Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is based on a poem that describes heaven from a child’s point of view. The music certainly sounds heavenly. The symphony’s fourth movement features a soprano singing the German words to the poem “Das himmlische Leben” — “The Heavenly Life.” English listeners might simply be moved by the serene beauty of the music. But the German words paint a peculiar picture of heaven.
In the first place, the inhabitants of this heaven are voracious carnivores. The poem speaks of Herod as a butcher who kills unsuspecting little lambs so that the inhabitants of heaven can eat all they want. The oxen are so plentiful that Saint Luke slaughters them “without giving it a thought.” Angels are there, baking bread. And “if you want roebuck or hare, on the public streets they come running right up.”
The lyrics also have the inhabitants of heaven jumping and skipping and singing — but mostly gorging themselves on an endless supply of food. Saint Peter catches fish from the heavenly pond, and Saint Martha (still “distracted with much serving,” apparently) must be the cook.
So this child’s vision of heaven turns out to be another “paradise” where earthly appetites are indulged.
I’m intrigued by the way the unbelieving world portrays heaven. At one end of the spectrum is this view that heaven exists to gratify earthly lusts. At the other is a cynical suspicion that heaven will be unbearably monotonous. The classic cartoon caricature pictures heaven’s inhabitants sitting on clouds and playing harps. I don’t know if anyone really imagines heaven will be like that, but I have no doubt that many people think of heaven as a bland, boring place with nothing enjoyable to do.
A skeptic once told me, “I’d rather be in hell with my friends than in heaven with all the church people.” Such a flippant attitude betrays a tragic lack of regard for the horrors of hell. More than that, it grossly underestimates the blessedness of heaven.
This deep-seated suspicion that heaven may be an eternal bore reflects the sinful thinking of fallen minds. As sinners we are naturally prone to think a little sin is surely more enjoyable than perfect righteousness. It is hard for us to imagine a realm wholly devoid of sin and yet filled with pure and endless pleasures.
But that is exactly how heaven will be. We will bask in the glory of God, realizing at last our chief end — to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. The psalmist wrote, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11).
Such a thought is unfathomable to our finite minds. But Scripture repeatedly makes clear that heaven is a realm of unsurpassed joy, unfading glory, undiminished bliss, unlimited delights, and unending pleasures. Nothing about eternal glory can possibly be boring or humdrum. It will be a perfect existence. We will have unbroken fellowship with all heaven’s inhabitants. Life there will be devoid of any sorrows, cares, tears, fears, or pain. “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10 ESV). God Himself “will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
The best of our spiritual experiences here on earth are only small samples of heaven. Our highest spiritual heights, the profoundest of all our joys, and the greatest of our spiritual blessings will be normal in heaven. At best, we are merely tasting the glories of the life to come. When we consider that Christ prayed that all who know Him would spend eternity with Him in unbroken fellowship (John 17:24), our hearts should overflow with gratitude and expectation.
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