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…