27 August 2015

Heaven isn’t a Place on Earth

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I’ve just returned from Positively Presbyterian 2015 where, rumour has it, I was speaking on Heaven. Allow me to disagree! I was actually speaking on ‘Fighting for the Future’, because there’s a battle needed in the Church to recover a biblical theology of the future. One of my main points was that I had little to say about ‘heaven’ compared to my important subject, the new earth of God’s Kingdom. I’m not going to go over everything I spoke about (nor give the plethora of supporting references), but here’s an attempt to clarify a few things:

HEAVEN: In the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, heaven is always a place ‘up there’. That’s why in both Hebrew (שמים, shamayim) and Greek (ουρανος, ouranos), the word for heaven is also the word for sky. I’ll repeat for clarity: ‘heaven’ in the Bible is a place ‘up there’, defined in opposition to ‘earth’, which is ‘down here’. So, the phrase ‘heaven and earth’ is just a way of referring to all of creation, shorthand for ‘the cosmos’ (it’s something called a merism). Heaven ‘up there’ is also conceived as the dwelling place of God, located above the earth, above the stars. What defines heaven as heaven is not only that God dwells there, but more fundamentally that it’s ‘up there’. Of course, with our modern cosmological knowledge, we are forced to modify this conception. We have to stop imagining and speaking about heaven as ‘up there’. It’s probably better to envisage another dimension of reality. However, the idea that ‘heaven’ is not ‘earth’ remains fundamentally important.

GOING TO HEAVEN: In the Bible we find very few solid data about what heaven is like. That ought not to surprise us. According to the Bible, heaven is not where we as human beings belong. Heaven is the dwelling place of God. Human beings belong on earth. That’s the fundamental theology of Genesis 1 and 2. Psalm 115:16 puts it succinctly. Nevertheless, the New Testament indicates that the souls of the righteous reside in heaven with the Lord between their death and resurrection. Again, there are very few data on how souls experience heaven. Without a body, how are experiences mediated to our ‘consciousness’ (especially since human consciousness seems to be a function of the brain)? We don’t know. Our experience of heaven certainly won’t be identical to our experience of life. There’ll be no ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ as we understand them. However, we don’t need to worry about it: Paul doesn’t (2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23). Instead, our entire hope is to be fixed on the day of the resurrection of God’s people. At the return of  Jesus the Messiah the righteous will be raised to dwell again on earth, an earth renewed (Rom 8:11,18-25). Let me repeat: however much we wish (like Paul) to be released from the sufferings of this life, we do not (as Paul says) want to be ‘unclothed’ (2 Cor 5:3-4). We shouldn’t want to be without a body, to be dead. Our hope is rather to be focussed on the return of Christ (1 Pet 1:13), when death will be defeated (it’s not defeated until then, 1 Cor 15:26,54) and we will live again. The Bible does not teach that the goal of our salvation is to be in heaven.

GLORY: The New Testament never speaks of human beings being glorified in heaven. Paul is clear: our being glorified occurs at the resurrection. The Westminster Confession uses ‘glory’ as a cipher for heaven (WCF32.1). This isn’t ideal: God’s glory in the Old Testament is fundamentally linked to the earth as well as to heaven. Nevertheless, we might refer to the deceased as having gone to glory, if by that we mean gone to the place where God is envisaged as ‘dwelling’. But we ought not to talk about the deceased as being ‘glorified’. That directly contradicts both Rom 8:21 and Heb 11:39-40. Human beings cannot be glorified without a body; Psalm 8 (which is important to Paul) shows us that human glory is understood in terms of our discharging the threefold function of the Image of God (relating to our Creator, to one another, and to the rest of created life) in a God-like and righteous manner. That’s why Paul has so much language about Image (Rom 8:29; Col 3:10). As we bear the Image of Christ, we find our humanity as the Image of God fully restored. For Paul, that’s glory (2 Cor 3:18). Without a body, and being present on earth, glorification can’t happen. Glory, and human glorification, happens on earth. That’s how Habakkuk saw it anyway (Hab 2:14; Cf. Num 14:21).

EARTH: In the Bible, earth is where human beings belong. It’s our home. The entire hope of the Bible is that the creation will be redeemed, rescued, cleansed. Our great hope is not heaven. Our great hope is a new earth by God’s redemptive power in Jesus the Messiah. Resurrection will bring us back to the earth to live not as disembodied souls, but as fully human, as the Image of God. In one of Paul’s most important insights, this world (the world in which Abraham lived) is our inheritance (Rom 4:13). Mind you, in saying that, Paul’s simply affirming Jesus’s own words (Matt 5:5; 6:10 Cf. Ps 37:29,34). Going back to where I began, talking about the new earth as ‘heaven’ is not only confusing, it doesn’t reflect the biblical language. Also confusing, and unhelpful, is talking about the new earth as if it was a magical fluffy kingdom of fantasy dreams. Will we be flying, walking on the sea, running up waterfalls? Talking to fluffy pink unicorns? No! It is this world, redeemed. All of the language in the Bible points to this creation being set free from what has spoiled it. Our imaginings of the new earth, which often are quite fanciful, ought really to be rooted in what we experience of God’s good gifts now. If we’re going to imagine, let us begin by imagining this world (and a humanity) set free from war, from injustice, from abuse, from hunger, from poverty, from illness, from sin in all its forms. Let us imagine a world like that, where the People of God will dwell together, enjoying God’s gifts to us. That kind of imagining brings us missional energy today! And let us imagine that world as a place where our communion with God is perfect, and where we will meet Jesus face to face. In that world we will eat and drink with him in the Kingdom of God. That world is this world, redeemed. Which is why we find we have the ‘now’ as well as the ‘not yet’. It’s why we are Living Between Two Worlds.

So, to recap: Christianity is definitively not about us ‘Going Up There’ to be with God. It’s about ‘God Coming Down Here’ to be with us. To correct the well-known hymn (‘It is Well’, which is one of many that send us off in the wrong direction): the earth, not the sky, is our goal.

Belinda Carlisle was wrong. Heaven is not a place on earth.