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Theologizing the End: Frameworks

Before I dive more deeply into some interpretive issues with some End Times theological perspectives, I feel there are some other paradigmatic frameworks that need to be established. Specifically, in regards to how we view the relationship between heaven and earth, and how we view the Gospel of the Kingdom. We will only be able to cover “Heaven and Earth” in this post.

Heaven and Earth

Many Christians have views about heaven and earth that have more of a Greek, pagan philosophical influence than a Jewish, biblical influence. Specifically, many people’s views reflect more of a pseudo-Christian, Platonic Dualism than a truly biblical theological perspective.

Some people view heaven as literally some place up in the sky blue, thousands of miles away. While others view heaven as existing in the spiritual realm with no connection or interest in the physical realm. The latter view is a more correct view of heaven in the sense of it being a place in a different realm. Heaven is God’s space, dimension, or realm. Earth is our space, dimension, or realm.

The problem with the latter view is the dualistic view of the physical and spiritual. Many people seem to believe that the body (flesh, physical, earth) are bad, while the spiritual parts of us are good. The goal of the Christian hope is to “save our souls.” The earth will be destroyed and those in Christ will be snatched away to spend eternity as disembodied souls in some other-worldly place called “heaven.”

What’s wrong with this view you might ask? It gets the whole trajectory of the biblical view of heaven and earth wrong as well as the whole trajectory of our Christian hope. It sounds accurate because the bible speaks of the flesh in negative ways and there are passages that speak about the earth being destroyed.

I don’t have time to exegetically address these specific passages at length, but the reference to the flesh is not a condemnation of our physical bodies. The linchpin of our faith is our hope, faith and confidence in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. God became human (the incarnation) and in doing so redeemed our humanity. Jesus still has a physical, albeit glorified, body. When Paul speaks about the flesh he is speaking about the carnality of our fleshly driven desires.

Similarly, God’s plan for his created world is to restore it. When the bible speaks of the world being destroyed there are two things we must keep in mind: 1.) Often times the reference to the “world” is referring to the way of the world as opposed to the way of the Kingdom. In other words, the old way of exerting power and the old way of exulting our selfishness will pass away for it will not be welcome in the renewed Creation. 2.) Even if the cosmos will literally be destroyed, like Christ’s death, the end goal is resurrection.

Just in case you are having a hard time buying into what I am describing let me concisely lay out the biblical trajectory of Creation:

  1. God created the cosmos and said that it was good (Genesis 1:31).

  2. “Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7). The KJV translates “living person” as “living soul,” seeming to affirm the divide between the body and soul. Other translations translate it as “living person” because the idea of the Hebrew word being translated (nephesh) is the idea of a whole person. We are embodied souls. The dualistic distinction between the body and soul is not as prevalent in the Hebrew mind as it was the Greek mind.

  3. The biblical view is that heaven and earth were meant to overlap and interact. Sin and rebellion created a divide between heaven and earth. The OT emphasis on holy and unholy, clean and unclean was intended to teach the Israelites how to enter into a relationship that joined God’s realm to our realm. This happened symbolically and truly in the Temple (my wedding ring is a symbol, but not merely a symbol—it symbolically and truly represents a one flesh relationship)

  4. Jesus became flesh and made his dwelling among us(John 1:14). The incarnation represents the joining of God’s divine nature with human nature. Which also reveals God’s trajectory of redemption. We are heading towards a marriage of heaven and earth.

  5. Jesus was bodily raised from the dead (John 20:27-29; 1 Cor. 15:12-20).

  6. Paul articulates most clearly that God’s intention for His “good” creation is to redeem it in Romans 8:18-25:

  7. 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 corruptionand 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.

  8. The final picture in Revelation is of Heaven and Earth being joined together (Revelation 21:1-4). The one flesh picture of marriage is a good metaphor. Some have noted that the Scriptures begin in a garden and end in a city. Anyhow, the trajectory is towards new creation not just an other worldly home in the skies.

In addition to an extremely brief overview of Scripture’s view on the created order, here are a few other theological voices to weigh in on the matter:

Dr. Tim Mackie states it like this:

So, in the bible the ideas of Heaven and Earth are ways of talking about God’s space and our space… And what we do get in the bible are images, trying to help us grasp God’s space, which is basically inconceivable to us. …in the Bible these are not always separate spaces. So think of Heaven and Earth as different dimensions that can overlap in the same exact space. …the union of Heaven and Earth is what the story of the Bible is all about, how they were once fully united, and then driven apart, and about how God is bringing them back together again.[1]

John Piper writes about our future hope in Future Grace:

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.

Finally, N. T. Wright spells out in Surprised by Hope:

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.

Why is this important? If our ideas of the “End Times” focus on our “souls” being snatched away while the earth goes to pot, then maybe those ideas are missing something. If we can dismiss one of God’s first commands (to subdue the earth and exercise the sort of dominion over it that reflects His loving character by caring for and stewarding creation, aka caring about the environment), then our eschatology misses part of what God is up to in restoring creation. Our “End Times” views should in no way create in us a justification for resigning from participating in God’s restoration project.

N. T. Wright sums up my concern about some of the theological positions when he writes,

The mindset that tends towards apocalypticism normally thinks of the heavenly realm, or the spiritual realm, or simply the non-physical realm, as always good, and the earthly, material, physical world as always bad. Hence the readiness to imagine the present physical world being blown apart in some great Armageddon, and the sublime confidence that “we” – whichever group that might be – will be rescued from the ruin in a “heavenly” salvation that has left earth far behind…. …How can we respond to the heavenly dimension of the world without lapsing into an anti-earth attitude? [2]

Whatever the “end” will look like and in whatever ways it unfolds, it will most certainly and ultimately involve the renewal of creation and the resurrection of our bodies.

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