The first theological question that I couldn’t answer didn’t come from a renowned theologian at Princeton Seminary or even from an atheist I was trying to convert. It came from the mouth of a freckled-faced seventh-grader in a junior high Sunday school class. At the beginning of a lesson about eternal life, I asked the class, “What do you think Heaven will be like?”
Dead silence. I knew half the class was still asleep, but I had sixty minutes to go, so I persisted. “Come on, guys, I can’t do all the taking here. What do you think? What will Heaven be like?”
Dead silence again. I had exactly three weeks of junior high Sunday school teaching under my belt, so I knew what to do.
I looked at the kid yawning the loudest, squinted my eyes like a high school biology teacher about to ask a profound question, and said in my most reverent voice, “Josh, let us begin with you. What do you think Heaven will be like?”
Josh looked at me and said, “I think it will be stupid.”
I blinked. I couldn’t believe it. I leaned forward and said, “Stupid? You’ve got to be kidding me. How can Heaven be stupid?”
He shot back, “It sounds stupid. I don’t want to go there.”
I said, “Yes, you do!”
He said, “No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“NO, I DON’T!”
“YES, YOU DO!”
“Read my lips: N-O-I-D-O-N-apostrophe T.”
I knew I shouldn’t throw my Bible at my Sunday school students, so I took a deep breath, counted to ten, and asked, “Josh, I’m curious. Why don’t you want to go to Heaven? Don’t you want to be with Jesus?” The entire class was wide awake now.
The girl sitting next to Josh laughed and said, “Yeah, Josh. You don’t want to go to Hell, do you?”
I held up my hand and said, “Hold on. Nobody’s going to Hell here.”
“Well, Josh is definitely going to Hell,” she said. “Don’t you go to Hell if you don’t go to Heaven?”
I cut her off, turned to Josh, and said, “Why don’t you share with us what you’re thinking.”
Then he did it. He asked the question. Only five words in all, but profound enough to show the rest of the class that I was clueless: “What makes Heaven so great?”
As I fumbled around for a fitting response, the students sitting there that morning saw right through me. Everyone knew that Josh had stumped the teacher. It wasn’t that I didn’t know most of the correct theological answers; I just hadn’t lived long enough to believe them myself. There was no longing in my voice to show my students that I looked forward to going to Heaven. After my bumbling response, Heaven appeared a lot like Josh had described it.
That was twenty years ago; a lot has happened since then. Until that day I had experienced very little sadness in my life, but since then I’ve taken one long detour through what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called the “tragic sense of life.” My life since that day, while both beautiful and stark, has given me a little more perspective from which to approach Josh’s question.
How would you answer that question?
Sign up HERE to get my articles delivered straight to your inbox.