Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Going to Heaven

I suspect that most of us grew up talking about dying and going to heaven.  Anyone grow up with the hymn, "When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be"?  If I remember correctly, that's even how Wesley talked about it.

You may have noticed that I try not to talk about "going to heaven" in my language. I talk about "getting into the kingdom." That's because the more historical view of Christianity--and the more prevalent view of the New Testament--is that eternity will be on a renewed earth. N. T. Wright has hammered this point, maybe over-hammered it, in his book Surprised by Hope.

Some thoughts:
1. This is the dominant New Testament view. Matthew 8:11 and its parallels clearly picture the banquet at the commencement of eternity as being on earth. Romans 8:20-21 talks about the restoration of the creation to its original, uncorrupted form. Revelation 21:2 speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth. So it is more biblical to speak of eternity on a renewed earth than going off to heaven forever.

2. The idea that we die and go to heaven forever became dominant, apparently, in the Enlightenment of the 1700s. It was thus a product of a trajectory away from believing that God would transform our bodies. It is a reflection of the faith crisis of that age, of the rise of the idea of a new view of the soul. It was movement away from traditional faith. It was a view that fit the scientific age more comfortably.

Even today, you find some Christians who think the empty tomb a trivial point, perhaps even irrelevant. They confuse resurrection with afterlife. "So you go to heaven when you die," they might say. "Who cares what happens to your body?"  This is a new development in history from the skepticism of the 1700s.

3. Now, I'm not wanting to get too down on "go to heaven" talk.  There is a certain kind of condescending tone the Wrights and such can get on this topic.  "Oh, you don't know that the kingdom will come to the earth."  They dismiss what I believe is evidence for the opposite view in John and Hebrews. And things get really symbolic when you start talking about eternity, so I think we have to be a little tentative about these sorts of things, including the precise nature of hell.

My point here is, if you've never heard of this sort of discussion, to let you in it so some arrogant know-it-all doesn't call you out as stupid or heretical because "you didn't know." But they probably do have the weight more on their side. Both the more historic Christian position and the predominant view of the New Testament is that eternity will be down here on a renewed earth.

I thought you'd like to know, if you hadn't heard :-)


Anonymous said...

I've found that quite a lot of people who "know better" (including myself) have a hard time keeping from going back into the other language, just for the same reason we have people still asking "if you want to ask Jesus into your heart" - we know he isn't literally in your heart, and it's the Holy Spirit that lives in you when you have a relationship with Jesus anyway, but we keep using the language we've been brought up with. Likewise I know that there will be the new heaven and the new earth, but it's easier/simpler to talk of "going to heaven"

(As an aside, I loved Wright's "Surprised by Hope" and I once jokingly referred to him as a "closet Methodist/Wesleyan" because he quoted Wesley more than anyone else in that book, or so it seemed at the time of reading it!)

John C. Gardner said...

What are the implications of your post for the average Christian in the pew who still speaks(and hears sermons) on going to heaven in the by-andbuy? Can you explicate more NT Wright's view and what you see as the strengths and weaknesses of his position? Great post.

Brian Scramlin said...

John, you really should read Suprised by Hope and if you really want to have a fun go-round, Wright and Piper have a book battle about it, so you end up reading Wright's Justification book as well which may help share with those in the congregation who find this a difficult concept because it shifts (some) weight away from the cross onto the resurrection.

But I too have difficulty helping those in the congregation with this topic. I feel it is absolutely central, yet if I were to preach it, rather than share through one-one-one or smaller study situations I am afraid to be ousted as a heretic!

Unfortunately for now I simply cringe when the song "I'll fly away" is played and half the congregation gets more excited than ever. Alas for many who have lived a long full life, looking forward to "leaving this earth" is precisely (or... imprecisely?) what they will be doing. We don't know about the intermittent period between now and the resurrection of all things in concrete understanding.

Troubled times. I even struggle sharing with the youth ministry for fear a more mature congregation member will here this "kingdom talk" and think we are part of a liberal theology not believing in eternity or in their mind "heaven and hell"

Which, let's be honest, many of the great saints in our church have spent up to 50, 60, and 70 years of their lives getting "souls saved" ... To try to alter their terminology seems like it is more harm than good.

Tough times right now trying to love people well by teaching and preaching a more thorough orthodoxy and here they think it is more watery and heretical than ever.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks! I have read _Surprised by Hope._ A good book.

Carrie Hopkins said...

I am currently teaching Surprised By Hope in my Sunday School class. I don't think we should shy away from clarifying this type of theology even if it goes against the grain of the "Left Behind" mentality. Why should we not challenge views that are based on Platonism more than on scripture? I am especially enjoying teaching the powerful doctrine of the ascension and how it plays out in our lives as Christians operating in the Kingdom of God. I am also looking forward to Wright's book on the Psalms.

Brian - I understand your concerns about preaching/teaching doctrine that will sound heretical to some in our congregations, but in reality are a return to classic Christian belief. I think we should begin talking about the Kingdom of God with our children and youth - don't perpetuate the same misguided thinking by saying nothing at all!

C.S. Lewis would be proud.