Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Have We Gotten Heaven Wrong?

I just started reading through N.T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope. Inside the book, Wright challenges the ways in which Christians for a very long time now have moved away from a Biblical vision of their ultimate hope. One way of getting at this question is asking yourself, what is the ultimate goal of your existence? Most Christians will says, "to get to heaven" and implicit in the answer will be that their souls will float to heaven and away from earth once that happens. Wright would say that this answer reveals that we have been far more influenced by Plato and the Greek notion of immortality than the Bible's vision of "resurrection." Wright's critique isn't too far off from Lesslie Newbigin's: see my earlier blogpost, Consequence of Public Truth / Private Value Divide. Consider some of Wright's insights:

It comes as something of a shock, in fact, when people are told what is in fact the case: that there is very little in the Bible about “going to heaven when you die” …. The medieval pictures of heaven and hell, boosted though not created by Dante’s classic work, have exercised a huge influence on Western Christian imagination. Many Christians grow assuming that whenever the New Testament speaks of heaven it refers to the place to which the saved will go after death. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’s sayings in the other gospels about the “kingdom of God” are rendered as “kingdom of heaven”; since many read Matthew first, when they find Jesus talking about “entering the kingdom of heaven,” they have their assumptions confirmed and suppose that he is indeed talking about how to go to heaven when you die, which is certainly not what either Jesus or Matthew had in mind. Many mental pictures have grown up around this and are now assumed to be what the Bible teaches or what Christians believe.

But the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn’t work that way. “God’s kingdom” in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming “on earth as it is in heaven.” The roots of the misunderstanding go very deep, not least into the residual Platonism that has infected whole swaths of Christian thinking and has misled people into supposing that Christians are meant to devalue this present world and our present bodies and regard them as shabby or shameful.

Likewise, the pictures of heaven in the book of Revelation have been much misunderstood. The wonderful description in Revelation 4 and 5 of the twenty-four elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite one of Charles Wesley’s great hymns, a picture of the last day with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life- God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever. And when we come to the picture of the actual end in Revelation 21-22, we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.

Most Christians today, I fear, never think about this from one year to the next. They remain satisfied with what is at best a truncated and distorted version of the great biblical hope. Indeed, the popular picture is reinforced again and again in hymns, prayers, monuments, and even quite serious works of theology and history. It is simply assumed that the word heaven is the appropriate term for the ultimate destination, the final home, and that the language of resurrection, and of the new earth as well as the new heavens, much some how be fitted into that.  Surprised by Hopepp. 18-19

To be sure, the Bible does talk about being with Christ in paradise following death (Lk. 23:43) or as the Apostle Paul said, "to depart from the body is to be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23, 2 Cor. 5:8); however, it is important to realize that this place of "eternal bliss" is ultimately a reference to our "intermediate state" as we await the resurrection of our bodies (1Cor. 15:52). In fact, an important reference helping us understand that "death" isn't the ultimate goal of all of creation or our ultimate goal as believers is made clear when we see the souls of deceased martyrs, reigning with Christ, still crying out "How long Sovereign Lord until you avenge our blood?" (Rev. 6:10) Christian, have you been influenced more by the Biblical notion of resurrection or by Platonic thought?

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