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Podcast: What Makes You Long for Heaven? (Cameron Cole)

By Koa Sinag

Podcast: What Makes You Long for Heaven? (Cameron Cole)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Earthly Sorrows and the Longing for Heaven

In this episode, Cameron Cole shares how God used the unexpected and tragic death of his firstborn son to dramatically shift his daily focus heavenward, revealing the joy-inducing power of an eternal mindset.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

  • An Eschatological Problem
  • A Heavenward Mindset
  • The Punctuation Mark of the Christian Life
  • Misconceptions of a Heavenward Mindset
  • Sustaining a Heavenward Mindset

01:24 – An Eschatological Problem

Matt Tully
Cam, thank you so much for joining me again on The Crossway Podcast.

Cameron Cole
Hey! Glad to be here.

Matt Tully
You open your new book with a pretty bold, definitive statement. You write, “The primary problem in the spiritual lives of modern Christians is eschatological in nature.” I wonder if you could unpack what that word means. It’s kind of a big, scary sounding theology word. And why do you say that?

Cameron Cole
So eschatology has to do with theology of heaven or theology of the end times. And so I really do believe that the primary theological problem in the spiritual lives of modern Christians is a lack of a real-life, practical theology of heaven. And so I think what you see in the culture is that the prevailing eschatology—the prevailing view of heaven—is YOLO. You only live once. And I know that’s a very cliché and trite statement—YOLO!

Matt Tully
What does that look like, even if someone’s not saying that, because most of us are probably too old to say that in normal life.

Cameron Cole
We’re too cool.

Matt Tully
What does that maybe look like in people’s lives?

Cameron Cole
I think what it looks like is people have this sense of urgency that is not an urgency necessarily for evangelism and missions but an urgency to complete their bucket list and to try to pack everything in because you only live once. YOLO is a deeply eschatological statement in the sense of there is no afterlife. YOLO—you only live once—so you better pack it all in. And so what it really, and I talk about this quite a bit in Heavenward, is that the prevailing modern mindset is in some ways what you’d call epicureanism. Epicureanism was a Greek and Roman mindset where they believed that there was no afterlife. And so the response was to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. And so a lot of people are familiar with the phrase carpe diem—seize the day—which was really kind of a mantra of epicureanism. But what people aren’t familiar with is what comes right after that, which is trusting in the future as little as possible. Seize the day, trusting in the future as little as possible.

Matt Tully
That’s the end of that statement.

Cameron Cole
That’s the end of the statement, yeah. And so you can see how the eschatology that there’s no afterlife drives this hedonistic lifestyle where the aim is maximize pleasure, minimize pain. And so it leads to a very self-focused life. And so I think that’s true in the culture. I think most people are trying to pack it all in, and they’re trying to maximize their pleasure. Well, I think that really has permeated a lot of the mindset of a lot of Christians. And you can see it in things like casual divorce. And a lot of people say, You know, I only have one life to live, and I just want to be happy. And so they enter into an unbiblical divorce. That is a decision that’s based in an eschatological worldview. I think it’s why a lot of believers have a tough time finding meaning in life. A lot of believers aren’t necessarily as willing to make sacrifices for the sake of missions and evangelism and the kingdom. And a lot of it is this notion of this life is it. But if you believe that your highest pleasure will be heaven and that it will be for eternity, and you believe that this life is actually very, very short, that has a very refining effect for a person.

05:08 – A Heavenward Mindset

Matt Tully
As you said, your new book is called Heavenward, and in the book you’re trying to help Christians embrace this mindset that does look towards heaven. It is a future oriented kind of mindset. I want to dig into some of the facets of that, but maybe before we get there, your last book with Crossway was called Therefore I Have Hope. In that book you shared a little bit about your own family’s story of grief and loss, but also the incredible hope that God brought to your family through that season of pain. I wonder if you could just briefly summarize that story because I think it’s a helpful starting point for understanding why this topic of cultivating a heavenward mindset is so important to you.

Cameron Cole
Both of these books flow out of the death of my son when he was three years old. On November the 10th, 2013, our oldest child, Cam, started asking us questions about heaven and talked about how he wanted to go see Jesus and can we get in the car and go see Jesus.

Matt Tully
You were playing Legos I think, if I remember correctly.

Cameron Cole
Yeah, we were playing Legos. Exactly. He asked if he would see Adam and Eve in heaven, and he pledged that he was not going to eat from the tree. And we’re like, Well actually, we all eat from the tree. And the conversation ended with him saying, Jesus died on the cross. Jesus died for my sins. It was really like a three-year-old profession of faith. That night, he just mysteriously died in his sleep. It was our worst nightmare, and yet one, we had this confidence that he was in heaven and that we would see him again, as a product of his faith in Christ. And two, this is where my child lives now. My child lives in heaven. I can remember when I went to college, I went to college at Wake Forest in North Carolina, and my mom had never cared about Wake Forest. But then I’m at Wake Forest, and my mom has the sweatshirt and the bumper sticker on her car and she’s checking the website and she’s following when Wake Forest is playing basketball or football or whatever it is, she’s watching it. It’s because her child lives there, and so now her heart is there. And the same thing happened for me with regard to heaven. My son lives there. That’s all I could think about was him and his life and wanting to be with him there. And just this natural heavenly mindedness was pervading my life, and I was thinking about heaven all the time. I don’t know if that would have been sustained if I hadn’t met a very important friend, and the important friend is the apostle Paul. I kind of felt a little crazy because I was thinking about heaven so much and I would forget to pay a bill. And I would think, Thirty dollars isn’t going to matter in heaven. It was to a point where it was impacting the day to day.

Matt Tully
Maybe in a negative way?

Cameron Cole
I mean, some would say. My wife might say so on the forgetting to pay a bill part.

Matt Tully
You’re saying you became consumed with thoughts of heaven?

Cameron Cole
Yeah, it was just on my mind all the time. and it was having a really positive, hopeful, refining effect in my life. And like I said, I don’t know if it would have been something that was sustained after the season of grief, but I started reading Paul’s letters. I just started to notice in a new way how much Paul talks about heaven and how he integrates it into everything. And not just this is what happens when you die, but this is what drives your sanctification. This is what drives moral decision. This is what drives your sense of hope and comfort. This is what gives you a sense of focus and motivation for missions and evangelism. Heaven is central to everything in the Christian life in Paul’s letters. And so what I started to realize and what really became the basis of the book Heavenward—how eternity can change your life on earth—is seeing that the basic facets and principles of our salvation that you particularly see emphasized in Paul’s letters should make us all just organically heavenly minded. And I create this progression where I talk about heaven. You know about heaven. You have the information, the facts. Then, you have heavenly mindedness, which is an intentional discipline whereby you think about things above, in line with Colossians 3:1: “Since you’ve been raised with Christ, set your mind on things that are above where Christ is seated.”

Matt Tully
Those are passages that we so often just breeze right through. We almost don’t even notice it’s a command.

Cameron Cole
Right! It’s an imperative. And not only is it an imperative but it’s a present active comparative, which means that it’s something that you’re continuously doing. It’s not a one-time command. This is a posture. This is an ongoing, habitual state. And so the hope is that what I would say I experienced was it wasn’t just that I was heavenly minded in the sense that I was making an effort to think about eternity; it’s just that God did something in my life where—then and still now—eternity is just the backdrop of life. And so my hope with this book is that the next component of that progression is to be heavenward, which is where heaven’s just the air you breathe. It just is to the point where you’re not having to try to think about it. It’s just the backdrop of your life and it gives you so much hope, so much more contentment, so much more meaning, so much more focus on the things of the kingdom.

10:50 – The Punctuation Mark of the Christian Life

Matt Tully
The metaphor that came to my mind, and maybe you said it in the book but I don’t remember, was heaven becomes almost a lens through which you look at the whole world as well, where it colors everything. You can’t help but be thinking about heaven because it’s the lens through which everything else is viewed. Another thing that you highlight is how the second coming of Christ is so important for us. And you call it a punctuation mark. What do you mean by that?

Cameron Cole
Another way that I characterize this is I talk about how if you are watching a basketball game or a football game, you have in mind that there’s a clock, and the clock is unwinding. You’re constantly paying attention to how much time is left. How much time is left? Are we going to be able to hold on to this lead, whatever it may be? And so your head is, in a sense, on a swivel. And so in the Christian life, the second coming of Christ is the punctuation mark. That’s the end of the sentence. That’s the punctuation mark on our life and on human history. And so the idea is that we’re constantly living with our head on a swivel, looking to the second coming.

Matt Tully
Not in the sense of trying to predict when it’s going to happen—

Cameron Cole
Oh, no, no, no.

Matt Tully
So you’re not getting at that. You’re just talking about the awareness that there is an end coming.

Cameron Cole
Yeah, and that’s where this story is headed. A lot of people like to watch the same movies over and over again, and I like to watch YouTube videos of old Alabama football games. And people will be like, Why do you want to watch it if you already know what the outcome is going to be? That’s the whole point! That’s the whole point! I know the end of the story. I know the end of the story, and so I can watch things unfold with the comfort of knowing the outcome. I know that we win this game.

Matt Tully
When we watch a scary movie or an intense movie, a lot of the fear, the anxiety, and the tense nature of it is really cut down when we know the end of the story. We’ve seen it before.

Cameron Cole
Exactly. Exactly right. There’s a visceral rush when you don’t know the end of the story. And that can be fun for a movie, but in terms of your life, living perpetually in a horror movie is not very comforting. And so there is just this stability and security when you’re aware that I know where this story is headed. I know that this story is headed to a day when Christ returns and he eradicates the world of pain and evil and suffering, and where I see him face to face and I have perpetual joy in my communion with God.

13:31 – Misconceptions of a Heavenward Mindset

Matt Tully
What are the most common misconceptions that people might have when you start talking about the idea of cultivating a heavenward or a heavenly mindset?

Cameron Cole
I think a lot of people will go back to this quote that people are so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good. C. S. Lewis talks about how you see in church history that the people who are the most prolific, in terms of ministry, were actually people who were the most heavenly minded. I think that there’s a fear that if we’re so focused on heaven, then we’re going to become detached and we’re going to become aloof. The reality is that actually, when we start to think about going before Christ, it’s incredibly refining in terms of us thinking about, What’s the point of my life? This life is short compared to eternity. I’m going to have total contentment when I am with Christ face to face. So what’s the point of this life? And it points us towards Christ. It points us toward Christ and in service of Christ.

Matt Tully
You have this great line in there that stood out to me: “Eternal time spurs earthly urgency.”

Cameron Cole
Absolutely. I think about how it’s just very sad for my wife and me to be separated from our child. and to think that we could be separated however long the Lord has us on this earth. We could be separated from him for another forty or fifty years. And I’m going to be with my son for trillions of years in heaven. I think that everything that is lost on this earth is going to be restored and regained in eternity. And so this is no way to take away that grief or to try to dismiss that lament. That’s a healthy, godly thing to do, to lament the loss in this life. And in terms of not being defined and completely devastated and overcome by this loss, just that mathematical reality of how much we’re separated here but how much we had to look forward to an eternity with our son is incredibly helpful.

Matt Tully
Cam, for those of us who have lost someone close to us, someone that we loved dearly and someone that we know is in heaven now with the Lord, I think it can be easy for the thought of seeing that person again to become the main thing that we think about when we think of heaven. The thought of being with that person again can almost be more compelling to us than the thought of being with Jesus. How have you thought about that and wrestled with that as you think about seeing your son again versus seeing Jesus?

Cameron Cole
I would think in the early days of my grief that I did think more about seeing my son again. But there’s just this reality that, like Irenaeus said, the end of life is the vision of God. The pinnacle of human experience for the believer is seeing Christ face to face. Everything beautiful and everything good that we have ever experienced and that we have ever seen is consummated in the vision of God and his glory. And so the reality is when I get to heaven, I am going to be fixated on Jesus. I’m going to be super excited to see my little boy, but I think the way I kind of illustrated it in the book is I’m probably going to have my arm around him, but we’re both going to be looking at Christ. And so I think that that’s really important because we want to think about what are the principles of what make heaven heaven. And part of that is that we’ll see the Lord. Part of it is we’ll be in perfect union with Christ—unimpeded and without any influence from sin or the fallen world. And so with that being said, that’s what we want to set our lives on here and now is seeing God in his word, seeing God in his work, and drawing as close to Christ as possible. That is a heavenly life on earth.

17:48 – Sustaining a Heavenward Mindset

Matt Tully
That relates to another question I had. As the months and years have rolled on since your son’s passing and maybe that the way that God used that situation to sort of force you to be heavenward in how you thought and saw the world, as that has worn off a little bit, perhaps, and normal life has maybe returned a little bit more, are there some practices or habits that you’ve instilled in your life that help to cultivate this heavenward mindset?

Cameron Cole
For sure. And I would say that what has sustained it is knowing the principles of my salvation that you see highlighted in Paul. Knowing that heaven is here and now through the coming of Christ. The kingdom of heaven is here and it is with us. Knowing that I’m in union with Christ here now, that I was unified with Christ in his ascension.

Matt Tully
That’s a big topic—the already-not-yet nature of the kingdom of God and of our salvation. I think it’s one of those topics that can be a little intimidating if someone hasn’t really spent time thinking about it, but it’s a really powerful doctrine for our own lives as Christians.

Cameron Cole
Oh, absolutely. The primary reason that Paul was so heavenly minded is because in the Old Testament, they were looking to the day of the Lord. In the way that we’re looking to the second coming of Christ, they were looking to the day of the Lord. And so the day of the Lord was primarily a divine visitation where God would come to the earth, there would be a final judgment, there would be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and there would be a resurrection of the dead. And so for Paul, when he meets Christ on the road to Damascus, he sees, Oh wow. Jesus was God. He has risen from the dead. So this means there’s been a divine visitation. There’s been a resurrection of the dead. Oh, and then next there’s the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And oh, on the cross there was a final judgment. Paul realizes that, in a partial sense, the day of the Lord has occurred. So in 2 Corinthians 6 when he says, “Now is the day of salvation,” he’s saying that the day of the Lord is now. And so what would follow the day of the Lord was the age to come, which was heaven on earth. And so basically, what Paul is saying is that we are in the age to come now. And this isn’t just Paul. This is in the Gospels. This is throughout the New Testament. So now this new heavenly age has been initiated. And the big thing is that as a believer, and you see this in Colossians 1, he says that you have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. So what Paul is saying is you now have had a transfer in the realm in which you live. You are now a citizen of heaven. And that’s what he says in Philippians 3: “our citizenship is in heaven.” He’s saying that’s actually where we live now. And so back to you the question of what are practices in your life that kind of keep you heavenly minded, remembering these truths is really helpful. But for myself, when I find myself anxious and I’m thinking about going into a day where I feel some sense of threat or I know there’s going to be some conflict or some difficulty or some things I’m just a little bit nervous about, it is so helpful for me to remember, Where am I? Where do my feet lie? My feet lie in the kingdom of heaven. That’s where I am. And in the kingdom of heaven, in the new creation where I live, I am safe because the Holy Spirit is in me, and I live under the Lordship of Jesus, who is the new Adam and the King of the new creation where I live. And that just gives me a sense of safety and security to enter into some of the difficult things in life. It doesn’t lead me to retract from them or to avoid them, but it gives me a sense of security that enables me to actually walk into the fallen world. That’s the now and the not yet. Yes, the age to come has been initiated, but the present evil age, the fallen age, is still around. There’s an overlap in the ages now, but that present evil age will end at the second coming, and then it will just be purely heaven on earth. But Belinda Carlisle, a pretty good theologian back in the 80s: “Ooh, baby, you know what I’ve heard? Heaven is a place on earth.” It is. It absolutely is.

Matt Tully
That’s such a helpful thing, that this heavenward mindset is not less than looking to the future and seeing our future hope in Christ for the full redemption of our world and of our bodies and our whole souls, but it also is something that we are, in a certain sense, experiencing now. Now that Christ has been raised and the Spirit is inside of us, we are experiencing that heavenly reality, even today.

Cameron Cole
Absolutely. That’s why writing this book, Heavenward, and thinking about these things is so joy-inducing because these are realities that I can’t say that I was super familiar with prior to my son’s death.

Matt Tully
It seems like we don’t talk a lot about heaven.

Cameron Cole
When I started teaching about this in my church—I’ve taught a lot about heaven since 2013—I sent around a table, like a little survey, in a Sunday school class that had about 100–120 people. And I had people write down how many years have you been attending a church on one side. Then, the number of lessons on heaven you have been taught on the other side. I did the math and basically found that people averaged being taught a lesson on heaven once every eighteen years.

Matt Tully
Wow.

Cameron Cole
People went lifetimes and had never been taught anything about heaven. And yet the majority of our human existence is in eternity.

Matt Tully
And it is the motivation for so much of what we’re called to do in this life.

Cameron Cole
Exactly. For Paul, one of the primary drivers for sanctification, for repenting from sin and living a godly life, was that you live in a new place. You live in the kingdom of heaven. So don’t act like you still live in darkness, like you live in the old creation or you live in the kingdom of darkness. You need to live like you’re going to live when you’re actually in heaven, because you are. You’re there now. And so it drives so much. We have this call in Colossians 3, this imperative, to seek things that are above and live with a heavenly mindset. Well, it’s very hard for a person to do that if they don’t know anything about heaven. And so that’s why I kind of do just a little brief overview of the basics of heaven at the very beginning of the book, so that people have some of that substance to meditate on. And then it gets a lot deeper in the middle of the book when we talk about the heavenly realities of our salvation here and now. But this is part of why I’m really passionate about this book because my life has benefited so much from having a greater heavenly mindedness and from having the biblical substance and grounding to just enhance and solidify that eternal mindset. And I just want that for other people. There’s such a greater ability to persevere in suffering when you know that the sufferings of this life, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, are “light and momentary.” And there’s just such a greater willingness to sacrifice for Christ, to be more generous for Christ when you know that you can’t take anything with you, and when you know that there’s reward for work’s done. And I think that in particular, most people live mundane lives that aren’t glamorous. And I think a lot of people struggle to find meaning in the mundane life. And so as a result, a lot of people what they’re working towards is retirement. No! There’s so much meaning in everything that you do because there is a day when the Lord rewards us for anything done and done for his glory. And so I think about the parent who’s taking care of young children and they’re changing diaper after diaper after diaper, doing all kinds of things like that where it’s never seen and they get no recognition. And you’re kind of like, What is this all for? The Lord sees that, and it has heavenly implications. It has heavenly meaning and reward for you.

Matt Tully
Cam, thank you so much for helping us to think a little bit more like Paul, a little bit more like you as we think about our lives and then set our hope on this heavenward perspective. We appreciate it.

Cameron Cole
Well, thanks for the opportunity. It’s been incredibly life-giving and joy-inducing for me.


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