Recently, I listened to an elderly woman from our church share a story about her grandson. Her grandson, for whatever reason, was talking with his mom about what would happen to him after he dies. His mom told him he would go to heaven to be with Jesus. The boy asked if Jesus would bring him back to life to which his mom replied, “No, once your dead you can’t come back to life. You will be in heaven with Jesus.” The boy thought about it for moment and said, “I think Jesus will bring me back to life because he came back to life.”
I don’t know that kid, but he might be a theologian.
One of the most rampant myths I have encountered in Western Christianity is the idea that our future hope is some sort of ethereal, disembodied existence somewhere “up there” in heaven. I remember visiting a gentle, elderly saint in a long term care facility who asked, “I wonder if we will recognize our loved ones in heaven? How will we recognize one another’s spirits?” This is not verbatim what she said, but the essence of her question was related to this idea of a disembodied, spiritual existence in heaven.
The idea that God is going to destroy the physical world as we know it goes hand in hand with this “somewhere up there” idea of heaven. I have heard believers disregard creation care and stewardship of the earth because God is going to destroy this world one day. People often talk about those who have passed on as if they are now experiencing the fullness of our Christian hope.
While, these ideas can appeal to certain proof texts from Scripture, they are theologically and biblically…wrong. In fact, the idea that the material world is bad and the spiritual world is good, and our spirits need liberated from this physical world is called Gnosticism.
My undergrad theology professor taught us that a disembodied existence is not full redemption because we are embodied souls. The fullness of redemption is the resurrection of our bodies. The Scriptures teach that God created the material world and declared all that He had made very good (Genesis 1:31). The Scriptures are also clear that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead (John 20:27-29; 1 Cor. 15:12-20). And, Paul most clearly articulates God’s redemptive plan for the entire creation in Romans 8:18-25:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
The last scene we have in Revelation is of a new heaven and a new earth with a new Jerusalem coming down to earth so that God’s dwelling will be with man (21:1-4). While Western Christianity often obsesses about getting out of here and going to heaven, the Scriptures are actually focused on uniting heaven (God’s space) with here (our space).
Our final, future hope is not a disembodied existence somewhere up in the clouds playing harps with creepy winged baby angels. The Christian hope is about resurrection. Our bodies will be raised to new life in the same way Jesus was raised. Our glorified bodies will not be much unlike His. John Piper in his book Future Grace states it well:
Not the mere immortality of the soul, but rather the resurrection of the body and the renewal of all creation is the hope of the Christian faith. Just as our bodies will be raised imperishable for the glory of God, so the earth itself will be made new and fit for the habitation of risen and glorified persons…What happens to our bodies and what happens to the creation go together. And what happens to our bodies is not annihilation, but redemption.
God intends to redeem all that sin and brokenness has infected, not just part of it.
The Earth Will Soon Dissolve Like Snow… Wait, What?
What about the 2 Peter passage about the earth and heavens being dissolved and burned up? First, a lot times when Scripture talks about the “world” it has to do with the way of the fallen world not the physical world God created. The ways of securing power, pursuing pleasure, and exalting the self will pass away. They have no place in a realm where perfect, others-oriented love reigns. Second, the creation will be made new and the old will pass away. This does not mean vanish from existence. Think about the way a forest fire destroys everything that was while at the same time cleansing and resetting the ecosystem for new vegetation. It’s like that.
Why It Matters
Our thinking rightly about our future hope matters for a couple of reasons. First, we don’t have to feel guilty or wrong about loving aspects of this world. God created it good and He created it for us. We are designed to celebrate and appreciate food, beauty, nature, music, art, and relationships with other people. Our celebration of these things was meant to point us to the Creator. We often worship the gifts rather than the giver. The problem is where we direct our worship, not the nature of the gifts. It is good and right to appreciate parts of God’s creation that still reflect a time before the Fall.
Second, I think the view that God intends to snatch us away to some other worldly existence renders us ineffective in His reconciling efforts now. If you believe God is going to evacuate you from this world, why would you care about the environment (never mind God’s command to exercise dominion and care over creation in Genesis 2)? If God is concerned with getting us away from this world, why would we ever missionally engage the darkness around us? If God is not working out an evacuation plan, but a reclamation plan then that changes things. We are called to participate with Him in reclaiming what the darkness has stolen, and our efforts of reclamation have eternal value.
I will close with a quote from my favorite Theologian and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright:
“The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.” (Surprised by Hope)
(NOTE: This is part 1 in a Series: Sunday School Myths)