I have to write a piece for the Christian Century on a lectionary passage. I decided on writing something on Revelation 7:-9-17. It’s kind of a fitting text, because it deals with the afterlife (or could be interpreted that way). Right now I’m a little frustrated on the subject of heaven. My views of heaven have changed over the years, but I’ve mostly believed that there was something beyond this life, this plane of existence.
The problem I have with heaven is not as much the concept, but the people around me who don’t put much stock in it.
One of the things I’ve noticed happening in liberal/progressive Christianity is a de-emphasis on the afterlife. Very few folk actually say that thinking about heaven is a waste of time, but I think deep down there are a number of people who really do think that there is nothing beyond the grave.
The reasons for this de-emphasizing of heaven are quite understandble. Sometimes heaven has been used as a way to minimize what ever injustice is taking place in the present, here on earth. Heaven sometimes can become escapist, focused on some unknown future instead of the known present.
While I understand this, I wonder if a heavenless Christianity is what we really want. For a lot of progressives, a faith without an afterlife is logical. Instead of placing trust in something that is nothing more than superstition, we are focusing on taking care of the poor and oppressed and creating “heaven on earth” now. In the wake of demythologizing Christianity; doing away with things like the virgin birth or the ressurection, it makes sense to jettison the afterlife as well.
I think heaven does still matter, but I think it means something very different than what I used to think when I was a kid. I still think there is someplace beyond this reality. But how that happens and what is it for has changed for me over the years. In someways the same Progressive Christianity that has played down heaven, also gave me a way to see heaven differently without having to give it up.
As usual, it’s been the Lutherans that have helped me immensely.
I remember my senior worship class at Luther Seminary. Mons Teig, the professor of worship, lead through the funeral liturgy. What I remember from that experience is that a funeral has to preach hope in the future ressurrection. The service is NOT about preaching someone into heaven or hell, but to keep people focused on the future hope, when we will arise whole and healed.
This is something I’ve held on to. It helped me when I had to conduct my first funeral service which was a suicide.
This take on the afterlife was less about harps and streets of gold than it was about being ressurected like Jesus. The afterlife was less a place, than it was a state of being.
A few years ago, theologian N.T. Wright shared a view of the afterlife that was different than most people tend to think. In some ways, this is approximate version of “heaven” that I have. Wright has this to say about the traditional view of heaven:
The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed, if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don’t just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working.
When Paul speaks in Philippians 3 of being “citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we shall retire there when we have finished our work here. He says in the next line that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own. Jesus will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. This little statement contains in a nutshell more or less all Paul’s thought on the subject. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes.
Similarly, in Colossians 3:1–4, Paul says that when the Messiah (the one “who is your life”) appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. Paul does not say “one day you will go to be with him.” No, you already possess life in him. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility.
The clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8:9–11. If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, says Paul, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit, not to what many people have thought of as a spiritual body in the sense of a nonphysical one, but “to your mortal bodies also.”
Other New Testament writers support this view. The first letter of John declares that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The resurrection body of Jesus, which at the moment is almost unimaginable to us in its glory and power, will be the model for our own. And of course within John’s gospel, despite the puzzlement of those who want to read the book in a very different way, we have some of the clearest statements of future bodily resurrection. Jesus reaffirms the widespread Jewish expectation of resurrection in the last day, and announces that the hour for this has already arrived. It is quite explicit: “The hour is coming,” he says, “indeed, it is already here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
The result of this view of the next stage has implications for mission:
The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.
If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are made, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the “now, already” of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the “not yet.” The world of space, time, and matter is where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community, the community where anarchy means that bullies (economic and social as well as physical) will always win, where the weak and vulnerable will always need protecting, and where the social and political structures of society are part of the Creator’s design.
And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus’ resurrection must be the church that goes to work precisely in that space, time, and matter. The church claims this world in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’ lordship, and of the Spirit’s power. Councils and parliaments can and often do act wisely, though they will always need scrutiny and accountability, because they in turn may become agents of bullying and corruption.
Now, I don’t know if Wright has this all down to a science. What I do know is that something will happen to us and to all of creation in the future. As Christians we do mission and work for justice to point to that future hope.
And I think that at the end of the day, that’s why we need some concept of heaven. Not as a reward for good people, but as a place where God rules. We work because we know one day heaven and earth will come together. Our work points to that future hope. In this way, heaven isn’t an escape, but a reminder to be at work for God’s kingdom is on the way.
I think not focusing on this view of heaven or the afterlife weakens the Christian faith. That future hope is the reason we work for justice and learn to love those around us. We do all of this because we are heralds of the new kingdom. We work to bring a taste of the future now. We preach hope because we know that evil will never have the last word.
Heaven is a hard concept for anyone to grasp. I don’t know what is immediately beyond death. What I do know is that God will be there with us and that in the end God will win. If heaven is anything, it’s this: God wins.
Now that’s something to hope for.
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