Thank God for the “Pie in the Sky”: Why the Heavenly Minded Do the Most Earthly Good
Christians are often accused of being so heavenly-minded they’re of no earthly good. More than 100 years ago, activist Joe Hill thought as much. While traveling throughout America, he drew cartoons and wrote songs in defense of America’s poor. He had no patience for pastors who preached for spiritual conversion without providing physical comfort. In 1911, he penned the following words:
Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
Over a century later, Hill’s criticism still has traction. Many will concede that some Christians do good deeds—they’ll point to hospitals named after saints and they may even know something about Billy Graham’s son mailing gift boxes to kids around the world. Those who are old enough will vaguely recall how Jimmy Carter built houses for the poor. But when they think about that church in their neighborhood—the one with a pastor preaching weekly sermons, with people walking in for prayer meetings and children walking out with colored pictures of King David—when they think about that church, it’s probably Joe Hill’s sentiment, if not his words, that come to mind: “Work and pray, live on hay; you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
How should we respond to those who accuse pastors and churches of being so heavenly-minded they’re of no earthly good? I would encourage such critics with the following, four imperatives.
KNOW THE PASTOR’S MISSION
No one gets mad at the mailman when he simply pulls up to your mailbox, drops off a few letters, and drives away to the next house. It doesn’t offend you when he ignores the weeds in your front yard and fails to mend the gate that’s been squeaking for a few years. Of course not! You know that’s not his job; it’s not his mission.
Pastors have a mission, too. It’s to deliver the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. The pastor is like a watchman, standing at the entrance of a city, charged to let the citizens know when an enemy army is ready to pounce. When the watchman sees the sword, he’s to blow the trumpet and warn the people (Ezek. 33:1–9).
Pastors have a clear and simple job description. They’re to shepherd and care for the flock (1 Pet. 5:2; Acts 20:28). They’re to guard and protect sound doctrine (Titus 1:9; Acts 20:31). The fundamental way they do this is by preaching the Word and proclaiming the kingdom (2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 20:25). First and foremost, the pastor is to be a faithful preacher of the Bible.
The faithful preacher heralds a simple message about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return. King Jesus is coming back, he tells us. We are to wait and be ready for his arrival. He will establish “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell” (2 Pet. 3:13). But only those who have put their faith in Christ here on this earth will know the blessings of that eternal home. A day of judgment is really coming. All who have submitted to Christ and endure to the end will be ushered into his glorious presence. The King will lead everyone else into eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).
The “heavenly-minded” know this world is not their home; heaven and hell await. So my main job as a pastor is to prepare my people for Judgment Day. I want them to be ready to stand before the King. More than anything, I long for those under my protection to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” This is why I preach the Word to them. Yes, I could devote more of my time to meeting their physical needs. I could give more of myself to humanitarian relief in my community. There’s a place for that. Nonetheless, I’m convinced the best work I can do is be sure the gospel is preached. That’s my fundamental duty. It’s my mission. If heaven and hell are real, then it’s the most important work I could ever do.
APPRECIATE THE BIBLE’S “EARTHINESS”
Preparing for heaven may be the believer’s most important work, but it’s not his or her only work. The Bible overflows with examples and commands to serve people in the here and now. In that sense, there’s an “earthiness” to the Bible even as it presents heaven as our ultimate goal.
Critics of Christianity who are familiar with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) probably consider it the exception that proves the rule. They may be unaware of the myriad of other New Testament passages that charge Christians to care for the poor inside and outside the church.
When Paul left Jerusalem on his evangelistic mission, the apostles told him to remember the poor. These brothers had been with Jesus during his earthly ministry, witnessed his death, and seen his resurrected body. They knew better than anyone the promises of a heavenly kingdom awaiting all who would repent and believe. And yet, when Paul left them to preach the gospel elsewhere, they asked him to remember the poor—probably the famished saints in Jerusalem. Paul eagerly obliged (Gal. 2:10).
Paul went on to raise up a generation of Christian leaders who would continue his ministry of gospel proclamation. But this ministry wouldn’t lead his disciples to ignore physical needs. He taught Timothy to address immorality and injustice by condemning both sexual sin and the practice of enslaving others—trafficking in human flesh (1 Tim. 1:10). It’s no surprise Paul urged Philemon, a Christian slaveowner, to receive his runaway, Onesimus, no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ (Philemon 16). The heavenly-minded will care about life on earth.
Peter, too, knew that a life changed by the gospel ought to make a difference in this world, a difference which may even catch the eye of unbelievers. He exhorted his Christian readers to live holy lives and serve their neighbors: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable,” Peter instructed, “so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12). That day of visitation is the day Jesus returns to establish his heavenly kingdom. How do we prepare for that great day? Not merely by preaching the gospel, but by living kind and generous lives on the earth. Peter is simply passing along the teaching he personally received from Jesus: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Perhaps the best example of the New Testament’s earthiness is Galatians 6:10. Paul prioritizes the importance of serving believers while establishing the value of caring for everyone everywhere. “So then, as we have opportunity,” wrote Paul, “let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Paul, Peter, and our Lord himself knew nothing of a Christian so heavenly-minded he was of no earthly good. Far from it!
LOOK TO THE PAST
Even a cursory glance at church history provides numerous examples of Christians longing for heaven while working for the physical good of their neighbors. While such examples don’t change the fact that many have done wrong in the name of Christ, these events do establish a pattern of gospel-centered lives on display in loving, kind, and servant-hearted Christians.
Eusebius, the father of church history, writes of a famine and plague that hit the Roman Empire in the fourth century: “Death waged war with these two weapons of pestilence and famine swallowing whole families in a few moments, so that two or three dead bodies could be seen carried to the graveyard by a single group of mourners.” As the city fell under the weight of this tragedy, Christians stood up to help: “Alone in the midst of this terrible calamity they proved by visible deeds their sympathy and humanity . . . [they] rounded up the huge number who had been reduced to scarecrows all over the city and distributed loaves to them all, so that their praises were sung on every side.” 
Oxford professor Henry Chadwick summarized the remarkable social ethic of the early church: “Christian charity expressed itself in care for the poor, for widows and orphans, in visits to brethren in prison or condemned to the living death of labor in the mines, and in social action in times of calamity like famine, earthquake, pestilence, or war.”  It was the Christians who criticized slavery and called emancipation a “good work.” 
Examples of benevolence can be found throughout the ages. In 1792, the English Baptist pastor Abraham Booth called his church members to fight against the slave trade that occupied the British since the mid-1500s.  A few years later, on the streets of Savannah, Georgia, long before the government involved itself in humanitarian relief, a Baptist church devised “a permanent plan for the relief of the poor.” A man had recently starved to death in the public market and the Christians of this church decided to organize relief. 
Frankly, this is the story of Christianity. It’s those who are the most heavenly-minded who do the most earthly good. Look up those humanitarian relief organizations in your community devoted to serving refugees, responding to hurricanes, wildfires, or earthquakes; look up the non-profits that fight human trafficking and teach ESL. You can be sure you’ll find Christians donating their money, time, and expertise to making this world a better place.
LONG FOR HEAVEN
The older I get, the more I long for heaven. As a pastor, I have a front row seat to the agony of a world racked with sin and death. What Christian in his right mind can’t wait for the day Revelation 21:4 is realized? “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Yes, I’m eager for the return of my King. “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). I can’t wait for a slice of that “pie in the sky.”
But this longing isn’t tempting me to curl up on the couch, cover my eyes, and simply wait for this terrible world to go away. Nor has this been the reaction of Christians who have gone before me. Because we take the Bible seriously, we know confidence in Jesus’ return is a call to action. One day our cosmos will be transformed into the new heavens and the new earth. Until then we are to heed Peter’s call to live “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:11–12).
What does “holiness and godliness” look like? Preaching the gospel. Loving my neighbor. Remembering the poor. Doing good to everyone. This isn’t just our calling, it’s our privilege. It’s not merely our duty, it’s our joy. True faith that heaven is real doesn’t stifle our concern for the physical well-being of others, it sharpens it. May God fill our churches with believers who long for the return of the King and the establishment of the new heavens and new earth.
Thank God for pie in the sky!
 Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans., G. A. Williamson (London: Penguin Books, 1965), 291. In other editions see IX. viii.
 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London: Penguin Books, 1967), 56.
 Ibid., 60.
 See Aaron Menikoff, “The Cross and Social Reform” in The First Counsellor of Our Denomination, eds. Michael and Victoria Haykin (Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2011).
 See Aaron Menikoff, Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770–1860 (Eugene, Or.: Pickwick, 2014), 138.