Retirement and the Doctrine of Pre-Heaven
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
“You’ve worked your entire life for it – and your hard work has finally paid off, in dividends. It’s finally time to trade in the daily 9-5 grind … The Preserve at Walnut Springs congratulates you on your years of success and wants to help celebrate your retirement in style.”
So goes a typical pitch for a high-end retirement community. It seems to be an article of faith for most investment advisors – along with the host of cruise lines, property developers, resorts, golf courses and others in the retirement industry – that the decades from mid-sixties to mid-eighties are a time to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor. If you can afford it, this is the time to settle into an exclusive senior citizen enclave in an idyllic setting with loads of amenities.
Advertisements that cater to the fifty-plus crowd unapologetically make their case: “You deserve the best,” says one. You have “earned it.” “It is time to focus on you and your life,” says home builder Lennar. You should “never settle” screams the headline of a famous resort. “Welcome to life at its very best…”
The message is clear: if your career has enabled you to put aside a decent nest egg or a nice pension, then retirement is a time when you deserve to spend your next twenty plus years enjoying a little taste of heaven on earth. You have earned your time in a place where, as America’s most famous retirement community promises: “everything you could possibly want, need, or dream of doing in your retirement years is just a golf car ride away.” It is a sort of Pre-Heaven waiting room before you arrive in the actual heaven. Go ahead. You’ve earned it.
Never mind that most people will have worked their entire lives in jobs where no such “dividends” will be forthcoming. Statistics tell us that the life’s savings of the majority of retirees will be unable cover a down payment at most of these places. However, for a great many people it seems that “everything you could possible want, need, or dream” is just around the retirement corner.
The retirement industry’s entire conception of the good life betrays a theologically defective, spiritually empty, secular vision of life, joy, and heaven.
From a Christian perspective, it is impossible to reconcile this popular secular idea of retirement with the Jesus’ call upon our lives. “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Tim 6:17-19, NIV) The idea that the well-heeled should aspire to retreat to some pre-heaven enclave so they may enjoy the good life could hardly be more at odds with Paul’s command.
For a Christian, retirement may be viewed as a time when one is able to stop working for the primary purpose of generating income and to begin devoting that time to serving God’s Kingdom. For some that may mean continuing to work for income and devoting that income to serving the Kingdom. Others may choose to step away from their careers and pour themselves into service. In any case, retirement is not a time to disengage from the wider community, but to engage even more fully with it. It certainly is not a time to seek a synthetic heaven-on-earth respite.
The retirement industry’s entire conception of the good life betrays a theologically defective, spiritually empty, secular vision of life, joy, and heaven. A Christian should allow herself a cynical smile when reading the promise that “everything you could possibly want, need, or dream of doing in your retirement years is just a golf car ride away.” The Christian should rightly wonder if the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the prisoners, and the strangers from Matthew 25 are all just a golf car ride away (and if they are, why are they missing from the brochure?). Because the Christian dream in retirement is to spend more time, energy, and resources with people like these; not as a final chore to get into heaven, but because spending time with them is spending time with Our Lord and that is as close to heaven as one can ever get here on earth.
As Christians we should not fall into the trap of imagining, much less striving for, some Hollywood version of heaven-as-the-ultimate-resort with zero-calorie frozen yogurt stands on every corner (ala The Good Place). As N.T. Wright reminds us, the Christian promise of the resurrection and the New Jerusalem is much greater, and far less self-centered, than the Hollywood version. "[The early Christians] believed that God would then raise His people from the dead, to share in — and, indeed, to share His stewardship over — this rescued and renewed creation.” God plans to put us to work in His new creation! Amen.
No, we do not long for an endless buffet of zero-calorie desserts, we long for the real heaven in which we dwell with God and serve Him continuously in His new and perfect creation alongside our resurrected brothers and sisters in Christ. While the Lennar marketing team may find it incomprehensible, even heaven is not a “time to focus on you and your life,” but is instead a time to focus on Him and His Kingdom. And if that is what we are looking forward to in heaven, then isn’t that what we should desire when we retire? The extra hours retirement affords promise to allow us to become more engaged than ever in the lives of the hungry, the sick, the stranger and the prisoner.
When I first started working in prison ministry many years ago I crossed paths with a man who was living out the craziest and most wonderful retirement. John was well into his seventies when I met him (he has since gone to be with the Lord). When he retired he and his wife bought an RV and spent their retirement years traveling throughout Texas visiting prisons! He would go from one unit to another and then another participating in Kairos weekends or other ministry programs, compelled by the call to bring the message of salvation to the "least of these." They lived in that RV most of the year. I am not certain they even owned another house.
John's retirement may not have met the definition of success pitched by the retirement industry, but I am sure I will never meet a more joy-filled, purpose-driven retired couple than John and his wife, as the lived and worked through their final years in that little RV with not-so-picturesque views of bricks and barbed wire out the windows. (It is not the sort of photo you will find on the Go RVing web site, is it?)
Perhaps Hollywood offers us an unlikely insight: the beautifully manicured after-life resort community with frozen yogurt on every corner that was depicted throughout season one of The Good Place was revealed at the end of the season not to be "the good place" at all! It was, to use the Hollywood vernacular, “the bad place.” Interesting. Saving and striving to construct a resort-style retirement that pulls us away from our calling can easily become just another distraction from pursuing our deepest desire.
As the years march forward and I begin to think more about the day when I will no longer work full-time to generate income, the memory of my prison RV friend John serves as a frequent reminder of a better way to "celebrate your retirement in style." His specific calling may not be my own, but I try to bear in mind that if we are fortunate enough to be able to retire in good health and with some means, we will have the great privilege of spending our retirement years focused on being a full-time servant in the Kingdom. That really is a sort of pre-heaven. I find myself praying I won't squander my retirement chasing small dreams concocted by the marketing team at some retirement oasis.
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