We live in hope. John Van Sloten’s inspiring article “Heaven on Earth” (p. 32) made me ponder the other side, too—not just what the good will be like, but also what the absence of the bad will be like. Just as we already enjoy foretastes of heaven on earth in the here and now, may we also savor the joys of the absence of evil—even within ourselves? With the apostle Paul and the Heidelberg Catechism we sometimes complain how wretched we still are (Rom. 7:14-25); we still schlep the old self around with us even as we are already new creatures in Christ. For those in Christ, how total is our persisting depravity?
I know by heart a delightful little ditty by the noted Dutch comedian Fons Jansen. Jansen did a masterful job of subjecting first the Roman Catholic Church and then the Reformed churches to his good-hearted, sharp-witted humor.
The song, entitled “Drie Kleine Kettertjes” (“Three Little Heretics”), is about three folks during medieval times who ran afoul of the church. They publicly declared that they did not believe in hell. When their bishop got wind of it, he issued a scathing pastoral letter in which he sternly warned the faithful of the grave dangers of such heresy and ordered them to shun these heretics.
But the three persisted. They did not believe in hell. The pope caught wind of it and summoned them to Rome. When they got there, he promptly excommunicated them.
Still the three little heretics persisted. Things went from bad to worse. They were dragged before the civil judge. No further trace of the heretics to be found: the heretics were burned.
The three little heretics came before St. Peter. They ’fessed up that they did not believe in hell.
Peter’s response? “Fie! Tarnation! No wonder you were named heretics! How could you contend that hell does not exist? ... You just came from there!”
OK, so Jansen goes too far in denying a future place for folks who want nothing to do with God. But he’s right, too, in a way. A Reformation and a Renaissance later, have we learned all that much about ridding ourselves from godlessness in this life?
Do we earnestly seek the heart’s pure desire?
Do we strive to be a holy people whose robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Do we seek and do justice unstained by human greed?
Do we exercise true religion à la James 1:27?
Do we relentlessly pursue true community, untarnished by prejudice, racism and tribalism?
Do we seek true repentance—not just the coming to life of our new selves but also the (daily) putting to death of the old selves (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 33)?
Believers used to agonize over such things. They used to search out earnestly the absence of the bad because they truly found sin, especially their own, offensive.
Do our hearts still thrill when we stumble across the miracle of genuine purity and holiness?
When it comes to our living hope for heaven, absence—of evil—also makes the heart grow fonder.