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Heavenly minded: It’s time to get our eschatology right, say scholars, authors Robin Russell, Apr 6, 2009
2009 DESIGN PICS PHOTO
Many Christians have the wrong idea about heaven, say biblical scholars. But getting clear about eternity will greatly impact on how we live in the here and now.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
Meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates. Walking on streets of gold. And of course, being reunited someday with Grandma and Sparky.
Beyond those clichés, the average churchgoer’s thoughts about heaven quickly turn ethereal: visions of sitting on a cloud or attending a never-ending praise gathering.
There’s so much more, according to popular authors like N.T. Wright and Randy Alcorn, whose books are attempting to let Christian readers know what God really has in store for them for all eternity.
Small wonder there’s huge interest: Everyone says they want to go to heaven, after all, but are hard-pressed to say exactly why—except that it certainly beats the alternative ending.
Getting off track
Many Christians operate out of “confusion, half belief, sentiment and superstition” when it comes to thinking about heaven, says Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright in his book, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008).
It’s even reflected in the hymns we sing and the prayers we hear at funerals. “The classic Christian answer is not so much disbelieved as not known,” he writes.
Christians have been more influenced by medieval art and drama depicting disembodied souls in a heavenly realm than the Bible, Bishop Wright says. Such theological ignorance leads Christians to believe “that the whole point of the Christian faith is to follow Jesus away from earth to heaven and stay there forever.”
Greek philosophers—who believed that spirit is good but matter is evil—also influenced the church, says Randy Alcorn, author of Heaven (Tyndale, 2004). He coined the term “Christoplatonism” to describe that kind of dualism, which directly contradicts the biblical record of God calling everything he created “good.”
“To be liberated from [matter] was the ultimate,” Mr. Alcorn said of Greek-influenced thinking. “So you die and your spirit goes off. It’s no longer ‘imprisoned.’ Grandma dies, goes to heaven, her body is still on earth, she’s not connected with her body.”
Nineteenth-century philosophers also contributed to the lack of clarity about heaven, says Jerry L. Walls, a United Methodist elder who is professor of philosophy of religion at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford, 2007).
“Christians have been shamed out of taking heaven seriously by Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche, who depict the hope for heaven as a childish fantasy or escapist delusion or a disguised power play,” Dr. Walls said.
Because Christians neglected to think seriously about heaven, pop culture and spirituality took over. “The ethereal, overly sentimental picture of heaven of popular piety and pop culture is hardly appealing—and even boring,” he said.
But the ethereal, disembodied state, when our body and spirit are temporarily separated at physical death, is not the end of the story.
“The Bible is unmistakably clear about this,” says Fuller Theology Seminary professor Joel Green, a United Methodist elder and author of Body, Soul, and Human Life (Baker, 2008). “We are not now, and will not be then, free-floating souls or spirits. In the world to come, we will need a different sort of body. But either way, life is embodied.”
The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship, agrees that Wesleyan doctrine is not about “disembodied souls in the skies.” He points out that in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Methodism founder John Wesley says Revelation 21 talks about the new heaven and the new earth, and that all things will be made new—physically and spiritually—after the last judgment.
“And if you think about it, that’s pretty fitting for Wesleyan theology and the Methodist movement,” Mr. Burton-Edwards said. “Yes, folks want to ‘get there,’ but the only way to get there is to live here as committed followers of Jesus.
“If we love him and follow him now, we have eternal life now. The focus is growing in holiness of heart and life and toward perfection in love in this life. We trust that what God has in store for us will be plenty and good and enough. That is enough.”
United Methodist doctrine
United Methodists have no official doctrine on “heaven” or “hell” except for this confessional statement: “We believe in the resurrection of the dead, the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.”
The church is silent, though, on what happens immediately after a person dies. What kind of a “holding place” do we go to until Christ returns for the final judgment?
Scripture is ambiguous, says Randy Maddox, a United Methodist elder and professor of theology and Wesleyan Studies at Duke Divinity School. While some verses suggest believers “sleep” until the resurrection; others imply a conscious state with God. “The most we can say with full confidence is that we will be in God’s care,” he said.
John Wesley believed in the intermediate state between death and the final judgment “where believers would share in the ‘bosom of Abraham’ or ‘paradise,’ even continuing to grow in holiness there,” writes Ted Campbell, a professor at Perkins School of Theology, in his 1999 book Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials (Abingdon). That view has not been officially affirmed by the church.
Dr. Green says the New Testament writers reflected the different views held by first-century Jews on what happens after death, but he rejects the idea of “soul sleep.”
“I find it difficult to imagine a condition in which believers are separate from God—in this life or the next,” Dr. Green said. “It makes sense to speak of people enjoying life in the presence of God immediately, much as Jesus said to the criminal on the cross, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
That “paradise” can be viewed as the intermediate or temporary stage of heaven, says Bishop Wright, because Jesus experienced it on the day he died, and before his resurrection. Just so, Scripture teaches that one day God will also bodily resurrect those who believe in him.
The promise of resurrection goes beyond human beings, scholars say. God will actually “relocate” heaven by bringing it down to a New Earth, where all of creation will be renewed and restored to the way God intended it from the beginning.
“Redemption is way bigger than just the individualistic salvation of souls,” said Mr. Alcorn. “It’s God redeeming his entire creation and showing his glory forever in a redeemed people and a redeemed universe.”
Dr. Maddox agrees: “The deepest question is not whether we will be in heaven or on a renewed earth, but whether God is committed to redeeming all that God has created and loves, or only humans—and maybe only our ‘souls.’”
Heaven on earth
In his encyclopedic book, Mr. Alcorn derives the details about heaven—from what our bodies will be like to whether there will be arts and entertainment—from Scripture passages and present-day life.
Redeemed people, he says, will be engaged in meaningful work and will continue learning and discovering new things about themselves and God for all eternity.
“This isn’t my one shot at life on earth,” Mr. Alcorn said. Instead, our passions and interests and gifts will become even more fruitful, without the tensions and frustrations of the world as it is now.
Dr. Walls agrees that heaven will allow Christians to experience what “we have craved and have only glimpsed.”
“We will be doing exactly what God intended when he created us in the first place,” he said, including “loving God with our heart, soul, mind and strength; loving our neighbor as ourselves; and enjoying his renewed creation in all of its glory.
“Even in this fallen world we experience foretastes of heaven, moments of joy and delight when everything seems right,” Dr. Walls added. “Experiences like falling in love, when your team wins a big game, listening to a great piece of music. In those moments we experience truth, goodness and beauty in such a way that pain and evil are momentarily forgotten. Heaven will be like those moments, except that will be the norm and not the fleeting exception.”
People in heaven will be transformed, yet recognizable, according to Mr. Alcorn.
“We are the same people made different,” he said. “When I came to the Lord, my dog still recognized me. My mother knew that I was the same person, but she also knew that I was radically different. Likewise, when we die, we will be radically different, but we will still be the same people. It’s really us.”
Why it’s important
Scholars say having a more accurate view of heaven will better guide our lives as to what’s important in the here and now.
For example, says Dr. Green, “if in the life to come people from all nations and races are praising God in their own languages, this ought to tell us something about the multiethnic nature of the gospel and church today.”
It also gives us a deeper appreciation and concern for the current earth, knowing that God intends to restore it one day. That’s in sharp contrast to the eschatology of the Left Behind series, which predicts the world will be destroyed in an apocalyptic drama.
“If you think the world is destined for destruction, why would you care for the environment?” Mr. Alcorn asked. “If you think this is all there is and it’s evil, why would you care about clean water? God has a purpose for us living here, and we should be righteous stewards of all the earth.”
Knowing what heaven is like helps satisfy our longing for justice and provides an answer to the problem of evil, adds Dr. Walls. “Life lacks ultimate meaning if there is no afterlife,” he said. “If everything we value, everything that is truthful, good and beautiful, is ‘destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system,’ as Bertrand Russell famously put it, then there is an ultimate futility to our efforts.
“If there is no heaven, the best things in this life will inevitably come to a bad end. If there is a heaven, the worst things in this life can be redeemed and come to a good end. The profound difference between these two views can hardly be exaggerated.”
Thinking rightly about heaven also “should energize our work for God’s kingdom now,” says Bishop Wright. That includes working for justice—knowing that God intends “to set the whole world right” someday—fostering the beauty of creation and participating in evangelism, or telling others the good news to come.
Wesley was a pioneer in this, Dr. Maddox points out. Wesley believed that through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christians can begin to embody God’s redeeming work now. What’s more, in a 1785 sermon on “The New Creation,” Wesley broadened his scope on God’s ultimate redemptive purposes, saying that even the physical elements of our universe will be present in the new creation.
And unlike some in his day who viewed with suspicion those who showed deep concern for maintaining physical health, Dr. Maddox says Wesley “repeatedly encouraged his Methodist people to care for their bodies and to minister to the bodily needs of others. . . . He was convinced that God’s ultimate goal is to restore us to full health of body and soul.”
“The final word on eschatology for Methodists,” Dr. Maddox says, “will always be to join in the prayer that closes Charles Wesley’s glorious hymn “Love Divine,” asking God to ‘finish then, thy new creation!’”