Monday, December 14, 2015

rethinking heaven

What if most of what you've ever believed about heaven wasn't true? What then?

Three and a half years ago I wrote a blog post in which I suggested that this was the case. You've never seen that post, because I got cold feet, deciding it was too controversial and not worth the risk.

Since then, a growing chorus of evangelical scholars has been calling us back to a more biblical view of the afterlife (for example, Old Testament scholar C. J. H. Wright and New Testament Scholar N. T. Wright -- and how can you argue with someone who is always "Wright"?). And none has articulated it more clearly and thoroughly than biblical theologian J. Richard Middleton. In fact, his book won the Word Guild Award for the Best Book in Biblical Studies in 2014, and was selected as the Baker gift book of the year for the Institute for Biblical Research annual lecture.

Middleton says we're not going to heaven for eternity. The Bible doesn't teach that. He is not even sure that we go to heaven in the meantime, while we're waiting for Christ's return. His careful reading of passages demonstrates why.

The future that awaits us is not a disembodied existence, with mainly harps and clouds. It includes food and drink, culture and government, creativity and fulfillment. It is in fact much like Spirit-filled life today, minus the sorrow. When Jesus returns we'll walk with him right here on this earth, transformed as part of the (re)new(ed) creation. Jesus' resurrected body is the "firstfruits" of this new creation, affirming the inherent value of the created earth and giving us hope that it can be re-made to overcome the effects of sin and death.

An idea like "heaven" isn't going to die overnight, especially given its well-entrenched history stretching all the way back to Plato. We can hardly talk about salvation without talking about heaven. Middleton's book aims to change that.

Middleton boldly says,
"Not only is the term 'heaven' never used in Scripture for the eternal destiny of the redeemed, but also continued use of 'heaven' to name the Christian eschatological hope may well divert our attention from the legitimate expectation for the present transformation of our earthly life to conform to God's purposes. Indeed, to focus our expectation on an otherworldly salvation has the potential to dissipate our resistance to societal evil and the dedication needed to work for the redemptive transformation of this world. Therefore, for reasons exegetical, theological, and ethical, I have come to repent of using the term 'heaven' to describe the future God has in store for the faithful. It is my hope that readers of this book would, after thoughtful consideration, join me in this repentance." (237, emphasis mine)
Now that's worth pondering. For a long time.

Middleton also says,
"In the present, as the church lives between the times, those being renewed in the imago Dei are called to instantiate an embodied culture or social reality alternative to the violent and deathly formations and practices that dominate the world. By this conformity to Christ—the paradigm image of God—the church manifests God's rule and participates in God's mission to flood the world with the divine presence. In its concrete communal life the church as the body of Christ is called to witness to the promised future of a new heaven and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13)." (175, emphasis mine)
It is striking how often this same point is now being made by respected evangelical scholars. It is a truth whose time has come, and which requires us to re-think carefully how we articulate the gospel. If Jesus didn't die for us "so that we can go to heaven when we die," then why did he die?

Watch out, church. If our generation can truly grasp this, the transforming power of the gospel will be released in profound ways, right here in our midst.


  1. Hello Carmen. So good to know you and your family through your profile on the blogger and the blog post. I am glad to stop by your blog post which is very encouraging and what Middleton writes about heaven is very interesting. The post has been worth reading and contemplating. Well I am glad to know how you are passionate about your studies after having to take care of the family with the young children. I am blessed and feel privileged and honored to get connected with you because of who you are in the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a Pastor from Mumbai, India and love to get connected with the people of God around the world to be encouraged, strengthen and praying for one another. I have been in the Pastoral ministry for last 36yrs in the great city of Mumbai a city with great contrast where richest of rich and the poorest of poor live. We reach out to the poorest of poor with the love of Christ to bring healing to the broken hearted. We also encourage young and the adults from the west to come to Mumbai to work with us during their vacation time. We would love to have young people from your friends circle or from your church to come to Mumbai to work with us. If you oldest daughter is in her late teens she also can join with her friends to come to Mumbai to work with us during her.their vacation time. I am sure they will have a life changing experience. My email id is: dhwankhede(at)gmail(dot)com and my name is Diwakar Wankhede. Looking forward to hear from you very soon. God's richest blessings on you, your family and friends. wishing you a very blessed and joyous Christmas season and a bright, prosperous and Christ centered New year.

  2. I was one of those young people that tried to be excited about "heaven," but in all honesty the angel-with-a-harp-on-a-cloud motif never quite did it for me. And all that praising, night and day, before the throne sounded positively pure and right, and also a bit boring. My idea of heaven, however, changed over time, influenced by a number of scriptures and especially by what it means to be in the image of God. The most drastic change came as a result of translating the book of Revelation into Bakatiq, when I was forced to think deeply about every concept John tells us. Heaven became not a place in a geographical sense but a new dimension of life, where God's presence and man's resurrected existence come together in the new heaven and earth, filled with an uncorrupted creation. Eternity will find us possessing and experiencing life as it was meant to be back in the Garden Eden, only this time without the sinful, slithering serpent sneaking its way toward unsuspecting victims.

    1. Beautiful, Carmen! Thanks for sharing this! I remember not liking the poem, "This world is not my home, I'm just'a passin' through..."