I don’t want to brand myself a heaven-hater, per se. The idea of the afterlife — if not the kingdom of god, then maybe something more abstract — is both fascinating to contemplate and a source of comfort to anyone grieving loss. But I don’t like thinking of the hereafter as a totally separate place, which kind of misses the point of an eternal soul: Isn’t it preferable to imagine that the loved ones who seem to be gone are, in fact, all around us, and in touch with life?
Besides, literalist heaven makes for deeply weird notions. On the one hand, you have cringe posts detailing how Aretha Franklin and John McCain are partying together up there with whoever passed away around the same time. On the other, you have Christian leaders happily announcing that once we get to the promised land, we’re all going to be gainfully employed.
People have understandably latched on to Jeffress’ incredible claim that jobs will be joyous in heaven because it won’t be subject to the rules and standards of Big Government. Child labor, brutal union-busting, shifts without bathroom breaks, hazardous conditions and the absence of a minimum wage — nothing’s off the table, folks! But once you peel back the most transparently Republican talking point, you’re left with a piece of theology that’s way more mainstream than you might realize. The strain of Protestant work ethic entwined with American capitalism is unavoidable in Evangelical answers to the question of what exactly we’ll do in the great beyond.
“Hell will be a state of perpetual unemployment,” Glenn Pease, a pastor in Minnesota for several decades, wrote in one of his sermons. “In contrast, heaven will be a place not only of eternal enjoyment, but of eternal employment. When God made Adam, He made him a creature of creativity, with a desire to work.”
This comes up a lot in the discussion of our posthumous hustle: that the lord almighty, a worker and creator Himself, made us in his image, so our final reward will be to continue designing, building and producing. Of course, not every job continues in this realm. Here, you can watch Evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll explain to an audience that while there’s no need for the expertise of medical professionals in heaven, since there is no illness, their favorite hobby — say, furniture-making — may become their primary duty. Meanwhile, someone who coaches football for a living can keep doing so, because football is “not a sin.” An architect won’t be able to retire, either; they’ll be constructing ethereal cities.
If it strikes you as odd that heaven must be constantly improved by our labor, but is never perfected, that may have something to do with the message for people down on Earth: stay on the hamster wheel. In Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, Kansas pastor Tom Nelson notes, “If our daily work, done for the glory of God and the common good of others, in some way carries over to the new heavens and new earth, then our present work itself is overflowing with immeasurable value and eternal significance.”
Well, that’s one way to think about being a telemarketer. It’s quoted approvingly by one-time youth pastor Russell Gehrlein, who has written his own book on the subject: Immanuel Labor: God’s Presence in Our Profession. There’s a serious niche for this “god loves it when you have a steady 9-to-5” doctrine, one that emphasizes how people’s value to society — and ministry — is a measure of their productivity. As Gehrlein put it in an interview, “God created people to be His coworkers in expanding His kingdom on earth.”
Existence is just an open-plan office? Honestly, makes sense.
These pastors insist, however, that work in heaven (and, post-Revelations, on the saved planet itself) can never be drudgery, as we only experience “painful toil” as “a result of living in a fallen world,” i.e., the miserable aftermath of that Adam and Eve incident. But their vision of a happy, frictionless form of holy employment always raises further questions. Gehrlein, for example, lists both “lawyers” and “lightbulb manufacturers” as jobs that don’t carry over to heaven, and sure, a lawyer-free afterlife sounds wonderful. But if we’re still raising cities as Driscoll says, won’t we need lightbulbs for them? Is electricity made redundant while steel beams and drywall remain?
One Christian site that describes the bliss of working for god until the end of time also informs us that orgasms come to a definite end: “There will be no sexual intercourse in heaven. The appetites and desires of this world will give way to higher and infinitely more gratifying delights in the world to come.” Such as the delight of always putting the company first, I suppose.
As Randy Alcorn, religious author and founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries, puts it: “Sometimes we have negative connotations to ‘servitude.’ Well, no. God is god. He’s the king. To serve him is the ultimate privilege and pleasure.” And, he adds, servants stay busy.
When you take a step back, these interpretations of scripture feel like a massive, coordinated effort to persuade the devout that they can never rest, either now or when they’ve passed away. Both capitalist industry and churches supported by the dollars and work-hours of their members clearly benefit from that mindset.
I was thankful to turn up one guy, Don C. Warrington, who, though a practicing Christian and once employed by the Church of God, wasn’t having this bullshit. “The Scriptures are not very detailed on what our life with God on the other side will be like,” he argued in a 2012 blog post. “They speak of rewards, crowns, ruling and the like, but none of this suggests work. The whole idea of ruling is that someone else gets to do the work while you take the credit.” Moreover, he asserts, we won’t have to develop the infrastructure of heaven when we arrive: “Jesus promised that he would go and prepare the place.”
I mean, please? I fail to see what’s so fantastic about a next world that reiterates the pyramid schemes of this one. A beach and a hammock would suffice. And if the afterlife of inactivity is hell, then I’ve got way more sinning to do. Anything to avoid getting a contract, ugly uniform and orientation training the second after I leave my body. When I’m dead, I’m officially retired.