Describing the Holy City is one way in which the biblical writers portray what we commonly refer to as “heaven” or “the afterlife.” My own impression is that we are meant to make this portrayal central to our understanding of the heavenly condition. And, indeed, Christians of various persuasions have made the imagery of the Holy City prominent in their pieties. During my own spiritual upbringing I was exposed to the hymns and songs of several varieties of Protestantism. In the Dutch Calvinist “Christian school” that I attended for several years, we regularly sang about the “City four-square” that stood in “the land of fadeless day.” In fundamentalist youth groups I was taught to express the conviction that “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop, in that fair land where we’ll never grow old.” And at more “ecumenical” gathers I heard Christians pray:
Give us, O God, the strength to build
The City that hath stood
Too long a dream, whose laws are love,
Whose ways are brotherhood.
In my childhood, then, imagery of the Holy City figured prominently in our language about the future. But if you were to have asked me during those times to describe what heaven would be like- “really” like- I suspect I would not have used this imagery in my response. I would have been much more inclined to talk about a “spiritual” realm to which a bodiless soul goes in order to be with God. And I suspect that what was true of me then is still the case for many Christians today.
There is, I think, a plausible explanation for the ways in which Christians go back and forth between these two different ways of understanding the heavenly state. In the New Testament scheme there are at least two stages of the afterlife that must be taken into account. One is the condition of those believers hwo have died before the end of history. Where, we might ask, are our departed loved ones now? The Bible doesn’t give a detailed account of their present condition. But it does assure us that when Christians are “away from the body” they are “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), because death cannot separate a believer from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39).
But this condition is only an “interim” or an “intermediate state” in which believers who have died are waiting for something further to happen. It is, in short, a condition of “waiting for the Resurrection.” Christian’s bodiless presence with the Lord is not the final state of blessedness. Our ultimate goal is to be raised up for new life, a resurrected life in which we realize our true destinies as followers of Jesus Christ. And it is with regard to this condition, our ultimate goal, that the biblical imagery of the Holy City must be viewed as central.
The Christian life is directed toward a City, a place in which God’s redemptive purposes for his creation will be realized. If we think of the future life as a disembodied existence in an ethereal realm- which is not, I have suggested, our ultimate goal- then it is difficult to think of our present cultural affairs as in any sense a positive preparation for heavenly existence. But if we think of the future life in terms of inhabiting a Heavenly City, we have grounds for looking for some patterns of continuity between our present lives as people immersed in cultural contexts and the life to come. The Bible, I think, encourages us to think in these terms. When the Kings Come Marching In, pp. 17-19
Mouw's words here reminded me a lot of my readings through N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope (see my earlier blogpost, Have We Gotten Heaven Wrong?)