and I discussed how troubling that idea is: it allows us to think that we don’t have to work on our characters on earth as disciples of Jesus. Instead all we have to do is get into heaven. Passage from earth to heaven becomes something of a “cosmic car wash.” But while we’re here on earth, God does not change us without our choice. Why then would we believe in sudden cleansing en route to heaven? If we’ve chosen not to have reconstructive surgery on our heart during our entire life on earth, why do we think God can or will, at the end, override our will and perfect our heart after death?

Dallas suggested that if heaven has no shadow, no fear, no shame, no lies—if we are exposed there as we really are, if love is inescapable—are we the kind of people who can handle that environment? He used to wonder if hell may be the best that God could do for some people. He also liked to say that the fires of heaven will be twice as hot as the fires of hell: the reality, the vitality, of life in heaven burns brighter and more intensely under the inescapable love and justice of God.

Heaven is also, he said, a place of continual learning and growth. An oak tree sprout can be perfect in its development, but yet not complete. So, too, we can be perfected when sin is removed from us, while still having room to grow and learn. He believed that in heaven we’ll learn to live our entire existence under the guidance of Christ. He looked forward to it. As do I.

By Gary Black Jr.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #112 in 2014]

Gary Black Jr. is professor of theology at Asuza Pacific University.
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Issue 112

Christian History Magazine #112 - Heaven

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