Monday, February 21, 2011

Why I'm not going to heaven

Heaven's above!
Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit the earth, is reputed to have said upon his return, "I looked and looked but I didn’t see God". God is not in heaven; we have now been there.

This anecdote may make us smile. Heaven is indeed well-known as the dwelling-place of God, yet when Christians pray to "our Father in heaven" we do not mean that God is literally to be glimpsed by cosmonauts up above the ionosphere in the heavens. The Scriptures do frequently speak of "the heavens" in this literal sense of what you see when you look up on a clear night. But the term gains extra layers of meaning as we follow the biblical story from the creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1-2 through to the marriage of heaven and earth in Revelation 21-22. Heaven comes to mean a reality far deeper, richer and more overarching than merely the sky.

For many Christians, "heaven" has come to serve as a shorthand for everything we hope for, for the ultimate goal of our salvation, for the blissful land of rest at the end of our journey. We populate this realm with images from cartoons and movies, in which white robed figures with haloes play harps on clouds, or perhaps play rugby against the angels. Even where the content is left more vague, much Christian piety assumes that going to heaven when we die is the content of Christian hope. This theme is found in many of our songs, mentioned at many funerals, serves as a focal point in evangelism, and is frequently discussed in wistful or anguished conversations late at night.

Heaven: the origin, not the goal, of our salvation
However, a closer reading of the biblical narrative would suggest that such conceptions are significantly wide of the mark. The good news of Jesus certainly does hold out a stunning hope in the face of death and for a dying world. But it is not that we will go to heaven. It is that heaven will come to us. It is not that we will pass into a higher realm at death, but that, one day, God will transform this world so that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It is not that there is life after death for an immortal soul, but that at some point after our death, God will raise us bodily as he did for Jesus. Although there are a few passing references to the fact that those who have died in Christ are not lost, but are now with him, this is never held out as the primary content of our hope.

This is worth pausing over. We are indeed "citizens of heaven", but this doesn’t mean we hope to end up there. Instead, it is from heaven that we await a Saviour who will raise us to have glorious bodies like his (Philippians 3.20-21). Our inheritance is indeed in heaven, but that is because Jesus is our hope, and he is hidden until the day our living (i.e. resurrection) hope is realised (1 Peter 1.3; see also Colossians 1.5). We seek to enter “the kingdom of heaven”, but this is Matthew’s way of speaking of what is elsewhere called "the kingdom of God"; "heaven" here is simply a reverent way of referring to God without directly mentioning him (see also Luke 15:18). We could go on and on, but nowhere does the New Testament teach that going to heaven when we die is the focus of Christian hope.

The truly Christian hope, based on the experience of Jesus, is for resurrection, not merely an otherworldly existence after death. Resurrection is a powerful act of God to vindicate and transform our lowly bodies to be like Jesus’ glorious body, for us to be raised as he was raised, not simply back from the dead into mortal bodies to die again, but raised in glory and freedom.

"Your will be done on earth"
And it doesn’t end with our bodies. Our hope is for God to say "yes and amen" to the creation that he declared good, very good. It is for the earth to be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, for death to be swallowed up in victorious new life, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In short, our hope is not to escape this place and these bodies and go elsewhere, it is for God to heal and bring new life to his broken creation, conquering death and decay forever.

Thus, Christian hope is not for redemption from the world, but for the redemption of the world. Jesus’ resurrection therefore has implications not just our bodies, but also for the entire created order of which they are a part. In Romans 8 Paul pictures the created order as a woman giving birth, waiting and straining for a future joy, despite pain and distress at the moment. Switching metaphors, he says that creation is like a prisoner, in bondage to decay. So while everything currently falls apart, God has something surprising planned: a gaol-break! And creation is yearning, groaning for that day. And so, says Paul, are all those who have gotten their first taste of God’s future in the Holy Spirit. We too groan and yearn for that day when our bodies will be redeemed, that is, raised into glorious freedom.

Matter matters
That heaven is not the end of the world has all kinds of implications. Here, briefly, are four.

God has not abandoned his good creation.
The God who has the power to call things which are not into existence is the same God who raises the dead (Romans 4.17). Therefore, redemption is not fundamentally opposed to creation and the created order, but vindicates it. And that means that the church is not the opposite of the world, but an imperfect foretaste of the world’s true future.

God says "yes" to life.
His "no" of judgement is only to be understood within an overarching "yes" to Christ, to humanity, to his world, to life. He opposes that which opposes the flourishing of his creation. God is unashamedly positive about all that is good in the world: he says "yes" to love, to laughter, to sharing, to sex, to food, to fun, to music, to matter. It is because he loves the world that he will not put up with its present disfigurements.

Humanity as humanity matters.
Jesus was raised, and remains, a human (1 Timothy 2.5). We await resurrection as humans. Nothing that is truly human will ultimately perish (though all must be transformed). This makes human endeavour and relationships noble, even while they remain tragically flawed. Christians remain humans, with much still in common with our neighbours. Secular work in God’s good world is not to be despised or treated merely instrumentally. Neither is art, or education, or healthcare, or agriculture, or science. There is much about these activities that will not endure, and much that requires reform; yet these tasks all participate as part of what it is to be a human creature.

What we do with our bodies and the planet matters.
Not because we can create the kingdom of God or sculpt our resurrection bodies now, but because God cares for them. Bodies and the broader environment in which they find their place are good gifts, worth caring for. Just as our obedience will never be complete in this age, yet we keep thanking, trusting and loving God, so our care for creation is presently an imperfectible, yet unavoidable, responsibility and privilege. We must therefore also reject any dualism that opposes ‘spiritual’ to 'physical' concerns. To be truly spiritual is to be enlivened, empowered, cleansed and directed by the Holy Spirit of life, who is the midwife our birth (Job 33:4) and our rebirth (Titus 3.5), and the midwife of the world’s birth (Genesis 1.2) and rebirth (Romans 8.22-23). To be a friend of God is to be a friend of creation, of humanity, of life - the kind of friend that hates what is evil, clings to what is good, that is not overcome by evil, but overcomes evil with good (Romans 12.9, 21).
This article was originally published in Salt magazine with the title "Heaven: It's not the end of the world" in Autumn 2009 and then online by WebSalt. Long time readers (or those who browse the sidebar) may recognise that it is a condensed version of my sixteen part series on heaven from the early days of this blog in 2006. I thought I would repost it here (with permission from the Salt editor) in order to provide a more accessible and convenient form of the argument in a single post. Those looking for a little more detail are referred to the full series.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this Byron and liked what you said about it being the origin and not the goal of our salvation!

There is another point to consider also, in that much of our energies are in trying to keep people out of hell...and once we get them saved we have done our duty ...whoooo wipes brow... a subject which I believe the Annihilationist position is the more Biblical stance.

I think that any preached gospel; has to motivate action within a social context - otherwise I don't believe no matter how pure the doctrinal position is; its not a true gospel that is preached.

bruce pass said...

helpful reminder byron - although i think rather than vindicating nature, it is more accurate to say that grace perfects nature.

as regards romans 8, you might be interested in Michaels' argument that creation is not on view until v.22.

Ramsey Michaels, John ‘The Redemption of our Body : the Riddle of Romans 8:19-22’ in Romans and the People of God : Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday. Edited by Sven K. Soderlund and N.T. Wright. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.[see especially the article by Zyro that he cites]

byron smith said...

Yes, vindicates and transforms (perfects if you like, though not through bringing any natural possibilities to pass anymore than resurrection is a natural possibility for a corpse).

And yes, I've read that article and it was interesting, though I'm unconvinced.

Sam Charles Norton said...

good sound stuff Byron - are you familiar with this?

Jeremy said...

Amen. I look forward to not seeing you there!

Anonymous said...

sorry - haven't read previous posts.

My understanding of salvation differs a bit to standard Christianity.

On this subject though I think it is key to remember to love God and love your neighbour.... implied as well to love his creation.

All that we do alive on earth can be summecd up by that.


Anonymous said...

How does a proper view of the resurrection enforce care for the environment? I remember when reading Suprised by Hope that part of Wright's hope is that a good theology of resurrection will ensure people do not have a "God will destroy this place, so let's get on with extracting all the oil we can because it doesn't matter in the end" view of the planet.

But does a healthy view of the resurrection actually counteract this? Couldn't someone say "God is going to fix this place up anyway, no matter how much damage we do to it, so we dont have to worry if we stuff it up too much"

I know that's obviously extreme, and no one would hopefully in their right mind say that. But my question is how much does a theology of the resurrection motivate us toward caring about climate change? Saying that God vindicates creation in the resurrection is one thing, but i cant help but feel that no matter what people do to the planet he will vindicate it anyway, without my help. However, God uses me for people, and what i do here concerning people's salvation DOES have an affect on the new creation.

Where have i gone wrong in my thinking? Dont get me wrong, i think Christians concern for climate change is very important, but I'm now questioning where the motivation ought to come from. It seems that "love your neighbour" would be the prime motivator, because what we do to the planet is killing people, and we obviously dont want that.

Am I making sense?

byron smith said...

Sam - no, I hadn't. Thanks!

Anon - Thanks for your thoughts. Did you read this post, or were you just apologising for not having read the rest of my blog?

Geoff - Yes, an important question.

Perhaps the problem with the line of thought you raise can be illustrated with some parallels:
• "No need to look after my body since God will raise it."
• "No need to preach to the lost, since God will save whomever he choses."
•"No need to be careful in designing buildings since 'unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain'."
• "No need to prepare a sermon since God will give me words to say."

That is, all these misunderstandings make three mistakes. The first is to see divine and human action as in competition and mutually exclusive: i.e. if God as promised to do something, then I have no role to play. But this is not true. God's actions are frequently through human agents; it is not zero sum game. That said, I don't think that God's eschatological purposes are realised through our actions, though they may be anticipated. Which brings us to our second point.

Eschatology is never a get out of gaol free card. God's promised future ought never distract us from our legitimate present concerns or displace those concerns and render us quietist. N.T. Wright has some interesting observations about the historical role played by doctrines of resurrection in various communities. Although today, it is lumped in with various other conceptions of "life after death" (a category, he of course want to avoid) that make people content with terrible conditions now because they'll get better later, in the first century and much of the ancient world, it was the radicals who held to resurrection. It was not a quietist pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-by-and-by so shut up now and eat your social poison kind of position. Instead, it gave heart to radical opposition to the status quo to realise that not even the threat of death could stop them. If God is going to raise my body, then I can put my body on the line in radical obedience to his will.

And third, these mistakes ignore the idea of imitatio Dei. If God is into something, that is generally sufficient reason for us to care about it too.

Yes, we can add anthropocentric (and ecocentric) concerns as well, but (as I said here), I think theocentric ones are the heart of ecological responsibility (and the other two help to give it shape).

Brad East said...

Been wanting/meaning to write something like this, and you beat me to it in a better way than I could have done it. Bravo sir.

Anonymous said...

thanks Byron. agreed.

Andrew said...

Thanks Byron, this is the sort of "everything you know is wrong" stuff that would have shocked me in early high school with my primitive pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die Sunday School theological education - but from all I've learned in the intervening years I would say spot on, you've nailed it better than most. I did read your earlier series, but was compelled to comment on the nice summary.

Something I've never worked out my opinion on though - will things like the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the tendency of everything to decay and disorder, in a strict physics definition sense) be done away with at the renewal of creation? This pretty much implies an upheaval not just for earth but for the entire universe (since the very laws of nature would be modified), which raises questions about the dubious (IMO) assumption of our species and our planet being the ultimate reason for God's work over 13.7 billion or thereabouts years and in all of space. If we do find intelligent life elsewhere, how will that challenge our assumptions? I could go on and on - difficult questions...

byron smith said...

Hi Andrew (are you one of the many Andrews that I know personally?) and good questions.

I've also pondered the second law of thermodynamics thing and confess I don't know what to think about it. I think that since it is creation itself that is groaning and that (presumably) creation includes not just this planet that we call home, but the whole universe, then the renewal of all things really means the renewal of all things. I don't think this requires us to make any kind of presumptive call on the existence or otherwise of extra-terrestrial life. God may have others in his plans that we don't (currently?) need to know about.

the dubious (IMO) assumption of our species and our planet being the ultimate reason for God's work over 13.7 billion or thereabouts years and in all of space
Yes, that is probably a dubious assumption. I'd say that even in the Genesis 1 narrative, humanity is not the climax of the story, Sabbath is.

Arthur said...

Why I'm not going to heaven? That first photo said it all. :)

byron smith said...


Do you know where it is?

Andrew said...

Yes I am someone who undoubtedly knows you, though whether you remember me is another matter. I was at Barneys for at least some of the time you were and attended your theodicies course at New College that you presented with Matheson (can't even remember his surname, hopeless memory). If only I could dig up the notes again wherever they are, they may have been useful for a couple of vexed blog posts recently. I'm pretty sure I've referenced your blog on mine on a couple of occasions in the past.

If all of creation is groaning and the laws of physics haven't changed (as far as we know) since the Big Bang, then creation was already subject to decay long before humanity, let alone sin, entered it. In fact the fossil record clearly indicates the existence of death as well, long before our species appeared. I've come to the conclusion that there are more parts of Genesis than just the first chapter or two which have quite a broad and not strictly literal interpretation, including just what is meant by the "death" that entered the world as a result of sin. Some authors have interesting ideas about this, I just can't remember who or where.

Revelation and other books containing prophecies about the other end of time are, to me, vague enough that we can only guess at the details of how it will all work out in the end.

byron smith said...

Matheson Russell. Speaking of surnames, any more hints? (There were quite a few Andrews at Barneys when I was there!)

And yes, I don't think that there was a literal historic edenic golden age in which nothing died. As you say, "death" is more than simply a biological concept. Theologically, there is much more to say about it. Moltmann speaks of death becoming deadly through sin. I could also point you to various other authors who have written on this. If you can remember some of yours, I'll try to remember more of mine. ;-)
This is a good book (on the whole) and worth a look if you're interested (chapters 7, 9 and 11 are all relevant).

As you say, the scriptural prophecies concerning what is still future for us are far from giving us a roadmap, or even much of a postcard. All we have a risen Lord walking ahead. Methodologically, I think this quote is very important about our access to knowledge of the future.

byron smith said...

PS Whether all, some or none of the book of Revelation belongs in the category of "prophecies about the future/end of time" is not immediately obvious.

byron smith said...

Pangea: Farewell to rapture.

byron smith said...

Planetwise by Dave Bookless has a great and very accessible discussion of these ideas where he explores a number of the key passages in chapter five (pp. 74-87). Highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

Byron, 'that' was worth reading. Mark Chambers.

byron smith said...

John Stackhouse Jr. making essentially the same argument, though he takes it in slightly different directions at the end.

timui said...

Thank you.