In reframing who gets into heaven, Dallas Willard widened how we imagine Advent.
Advent began yesterday. Most Christians know what Advent signifies: a time of penitence and preparation. And they know how it signifies these two: four Advent wreath candles. But why do we observe Advent? Dallas Willard had a “why” you might find surprising.
“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it.” But “standing it,” Willard added, “may prove to be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies or popular preaching may think, for the fires in heaven may be hotter than those in the other place.”
Whew. Lot to unpack there. Let me give it a try.
The context for Willard’s remark was the numerous studies indicating most American Christians are “unchristian.” Examples abound. We’re consumed with materialism, even though Jesus said life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. We are unforgiving of others, even though Jesus taught us that God forgives us our sins as we forgive others. We tend to be anxious about many things, even though Jesus said we’re not to be anxious.
All of which indicated to Willard that most Christians can’t stand to be the kind of Christian that can “stand it” in heaven, where there is no materialism, no unforgiveness, no anxiety. In other words, why in heaven’s name would anyone who can’t stand to live the way everyone will live in heaven… want to go to heaven? It doesn’t make sense.
Unless we take our view of heaven from popular movies. I know I did for a long time. My image was drawn from Disney’s Tinker Bell and her magic pixie dust. When we get to heaven, God will sprinkle pixie dust on us and—voila!—we’ll be magically transformed! All the sin, all the broken relationships that Christians refused to reconcile for whatever reason, will be magically reconciled in heaven. Poof!
This no longer makes sense to me. It basically says I can live my life however I desire with no consequences. God will sort everything out in the end, so everything will turn out fine.
It will turn out fine, but not as many imagine. The Apostle Paul wrote of the fires in heaven. They reveal what we could “stand” on earth. Whatever survives the flames is rewarded. Whatever does not is burned up. If everything is burned up, that Christian will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
This means every Christian is assured of their eternal salvation. But entering heaven may be a more difficult matter than most imagine. It involves the fires of heaven, what is called Purgatory. Most imagine this is a Catholic idea, but many traditions—comprising two-thirds of the worldwide church—believe in Purgatory. Even C. S. Lewis believed in Purgatory. He wasn’t a member of these traditions, but he was confident he was headed to Purgatory.
The Church father Tertullian alluded to Purgatory in De Anima 58, written in ca. A.D. 208. The idea is that we can purge now—forgive others, reconcile, be generous, rid our lives of worry—or purge later. We purge imperfectly in this life. After death, we’ll undergo complete purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
This includes those who didn’t purge at all in this life. They too will undergo complete purification, but their cup of joy will not be as large as those who did purge in this life. Everyone’s cup of joy will be full; but the cups will be different sizes. Larger cups go to those who, in this life, showed they can “stand it” living in the kind of heaven Jesus wants on earth.
I close with a few observations.
First, if you think is much ado about nothing, remember that Jesus taught many parables about unprepared virgins. Do we assume he was talking about someone else?
Second, Advent is for preparation and penitence. It’s based on a spousal view of salvation, God “marrying” us. We have been saved, betrothed to Christ. And we’re being saved, which requires penitence and preparation in order that we might be presented to Jesus, our husband, as a pure virgin. Those who can “stand” doing the faithful work of being prepared will experience the greatest joy in consummating their marriage with Jesus.
Finally, Advent and Lent, two seasons of penitence and preparation, precede the two high holidays in the Church calendar, Christmas and Easter. In Advent, the purple candles symbolize penitence. The pink candle signifies a shift away from penitence, toward preparation for the wedding celebration. It’s why those who can “stand” the thought of wedded bliss with Jesus in heaven observe Advent here on earth.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, (HarperCollins, 1998), 301-302.