There has recently been a great deal of hype stirred up by those claiming to have had out-of-body experiences of heaven. Bookstore shelves are filling up with them, and all of the media outlets are reporting on them.
I don’t want to speculate on the claims made by the kid who met Jesus or the agnostic neurosurgeon who has confessed to having experienced another dimension of reality. Maybe they did experience these things for real, or maybe neurons were simply misfiring in their brain. I’ll let you decide.
It’s not that I’m entirely skeptical of these subjective claims. I believe in heaven as a present reality. I also believe that the apostle John experienced something of this heaven, as he records in Revelation 4-5. So, I do believe in that realm the Scripture calls heaven—God’s space.
What concerns me is that many Christians have made more of these contemporary claims than they ought. We’ve allowed folk religion to shape enough of our theology as it is. And this infatuation with heaven says we have a ways to go in understanding the Gospel and the biblical future God has planned for heaven and earth.
Is heaven is for real? Well, of course it is. It doesn’t appear that the NT church had any doubts about it. They clearly believed in the present reality of heaven, but they were far more interested in something greater.
What fascinated the early church—driving the entire Gospel mission—was the biblical hope that God would bring heaven to earth. The Messiah was to be the one to make this happen, at least to initiate it and complete it. The Kingdom of God is all about this marriage of heaven and earth.
It’s God’s idea of new creation.
“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” Isaiah 65:17
The creation of a “new heavens and a new earth” is a transformation of the former things. It is a world transfigured like unto the physical body of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 17:1-9). Think about it.
The resurrected body of Christ was of its own kind. There is continuity with the old body and there is discontinuity as well (Lk. 24: 13-35, 36-49; Jn. 20:1-18, 24-31; 21:1-14). The resurrected body of Christ is heaven intersecting with earth. Therefore, the resurrected Jesus is proof of what God plans to do with the spiritual and physical dimensions of reality.
In Rev. 21-22 we do not see believers flying off to a disembodied spiritual existence on the other side of the cosmos. No, we see heaven coming to earth. We see heaven, God’s realm, breaking through and fully consummating with the physical realm we call earth.
We must rid ourselves of this mantra that speaks of going to heaven when we die, as if we will have come to the end of our journey.
Heaven is indeed where the Lord is presently, but it is not our final home (Ps. 14:2; 20:6; 33:13; Ecc. 5:2; Is. 66:1; Dan. 2:44; 7:27; Rev. 11:15).
If anything, heaven is only a temporal dwelling for those awaiting the resurrection of the dead. Jesus said there are “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house (Jn 14:2). The Greek word for “dwelling places” used here, monai, has regularly been used to refer to a temporary stop on an extended journey. Don’t merge this verse with Rev 21.
Even when Christ was on the cross, he told the thief on his left that “today” he would be with him in “paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This too doesn’t speak of a final destination, but of a temporal garden of rest.
All of the saints, past and present, still await the return of the King and the establishment of heaven on earth (Heb. 11:13-16; Rev. 6:10-11).
God’s desire has always been to complete his good work in the created world upon which every human being has ever lived.
For the Jew, there was a firm belief that God would restore creation and fulfill his covenant with his people. The Lord of heaven and earth would finally merge the two into one unified reality.
This resurrected world is called the “New Jerusalem” and the “Holy City” (Rev. 21:2). This newly remade world is our final destination. It is the Kingdom of God fully realized. In Revelation 21:5, Christ says:
“Behold, I am making all things new!”
And it is Christ that has the authority to say such things, for he was the first to be resurrected and be clothed with the imperishable.
Our hope is in a future resurrected existence in the “new heavens and earth.” The finished work of Christ is not fully realized until God makes his home on this earth. This should be our great obsession.
It is on this earth that Jesus prayed, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Heaven is indeed coming to earth. Jesus has called for its renewal and resurrection!
“Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 19
Give some serious thought to N.T. Wright’s description of this future reality.
Does your language about the future reflect this biblical hope? How do you think the pop-culture confusion on this theological issue impacts the way in which we live out the Kingdom on the earth?
D.D. Flowers, 2012.
December 10th, 2012 at 12:57 pm
The thing that amazes me is that so many of the church do seem to believe that we’ll be in heaven (celestial) forever and ever. I can only conclude that very few in the church have ever read, at least the book of the Revelation, let alone the rest of the Bible.
I’m not being snarky here. I have dear friends who are heavily invested in the celestial heaven idea and unable to hear any suggestion that this might not be quite the way the scriptures paint this picture. It’s heresy right out of the box and the ears shut down and the walls go up before any bit of even the most scriptural contradiction to this can sink in. It’s amazing. Most of them are now working their ways through their first reading of the Bible. I hope they make it through the OT so they can eventually read it all. It might be less than optimal to start with the OT . . . but then that’s off-topic, isn’t it? 😉
I read through the entire Bible for the first time in my early 20s, and I felt remiss for having waited so long. But I had read the NT through a few times before that (while misunderstanding/not understanding huge parts of it, of course — and I know I still have that fault regarding much of it), but in my memory I’ve never ever thought the church would be in the celestial heaven forever and ever. So my conclusion is that we (many of us) don’t get around to actually reading God’s word, and that’s why we get our “theology” from popular fiction & greeting cards.
It may be also that by the time (if and when) we DO get around to reading it, so many of our ideas are already set (we already “know” how things are) that we can’t even “see” what the writers are in fact saying. We interpret it to fit the things we “know” to be “true.” I’m a huge fan of the discovery/inductive bible study method because I think it makes you re-think a lot of things. You have to look closely in order to do this method, and in doing that, maybe you’ll find that the thing you thought was said was not in fact the thing that was written.
December 10th, 2012 at 1:31 pm
You said it, Cindy. By the time some folks get around to reading the Scripture, they force their preconceived ideas, years of sermons, and traditional perspectives into the text (eisegesis). We all must be aware of this as responsible Christians and interpreters of the Bible. I understand this tendency, but I have a difficult time tolerating close-minded folks who are unwilling to rethink a heavily suspect doctrine that can’t be substantiated by the biblical corpus.
Thanks for sharing!
December 11th, 2012 at 10:56 am
Heaven and Jesus Christ are inseparable, therefore where He is is heaven.
December 11th, 2012 at 2:30 pm
I suppose I would want to clarify what you mean here, Jim. 🙂
I would say “home” is where Jesus is, not heaven. I would use “heaven” in the strict biblical sense for that realm where God dwells. Since Christ is physically in “heaven” at the moment, Paul can say he will be “at home with the Lord.” However, “heaven” is not home because heaven (God’s dimension) is not the same as the future new heavens and earth. When God brings about this transformed world and Christ reigns on the throne there… that shall be our home. But this is not heaven, it is an entirely new existence in a renewed world.
December 11th, 2012 at 3:47 pm
David, I fully agree with your use of “home”, and this topic has been ‘on’ my spirit for several years. We understand that all of the fullness of the Father is in Christ, and we would also agree that Heaven is where (rather difficult term) Jesus is. And yes I do agree with you that Heaven is a realm that God dwells.
Paul stated in his letter to the church at Philippi:
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. ”
NT Wright has some thought provoking comments in this interview:
Thank you once again David for your ministry of love, I look forward to reading your posts, and the uplifting insight they provide.
Congratulations to you and your wife on the birth of your son!
December 11th, 2012 at 3:56 pm
Thanks, Jim! I appreciate your continued encouragement.
December 13th, 2012 at 10:36 am
Hi David, I just am finding your blog but have been following Viola, Barna, Sweet and just began reading/listening to Zens. I was not aware of their position on heaven until recently having read/heard N.T. Wright comment on the subject of heaven and the afterlife. In it all I’ve found a lot of affirmation in what my wife and I had thought we were seeing, too, in our private study of scripture.
One thing I’m unclear on yet, though, and perhaps you could help clarify at least what you’re saying. (I don’t expect you to speak for these other gentlemen, but perhaps too you’re more familiar with their positions than I am, having only recently stumbled upon the subject.)
In presenting the idea of heaven coming to earth and the idea of our purpose being to represent the kingdom of heaven here on earth, are you suggesting that it is our mission to reform the world, so-to-speak, into heaven?
Are you suggesting that universally the world is being changed or prepared by a universal “spirit of christ” towards heaven?
No doubt we, as the church, are to be the expression of Christ’s body here on earth and that God is effecting this world in a positive way by means of Christ’s presence among us.
However, in one of N.T. Wright’s talks (I’m not sure if its the one you’ve posted here or not) he seems to suggest that modern social justice, where government authorities exercise social justice for their people, is an example of this kingdom coming to earth. I this can become a little Dominionist if we’re not careful, but I’m not suggesting you or any of these others (Viola, Sweet, Zens, or Wright) are Dominionists.
December 13th, 2012 at 1:37 pm
N.T. Wright has most definitely been the pioneering scholarly voice to write and speak on the distinction between heaven (God’s space) and the new heavens and earth (future reality). Others, including myself, have been heavily influenced by his work. It’s been there all along, we just needed a skilled scholar and effective communicator to remind us of it. 🙂
There is disagreement among folks as to what this should look like. (e.g. I don’t believe that the church should attempt to hijack governments to further the kingdom of God, Wright encourages political involvement.)
However, I’m convinced that there is a great level of the Kingdom to be manifested on the earth through the church, much more than what we’ve imagined, though evil will remain to some extent until the return of Christ. This is a major shift away from premillenial-rapture “doom & gloom” thinking of the last century. I’ve been writing on this here at the blog.
Read my last blog update for info and links.
I don’t believe in dominion theology. My own theology would be a mix of ideas expressed by N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, George Eldon Ladd, Stanley Hauerwas, Greg Boyd and various Anabaptist writers. Something along the lines of a kingdom theology.
Thanks for reading, bro.
December 21st, 2012 at 10:50 am
I appreciate what you’ve written and agree. I’ve always looked at breathing my last breath here would be just entering into the beginning of what He truly has prepared for His people. I don’t adhere to the thinking about angels and harps and some kind of blissful state, but rather continuing to be a real, active part of His kingdom. Having said that I was listening to the radio this morning and I heard people saying what they would be doing today if it was they’re last day on earth. So then I thought about it and all I could think of was that I would be anticipating meeting my King face to face, because my life would not be ending. Then (I believe He told me) the thought came to me that I can and should do this every day that I’m here! I was convicted and encouraged at the same time. I believe things are shaping up in this world where the Kingdom of Christ is going to shine like never before, but it won’t look the way most of the religious world is thinking. Just like the first coming of Christ wasn’t not received or welcomed, His second coming and what precedes it will be earth shattering and amazing, but not well received by the masses. I just want to stay amazed by Him. I’m just glad to be a part. I hope your family has a blessed Christmas. Patrick
September 6th, 2013 at 8:30 am
I hope your followers will get hold of a copy of “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now,” which deals in-depth with this issue. According to the Genesis account, Adam was made OUT of the earth, FOR the earth, to FILL the earth, take DOMINION over the earth, be SUSTAINED by the earth, and will RETURN to the earth. The scope of salvation history is focused on earth. In the end we will inherit the earth,
Humans were not created angels to live in Heaven, nor with wings to traverse the skies and live in nests, nor with fins to live in the sea. We are made for earth.
Where did we ever get the idea the goal is Heaven? Could it be we have bought into Greek dualism?
September 28th, 2014 at 8:27 am
Yes, I am convinced that the traditional church has been influenced by pagan Hellenistic thought on the duality of the nature of man. Scripture, to my reading, clearly testifies that man will return to the Earth, sleep in the Earth as the consequence of sin is death, and then experience the resurrection from the Earth into the new creation at Christ’s second coming on the Great Day. Those whose names are written in the Book of Life will inherit the gifts of the New Creation: imperishable New Creation bodies. Those whose names are not writ in the Book of Life will suffer the judgment and the second death, perishing from existence, eventually. I believe an understanding of quantum physics and communicating multiverses support the proximity of God and Heaven to our perceived universe, yet remain just out of our grasp. The New Creation will bridge that divide that exists now.
September 29th, 2014 at 9:39 am