Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Heaven/Earth Combo Pack

I find myself in the mood to think about heaven today. Maybe just throw out a few opinions that have been brewing in me over the last few years. I was convicted not too long ago that I had not properly elevated resurrection to its proper place in my theology and the practical application of my faith. For many years as young Christian I would have said that the goal of faith is to attain an other-worldly "heaven" after death. Resurrection was a truth that took a back seat to heaven defined as some sort of disembodied experience that existed only after death. Then, beginning in the late 1990's, I discovered the centrality of the Kingdom of God to Jesus' message, life and person. I clearly saw that this sort of wait-to-die-other-worldy-heaven is not the goal of following Jesus; but, if anything, perhaps a future reality of the results of life with God in the present. I began to see that most of the time the word "heaven" is used in the New Testament it references the reality of the current and future reign of God, as opposed to some purely futuristic time and place floating in another future dimension.

Over the last two years I have been challenged primarily through the teachings of theologians like N.T. Wright and Tim Keller to consider more fully the "after-life" implications of a Kingdom-centered, Resurrection-centered theology. I have come in recent years to believe that God is a material God working within a material universe. This means, to me, that God is the God of "stuff" and always does his work in the context of his "stuff." This is true of the creation account, the story of Israel, the incarnation of Christ and the advent of the church. God uses the material stuff he has made, including people, to live out his story. I have come to believe that this material universe was not created to simply be reduced to some spiritual other-worldy existence in the future. In the final analysis, I believe that God will keep and redeem more of his stuff than he will destroy. Of course, some of what the Bible says about the after-life is cryptic and some passages seem to be, at least on the surface, saying subtly different things. (I apologize for speaking in generalities. I am simply not particularly in the mood to document my opinions today. This is more of a brain dump than a fully realized position piece...)

Today I believe in resurrection. I believe in redemption. I believe that I will live again on a new (redeemed/fixed) earth that has been invaded by a new heaven. Heaven will come to earth fully and drive out all that which is hell. This will be a mystery, but I have opinions about it these days. Namely, I think we will have families, friends, jobs, houses and chocolate cake. I think we will continue to write, create art, make business, have dinner parties and play golf. (My dad will be happy about this - at least the golf part.) I think that "heaven" will look a lot like earth does today - minus the hellish and evil parts of it. Many react strongly to this idea when I say it. "Why would I want to live like this forever?" is often the response. It is hard to grasp, but what if your life was reduced only to the moments where God is fully reigning in your heart and world, when your joy is complete in him, when you are love and loved, using your gifts, thriving in life. We have all had those experiences - maybe only for a few minutes here or there. I think that the new Heaven/Earth Combo Pack will look a lot like that. We will be physically resurrected to life after we die. We will be ushered back to populate a properly functioning earth/heaven that is built for us to thrive as fully human. It will be like the Garden of Eden turned City of God - God's real-time, real-world social network built out of humanity's best potential realized under God's direct reign.

This does things to my emotions that my previous concepts of heaven did not allow. It means that for many of the passions deep inside me, the clock is not necessarily clicking. Perhaps I will be free, for instance, to try a few careers that interest me after I die and am resurrected. (We were gardeners in Eden before the fall. We had tasks, jobs, careers. Why would the new Heaven/Earth Combo Pack be so different?)

This all makes me wonder if I should think differently about the idea of human struggle in what we commonly call the after-life. We know that the new post-resurrection Combo Pack will be a place of "no more death or mourning or crying or pain." I have come to wonder of late - now aloud - about the meaning of this though. Death will be beaten through Jesus and our resurrections. I can get that. Life everlasting hurts my brain but I can begin to imagine it at least. What is hard to imagine is a life without struggle. I ask questions like, would I really want to play golf if I always got a hole in one? Or would I desire to write a screenplay if I knew it would be perfect from the beginning of the process? Or why create a piece of art if it will be flawless without much effort on my part? I am thinking aloud and may be bordering on some sort of heresy, but I wonder if we confuse "work" with pain sometimes. I wonder if it is so inherently human to struggle, that struggling will continue in the Combo Pack. Perhaps, I would suggest, we grow to find the joy in these struggles. Maybe we will be so calibrated to God - so able to see all we do as worship - that our "failures" won't create pain but only desire to serve him better. Maybe the after-life, in this hypothesis, isn't about us being perfect but being perfectly fitted for life with God in the context of our humanity and his direct presence.

I reserve the right to be off base with most of this. But it does put some things in perspective today for me. My current relationships somehow matter more if they continue in the Combo Pack. My career and hobbies matter more. My city matters way more if it will someday be a part of the combined new heaven/new earth. Resurrection somehow makes eternity tangible. It means eternity has already started and we are living in it. It begins to chip away at some of the great mysterious statements uttered by Jesus. Namely, that the Kingdom of God has come now...and will fully come later.

Maybe my ramblings today could just lead you to ask different questions. One question to start with: What if "heaven" was more about God coming back to earth than us going to be with God? It seems, at least, like that is the way John envisioned it in Revelation:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.


Joshua said...


Didn't Agent Smith explain this to Morpheus? How we couldn't handle perfection? :)

I think of heaven not as a place where I will instantly be a perfect virtuoso at anything I attempt, but more as a place where I will have an infinite amount of time to practice. And perfect memory will help, too. So I could become very good at anything I wish, by just taking the time, which I will have in unlimited supply. I like some of John Eldredge's similar ideas on heaven from his book The Journey of Desire.

Jonathan said...

Great post Joe. The association of work with pain strikes me as having been part of the other package deal at the Fall when heaven on earth came undone. It's so easy to confuse the two now - if it's hard or frustrating, why do it? Similar to what you've said, I think our struggles and frustrations will be reframed in the afterlife, and not disappear. They'll be challenges instead of struggles because we'll have joy and hope (or will there be no more need for hope?) I think of them being more like big adventures than struggles, like the feeling I had when I first started learning to play the guitar, or animate motion graphics.

amymck said...

Or perhaps although we can say today that we can do all things in Christ, but we really don't always believe it deep down, or aren't always successful in the end, but in Heaven (whether it be here or "there") we will always succeed. I don't think we'd lose the joy in doing things that come easily, in fact how much more enjoyable will it be to find success at things we always had to work hard to do well at let alone excel at but now could attain w/ grace and ease. The end of your post made me think that although as Christians we say we are waiting for Christ's return, that if we lived that way, really lived as if we were waiting as if His return would be the beginning of this everlasting new life, than wouldn't be truly be living our lives differently? Our goals and visions should be striving to prepare us and others for that new lifestyle, to start thinking in that new frame of mind, so maybe we can imagine what it's like to have that true hope that we can do all things in Christ, although, I know you might know, for me now, that's a bit of challenge. Thanks for challenging me to think more about these things.

A Modern Ancient said...

"Perhaps I will be free, for instance, to try a few careers that interest me after I die and am resurrected."

This concept has made me rethink the catholic idea of patron saints. Their idea is that those who have physically died are awaiting resurrection in the presence of God and have already begun to experience this new heaven/earth. While they wait for the complete fulfillment, God has given them jobs to do... oversee the administration of God's will in this or that. Thus, just like Jesus gave his followers the ability to do "even greater works" than he performed here on earth, the Godhead has given specific believers awaiting resurrection the ability to act on God's behalf in this world. It goes back to your concept of having purpose in heaven other than simply raising our hands and voices in praise... we will worship God through the divine tasks given to us by the Almighty One. The idea of work = worship is very Calvin, and if we don't ascribe to "soul sleep" then I think the idea of patron saints is actually very consistent with what you are talking about here.

Also, I love how Revelation 21's "new heaven & earth & Jerusalem" comes straight out of Isaiah 65:

"For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress."