Ralph Waldo Emerson apparently heard one too many sermons preached on the subject of the next life as compensation for the excesses and disappointments of this one. In an essay entitled "Compensation," Emerson complained about a preacher "esteemed for his orthodoxy" who assumed that the wicked were successful and the good were miserable, requiring a Last Judgment to settle accounts. In this regard, Emerson believed that theology lagged behind common wisdom. He took note of the many proverbs expressing the view that, in effect, you reap what you sow. "Justice is not postponed," Emerson wrote. "Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed."
At this stage in my life, I have probably sat through more sermons than Emerson had when he lodged his complaint against the compensatory view of the hereafter. However, I do not recall a single preacher expressing such a notion, or even discussing heaven and hell in any detail. This may be some measure of just how far liberal Protestant churches have strayed from the orthodox views that caused Emerson to abandon the pulpit early in his career. It may also explain why mainline Protestant denominations have been steadily losing ground to fundamentalist churches that still think of this life as a high-stakes audition for the next one.
I suspect liberal seminaries have been teaching their students that a literal belief in heaven and hell amounts to little more a fairy tale for adults; if so, then a great many adults clearly still believe in fairy tales. I discovered this for myself when I taught an adult class for Episcopalians on the kingdom of God. I told them that the kingdom of God that Jesus talked about in the gospels was not heaven and that he said virtually nothing about people going to heaven when they die. According to scriptural accounts, the Resurrection and Last Judgment will take place on earth, not in heaven. All of which was news to my class, which questioned me closely on particulars and circled back in later sessions to the same topic.
Apart from the Book of Revelation, the Bible has precious little to say about the world to come. Early on, St. Paul advised people not to make other plans, since Jesus was expected to return momentarily. Only as it gradually became clear that the Second Coming wasn't coming any time soon did the church turn its attention from this world to the next. The idea of heaven as consolation for the trials of this life may have arisen as a result of the persecutions suffered by the early church. Christianity promised a better life to its adherents, but the harsh truth was that their lives often ended badly. If there was going to be a happy ending, it would have to occur beyond the grave.
There is within all of us a powerful impulse to make moral sense of a universe that appears to be anything but. The stories we tell ourselves are satisfying only to the extent that virtue is rewarded and evil punished. Even if our own lives are less than exemplary, we demand that justice be served. And yet we don't get very far in life before we realize that the good guys don't always win. Emerson posits a higher law of compensation that may apply, assuming it's not merely a product of that same impulse to make moral sense of a universe that appears to be anything but.
Heaven is a kind of all-purpose plot device that enables us to tie up the loose ends of our lives. Right up until our final breath, we are apt to believe we have left things unfinished, and our loved ones may think we simply left too soon. There is always some lingering regret, a lost opportunity, an old wound, a score to settle, a frustrated ambition, another chance to make things right. We long to be reunited with family and friends who went before. Perhaps we will finally be given to know the "why" of life. All of that and more. We may think of heaven as a joyful home-coming. But if God is our home, then we must ask ourselves where we have been all of our life. If we believe God is elsewhere, we may discover that the home we return to is the home we never left.