With heaven being eternal, why must we endure this time on earth? With heaven being our destination…why?
One way of thinking about the question would be to phrase it this way: Why does God put people through the aches and pains of living on planet earth, if, in the end, God has already destined people for eternal life with God? Couldn’t God have created heaven on earth – or earth in heaven – in the first place? Did God really need to go through the trouble of creating humans like you and me (people with the capacity to inflict and endure suffering) in a world fraught with danger and risk when God could have just launched life 2.0 from the start?
Theologian John Hick answers a similar question in his response to the problem of evil. The problem of evil in Christian theology refers to the apparent contradiction between the goodness and omnipotence of God and the reality of evil and suffering in the world. If God exists and God is wholly good, then why does God permit evil in the world? Why does God fashion a world in the first place with the capacity for injury and suffering? Is this really the best of all possible worlds God could have made? Why didn’t God create the world as a heavenly paradise from the start? No stubbed toes. No getting old. No sickness or disease. No injustice or discrimination. Just bliss. If God can’t do this, then God isn’t all powerful. If God chose not to do this, then God isn’t wholly good or loving.
John Hick says that one possible answer to this question might be found in how we think about what it means to be a person. Part of what it might mean to be a person, is that we are “free and responsive beings,” capable of engaging our environment and the people with whom we share life. He argues that freedom and responsiveness are essential components of what it means to be a person. Both of these too (freedom and responsiveness) are essential to love. Love is not coerced; love is a gift freely expressed. According to his argument, a world without risk and responsibility, or one in which people were coerced by God to “freely” avoid evil, or one where pain and suffering did not exist (or never existed), would logically rule out any real possibility for humans to grow as persons, to cultivate virtues like trust, hope, and faithfulness, sacrifice, vulnerability, courage, wisdom, patience, and others.
We don’t know why – in the infinite expanse of God’s eternal life and love – God creates a world so fraught and fleeting. There’s a mystery at the crux of life’s impermanence and God’s eternal nature. Maybe it’s the only possible world suitable for human beings to grow, develop, learn, play, feel joy, suffer loss, wrestle with anxiety, and anticipate with hope the possibility of future joy.
In the Genesis stories, when God creates the world, God calls it good. God rests in its shade and walks among its hills. God strolls in the garden in the cool of the evening. God delights in its streams and valleys. Maybe ours is to do the same, to delight in the gift of life and time and space – and the infinite promise it holds – as long as we have breath in our lungs.