Archives For Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven

The Case for Hell

Jason Micheli —  January 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

The-Sopranos-Season-1-Bios-Tony-3I’ve confessed here before that I have what my wife calls ‘man crushes.’ Russell Crowe, Cormac McCarthy, Jim James (from My Morning Jacket) and also Ross Douthat, the author of Bad Religion and a writer for the NY Times.

This is an old article and a shortened version of a piece he did for First Things longer ago. It’s a cogent summary of both the (often) sloppy thinking of the Universalists, who disbelieve in ultimate judgement without first taking a sober account of human sin and a sound statement of the traditional view of the doctrine of Hell.

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Douthat_New-articleInline-v2Here’s a revealing snapshot of religion in America. On Easter Sunday, two of the top three books on Amazon.com’s Religion and Spirituality best-seller list mapped the geography of the afterlife. One was “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” an account of a 4-year-old’s near-death experience as dictated to his pastor father. The other was “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” in which the evangelical preacher Rob Bell argues that hell might not exist.

The publishing industry knows its audience. Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer. But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated. Near-death stories are reliable sellers: There’s another book about a child’s return from paradise, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just a little further down the Amazon rankings. But you’ll search the best-seller list in vain for “The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”

In part, hell’s weakening grip on the religious imagination is a consequence of growing pluralism. Bell’s book begins with a provocative question: Are Christians required to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being Hindu? The mahatma is a distinctive case, but swap in “my Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist neighbor” for Gandhi, and you can see why many religious Americans find the idea of eternal punishment for wrong belief increasingly unpalatable.

But the more important factor in hell’s eclipse, perhaps, is a peculiar paradox of modernity. As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well. The argument that a good deity couldn’t have made a world so rife with cruelty is a staple of atheist polemic, and every natural disaster inspires a round of soul-searching over how to reconcile God’s omnipotence with human anguish.

These debates ensure that earthly infernos get all the press. Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary “hellmouths” (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet. And if it’s hard for the modern mind to understand why a good God would allow such misery on a temporal scale, imagining one who allows eternal suffering seems not only offensive but absurd.

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

You can view the article here.

 

Here’s an audio podcast with some reflection and questions on the Doctrine of Hell, our topic this weekend for the Razing Hell sermon series. You’ll also find another podcast on heaven ‘Thinking about Heaven’ there.

Both are available to download in the iTunes Library under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Rev19CLambIf the biblical teaching of eternal life is physical resurrection of the body into God’s new creation, then what do you say about cremation and organ donation?

I get this question often.

First, it’s important for Christians to keep in mind that this is a question the first Christians- or Jews for that matter- would’ve also asked.

Second, it’s important for Christians to realize the first Christians- and Jews- were well aware (perhaps much more so than contemporary people who can push death off into hospital wards and nursing homes) of what happens to material bodies when they die.

Third, it’s important for Christians- and Jews- to remember that Resurrection flew in the face of what every worldview and religion in the ancient world presumed.

And yet, Resurrection was the fundamental Christian proclamation.

Now, to the question.

There’s a story, which may be just a story, of a pagan asking an early Church Father (Origen, I think): ‘What if a Christian is eaten by a cannibal? In the resurrection, whose body would be raised? The eaten or the eator?’ It’s best not to think too hard or impose our categories of what’s possible on resurrection was the reply.

And that’s usually how I respond. It’s certainly not good news that if someone’s body is lost or ruined then they can’t participate in the resurrection. Just as its best not to think too woodenly about the continuity of my earthly body and my resurrected body. The stress is on the material nature of eternal life; scripture isn’t implying that if you’re bald now you will be eternally.

And I’m an organ donor myself.

But here’s my BUT.

I don’t like cremation. Not because I think the God who made heaven and earth and raised Jesus from the dead can’t somehow restore a cremated person to full resurrected life in the new creation.

I don’t like cremation for aesthetic reasons. In the same way, I don’t like it when communion is served with eenie weenie pieces of bread and little plastic individual cups. It’s supposed to be a feast. The liturgy uses feast language because that’s what God’s Kingdom is like. Eenie weenie pieces of bread point to something else.

I don’t like cremation because the language of our faith (and the funeral liturgy) points to bodily resurrection, and the popularity of cremation goes hand in hand I suspect with modern Western Christians no longer making resurrection the central claim of their faith.

We in the West forget that cremation is still very much forbidden and/or looked down upon among Orthodox Christians, Jews and African American Christians- groups that haven’t lost the importance of incarnation and the body in scripture.

 

NT Wright reflects on that very question…

This week for our sermon series, Razing Hell, we’ve been deconstructing the popular misconception of our souls going off to heaven when we die and reclaiming the biblical hope of eternal life being marked by resurrection and new creation.

In response, someone asked me:

Rev19CLambWhat difference does it really make in this world and life whether I believe in one or the other? Does it make any difference what I believe will happen after I die? Isn’t really just about what brings someone comfort?

Here are my thoughts in response:

I spent the week before Christmas in a small mountain village in Guatemala with twenty other adults and students from my church. It was our fourth time in that region. We were building a ‘center,’ a building that can be used to teach health clinics and other workshops and also to lodge future service teams like ours.

It’s easy sometimes spending the week before Christmas in an impoverished place to be struck by a sense of hopelessness. It can be difficult to see how a voiceless people, a people whose own government has a long history of trying to ‘pacify’ and assimilate, have any real hope of freeing themselves from victimhood. Seen in such a light, it also can seem a weak and ultimately meaningless gesture to be doing a building project for such people. Why bother if it doesn’t remedy their pressing and urgent situation?

That’s just an isolated example of a despair that could creep over any Christian for any act of mercy we do in the world.

Understood only in terms of cold realism, all the soup kitchens, malarial nets, wood stoves and rice banks in the world won’t undo poverty. 

Individual congregations praying for peace on Sunday mornings won’t eliminate violence and war. Christians witnessing to racial reconciliation won’t erase the stain of racism in our country, and to think otherwise is to fall victim to naive utopianism

But neither cold realism nor naive utopianism is Christian hope in Resurrection and New Creation.

What I realized once again in Guatemala this December: we weren’t there working with block and mortar because we thought we were going to permanently solve a social ill. We were not building for poor, persecuted Mayans because we had foolish illusions about what the immediate future might hold for the indigenous villages. The stakes are high for those people and, seen only from a finite point of view, our acts of service might prove meaningless gestures.

But we weren’t there to be realistic.

And we weren’t there to be idealistic.

We were there doing what we were doing because what we were doing was in harmony with what God will do in the End. 

Christian service isn’t an idealistic stab at trying to make the world come out right.

Rather, Christian service is anchored in the faith that God alone makes the world come out right. No matter how things look on the ground in the ‘real’ world, one day God will get the world God wants and that world is one where the hungry are filled, the mourning stop their crying and the poor are lifted up.

Far too many Christians, by adopting a spiritualized notion of our souls going off to heaven when we die, take a laissez faire attitude to this world. Overly spiritualized notions of eternal life too often underwrite a politics that couldn’t have less to do with the God of scripture. 

But if the End isn’t our souls going off one day to a disembodied heaven and casting this world into the rubbish bin, if the End, as it’s seen in Revelation 21-22, is this creation renewed then everything we do today in this world as Christians we do, as Paul says, in anticipation of that End. We work, as Paul says, as ambassadors of the Christ who will come again when Heaven comes down. This is truly what it means for us to have our citizenship in heaven: to live in this world in such a way that things on earth are as they are in heaven and will one day be finally in the New Earth.

Christian service isn’t a solution to the present problems of the world. Christian service is a sign, a gesture, of what we believe God will do.

If the future is one where God comforts and lifts up indigenous Mayans then we anticipate that future with our actions in the present- no matter how ineffective or meaningless other might judge them.

Christian service isn’t our attempt to fashion a world we think God wants from us nor does it idealistically put band-aids over top systemic issues. And it certainly isn’t deeds we do in the vain hope they’ll earn us gold stars from God so one day we’ll be able to walk the streets of gold in heaven.

 No, Christian service, by being rooted in our hope of the End, is done with the confidence that it’s action done with the grain of the universe. 

 

closeencountersThis weekend for our sermon series, Razing Hell, I unpacked both the cultural/cliched/pagan understanding of heaven (our souls going off to an eternal home in heaven when we die) and the scriptural understanding of heaven as resurrection and new creation. You can read the sermon here.

As expected, the sermon generated questions, which was the goal. We didn’t give the series the subtitle ‘Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard…’ for no reason.

Here my quick emailed replies to the questions sent to me by a church member and dear friend.

Hi —————————-,

Thanks for your questions. I was actually thinking of you when I planned the sermon. I chose a different style of preaching because I wanted to try and be as clear as possible. Your questions are good ones and I’ll do my best with the ones I can answer. It really is difficult sifting out what Christianity has acquired from other sources over the last two centuries and what the first Christians believed and what the bible actually is trying to convey.

1. The Bible says that we will have new bodies in heaven. Why couldn’t the souls “go up” and enter the new bodies? I also know that the soul is really the Holy Spirit which if it was “active” would be very good in a new body. But also we will be changed in thought and body?

Okay, I’m trying to retrieve as much college physics as I can remember. Since we know from Einstein that time is relative, you could rightly say that the End (Revelation 21-22) is simultaneous to our present. That is, your husband- is now at once already resurrected in his new ‘imperishable’ self in God’s New Creation while from our perspective on the curvature of time it is still out there in the future. I hope that makes some sense?

2.What about the psychics that can tell you all about the people who have died in your family. They have been on T.V. and have been proven to be correct.

On the hand, I think most of the people are full of you know what. On the other hand, I would say that part of what the bible teaches is that heaven (God’s dimension, presence) isn’t up, up, up and away at all but, because of Christ’s work, it is nearer to us than we imagine. The language of the ‘veil’ is pretty close to what I think scripture teaches. So the dead who are resting in God are nearer to us than we can imagine too- as in the cloud of witnesses that Hebrews mentions.

3. What about the people who see “the light” and can be hovering over their own bodies in the near death experiences? 

I can’t really answer that except to echo what I told my boys in the sermon audio- that when we die, the spiritual part of us goes to rest in God while our bodies wait as Jesus did to be raised.

4. Also there was another character in the Bible who was seen being taken up into heaven. I can’t remember his name now. Jesus was taken up into heaven and I can see why he was because he had to be in heaven with God and his right side. But Jesus did everything that humans do except He was taken up into heaven. 

Elijah and Enoch.

4. I know that when you dig up a grave, you find a body or one of bones. I understood your sermon that God wants us to go on to perfection (if possible) and that at the end of the world God will come back and the people in the graves will be raised and there will be Heaven on earth. It sounds very logical but it lets me down to think that Paul is just laying in his grave and will be there until God comes back. Also what about Jesus saying “if it were not so, would I have told you” when he was asked about heaven and the mansions?

I would repeat what I said in your first question about time’s relativity. Or, as I explained it to my boys’ it’s like sleeping in a car and waking up.

I can understand its a different perspective and, in some ways, can be hard to accommodate into how you think of someone you love. I guess I would say the fault is on the Church for doing such a bad job of making the future resurrection incoherent. What I mean is- I think it’s important that someone like you know that the promise of scripture is that your future life with Paul will be like the one you had with him here only better. It will be tangible, material, carnal but mysterious, like something new and it won’t be limited by sin and death. What’s in store for you two, in other words, is so much better than just a couple of souls resting on clouds or any other of the popular images. The bible’s teaching of resurrection and new creation is meant to affirm that what God made in this world is very good and will be very good again and that includes everything about your life with your husband.

And Christians shouldn’t get hung up too literally about what happens to our bodies after we die and how resurrection will work. Christians have always known our bodies decay. That’s what Paul is getting at when he compares perishable vs imperishable bodies. If God can raise Jesus, defeat the power of sin, recreate the earth then resurrecting us into a new, mysterious but material existence shouldn’t be too hard for him.

I see your point but I think it actually solidifies hope rather than doing away with it. If God doesn’t remake his creation, if we’re not all raised and restored to an everlasting new earth then, in a very real sense, what God begins in Genesis and what God promises to Israel and to us in Christ never comes to fruition. God either fails or backs out of his commitment. History then is tragic. And if all that’s so, then we CAN’T rely that we’re okay with God or that God is okay with us.

The ‘house’ language Jesus uses in John 14 (mone in Greek) means ‘tent.’ Jesus is promising that we have a place in whatever awaits us after death but before our life after life after death.

5. Another thing that I thought was that the Jews didn’t believe in the resurrection so that is why all the things you were talking about were in there? 

No. And this is where it’s revealing how Jews and Christians actually have more in common than Christians do with the pagan notion of souls going off to heaven. What I mean is our disagreement with Jews isn’t as fundamental as our disagreement with spiritualized paganism.

The Pharisees (along with prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah etc) did look for a general resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees did not because they held only to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

When people say Jews don’t believe in heaven, that is and isn’t right. Jews believe in God’s new creation after the resurrection. They don’t believe in the pagan notion of heaven that everyone today believes. But they still believe in eternal life as the New Testament conceives it too. So when people say Jews don’t believe in heaven, it means they don’t believe in the heaven most Christians believe in…which Christians shouldn’t be believing in anyway.

The rub is that Christians believe God has begun the resurrection/New Creation in Jesus while the Pharisees et al didn’t believe or expect God to raise one person, the Messiah, prior to the End.

 

far-side-heavenAs I said in my sermon this weekend, what Christians mean by eternal life is our resurrected, restored life when Heaven comes down and God remakes his creation (Revelation 21-22). Eternal life, for Christians, is not simply an ethereal, spiritualized existence. Eternal life is material AND spiritual because what God made in Genesis 1-2 is very good and God, because God is a God who keeps his promises, is determined to set his creation right.

I think sometimes the cliched, spiritualized notion of our souls going off to heaven leaves people with the picture of a rather boring way to spend eternity. The biblical notion of heaven therefore is good news in that the End is a recovery of everything in our present lives that is good, joy-giving and beautiful.

Here’s a great short film from Mr Deity poking at the holes in the cliched take on heaven. It’s unfortunate however that what so many, including unbelieving critics, take to be the Christian understanding of heaven is not in fact Christian.

Sunday’s sermon for our  series Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Second Coming included two audio clips of me talking about last things with my two sons, Gabriel and Alexander who are 7 and 10. 

You can find those audio clips, here, are by clicking on the links as you get to them in the text below. They’re also in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

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Heaven: It’s Not Forever

Sermon on Isaiah 65, Revelation 21

When we first announced that we’d be doing our January sermon series on heaven and hell, I received a handful of emails from you, all asking roughly the same question:

‘How do I explain heaven to my kids?’ 

Evidently some of you see me as a model of child-rearing and maturity. Which just shows how little you know me.

Now, because I’m a pastor, many of you assume that I sit around with my family and, like, talk about God and read the bible every second of the day. But that’s not the case.

My boys do stare at their comic book bibles as if they were Playboys, but as a family we probably spend more time talking about The Lord of the Rings and making fart jokes.

My boys have attended funerals and burials and even prayed next to an open casket, but to my recollection I’ve never actually talked with my kids about heaven- not in any formal or deliberate way.

So this week, over dinner, I decided to talk to my kids about heaven:

– Audio Clip-

Is there an age when your-anus stops being funny?

I can see several of you nodding your heads so I guess so.

Not that I need to but, just for the record, my wife insisted I be clear about who’s responsible for the potty humor in my family.

It’s easy to laugh at how kids talk about heaven.

But let’s be honest.

And this is the part where I insult you to try and get your attention.

I’ve done enough funerals. I’ve sat with enough dying people- Christians and non. And I’ve counseled enough grieving families to know that virtually every one of you think about heaven and life after death just like my boys do.

And to be totally honest: in most cases your thinking isn’t much more sophisticated than my boys’ thinking.

If I asked you the same questions I asked my boys then, with few exceptions, you’d picture it this way:

There’s a God in Heaven above.

There’s the Earth below, which God has created along with each of us.

We live our mortal lives on the Earth, but, as the bluegrass song says, ‘This is world is not our home. We’re just passing through.’

And when we die, our soul- that eternal, immortal, spiritual part of us- leaves our material bodies and goes up to heaven to live eternally with God.

We fly away, as that other song says.

photo

And maybe you’d add a variation or two, like:

If you believe in God

Or if you believe in Jesus

Or if you’re a good person

Then your soul gets to go to heaven when you die.

But basically you picture it the same way my boys do.

And you assume that’s what the bible teaches.

You assume this is what the Church preaches.

You assume this is what Christians believe and always have; in fact, it’s what atheists think this is what Christians believe and always have.

But it’s not.

It’s NOT.

Just to make sure you heard me, I’ll say it again: It. Is. Not.

It’s actually what any Jew or Christian, until recently, would have called, without flinching, paganism.

Preachers like me can’t say that at a funeral. I’ve learned that the hard way. Deathbeds and gravesides are not the proper or pastoral place to deconstruct someone’s piety.

It only upsets them.

But, we’re not at a funeral today.

So I’ll just say it: there is nothing in scripture about our souls going up to an eternal home in heaven after we die.

Christians only started talking this way a couple hundred years ago, starting in the Enlightenment when people started disavowing the Resurrection and after the Civil War when this world did seem to be a wicked place that should be abandoned.

The reason so many of our hymns get scripture exactly wrong on this point is that they come out of that very time period.

What we take for granted about heaven and life after death- you won’t find that way of thinking anywhere on the lips of Jesus.

You won’t find it in the words of Paul.

And you do not find it in the vision given to Isaiah.

Or to St John at the very end of scripture.

What we take for granted as biblical, Christian teaching is actually a mishmash of pagan superstition that’s been superimposed on scripture to the point where we no longer notice what scripture repeatedly and unambiguously teaches.

Now that I’ve kicked over all your mental furniture: what is the ancient, biblical understanding of heaven and the life to come?

If this (our souls going to heaven when we die) isn’t what scripture teaches, then what is?

What do we tell our kids about heaven?

I tried with my boys this week. You can have a listen.

-Play Clip- 

When you turn to the very first page of scripture, you read that in the beginning God created Heaven and Earth.

Both of them.

A better way to think about that is in the beginning God created the Spiritual and the Material. They’re both part of God’s creative design and NOT to be distinct from one another or in contradiction to each other.

What God intends in the very beginning is this unity, this overlap, this marriage of the heavenly and the earthly.

And this marriage- and that’s an important word- of the spiritual and the material is present in the humanity God creates too.

Genesis 2 says God created adam, which is Hebrew for the Man, from the adamah, which is Hebrew for earth.

Then after God pulls up the adam from the adamah, God breathes into adam his ‘ruach’ his Holy Spirit.

So in the beginning, God doesn’t just create Heaven and Earth. God creates this marriage of the spiritual and the material within humanity.

And in Hebrew this marriage of the material AND the spiritual that God creates in humanity is called our ‘nepesh’ and that’s the word your bibles misleadingly translate into English as ‘soul.’

But what happens?

Through the catastrophe of Sin, Heaven and Earth, the spiritual and the material, are pulled apart. They’re torn asunder.

Death enters God’s creation, and that curse- as we sing in Joy to the World– comes not just to Adam and Eve but to all of creation.

Everything God created and called very good suffers because of this breach between Heaven and Earth.

And so the plot of scripture- and, yes, scripture is a book comprised of many books but, like any good book, scripture has an overarching, unifying plot to it- the plot and promise of scripture is God’s work to restore what God creates in Genesis 1 and 2.

To undo Death.

To reunite the Heaven and Earth.

Salvation, Eternal Life, is about the reclamation and permanent restoration of God’s creation; it’s not about our disembodied evacuation from God’s creation.

It’s about Heaven coming down to Earth and the two becoming one, once again and forever.

That’s Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah doesn’t see our souls going up, up, up and away to Heaven and leaving behind everything else that God called very good.

It’s about Heaven coming down to Earth so that what God created is restored. That’s what we pray every time we pray the prayer Jesus taught us: ‘Thy Kingdom come…on Earth…’

Jesus gives us that prayer because Jesus is at the center of what God is doing to heal his creation.

Dennis said it on Christmas Eve. In the Incarnation, in Jesus’ own body, is this marriage of Heaven and Earth. He’s our future made present.

Jesus is the beginning of a New Creation- that’s how Matthew and John begin their Christmas stories.

And in his life, his teaching, his faithfulness all the way to a Cross Jesus undoes the curse of Death.

What we call Eternal Life- begins in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit of God’s New Creation. He’s the Second Adam, scripture says.

If it’s just about our souls going off to heaven when we die, then why didn’t God leave Jesus in the tomb?

And just take the spiritual part of him up to heaven?

Why bother with a Resurrection?

As St. Paul says, Jesus isn’t the first fruit of anything if that’s not also what God will do with each of us.

The plot and promise of scripture, from the first page of scripture to the last,  is that what God did in Jesus Christ, on the last day God will do for us.

And what God will do for us, God will also do for all of creation.

The promise of scripture is that one day Heaven will come down and be made one with the Earth. That’s why the very last image in scripture is of a wedding, a marriage, between Heaven and Earth. And on that same day all who have died in the Lord, all who are resting in the Lord, will be Resurrected and Restored just like Jesus on Easter morning.

photo-1

‘Heaven,’ wherever or whatever happens to us right after we die, is not forever.

Heaven is not forever. When I first became I pastor, back before I was the sensitive and pastoral person you know now, I actually said that to a grieving widow. She asked me if I thought her husband was in heaven, and without thinking I replied: ‘Well sure, but he won’t be there forever.’

And she then started sobbing. And, maybe it wasn’t the best moment say it, but it’s still true.

Heaven- what we think of as heaven- is not forever.

When Jesus promises to the thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ The word ‘paradise’ in scripture refers to a temporary state of bliss.

And when Jesus says to his disciples ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms…’ The word Jesus uses is ‘tent.’  A temporary structure.  That’s not what we usually think of when we think of Eternal Life. But according to scripture, we have a life after life after death.

What scripture means by Eternal Life isn’t whatever happens to us right after we die.

What scripture means by Eternal Life is our resurrected life in God’s New Creation where Heaven and Earth are made one, once and for all.

That’s the work God began in Jesus Christ, and that’s the work God is doing today in history through the Holy Spirit.

And that’s the work God enlists us to join in today. Now. Through baptism.

That’s what we do here.

If it’s just about our souls going up to heaven, then you don’t need to be here.

Sleep in on Sundays.

But if it’s about God one day reconciling Earth and Heaven, then what we do here as Church,

learning to love,

learning to hallow God’s name,

learning to be satisfied not with our desires but with our daily bread, learning to give and forgive,

learning to recognize and resist temptation,

learning to forgive those who trespass against us.

If it’s about God one day reconciling Earth and Heaven, then the work of reconciliation we do here, as Church, is forever.

Because it’s what God will do when his Kingdom comes to Earth…

That’s what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

And that’s what we pray at the end of the communion prayer: ‘By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back.’

And his Kingdom comes.

On earth.

As it is in heaven.

Heaven is Not Our Home

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2013 — 3 Comments

far-side-heaven

One of my favorite bands is Blue Highway, a Virginia bluegrass band. I love their rendition of ‘This World is Not My Home.’ You can listen to it here.

It’s a great song.

Problem is: It’s crap theology.

This weekend we begin our sermon series, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Second Coming.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that one of the greatest moral/theological challenges I face as a pastor is that very few people (Christians and non) have anything resembling a biblical notion of heaven.

And the real problem is very few people (especially Christians) realize that their assumptions about heaven have nothing at all to do with Jewish-Christian belief. The way we talk about heaven can no where be found on the lips of Jesus or in the words of Isaiah or St Paul.

Typically, I don’t become aware this until it’s too late- until death is too near or too recent. Only a moral cretin would try to ‘fix’ someone’s theology at their deathbed or at their loved one’s graveside.

But since it’s not appropriate to talk about what the bible actually teaches about Death and Resurrection when it’s most germane, we seldom talk about it at all, allowing bits and pieces of pop cliche, Platonism and downright paganism to take root. 

No scholar has been more critical in recovering the biblical witness of Resurrection than NT Wright. Reading him quite simply allowed me to read scripture as if for the first time. Here’s an excerpt from him on heaven:

 

There is no agreement in the church today about what happens to people when they die. Yet the New Testament is crystal clear on the matter: In a classic passage, Paul speaks of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). There is no room for doubt as to what he means: God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life. The rest of the early Christian writings, where they address the subject, are completely in tune with this.

The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed, if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don’t just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working.

When we talk with biblical precision about the resurrection, we discover an excellent foundation for lively and creative Christian work in the present world—not, as some suppose, for an escapist or quietist piety.

Bodily Resurrection

While both Greco-Roman paganism and Second Temple Judaism held a wide variety of beliefs about life beyond death, the early Christians, beginning with Paul, were remarkably unanimous on the topic.

When Paul speaks in Philippians 3 of being “citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we shall retire there when we have finished our work here. He says in the next line that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own. Jesus will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. This little statement contains in a nutshell more or less all Paul’s thought on the subject. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes.

Similarly, in Colossians 3:1–4, Paul says that when the Messiah (the one “who is your life”) appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. Paul does not say “one day you will go to be with him.” No, you already possess life in him. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility.

The clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8:9–11. If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, says Paul, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit, not to what many people have thought of as a spiritual body in the sense of a nonphysical one, but “to your mortal bodies also.”

Other New Testament writers support this view. The first letter of John declares that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The resurrection body of Jesus, which at the moment is almost unimaginable to us in its glory and power, will be the model for our own. And of course within John’s gospel, despite the puzzlement of those who want to read the book in a very different way, we have some of the clearest statements of future bodily resurrection. Jesus reaffirms the widespread Jewish expectation of resurrection in the last day, and announces that the hour for this has already arrived. It is quite explicit: “The hour is coming,” he says, “indeed, it is already here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

Life After Life After Death

Here we must discuss what Jesus means when he declares that there are “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house. This has regularly been taken, not least when used in the context of bereavement, to mean that the dead (or at least dead Christians) will simply go to heaven permanently rather than being raised again subsequently to new bodily life. But the word for “dwelling places” here, monai, is regularly used in ancient Greek not for a final resting place, but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.

This fits closely with Jesus’ words to the dying brigand in Luke: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Despite a long tradition of misreading, paradise here means not a final destination but the blissful garden, the parkland of rest and tranquility, where the dead are refreshed as they await the dawn of the new day. The main point of the sentence lies in the apparent contrast between the brigand’s request and Jesus’ reply: “Remember me,” he says, “when you come in your kingdom,” implying that this will be at some far distant future. Jesus’ answer brings this future hope into the present, implying of course that with his death the kingdom is indeed coming, even though it doesn’t look like what anyone had imagined: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There will, of course, still be a future completion involving ultimate resurrection; Luke’s overall theological understanding leaves no doubt on that score. Jesus, after all, didn’t rise again “today,” that is, on Good Friday. Luke must have understood him to be referring to a state of being-in-paradise. With Jesus, the future hope has come forward into the present. For those who die in faith, before that final reawakening, the central promise is of being “with Jesus” at once. “My desire is to depart,” wrote Paul, “and be with Christ, which is far better.”

Resurrection itself then appears as what the word always meant in the ancient world. It wasn’t a way of talking about life after death. It was a way of talking about a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life after life after death.

What then about such passages as 1 Peter 1, which speaks of a salvation that is “kept in heaven for you” so that in your present believing you are receiving “the salvation of your souls”? Here, I suggest, the automatic assumption of Western Christianity leads us badly astray. Most Christians today, reading a passage like this, assume that it means that heaven is where you go to receive this salvation—or even that salvation consists in “going to heaven when you die.” The way we now understand that language in the Western world is totally different from what Jesus and his hearers meant and understood.

For a start, heaven is actually a reverent way of speaking about God, so that “riches in heaven” simply means “riches in God’s presence.” But then, by derivation from this primary meaning, heaven is the place where God’s purposes for the future are stored up. It isn’t where they are meant to stay so that one would need to go to heaven to enjoy them. It is where they are kept safe against the day when they will become a reality on earth. God’s future inheritance, the incorruptible new world and the new bodies that are to inhabit that world, are already kept safe, waiting for us, so that they can be brought to birth in the new heavens and new earth.

From Worship to Mission

The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.

If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are made, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the “now, already” of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the “not yet.” The world of space, time, and matter is where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community, the community where anarchy means that bullies (economic and social as well as physical) will always win, where the weak and vulnerable will always need protecting, and where the social and political structures of society are part of the Creator’s design.

And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus’ resurrection must be the church that goes to work precisely in that space, time, and matter. The church claims this world in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’ lordship, and of the Spirit’s power. Councils and parliaments can and often do act wisely, though they will always need scrutiny and accountability, because they in turn may become agents of bullying and corruption.

Thus the church that takes sacred space seriously (not as a retreat from the world but as a bridgehead into it) will go straight from worshiping in the sanctuary to debating in the council chamber; to discussing matters of town planning, of harmonizing and humanizing beauty in architecture, green spaces, and road traffic schemes; and to environmental work, creative and healthy farming methods, and proper use of resources. If it is true, as I have argued, that the whole world is now God’s holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central.

The church that takes seriously the fact that Jesus is Lord of all will not just celebrate quietly every time we write the date on a letter or document, will not just set aside Sunday as far as humanly and socially possible as a celebration of God’s new creation, will not just seek to order its own life in an appropriate rhythm of worship and work. Such a church will also seek to bring wisdom to the rhythms of work in offices and shops, in local government, in civic holidays, and in the shaping of public life. These things cannot be taken for granted. The enormous shifts during my lifetime, from the whole town observing Good Friday and Easter, to those great days being simply more occasions for football matches and yet more televised reruns of old movies, are indices of what happens when a society loses its roots and drifts with prevailing social currents. The reclaiming of time as God’s good gift (as opposed to time as simply a commodity to be spent for one’s own benefit, which often means fresh forms of slavery for others) is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central.

Whatever is Holy

One of the things I most enjoy about being a bishop is watching ordinary Christians (not that there are any “ordinary” Christians, but you know what I mean) going straight from worshiping Jesus in church to making a radical difference in the material lives of people down the street by running playgroups for children of single working moms; by organizing credit unions to help people at the bottom of the financial ladder find their way to responsible solvency; by campaigning for better housing, against dangerous roads, for drug rehab centers, for wise laws relating to alcohol, for decent library and sporting facilities, for a thousand other things in which God’s sovereign rule extends to hard, concrete reality. Once again, all this is not an extra to the mission of the church. It is central.

This way of coming at the tasks of the church in terms of space, time, and matter leads directly to evangelism. When the church is seen to move straight from worship of God to affecting much-needed change in the world; when it becomes clear that the people who feast at Jesus’ table are the ones at the forefront of work to eliminate hunger and famine; when people realize that those who pray for the Spirit to work in and through them are the people who seem to have extra resources of love and patience in caring for those whose lives are damaged, bruised, and shamed—then it is natural for people to recognize that something is going on that they want to be part of.

No single individual can attempt more than a fraction of this mission. That’s why mission is the work of the whole church, the whole time. Paul’s advice to the Philippians—even though he and they knew they were suffering for their faith and might be tempted to retreat from the world into a dualistic, sectarian mentality—was upbeat. “These are the things you should think through,” he wrote: “whatever is true, whatever is holy, whatever is upright, whatever is pure, whatever is attractive, whatever has a good reputation; anything virtuous, anything praiseworthy.” And in thinking through these things, we will discover more and more about the same Creator God whom we know in and through Jesus Christ and will be better equipped to work effectively not over against the world, but with the grain of all goodwill, of all that seeks to bring and enhance life.

N. T. Wright is Bishop of Durham for the Church of England. This article is excerpted from his latest book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church(HarperOne). 

You can read more of this excerpt at Christianity Today.

This weekend we kick-off our January sermon series, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Second Coming. First up is Heaven, a topic that is second only to Christmas when it comes to Christians and non-Christians harboring clinging to their sentimental notions that are as anathema to logic as they are to virtually the entire scriptural witness.

Should be a fun sermon to preach…not.

Here’s a fun short film from Mr Deity on the ‘After Party.’