Michael Spencer has had an interesting blog series on Heaven. Michael does not disbelieve in heaven but he does note the paradox of our modern definition of the Gospel being about “going to heaven when you die” and the absence of this emphasis in the Scriptures themselves. He titles this series “Too Much Heaven” and it (so far) has three parts. You can review them for yourself here, here, and here. I urge everyone to read this series.
In many ways, Spencer’s series expands upon my original posting “Is the Gospel about Heaven?. In that original post I noted the following:
Yet the “you can go to heaven when you die” message is not the gospel as presented by Jesus at all. You want proof? Find this phrase in the Bible anywhere: “Accept Jesus into your heart and then you will go to heaven when you die.” You may be able to find pieces of that statement spread out over several epistles, but nowhere is that single entire phrase found in the Bible. No where. Don’t you find that somewhat confusing? If that statement is the Gospel, why isn’t it repeated many times throughout the Bible? Why is it not on the lips of Peter and Paul over and over again in Acts? Why is it not repeated in Romans and Corinthians and Galatians? Why is it not mentioned in whole cloth even once?
It is not mentioned in whole cloth even once because the garment of the modern Gospel is not made of that material. The emphasis of the New Testament for the after-life is not on our spiritual presence in heaven (whatever that is) but on our bodily resurrection on this earth. Because of the resurrection, even after death, earth is our home and not heaven. Accordingly, our primary task is not to seek out ways to escape this planet but to be good stewards of the treasures it offers.
I admit life is hard. Tragedy appears all around us and the older I get the more I realize that death takes its toll long before our bodies stop breathing. The Power of Death chips away at us, little by little as the years go on. It poisons our relationship and then tears them apart at the end. But if we concentrate on the tragedy, we distort the whole. For Genesis told us that God made the world “good.” Once the full process was done, in fact, He called it very good. The goodness has been distorted, sometimes painfully by our willful disgrace of God. But to ignore the goodness that remains is also to give in to the distortion. More than that, it seems to smack to me of a degree of ingratitude. Much of our heavenly emphasis in the Gospel seems to me to be ungrateful for the remaining goodness in God’s creation. Michael Spencer hints at this insight in his own article.
When someone implies that real Christians want to go to heaven now, I have absolutely no resonance with that sentiment at all. I am a person of this world, and the goodness of God that I know has come to me in the land of the living. I believed in God’s promises for a new creation, but I don’t want to go there now. I want to see my dad and mom again, yes. But I want to be with my beautiful wife and wonderful children, go to work, read a good book, enjoy a ball game and walk my dog.
He then states, “When it comes to this subject, give me Judaism any day.” Therein lies the difference. The Judaism of Jesus day, excluding the Sadducees, believed in resurrected and not a heavenly afterlife. It is a doctrine, or at least an emphasis that we have lost and need to recover.
Resurrection does not imply that all is right with the earth. After all, for most of us death must precede resurrection. Yet the doctrine, unlike our modern vision of heaven, does not abandon the earth either. God is not only going to restore our bodies to us, he is going to restore us to our home as well. The home we get back will be the same one leave. Our newly restored bodies will exist in some fashion on a new earth. In the end, it is not we that will go to heaven as much as it will be heaven that comes to us.
We see this very teaching in two of the basic passages that are, paradoxically again, often used to present the exact opposite: that of “the rapture” and that of the New Jerusalem. I will discuss the rapture issue in the remainder of this post. The New Jerusalem will be discussed in the next. (For those interested, my discussion will continue on Gentile Ethics as “grafted in Israelites” after that. I am taking a mental break.)
The basic passage used in support of the rapture is 1 Thess 4:13-18:
But we would not have you ignorant, brothers, concerning those that fall asleep; that you do not sorrow, even as the rest, who have no abiding confidence. For if we trust that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way those also that have fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, that are left to the royal arrival (Gr. Parousia) of the Lord, shall in no way precede those that have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from the sky, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in the Anointed shall rise first; then we who are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and in this way shall we ever be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.(CGV)
Most assume the verse teaches that Christ’s coming is some sort of boomerang effect in that he comes from the Sky, grabs all the believers and then returns with them back into heaven. Yet, if this was what the passage really taught, then on it’s own it provides the death knell to the teaching of “going to heaven when you die.” For the passage does not say that at Christ’s coming, those who were dead were in heaven and came with him. Read it again. Those who were dead or “asleep in the Lord” rose up in their graves at the time of his coming and not before. If the dead were already in heaven, then why does Christ have to come at the “rapture” to get them? The comfort Paul gives is not that the believers are in heaven after their death, but that they will come back to life and join those still living when Christ returns.
That is about a physical as it gets. Dead bodies rise and then join living bodies in the air to meet Christ. In short, the passage is about bodily resurrection. The statement that “God will bring with him [Jesus] is the what; the bodies being raised up from the graves is the “How.” Our ultimate goal is resurrection and not heaven. We shall live again after death as we are now, a bodily being energized by the breath of God. The only major difference is that death—in its big and even its naggingly little ways—will be no more.
Next: Is I Thess really describing a snatch and grab operation back to heaven?