This post corresponds with our Lenten Study Session series, On the Trail to Skull Hill. In this session, we discuss the resurrection.
What is your view of heaven? Would you take a few moments to engage your imagination and articulate what you see? What are you expecting?
Well, many of us have been bathed in rather unhelpful imagery. Our Western default may look like something out of a Precious Moments greeting card: The redeemed sitting around on clouds with harps singing hymns like little cherubs. Heaven is often seen as abstract, disembodied, and ethereal. Neither has quasi-biblical fan-fiction given us a robust view of the end (eschatology, theologians call it). Leave Nicholas Cage and Jerry Jenkins behind, if you ask me.
The Bible’s view of Heaven, then, is very earthy. In fact, the Bible speaks of a renewed Heaven and Earth with such continuity that even a real place on the map, like Jerusalem, is still recognizable by name (Rev. 21:1-5). The biblical view of Heaven is embodied. It’s like this place, but perfected, made whole. There’s a couple of fantastic books I highly recommend on this topic called A New Heavens and A New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology by J. Richard Middleton and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope if you are intrigued by my derision with the likes of Left Behind and the subsequent escapism of “rapture-culture.”
I thought this was a series on Lent, Ethan? What are you ranting about?
Okay, let me stop clearing my throat: the Easter story does not end at the cross. There is a resurrection. Jesus came back in the flesh. Jesus was raised from the dead into a bodily resurrection. He broke bread again (Luke 24:30). He had a bodily presence. Thomas felt the scars (John 20:27). Jesus was not some spectral spirit, but an embodied man. And he is the firstfruit of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). If you’ve ever planted a tomato plant and after harvesting the first batch of tomatoes you got an orange, let me know. But the way firstfruits work is that they are the early harvest of what will surely follow. Yes, there is discontinuity between the current body and the resurrected one (1 Cor. 15:35-50) and between the old order and the new one (Rev. 21:4), but there is continuity as well. Like Jesus after his resurrection, we will walk the earth, eat food, and be in relationships.
You see, we started this Lenten season with a look at ashes, as we joined in the ancient practices of Ash Wednesday. As we entered a period focused on fasting in some sort or another, we embrace disciplines that neglect the body for the sake of spiritual growth and focus. What I am about to say is not meant to disparage those practices at all, for Jesus implies they are routines for people attending to God (Matt. 6:16). However, the goal of spiritual practice and indeed the Lenten season is not disembodiment, where we shun our physical selves. Though the concept sounds ascetic, the Christian notion of “mortification,” of "picking up our crosses," of "self-denial" is meant to free us from self-centeredness, not engender self-hatred. And so, we must, I believe, come out of our season of fasting to remember the feast ahead of us. It is not just a spiritual feast, but a feast at which Jesus plans on having at least one glass of wine (Matt. 26:29).
Do you feel the application of this? Have you really soaked up the Bible’s emphasis on an embodied future, of a renewed Heavens and Earth, of the reality of resurrection? This continuity means that your body matters, even if it will be transfigured in the end. It means that our gospel message is more than just conceptual, it is material. When we fully appreciate the humanity of the resurrection, the Christian mission is humanized, too.
Are you going to worship the creator God and discover thereby what it means to become fully and gloriously human, reflecting his powerful healing, transforming love into the world? Or are you going to worship the world as it is, boosting your corruptible humanness by gaining power or pleasure from forces within the world but merely contributing thereby to your own dehumanization and the further corruption of the world itself?
Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creations through human beings and how is is going to rescue those humans themselves as a part of the process but not as the point of it all… How will humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that creator God will launch in his new world?
- N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope