Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the world VII

Heaven is a place on earth
The story so far...
I've argued that going to 'heaven', despite common Christian usage, isn't our final destination and hope. Instead, it most commonly refers to the skies, then is used (perhaps metaphorically) as the dwelling place of God. This latter use is then extended to serve as a circumlocution for God. Therefore, we can speak of 'heaven' (i.e. God) as the agent, not destination, of Christian hope. Being citizens of heaven thus means not so much wishing to go there, but the security of expecting a saviour from there.

Heaven on earth
For many people, the final images of the Bible are amongst the most moving.

"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away." - Rev 21.3-4
All that is wrong with the world will be over. The absence of God will be healed, and with it all its symptoms: death and her children mourning and crying and pain. If anything sounds so wonderful as to be called 'heavenly', it is this. Yet notice the image used to picture this: "And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." (Rev 21.2) The direction is not us going up to heaven, but heaven coming down to earth. It is the marriage of heaven and earth, of God with his people and creation. The waiting is over; here comes the bride! The earth is pictured as the location for this triumphant and joyfully tear-jerking picture.

Now the images of Revelation are not meant to be taken woodenly and we must beware pressing details too closely. However, notice Revelation 5.10: "You have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth." There is neither space - nor I suspect reader patience - to work through Revelation in detail, yet to briefly answer one further common reading of heaven-as-destination, the images of the heavenly court worshipping the one on the throne in Rev 4 & 5 are (a) not the final picture, that is reserved until Rev 21 &22 and (b) most straightforwardly read as angelic beings, not humans, esp since at this point in the picture, there are still creatures "in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea" (Rev 5.13).

The God who made a good world does not intend to give up on it, to snatch us away to be somewhere else and leave it like a sinking ship. For that would be to admit defeat, to merely salvage some small good out of a wreckage.
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI. Ten points for naming the country in the picture.


Anonymous said...

If we are snatched away from this world then there will never be something new under the sun :)

Emma said...

Oooh baby do you know what that's worth?
Oooh heaven is a place on earth

Actually, I think Belinda Carlisle was making a slightly less sound theological observation...

Rachel said...

I have no idea about the place but as I have none of these desirable points you speak of I'll take a wild guess- Scotland?

Anonymous said...

and so why is there no sea?

byron smith said...

David: good point.

Emma: love how you linked to the lyrics.

Rachel: ten points! Love live guessing! See how easy it is?

byron smith said...

Drew: yes, I skipped that bit as a detail. I find Wright's discussion (in Evil and the Justice of God - a very accessible yet important little book) pretty convincing at this point. He's not the first to say so, but he puts it well. Here's the opening of an essay he wrote called God, 9/11, the tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil (found here), which is basically a summary of his book:

In the new heaven and new earth, according to Revelation 21, there will be no more sea. Many people feel disappointed by this.
The sea is a perennial delight, at least for those who don’t have to make a living on it. What is going on? The sea is part of the original creation, part of the world of which God says that it is “very good.” But already by the story of Noah the flood poses a threat to the creation, with Noah and his floating zoo rescued by God’s grace. From within the good creation itself come forces of chaos, harnessed to enact God’s judgment. We then find Moses and the Israelites standing in front of the sea, chased by the Egyptians and at their wits’ end. God makes a way through the sea to rescue his people, and again to judge the pagan world; like the Noah story, though now in a new mode. As later poets look back on this decisive moment in the story of God’s people, they celebrate it in terms of the old creation myths themselves: the waters saw YHWH and were afraid, and they went backwards. But then, in a passage of enormous influence on early Christianity, we find in the vision of Daniel 7 that the monsters who make war upon the people of the saints of the most high come up out of the sea. The sea has become the dark, fearsome, threatening place from which evil emerges, threatening God’s people like a giant tidal wave threatening those who live near the coast. For the people of ancient Israel, who were not for the most part seafarers, the sea came to represent evil and chaos, the dark powers that might do to God’s people what the flood had done to the whole world, unless God rescues them as he rescued Noah.

Martin Kemp said...

I had a major crush on Belinda Carlisle whe I was about 10.

J said...

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Byron; yes, I've heard that before. It's the most reasonable answer, I think, but doesn't sit entirely square for me though... creation will be redeemed, but not the sea?

boxthejack said...

I remember singing a setting of that passage, and 'there will be no more sea' was the big climax. I felt pretty crap about that too.

This point does, however, show how foolish it is to rip a text (even/especially a biblical text) out of its literary context, and apply it literally where that's clearly not the author's intent.

byron smith said...

Drew & BTJ: Yep - I take the sea as a symbol. Insofar as the literal sea is actually part of God's good creation, I hope it will be liberated and renewed. Cockroaches, however...

byron smith said...

Marty: it figures. :-)

Jackson: thanks!