Posts Tagged ‘heaven’

We love you, Tom Wright, but haven’t you said this many times before?

October 27, 2016

No one on this blog will question my bona fides as an admirer of N.T. Wright. Heck, I just quoted him a couple of hours ago!

But I don’t think I need to read his new book on atonement. I feel like I’ve already read it, based on Scot McKnight’s blog posts about it, including this one. I had to reply to one commenter who said the following about Wright’s views on penal substitution:

He uses a lot of plural pronouns (as in “…we have paganized soteriology”) and hints at widespread distortions (as in “The danger with this kind of popular teaching, and examples of it are not hard to come by…”). As though he, and all the rest of us, have been doing it all wrong. Or is it maybe just us?

I’m a fan of his, even when I disagree, but he often does come off as being the guy who’s finally figured it all out. Most of the caricatures he tilts at are routinely spoken against by committed PSA advocates. So who and what exactly he is refuting?

To this I wrote:

Exactly! Very well said. Even Wright’s constant refrain against speaking of “heaven” as opposed to “new creation” rings a bit hollow to me—at least by the 348th time he’s labored to emphasize that distinction.

One of my eccentric hobbies is collecting sermons by Billy Graham on vinyl records. My point is, I’ve heard a lot of old sermons. Most of these are from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s true that Graham always referred to our eschatological future as “heaven,” but he never did so in a way that implied, as Wright would have us believe, that heaven was disembodied or independent of resurrection and new creation. On the contrary, he spoke of these things, too.

Wright’s “Yes, but…” approach regarding heaven also misses one important point: While I totally appreciate that Christ’s victory on the cross and his resurrection mean so much more than “heaven when I die,” I can’t escape the fact that, selfishly speaking, the best part of Christ’s victory is… ahem… heaven when I die. Say whatever you want about it, that’s incredibly good news!

That when I die, I don’t lose the best of this life, including my loved ones within it… How could that not be the best news of all?

I don’t think I’m wrong to feel that way, even as I appreciate the importance of new creation, victory over the principalities, etc.

Wright on “treasure in heaven”

July 17, 2015

More than any other contemporary Christian thinker, N.T. Wright has reminded us that at the center of our Christian hope is future resurrection into God’s renewed, restored, and re-created world on the other side of death, Second Coming, and final judgment. Merely going to “heaven when we die,” he says many times over, pales in comparison and doesn’t do justice to the biblical message.

I agree for the most part, although popular Christian thinkers from previous generations—I’m thinking of Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis, for instance—often had this full-bodied vision even when they used the word “heaven”—as many do today.

Nevertheless, Wright is right that the popular imagination often pictures heaven as an escape from this world—as a place where we’ll float on clouds in some disembodied, ethereal place far, far away. This picture of heaven pervades many 19th century hymns that remain popular today—not to mention many dumb Hollywood movies.

I find these words from Wright about “treasure in heaven” in the story of the Rich Young Ruler helpful:

When Jesus says ‘You will have treasure in heaven’, he doesn’t mean that the young man must go to heaven to get it; he means that God will keep it stored up for him until the time when, in the Age to Come, all is revealed. The reason you have money in the bank is not so that you can spend it in the bank but so that you can take it out and spend it somewhere else. The reason you have treasure in heaven, God’s storehouse, is so that you can enjoy it in the Age to Come when God brings heaven and earth together at last. And ‘eternal life’, as most translations put it, doesn’t mean ‘life in a timeless, otherworldly dimension’, but ‘the life of the Age to Come’ (the word ‘eternal’ translates a word which means ‘belonging to the Age’).

Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 135.

The “joined-up heaven-and-earth reality”

November 29, 2014


A parishioner mentioned, almost in passing, that she knew that her recently deceased mother was having a great time in heaven. Then she paused. “Well, not heaven, because that won’t happen until the resurrection of the dead. I meant to say Paradise. I know she’s enjoying Paradise.”

While I rarely correct anyone who confuses the intermediate state—where believers go immediately upon death—with our ultimate destiny—resurrection into a transformed world in which heaven and earth have become one—I was impressed that she corrected herself. That shows some theological nuance that I didn’t possess until seminary.

I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that in the Baptist church in which I grew up, we didn’t talk about any distinction in the afterlife. “Heaven” was it, “heaven” was some place far removed from earth, and “heaven” happened immediately upon death. Whether “heaven” was a fully embodied state of being didn’t matter to us. We just wanted to get there! Keep in mind, we didn’t say any creeds in the Baptist church, so we weren’t reminded weekly that we believe in the resurrection of the dead or that we “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

N.T. Wright has done more to elucidate our ultimate Christian hope better than any contemporary Christian thinker: our accent shouldn’t be on life after death, but life after life after death. In his For Everyone commentary on Acts 1:9-14, which, along with verse 8, will be my text for tomorrow’s sermon, he continues to do so.

Part of the point of Jesus’ resurrection is that it was the beginning of precisely that astonishing and world-shattering renewal. It wasn’t just that he happened to be alive again… It was, rather, that because on the cross he had indeed dealt with the main force of evil, decay and death itself, the creative power of God, no longer thwarted as it had been by human rebellion, could at last burst forth and produce the beginning, the pilot project, of that joined-up heaven-and-earth reality which is God’s plan for the whole world…

But once we grasp that ‘heaven and earth’ mean what they mean in the Bible, and that ‘heaven’ is not, repeat not, a location within our own cosmos of space, time and matter, situated somewhere up in the sky…, then we are ready, or as ready as we are likely to be, to understand the ascension… Neither Luke nor the other early Christians thought Jesus had suddenly become a primitive spaceman, heading off into orbit or beyond, so that if you searched throughout the far reaches of what we call ‘space’ you would eventually find him. They believed that ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ are the two interlocking spheres of God’s reality, and that the risen body of Jesus is the first (and so far the only) object which is fully at home in both and hence in either, anticipating the time when everything will be renewed and joined together. And so, since as T.S. Eliot said, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’, the new overwhelming reality of a heaven-and-earth creature will not just yet live in both dimensions together, but will make itself—himself—at home within the ‘heavenly’ dimension for the moment, until the time comes for heaven and earth to be finally renewed and united.[†]

N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 12-3.

The dimension in which human suffering finds an answer

May 16, 2013

Years ago a Christian friend told me he didn’t need heaven to bring meaning to his life or to redeem his suffering. He wasn’t against it, mind you, and if he found himself there one day, then that’s all well and good. But he was concerned about heaven as a reward for good behavior: to want or expect some kind of repayment for doing the right thing, in his view, contradicted the law of Christ-like love. Besides, for himself, life in this world was good enough. Surely he would only be ungrateful to expect or ask for more.

C.S. Lewis deals with this objection to heaven nicely in his chapter on the subject in The Problem of Pain, including this:

Again, we are afraid that heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object.[1]

I hadn’t read The Problem of Pain when my friend said this, although I got him to agree with me that the scales of justice can’t be balanced apart from eternity. Among many other things, heaven means that justice will be done. Maybe he doesn’t need justice, but would he deny it to others? Not everyone lives such a comfortable middle-class, suburban existence, after all.

Still, for a moment, he made me feel ashamed: I happen to be a comfortable middle-class, suburban Christian who does want and hope for heaven for any number of reasons. I worried for a moment that something was wrong with me.

Suffice it to say, I don’t worry about that anymore.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl describes a group therapy session in which he helps a patient make sense of her suffering. I love his analogy:

After a while I proceeded to another question, this time addressing myself to the whole group. The question was whether an ape which was being used to develop poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter into the world of man, i.e., the only world in which the meaning of its suffering would be understandable. Then I pushed forward with the following question: “And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?”[2]

Christianity obviously makes sense of this dimension in which human suffering will an answer.

Let me include one more excerpt from the Frankl book. I can’t promise that this passage doesn’t appeal to me because I’m 43 and have (already, God forgive me!) known the pointlessness of “waxing nostalgic over lost youth.” In part, this blog is my “jotting down a few diary notes” as I remove another leaf on the calendar.

The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and filed it neatly and carefully with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are event he things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”[3]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 149.

2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 118.

3. Ibid., 121-2.

Heaven is hard to imagine, but…

October 22, 2012

Is there a lead-lined umbrella to protect us from prying eyes in heaven?

For the past 17 years, whenever a significant milestone in my life occurred—graduations, the birth of my children, ordination—I could count on my Aunt Mary, who died a couple of weeks ago, telling me how confident she was that her late brother, my dad, was “looking down on me” and feeling pride at my accomplishment.

I would never tell her this, but the thought that Dad had the equivalent of a 50-yard-line club-level seat in heaven, viewing all the significant events in my life, never comforted me. On the contrary, if deceased loved ones can see us at our best, what’s stopping them from seeing us at our worst? Speculating about what the dead in Christ can and can’t see down here makes me think of Superman’s X-ray vision. Will a lead-lined umbrella protect me from prying eyes?

The larger problem, however, isn’t my concern for privacy: It’s that now, when I think of heaven, I’m thinking of comic books and superheroes and X-ray vision. I’m thinking of people who live somewhere up there looking at us down here—as if heaven were a place up in the sky. In other words, this way of speaking of heaven makes it seem unreal, which does not help!

The truth is, I struggle to believe in heaven sometimes. It often feels like pie-in-the-sky. Wishful thinking. Too good to be true. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’ve known a few Christians—intellectuals, like me—who say that they don’t need heaven; that it’s enough for them to know God now, and enjoy this gift of life now. They don’t exactly deny the afterlife, but if there is one, it’s just the cherry on top. Heaven isn’t essential to their faith. Moreover, they don’t let hope for an afterlife sully their motives for doing good now. Heaven, they say, won’t be a bribe for good behavior.

To which I say, Spare me, please! I don’t believe you. I think that you struggle to believe in heaven for the same reasons I do. You’re worried that it’s not real, and you don’t want to be disappointed (as if you would experience disappointment if this life were all there is). But instead of confronting the difficulty head-on, reasoning your way through it, you side-step it entirely. Then you pretend that it’s the honorable thing to do.

No, I stand with the apostle Paul, the cold-eyed realist on the matter of the afterlife, who said, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Logically speaking, there’s no evading the fact that without heaven, we Christians are—to put it no more strongly—wasting our time and wasting our lives. Needless to say, my vocation as a Christian pastor is laughably absurd.

But see… that’s just the thing. If, like me, you struggle with heaven, then the moment you read the previous paragraph, something in your heart objected: No way! The way of Christ-like love is good. Self-denial and self-sacrifice are good. It’s good to be a peacemaker. It’s good to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and take care of the sick. Something inside of you wants the captives to be released, the blind to have their vision restored, and the oppressed to be liberated. Don’t you feel this in your bones?

If so, then you can also feel in your bones the logic of heaven. While I may entertain doubts about deceased loved ones looking down on us from above, and other popular, self-serving depictions of heaven, I don’t doubt for a moment my strong desire for justice to be fully and finally done (not against me, mind you, but at least for others). So forget about me, my eternal well-being, my survival beyond the grave, my reunion with departed loved ones. Apart from heaven, it’s impossible that the scales of justice can ever be balanced, or that the Good will be vindicated. Therefore, I find a future that doesn’t include heaven intolerable.

Obviously, this just scratches the surface of the topic. I haven’t said a word about the intermediate state versus full-bodied resurrection, our ultimate Christian hope. I haven’t discussed my favorite writing on the subject, which comes from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. But I got to thinking about these things when I read John Koessler’s recent article in Christianity Today, “Why It’s Hard to imagine Heaven is Real.” You might appreciate it, too. He nicely describes the problems that make heaven hard to believe in. I especially liked this part:

Heaven as we have traditionally pictured it is an uninspiring place, a subject of clichés and the butt of jokes. Heaven is the green space where our loved ones go after they die, not unlike the cemetery itself. It is a quiet and comfortable spot from which our deceased parents and grandparents view significant events like graduations, weddings, family reunions, and presumably their own funerals. Like spectators on a hill who watch from a great distance, they “look down upon us” but cannot do much else.

Such affairs are tedious enough for the living. One can only wonder what they would be like for souls who were permitted to watch but not participate. Would they find our small talk about yesterday’s game or our employer’s irritating behavior to be interesting? Would they enjoy knowing that we miss them? Would they be distressed at the sight of our troubles? If this is heaven, then its inhabitants are more like Marley’s ghost than the angels. They might seek to interfere for good, but lack the power to do so.

If heaven is only a distant gallery from which the departed observe affairs as they unfold on earth, then it is a dull place indeed. It is more like that boring relative’s house your parents forced you to visit when you were a kid—the one without Nintendo or any children your own age—than the place where God’s throne dwells. This popular view of heaven pictures a realm so removed that our voice will not carry to its shores. It is close enough for the departed to watch us but too far away to have any real effect on earth. It is too removed from our present experience to sustain our interest and too far in the future to be of help in the present.

Heaven when we die?

August 4, 2012

HIlton Head Island. This isn’t heaven, but resurrection means that God saves this as well.

When I was a young Christian, no doctrine was clearer to me than the doctrine of heaven: If we accept Christ as savior and Lord, we can be assured of heaven when we die. Heaven was the point of it all, right? Heaven was certainly the theme of every youth retreat I went on—the promise that beckoned unbelievers—”with every head bowed and every eye closed”—to make a tearful decision to repent of their sins and follow Christ.

I don’t mean to be too critical: I made a profession of faith in this kind of emotional setting. And, thank God, it stuck! I’m still following Jesus to this day!

But by the time I was in my twenties, this simplistic idea of heaven began to fall apart for me. It felt like pie-in-the-sky, an “opiate of the masses,” a bribe for good behavior (as C.S. Lewis put it). I didn’t stop believing in the afterlife, only that there must be something more to it. Whatever heaven is, it must be deeper than just the eternal party in the sky—or worse, eternal choir in the sky—that many preachers and evangelists of my youth made it out to be.

In the ’90s, Elvis Costello, a favorite singer-songwriter of mine, wrote a not-very-good song called “This Is Hell,” in which he said that “heaven is hell in reverse.” He meant that while heaven and hell start in very different places, they both reach the same boring steady-state of tedium. I knew that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t exactly say why.

Then I went to seminary. What was missing, I discovered, in my earlier doctrine of heaven was resurrection, not merely the resurrection of Jesus—which I interpreted to mean that there was life after death—but resurrection of the dead, that phrase at the end of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds: there will come a day (if it even makes sense to speak in temporal terms) when the dead in Christ will be re-embodied. God will give us transformed bodies, in continuity with the bodies that we have now but different: no longer able to suffer decay and death. What Christ is in resurrection now, we will become some day—on the other side of the Second Coming.

In a similar way, all Creation will be redeemed and renewed. Heaven will not be a place far away. Rather, heaven itself will come down to this earth, a transformed earth, as Revelation 21 describes. Our heavenly home, in other words, is very close to our present home—different but in continuity with the world we know now.

We can’t make this happen ourselves—there’s no sense in talking about the Church’s bringing heaven to earth. The new world won’t happen apart from God’s miraculous intervention at the end of history. But the good work that we do for God’s kingdom now will somehow become a part of this new Creation. As N.T. Wright has said, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, but I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.”[1]

This was a profoundly liberating idea to me. Honestly… grasping the centrality of resurrection to our Christian hope was the single most important thing I learned in seminary.

But that raises a problem: If our ultimate hope is not “heaven when we die,” but resurrection in God’s good future, what about the faithful departed? Where are they?

In seminary, I studied the systematic theology of contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, who was quite clear on the subject: When you die, you’re just dead, at least until resurrection. Pannenberg would say that there is no life apart from the body—that the idea of an immortal and immaterial soul is a Platonic idea that the Church unwisely imported into Christian theology.

We are instead psychosomatic creatures, bodies and souls bound together. There’s no sense in talking about a life apart from the body. Therefore, there is no afterlife apart from physical resurrection. Many Christians who’ve never read Pannenberg have called this “soul sleep,” and there are verses in Paul’s letters that suggest this idea.

The weight of tradition, however, says otherwise. The consensus of Christian reflection on the subject says that there is an intermediate state between death and resurrection. I side with tradition. There are plenty of proof-texts to support such belief—accepted by many Christians, disputed by others—but I find Paul’s words in Philippians 1:18-26 most convincing.

We should be very cautious, however, about what we say about this intermediate state. When I counsel grieving families, I say with confidence that departed loved ones are resting safely with God, that God is caring for them, and that through our faith in Christ, we can be confident that we will be reunited with them in resurrection.

I sense that many evangelical Christians who, like me, grew up believing strongly in heaven and less in full-blown resurrection are wavering on the intermediate state. Some reject it altogether. I’m sympathetic, but I disagree with them. To give you an idea of this debate, however, please see this recent post over at Scot McKnight’s blog. Also, read the comments section!

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.

Rob Bell on heaven

August 3, 2011

While reserving judgment on what Rob Bell says about hell in his controversial new book, Love Wins, I loved this thing that he said about heaven:

So when people ask, “What will we do in heaven?” one possible answer is to simply ask: “What do you loved to do now that will go on in the world to come?”

What is it that when you do it, you lose track of time because you get lost in it? What do you do that makes you think, “I could do this forever”? What is it that makes you think, “I was made for this”?

If you ask these kinds of questions long enough you will find some impulse related to creation. Some way to be, something to do. Heaven is both the peace, stillness, serenity, and calm that come from having everything in its right place—that state in which nothing is required, needed, or missing—and the endless joy that comes from participating in the ongoing creation of the world.

Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 47-48.

Paradise now

March 22, 2011

In my sermon this past Sunday (which I’ll post soon), I argued for an interpretation of Luke 23:43 (“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”) that prior to last week I had never before considered… Thank you, William Willimon!

Willimon is a great preacher and theologian who was Dean of Duke University Chapel before being appointed a United Methodist bishop in Alabama. (I guess he was being punished?) Anyway, I’ve been reading his book about the seven last words of Christ called Thank God It’s Friday. In his chapter on this “second word” from the cross, Willimon quickly discarded everyone’s favorite interpretation of this verse—that this criminal on the cross received assurance from Jesus that he would go to heaven when he died—for something far more radical: Paradise begins now. Heaven begins now. Eternal life begins now.

Although Willimon has been a pastor, he can now say things without worrying about confused parishioners meeting him in the greeting line, asking, “Where did you get that?” It would have been helpful for him to back up his interpretation at least a little. So he left me to do the heavy lifting! Having done so, however, I wholeheartedly agree with Willimon. Read the rest of this entry »