Better than heaven (part 2)

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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.

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Better than Heaven (part 1)

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In the last nine months I’ve thought a lot about the Christian Hope. Starting some Theology modules, preaching through the Apostle’s Creed and walking with people through death and grief has made me look more closely at what the Bible and Christian tradition says about our future hope in God . Would it surprise you if I said that most of us focus on the wrong place or, controversially, that Heaven is actually not our ultimate hope?

For example, the ‘Apostles Creed’ (a statement of Christian Orthodoxy general accepted by the world-wide church over the centuries) does not mention heaven as our hope. The word is mentioned, as the place to which Jesus ascended, and this is a hugely important idea which we often ignore. But ‘heaven’ is not mentioned in the creed as our future hope. In stead, ‘Jesus’ return to judge’ and ‘the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’ are the focus. Why is this? Why doesn’t it talk about going to heaven when we die like many preachers do?

We could look at other church creeds or survey the current theological landscape to see the same thing. ‘So… errr… where is Heaven?’, we might ask. And while we’re at it, ‘What does Heaven mean? Is it actually central to the Christian Hope? And what is our ‘resurrection’ and why is this all so confusing? Here’s my attempt to clear things up a bit. Obviously in an attempt to simplify things I run the risk of oversimplifying, but I will do my best to summarise what I’ve seen as I’ve recently studied in the Bible, tradition and current New Testament scholarship. Also, I might be wrong!

In the Old Testament there is a hope that God will overcome death and sin, rooted in Genesis 3. The Exodus story presents a God who rescues and beats his enemies. The Hebrew narrative, in general, shows a people trapped in sin and death, unable to be the true humanity that God called them to be, unable to fulfil his mandate. Sin leads to exile and exile leads to a prophet cry for a new dawn in God’s plans. This dawn is seen in visions such as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones coming to life, Daniel’s picture of resurrection and eternal life and Isaiah’s many visions of a new creation. There is a deep cry within the later prophets that God’s plan has not failed, he can still rescue his people and that this rescue will lead to many nations also being re-united with God. So where is heaven?

Heaven, put simply, is where God is. The Old Testament presents the paradox of a world sometimes in touch with heaven, through the temple or the Ark of the Covenant, but clearly not the same as this world. There’s continuity and discontinuity. Transcendence and Immanence. The Jewish people did have a strong sense of the place where God is (called Heaven) but, because Jesus’ arrival took place in a prophetic and cultural context, the main central first century Jewish hope was ‘resurrection’ and ‘new creation’. Yes, many reflected and meditated on the mystery of God’s glory and presence (Heaven) but the hope was for God to come and rescue: rescue from Roman rule; rescue from pagan oppression; rescue from sin and shame. In summary, we often think of the Christian hope as going to God but really it’s God coming to us. This is where incarnation is so closely related to salvation and eschatology.

And so, when we come to read Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s letters and other writings such as revelation, this is the focus. Yahweh will come to rescue, God has not given up on his creation, he will put everything right and defeat the enemies of sin and death (1 Corinthians 15, for example). So why do modern Christian focus on ‘going to heaven when we die’ and rarely speak of resurrection and new creation? That’s a big question, but here’s a few thoughts.

Firstly, the New Testament does indeed speak of a temporary place in God’s presence for those who know him, before the resurrection of the dead. To this we will return. Secondly, there has been a strong tendency in the last hundred years or so for evangelists to simplify complex bible teaching into a ‘heaven and hell’ dualism, without explaining anything else. Churches have often neglected to teach further into this perhaps because it can seem quite complicated and confusing. Thirdly, the effect of neo-platonic Greek thought meant that many Christians came to think in more of a Greek philosophical mindset than a Hebrew one. The big picture in platonic thought is of a divine source of everything and to whom everything will return. This was useful for Christians such as Origen who wanted to converse with philosophers and bring some credibility to Christianity. And there are close parallels but also some important differences with the Biblical picture of God. Finally, there have been whole cultural movements which have sought to divide natural from supernatural and led to a common kind of simplistic folk Christianity which prefers a simplistic view than the hard work of grappling with scripture.

I’ve also often wondered if the origins of the Pentecostal movement in the awful context of African-American slavery may also have, understandably, emphasised a desire to escape, rather than believe for redemption now. Perhaps the songs from this movement, and it’s rapid growth, have had more of an impact than we realise. Having said this, I’ve not come across anything written by anyone else that has seen this link, so I may be wrong. So, bearing all this in mind, do what do we do? Do we abandon speaking of Heaven? In part 2 I will explore how we might construct a more biblical view of heaven and new creation…