Oh you can’t get to Heaven

Sing it, folks!

… Oh, you can’t get to heaven in an office cube cause God hates using pushpins too. I ain’t gonna grieeeeeve my Lord no more …

I hope you enjoyed my rendition of one of the best camp songs I was ever taught. It brings back memories of crackling campfires beside the pop-up camper at the Pinery. Mom would sit with her ankles crossed, strumming her old guitar while the brown and yellow strap slipped off her shoulder. I would pretend to have a vibratto and lean to the side, hoping the smoke wouldn’t follow me; Steve would sputter and chortle through the song as if he hated every moment (horrible liar, that one); and Miriam would sit next to dad as he belted out the lyrics with laughter in his warm bass tones.

Fond memories. Silly songs.

Isn’t it interesting how song and hymn writers influence our theology? Someone once said, “A Christian’s practical theology is often his hymnology.” Do hymns (and now modern praise and worship songs) affect us so deeply that the way we interact with the world is directly tied to what we sing? Without them, would we even have imagined some of our most beloved and cliched ideas?

Here are a few curious ideas in christendom:

Fly away

Popular hymn “I’ll fly Away” says: “Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away. To a land on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away …” Where does this imagery of flying away come from?

Well one possibility is Psalm 90: “9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. 10 The length of our days is seventy years– or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” The context of this phrase is actually not a heavenly fantastic happy wish. It’s a grieving lament. Not exactly “some bright morning”.

Another possibility is 1 Thessalonians 4: “16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
I don’t mean to disappoint, but this sounds more like a resurrected welcome posse instead of a flying journey to “God’s celestial shore”. What’s interesting about this passage is that it doesn’t say what happens after we meet Messiah in the air. Do we join a host, an army? Do we attend the wedding feast? Are we then judged? It says the dead in Messiah will rise first. And if we go to heaven when we die, how will we be resurrected and meet him in the air? Won’t we already be with him? Just curious questions.

St. Peter at the pearly gates

The online OED (restricted access) lists the oldest occurrence of “pearly gates” (but no Peter is evident in the quote) as an 1853 hymn by C. F. Alexander, “The roseate hue”: “Oh! for the pearly gates of heaven! Oh! for the golden floor!

Revelation 21:21
The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.

In no Biblical text does the idea of Peter at the pearly gates of heaven exist. So where does this idea come from? Perhaps not a hymn, but it’s a popular image in the mind of many a Believer. What say you?

Okay, so I found many of my own answers, but the poetic hymn lyrics and the cliches in our minds do affect our understanding of God and how we live our lives now. I can remember beign told distinctly that I’d have to convice Peter to let me into Heaven. He’d look for my name in the Book of Life and see if I was good. Now, honestly… where in the world did the idea of Peter being the one to let people into heaven come from? Legend. Myth. Song. I’m surprised it’s gotten so popular past the reformation, honestly. Faith alone. Grace alone… Where’s Peter in all of that? Perhaps the Catholic church would argue that Peter would have something to do with it since they claim he is the rock on which the whole Church was built. But is Peter the one we answer to? Or is it the King?

I’ll leave my curiosities at that for now. Enjoy the brisk fall day!