Heaven is Changing

16 04 2012

A friend of mine said, on the morning of Easter Sunday, as he was riding the subway to church, he observed many people in their Sunday best, making eye contact with one another and giving each other the verbal acknowledgement and affirmation of “Mmhmm”. It was a rather endearing account of friendliness in the urban context. But it makes you wonder, sure, among the many of the church-goers on Easter were regulars. But also many of the churches in America gear up for an influx of attendants that one Sunday of the year, and often see it as a very good evangelistic opportunity for the non-regulars. It seems that even to the remotely spiritual, heaven is of some importance when reminded by the calendar. And such is corroborated by the statistic from the Gallup that 85% of Americans still believe in a heaven.

This raises an interesting question: What kind of a heaven do we believe in? The recent cover story in Time Magazine by Jon Meacham titled, “Heaven Can’t Wait” (here’s his blog post for those who can’t see the whole article), tries to illuminate the recent shift in the answer to that question. The traditional view of heaven with pearly gates, golden streets, halos, wings and singing with harps is being challenged by the rethinking of scholars such as NT Wright, and Wright explains:

When 1st century Jews spoke about eternal life, they weren’t thinking of going to heaven in the way we normally imagine it…. Eternal life meant the age to come, the time when God would bring heaven and earth together, the time when God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done on earth as in heaven.

And others in a similar camp, like Christopher Morse, take it a bit further, as Meacham explains:

This point of view is one in which the alleviation of the evident pain and injustice of the world is the ongoing work that Jesus began and the means of bringing into being what the New Testament authors meant when they spoke of heaven. The earth is not a temporary place that will disappear on the last day, and heaven means “God’s space.” And so with all respect to the views of believers like Stanley, the Wright school holds that one should neither need nor want a ticket out of the created order into an ethereal realm. One should instead be hard at work making the world godly and just.

This change of perspective on what heaven is, is more important than it may seem at first glance. The common critique of Christians being ‘too heavenly minded for any earthly good’ stems in part from the view of heaven as an escape from earth and that salvation is merely a ticket to that location. For a generation of rising humanitarians, this ‘new’ view of heaven is foundational for any acts of justice and mercy in which they engage. Without it, there is no reason to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.

There is a danger though. If heaven, at the end of time, will be brought to earth, it does mean that being heavenly minded is to be concerned for earthly good as they will be one and the same in the future. But the question remains, and this is the danger, what do our work and acts of justice and godliness amount to? To believe that any contribution we make now quantifiably adds to the final ‘heaven and earth’ is to say that what Jesus did on the cross was somehow not enough, that it was somehow insufficient to redeem. And that is more than an uncomfortable road to start treading on. So then, we come back to the question: How does our acts of justice and godliness matter?

I am unsure I know what the answer is, but I think this rethinking of heaven is a good one. Of course, this rethinking itself needs rethinking, but for those who see the irrelevance of the traditional view to modernized culture, the tepid nature of evangelical force in individualized Christianity, and the warrant it can give to why we should even be humanitarian, this may be worth giving some thought. Because I, for one, would like to believe that there is grass, soccer, and even competition in what we like to call heaven. That, aside from wanting the Giver and not the gift, that the world the Giver creates is one that gives us hope.


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7 responses

19 04 2012
donaldkim

Heaven is more frequently being imagined out of convenience — especially as one’s own subjective reasoning becomes the ultimate arbiter of its worldview. Thanks for posting.

19 04 2012
Paul P

That’s very true. I have to catch myself a lot of times to squeeze my agenda to shape what I want heaven to be. Do you think scholars do what you are mentioning? or just lay people?

23 04 2012
j0siah

>>>”To believe that any contribution we make now quantifiably adds to the final ‘heaven and earth’ is to say that what Jesus did on the cross was somehow not enough, that it was somehow insufficient to redeem.”

I’m inclined to disagree with the foregoing as it seems to confuse several points. To clarify: salvation is by grace through faith, but if ‘works’ are absent, one (such as James) may question whether there was genuine salvation in the first place; that is, works follow from faith; no works implies no faith (Romans 2:6-8). Specifically, said grace is that Jesus died upon the cross for undeserving sinners.

Now, partnering with the Lord to bring about His will, “On earth as it is in heaven,” does not imply that Christ’s death and resurrection were in any way inadequate. When we turn from sin and practice righteousness as the outworking of our faith, we reveal the redemptive action that Christ is achieving through us by the power of His Holy Spirit. At the cross, Christ fully paid our debts, he fully redeemed us. We have been blessed so that we can bless; we have been redeemed so that we can partner with God to redeem (not to be confused with paying the price of someones sins). We are Christ’s ambassadors in the world and He works through us.

So, in your terms, the contribution that we quantifiably make is that we are unworthy servants merely doing our duty (Luke 17:10). ‘Redemption’ is something that the Lord achieves inspite of our best efforts. Nevertheless, we are called to participate in the redemptive work that the Lord is doing, as we are able.

[This is a rather long-winded reply but as we’ve never met I wanted to try to avoid miscommunication.]

Blessings in Christ from the antipodes

23 04 2012
Paul P

Thanks j0siah for the comment! I completely agree with you on your point that salvation is by grace through faith, and I am in agreement with the book of James concerning death and live faith, and agree with Luther when he said “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”

But as much as I agree with you, I think it is good to step back from our commitments (good ones) and think of how things fit in and are consistent and if there are difficulties, that to acknowledge that there are things that do not fit (I don’t want to call them inconsistencies because of the connotation), instead of just assuming that they ‘work’ logically.

So I wonder about your comment: “So, in your terms, the contribution that we quantifiably make is that we are unworthy servants merely doing our duty”. I think this is a qualitative ‘contribution’ and not a quantitative one. Which leads us to the topic I wanted to address in the original post about heaven. That our view of heaven is directly tied to our participation with redemption. But again the question is unanswered: HOW (quantitatively not qualitatively) does ‘participation’ contribute to redemption, if what you say is true, that is: “‘Redemption’ is something that the Lord achieves inspite of our best efforts” then why participate at all? Especially if the Lord achieves ‘INSPITE’ our efforts? Possibly is it more accurate to say ‘because of our efforts’? But even then, I think it is just honest to admit that there is a logical difficulty (at least in the quantitative perspective) in how we see our work matter in view of the final consummation.

24 04 2012
j0siah

Simply put, the Lord is working through us to achieve His will, “On earth as it is in heaven.”

If you’re a reader, this book is a good one, its at the top of my to read pile: http://www.amazon.com/The-Mission-God-Unlocking-Narrative/dp/0830825711/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1335325673&sr=8-2

26 04 2012
Joe F Kim

I think that if we understand heaven as a spacial metonym, (i.e., a metaphor that uses a spacial referent in order to point to a larger reality) then we are not only being saved into a place (see…I’m still orthodox!), but more importantly we are being saved into a new reality of who we are, what the world is supposed to be and what our raison d’etre within that world is.

This approach is not new as per NT Wright. But the great revivals (i’m not ragging on revivals, I promise), along with the battle against 20th cent liberalism, flattened out the nuance for the sake of simplicity. We sacrificed theological richness because at the time we thought unity across denominations was more important than theological debates that might have threatened our coalition.

and to address your last question, while I myself want to place all true and permanent redemption and restoration in the cross and resurrection, what about Col 1:24? What lack is there in Christ’s affliction? and could this open the door to our works as per Eph 2:10 as being something that God uses to build a real heaven on earth?

26 04 2012
Paul P

Thanks Joe, the metonym idea is interesting, I’m still not familiar with the term. And I think NT Wright is trying to reverse the effects of the fundamentalist view of heaven (I forget, did fundamentalism stem from the revivals??)

And yes, I agree that Col 1:24 is a great place to start for this discussion, but unfortunately, exegesis is not my forte, so I’ll have to read upon it more before further comment. I invite you, though, to further thoughts or maybe a blog post!

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