But the most important thing to say at the end of this discussion, and of this section of the book, is that heaven and hell are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about. This is one of the central surprises in the Christian hope. The whole point of my argument so far is that the question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context- not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture but also in the sense that part of the whole point of being saved in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being “fellow workers with God”) within that larger picture and purpose. And that in turn makes us realize that the question of our own destiny, in terms of the alternatives of joy or woe, is probably the wrong way of looking at the whole question. The question ought to be, How will God’s new creation come? And then, How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in his new world? The choice before humans would then be framed differently: are you going to worship the creator God and discover thereby what it means to become fully and gloriously human, reflecting his powerful, healing, transformative love into the world? Or are you going to worship the world as it is, boosting your corruptible humanness by gaining power or pleasure from forces within the world but merely contributing thereby to your own dehumanization and the further corruption of the world itself?
This reflection leads to a further, and sobering, thought. If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question- to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world- may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. If we could reread Romans and Revelation- and the rest of the New Testament, of course- in the light of this reframing of the question, I think we would find much food for thought. Surprised by Hope, pp. 184-85
If we take the question off of the ultimate destiny of the individual, instead focus more intentionally on how we as a people, God's people, can serve God's greater purpose of renewing the heavens and the earth and thereby bring God glory, then perhaps we fall more in line with the Biblical vision of our purpose on earth.