I seem to be getting drawn into lots of conversations about heaven lately. And I mean lots of them.
I don’t know if it is because Sheila and I are doing this series on Revelation or what. Maybe it just provides a comfortable way to make conversation with me (as I’ve said before, I’m not always the easiest person to engage in small talk). But one of the things that I inevitably end up talking about is how my perception of what scripture says about the “age to come” is evolving.
Even if you set aside, for the moment, the Left Behind phenomenon, which I know is pretty influential these days, my still developing perception of what the next age will be like is a little different from the ideas that were presented to me in earlier years.
In short, here is the end-times sequence that was usually presented to me:
1. At an unknown, completely unexpected time, Jesus will appear in the sky.
2. All of the living will be “raptured” at the same time as a resurrection of all the dead.
3. The earth is destroyed, never to be seen again.
4. At the threshold of heaven, all living and dead are judged. At this time, all peoples confess Jesus as Lord, although it will supposedly be too late for most confessors. (Won’t get back into that one right now!)
5. Those who are not “saved” (this is a loaded word, especially in modern evangelical circles – I’ve blogged about it before) are sent to hell, where they are punished for all eternity because they rejected the Lordship of Jesus.
6. Those who are “saved” spend eternity in heaven with God and their lost loved ones.
One of the things that is missing from this sequence, to me, is adequate respect for the “goodness” and glory of the physical universe itself. The presumption behind this model is that evertyhing we now know will end, so to speak, and we all then spend eternity in a completely different “place.”
Jesus and Paul, in particular, seemed to be concerned with understanding that there is a “present” age and a “coming” age. During the present age, the Kingdom of God is manifested (and witnessed to) in a fallen creation and people are being made new. The Kingdom of God is present in a mysterious way, and signs of it can be seen as the presense of Jesus is manifested thorugh his disciples, who speak his words and live as he did.
In the coming age, the “newness” of those in the fallen creation somehow ushers in a renewing (as opposed to the destruction) of God’s creation. Thus, the earth in which we live (and the heaven about which we now know very little) is made into something glorious, wonderful, and more akin to the “good” thing it was to begin with.
Do we, then, end up “living for eternity in heaven”, as the phrase goes? That is a question to which we don’t fully know the answer – but a lot of scripture suggests to me that the answer is “yes” and “no.”
“Yes” in the sense that, in the coming age, heaven and earth are no longer separate places with little interaction, a condition necessitated by the fall of man. Don’t forget, at the end of Revelation “heaven” (i.e., the New Jerusalem) descends into earth and becomes the hope and light of the new creation. “No” in the sense that our current, physical reality will apparently not “go away” to be replaced by something completely different. In other words, we will (again, apparently) still have some connection to an “earth” (whether it be “new” or “renewed”) that is not completely unlike the one we are in now.
Plus, I know this sounds weird, but I’m not so sure we should think of ourselves as being “non-physical” beings in the coming age. We have glorious, resurrected bodies, according to Paul, but they are bodies to be sure – and bodies which inhabit a creation that is described as a “redeemed” version of that which we inhabit now.
If these blatherings make no sense to you, a better way to get a picture of what I’m talking about is the last two or three chapters of The Last Battle, which is the final book in the Narnia series. Lewis’ description of existence in the next age is better than anything I’ve experienced anywhere else.
Why does this matter? Actually, it makes quite a difference. For example…
1. Investing in the Kingdom of God here and now becomes worthwhile. We are invited to become a part of the process by which creation is ultimately renewed. Its not just about being “good” so we can get a ticket through the pearly gates. It is about being a part of the process by which God and man can again be reunited. We are bringing more of heaven to earth every time we do the work of Jesus.
2. How we treat the earth matters. It is important to God, since he seeks to renew – rather than destroy – it.
3. The things we invest our lives in don’t ultimately go to waste. Death and hades will be reversed. The day will come when our “work” now in this earth – though short lived – can be continued in a glorious way. (I’ve hinted at this a little, when I wrote about discipleship and work last summer).
All of this is, of course, ultimately a great mystery. There has been little agreement among Christians throughout the ages about how all of this will “work.” Every generation gets a different idea, it seems. Probably we are ignorant about it because what will really happen is too wonderful for us to know.
But thats the best I can do with it at the moment.