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.
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.