If, as I suggested in part 1, many Christians have drifted unknowingly into a vague future hope in heaven that misses the big picture, what can we do to address this? How can we return to the ultimate hope of resurrection and new creation and does it really matter?
I think the first thing to do is to rediscover the New Testament’s language of eschatology. Simply reading 1 Corinthians 15, or 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, and then returning to passages like Romans 8, is very powerful. Turning to key passages like Isaiah 65 and 66, Ezekiel 37 and Daniel 12, before re-reading Revelation, can be very illuminating. Knowing that passages such as Mark 13 and Matthew 24 are based on Daniel 7:13, and therefore have much so say about Jesus’ ascension and the temple’s destruction, not necessarily Jesus’ return, is helpful.* I think that reading the New Testament in the context of Genesis and Exodus, and the context of Exile, is also important. Of course, this is just a starter but gaining confidence in the central Christian Hope of a God who rescues, resurrects and is making all things new, is powerful. It allows us to pray ‘Come Lord Jesus’ alongside the early church, with faith and passion. We can have a great hope that God has not abandoned this world and our co-work with him now matters.
Secondly, I think we can return to the passages about Heaven, now in their proper context. The Bible seems to talk about the believer’s spirit going immediately to be with God and sometimes the word heaven is used for this. In John 14 Jesus talks about going to prepare a place or a room (mone), and in Luke 23 he promises ‘paradise’ to the thief on the cross. Paul talks (Phillipians 1:23) of a desire to be and be ‘with Christ’. In other words, the biblical picture seems to one of the believer going to be with God, to a wonderful but temporary place of rest. But we mustn’t confuse this with the ultimate hope: that Christ will return and bring everything under his rule; The defeat of sin and evil and the death of death is the ultimate Christian hope; The brokenness of creation restored, a new creation, a new ‘heavens and earth’.
But does it matter? Is it ok for most Christians to have a kind of child-like ‘folk Christianity’ view of heaven and not understand the true Christian hope. I think it really does matter. Personally, understanding that God’s plan is to right all wrongs brings me much more peace and reassurance than a vague belief in a disembodied existence that has nothing to do with this life. And it starts to speak to us on so many levels: What we do in this life matters. We are not waiting to just escape and disappear, as if all this is a warm up. Instead we are called to work with God now, for the renewal of his creation. It teaches us that the physical world matters and that stewarding creation is important. Although new Creation will indeed be new it will also, in some way, be a renewal of what is. We are not just waiting for God to come back and ‘nuke the planet’ to start again, so environmental matters matter.
The hope in a future physical reality also means that our bodies matter. Western culture has generally moved towards a vague gnostic belief that only ‘what’s on the inside matters’ (This is really pushed in Disney films. For example, see Mary Poppins Returns ‘A cover is not a book’). Christianity doesn’t let us get away with that kind of thinking. Instead we are called to work with our hands, care for the world, care for the sick, and see our physical bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The physical is important. We are both physical and spiritual beings.
So how do we respond? I know that during my own studies when presented with suggestions that my current world view or biblical understanding may not be right I’ve been tempted to freak out, resist the new ideas or throw out everything I thought I knew! The process can certainly be disconcerting. But we don’t need to do that. However, we do need to continue to wrestle with the Christian hope from the New Testament texts, not just settle for popular ideas. I urge you to read afresh through some of the chapters I’ve suggested above: Pray, read, discuss, listen, read again.
Does our belief about the future matter? Well, Christianity is, on the one hand, a belief set on a past event (Christ’s bodily resurrection). This is our firm foundation. But this is a past event that has huge implications for our future (our bodily resurrection). On the one hand the biblical writers call us to trust in God for the future and hold fast to our hope, on the other hand much of what’s said about that future is less clear than we’d like. Reading the Bible well means learning to hold these tensions and trusting God for what we can’t know. Reading the bible well also means holding in view the big picture, which includes the story of Israel and humanity, not just me. Reading the Bible well means continuing to read, seek, discuss and debate and, ultimately, to place our faith in Jesus, that what he did in his resurrection and ascension changed everything on a cosmic level. Anything less is just not big enough.
*It also helps to know that the Greek word ‘erchomai’ means both coming and going. Context helps us see that the ‘coming of the Son of Man to the ancient of days’ is actually about Jesus’ going to the father, based on the vision in Daniel 7:13-14. In other words, it’s usually about his ascension not his return. ‘Parousia’ is the word usually used for his coming.