The TV cartoon family The Simpsons visits heaven from time to time. It’s always different, but you know it is heaven by the fluffy white clouds and everyone wearing a long white robe. In one episode, Marge goes to “Protestant heaven” (where they play badminton and croquet) while Homer and Bart go to “Catholic heaven” (where they drink wine, fight, and perform River Dance en masse). In another, Homer and Ned Flanders have a near-death experience and enter heaven as visitors. After meeting God briefly, Homer watches sports on TV while angelic hot dogs fly into his mouth. Ridiculous, right?

The Simpsons is a comedy show, and they can make jokes about heaven because there is a popular cultural understanding of what we mean by heaven. People recognise when that understanding is employed and when it is subverted or mocked. What do we think of when we read the word heaven in the Bible? The chances are we fill in our ideas of what that word means as much from the culture around us (including the TV and movies we watch) as we do from an informed understanding of what heaven refers to in its biblical context. This cultural interference often confuses our understanding of the Christian hope. Particularly in times of grief, it can be easier to give a comforting and familiar answer than to worry about giving a biblically correct one.

I can remember attending my grandfather’s funeral, the first family bereavement I had experienced. I had been a Christian for many years, but I had given very little thought to the hereafter until that day. For me, being a Christian was about purpose and meaning in this life. But during the service, I was touched by the importance of our hope beyond death. We sang a beautiful hymn; I don’t think I had heard it before,

Yes, I’ll sing the wondrous story

Of the Christ who died for me,

Sing it with the saints in glory,

Gathered by the crystal sea.

This hymn, written in 1886 by Francis H. Rowley, employs biblical imagery from Revelation chapters 4-7. In a few simple words, it evokes the biblical ideas that the joy of heaven is to be in the presence of God, that heaven itself is a temple, that the worship in heaven focuses on God as creator and saviour, and the promise of eternal life where every injustice and sorrow of this life finds resolution and healing. But I didn’t know any of that at the time because I wasn’t familiar with the imagery.

That picture of heaven is so different from the Simpsons’! But I would hazard a guess that many in our churches are likelier to have seen an episode of the Simpsons than have heard biblical teaching on heaven. When we leave images of heaven to the Simpsons (and the wider culture in general), we impoverish our understanding and imagination. In March, I will be taking a detailed look at some of the key New Testament passages that speak of our Christian hope. We will not find many of the cliches and platitudes that make up the popular idea of heaven. We will find a richer, more profound, and more glorious hope, a hope worth holding on to in these times of challenge. I hope these webinars will encourage us to return to the biblical vision of heaven, not just for ourselves, but to share with others “the hope of glory!”

If you want to join Dr Jonathan Robinson for this 3-part webinar series, starting on the 6th of March, you can register here. Enter the promo code HEAVEN and receive a 20% discount!

Watch as a group for the one registration fee. Recordings are available if you cannot make the live sessions.

Dr Jonathan Robinson is the new Lecturer in New Testament at Carey Baptist College. He was previously the pastor of Musselburgh Baptist Church, Dunedin, and a teaching fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Otago. He is married to Rachel and has four amazing kids. Over 20 years, he has ministered in churches in the UK and NZ while intermittently pursuing academic study, giving him ample opportunity to experience and reflect on discipleship of young, old and in between, and, of course, his own faith journey. He recently completed a PhD in the Gospel of Mark (2020), now published by T&T Clark as Markan Typology (2022), and has several published articles in international biblical studies journals.

Image: Jgroup - iStock #92192220 Pearly Gates Landscape

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