For the past two weeks I have taught on heaven and hell. This Sunday night we really re-imagined heaven and why it is vitally important in our every day lives. The common perception of heaven is that it is a place where believers go when they die. Someone (St.Peter, or Abraham) might be standing at the gates to look in the book of life to see if your name is there. In heaven you dance on streets of gold, you have a mansion and you endlessly worship the lord. You even walk on a beach and you look back and see one set of footprints…no wait that is a poem. But my point is that in Christianity this is the common perception of Heaven. The whole idea is that the earth is in decay, our bodies are in decay, and our spirit goes off to be with Jesus when our life ends.
But what if that is not at all what the Bible teaches?
If you go back and read the early Christian martyrs, what is their hope? Why do they so courageously walk to their deaths? Why are they not worried, they are thinking about how great their mansion is going to be right? Maybe they are thinking how sweet it would be to sleep on a cloud. That is actually the opposite of what is probably going through their heads. In Philippians 3:10-11 Paul wrote this: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Wait, that sounds crazy, Paul actually wants to be raised from the dead? Actually yes, and it wasn’t too crazy either. The Old Testament talks about resurrection (Isaiah 26:19 Ezekiel 37:4-10) Jesus debates it with some religious leaders of his day (Matthew 22:23-30). Jesus straight up says (John 5:24-29) that eternal life is associated with the “resurrection of the dead.” If this isn’t enough all of Christianity is based off the idea that Jesus was more than a good person, He was God and He rose from the dead. We celebrate this every year at Easter, but why don’t we celebrate that in addition to Jesus conquering death, so can you?
I know this is tough to grapple with. I’d challenge you to look through 1 Corinthians 15. Zero in on verses 12-15 where Paul confronts those of the church in Corinth who do not believe that resurrection is possible for them. This is what he says: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
The Bible teaches something far greater than Heaven, it teaches that we can be raised with Jesus. Call it heaven if it helps you sleep better at night. But the real question is raised to what?
Over and over in scripture we see a thread of teaching about a groaning earth. We read about a creation that hopes and waits for its redemption. We even read that our bodies will be redeemed at the resurrection (Romans 8:18-27). We read about the resurrection of Jesus (Luke 24) and see that he is fully alive. He died, went to paradise with the gentleman on his right (I’m just guessing the side see Luke 23:39-43) and came back to show his disciples what was in store for them. Paul talks about eagerly awaiting all of this (Philippians 3:20-21).
But what do we eagerly await? I think the Bible is clear that what our hope is in is Jesus redeeming all of creation, and bringing heaven to earth. In the final chapters of revelation we see a cosmic marriage of heaven and earth. (Revelation 21-22). God even says, “I am making all things new.” Some really brilliant theologians, like N.T. Wright, look at the resurrection of Jesus as the starting point of “making all things new.” If that is true, then God has been in a continual process of redeeming creation, for about 2000 years now. If that is true than we must re-think everything we do, because everything will last into eternity (absent the sin). What we write, say, paint, it is all lasting.
What are the implications of believing that Heaven is a place that we go to spend eternity with Jesus? If that is true, who cares about the planet that we are living on, we will be gone with Jesus! Who cares about righting economic injustice, if we simply save the socially marginalized then they will get a mansion one day too! While it is great to reveal the love of God to everyone, our theology on this matters. If we believe that God is in a constant state of “making all things new,” and he calls us to do His work, then not only are we to preach to the socially marginalized but we are to be creative in bettering their circumstances.
I do believe that like Jesus, we will die one day, go to paradise but one day rise again at the coming of Heaven on earth. So Heaven as many people think it, is not the final destination
***I understand that this is a major shift from conventional thinking. I’d recommend a read of N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” as he outlines it far better than I.