Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. But, nonetheless, many Christians still think of heaven as primarily out there where God lives and think that our great hope for the future is that we will leave this crumby world and go to heaven. That was certainly the thought generated in my mind by most of what I was taught about heaven in my childhood years. We sang: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.”
Those ideas that are formed in our minds early in life are hard to reshape. In recent years, however, I’ve become increasingly convinced that our future hope lies not in an ethereal heaven, but in the new earth that God will bring about when he consummates his redemptive work and establishes his kingdom. But, in spite of that shift in my thinking, I’ve still been somewhat puzzled by N. T. Wright’s continual exasperation with the evangelical hope of “going to heaven.” Bit by bit, the light gets clearer for me, and Wright regularly contributes to it, his message coming like a steady drip on my stony mind (to change my metaphor). I particularly enjoyed a quote from Wright’s recent book, Simply Good News, which I read just now in a blog post by Louis McBride.
Wright is commenting on Paul’s statement in Phil 3:20 that “we are citizens of heaven.” As is usual, he observes that Christians commonly take that to mean that we are getting out of here and going up there. But that is not Paul’s point, Wright suggests, and I think he is bang on.
‘We are citizens of heaven, you see,’ he [Paul] writes, ‘and we’re eagerly waiting for the savior, the Lord, King Jesus, who is going to come from there’ (Phil. 3:20). It isn’t that we are going off to the capital city to join the king; he is going to come from there to transform our lives here. ‘He’s going to do this by the power which makes him able to bring everything into line under his authority,’ Paul concludes (3:21). Jesus will come from heaven to transform the whole of creation—and to transform us at the same time. ‘Our present body is a shabby old thing, but he’s going to transform it so that it’s just like his glorious body’ (3:21). This is the hope. Not that we leave this world but that Jesus returns and transforms it, and us with it.” (pp. 94-95)
“Amen! Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
On February 16/15, Kevin DeYoung pushed back a bit in regard to N. T. Wright’s concern. I think that his perspective is healthy, so I figured I’d add it to the mix here. We want to be clear about the nature of the eternal state, and Wright helps us there, but the next step for us right after this life is also important to us.
I understand that some good Christians have an underdeveloped eschatology that rarely touches on crucial New Testament themes. But many of these same Christians have a sweet and simple longing for heaven, a commendable confidence that because of Christ they will, in fact, die and go to a better place. Correcting eschatological imbalances is good, but not if it means undermining or minimizing one of the most precious promises in all the Bible; namely, that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Even the intermediate state is indescribably good–better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord is how Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:8).
In trumpeting the good news of cosmic renewal let us not lose sight of the hope that anchors the believer in hard times and is the reality awaiting us on the other side of suffering and death: we really do go to heaven when we die.