As someone who grew up in and around Christian culture it’s probably not surprising that over the years I heard quite a bit about heaven. And what I knew about heaven probably sounds familiar to both Christians and non-Christians alike—heaven is the place where believers go when they die to be with Jesus for eternity. I knew that at the heart of salvation, central to the Christian worldview, was getting to go to heaven when what you deserve is hell. I knew that being “saved” meant that I was going to heaven. I knew that most proclamations of the gospel ended with an appeal to going to heaven or being with Jesus when you die. I knew that when the rich young ruler in Mark chapter 10 asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” that he was asking how he might one day get to heaven. I knew that this was the glorious “hope” that Christians held to, this was the culmination and climax of the Christian story. Going to heaven was central to my understanding of the Christian worldview and could be aptly summed up by the great evangelist Billy Graham when he said, “My Home is in heaven, I’m just passing through this world.”
But it turns out that this popular view of heaven, held and accepted by the majority of Christians today, actually has more in common with ancient paganism than it does with Biblical Christianity.
The Christian hope for eternity is not otherworldly, not ethereal, not intangible, and not about going to a blissful place somewhere in the clouds inhabited by angels strumming harps. Much of modern Christianity, heavily influenced by Platonic thought and philosophy, has settled for the idea of human souls escaping earth and going off to heaven at the expense of the true Biblical hope of resurrection life on a restored earth. The goal has never been about going to heaven, but rather about the world we live in being transformed to reflect the original intent of its creator, what the Bible calls the new heavens and new earth, or more simply, new creation. And it is important to note right away that the word here in greek used for “new” is not referring to new in quantity, as in God scrapping the old creation and making a new one, but rather new in kind or condition, the same entity but so radically transformed so as to be worthy of being called new.
I think it is helpful to point out that the Bible uses the term “heaven(s)” in two distinct ways. It’s most basic meaning can be found in the first verse of the Bible where it simply means “sky.” In the beginning God created the sky and the earth. This is made clear throughout the Bible but can be easily shown by the fact that just a few verses down in Genesis 1 the “heavens” are the place where the birds go. Later on in the Bible, the word for heaven gets used as a metaphor for “God’s realm” or “Gods space.” When the Bible speaks of the unification of heaven and earth, as in Ephesians 1:10, it is talking about the full overlap of God’s domain and the human domain, while when it talks about “new heavens and a new earth” it is referring to a new sky and new earth, that is, new creation.
Despite the predominant modern perception of the Biblical story being about how human souls avoid hell and go to heaven when they die, the Bible itself provides us with a different story. Genesis begins with an ideal of God dwelling with humanity on earth, giving us a picture of heaven and earth fully joined together; the fall of man creates a schism between these two things that were always designed to be together, and the rest of the story is about a God committed to bringing them back together. What most modern Christians think to be the ultimate hope is actually a complete reversal of what the Biblical authors had in mind. While we today are waiting for the time when we get to leave earth and go to heaven, they longed for the day when heaven would finally come to earth. While we anticipate the day we go away to be with God, they hoped for something much better, when God would come to live with them.
The Biblical authors see this reunion of heaven and earth as an act of cosmic purification, ridding the current creation of all decay and corruption, all injustice and evil. The author of Hebrews uses the metaphor of an earthquake that will level all that is in opposition to God’s new world, leaving behind that which is unshakable, everything that is pure and noble and true (Hebrews 12:26-28). Peter uses the metaphor of metal being refined by fire, removing all impurities and revealing underneath a new substance, one cleansed of all spot and blemish (2 Peter 3:10). The apostle Paul sees the current world as bound and imprisoned by evil and decay, waiting for its day of liberation when he says, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). All of the Biblical authors had a fundamental belief that while the world in its current state is held captive by the wicked acts of humanity, in the end, God’s intentions for His creation will one day be fully and irrevocably established in a great act of cosmic liberation.
The modern emphasis on leaving the physical world behind has also been successful at deemphasizing that which was paramount to the Biblical authors—the bodily resurrection of the dead. Central to their view of eternity was that one day they would be reunited with a restored and glorified version of their own body. Not only was this important for the apostle Paul’s understanding of the hope of humanity (Romans 8:11, Phillipians 3:20-21, 1 Corinthians 6:14, 2 Corinthians 4:14, Acts 24:15, etc.), but was also predominant for our Lord Himself (Matthew 22:28-32, Luke 14:14, John 5:29, 11:24). Essential to the Christian expectation for eternity is that we will be raised from the dead in the same fashion as Jesus (Philippians 3:21), with His resurrection as the blueprint for our own (Colossians 1:18), which will take place at the return of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:23). In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the perishable will put on the imperishable, the mortal will be clothed in immortality, and death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:51-55).
Christian teaching today has far too often elevated the soul over the body and the spiritual over the physical but in doing so we have inched closer to the second century heresy known as gnosticism and have strayed further from Biblical truth. Both the physical world and the body that inhabits it are essential to a fully human existence, and anything short of that leaves something to be desired. It may sound scandalous to some but the apostle Paul himself does not see heaven as inherently desirable for this very reason. Paul recognized that death would mean the separation between body and soul, that life after death must involve a disembodied existence, and that “we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed” (2 Corinthians 5:4), speaking metaphorically of the body. No doubt Paul sees being with the Lord as desirable, but he also knows that the state of existence for humans in heaven is sub-optimal given our design, that the final hope of humanity will not be realized until the final resurrection of the dead.
By way of clarification, the point here is not to take away any comfort about what happens when you die. Paul is clear in both Philippians and his second letter to the Corinthians that when we die we will be “with the Lord,” which is a far better existence than our current state. We can (and should!), like Paul, be assured and comforted by the fact that we will be with Jesus upon death, but we must also, like Paul, be convinced that that is not our eternal destiny. In the end, the direction of salvation is not humans going from earth to heaven, but Jesus coming to earth “with His reward,”—bringing salvation from heaven to earth.
And although surprising to some, the New Testament actually has very little to say about what happens immediately when you die, containing no more than a handful of verses on the matter. In stark contrast, it contains well over 100 references to the return of Christ, and that is no coincidence. According to a Biblical worldview, where you go when you die is a temporary state. Death is not the trigger or catalyst that will usher you into eternity, rather, that is a function of the return of Jesus. And unfortunately it must be said that the return of Christ is not to snatch believers out of the world as is taught by some rapture theology and as is portrayed in the popular “Left Behind” Christian book series—the Bible teaches no such thing. The return of Christ is to fully restore the Kingdom of God to earth, bringing about the final judgment, the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the renewal of all things.
It has become commonplace to say that we were made for heaven and to speak as if heaven is our real home, but heaven is not our home and we were not made for heaven. The plight of humanity is not our location but rather the condition of our location, we are home and yet experiencing it in a way it was never designed to be experienced. Like the apostle Peter tells his listeners during his sermon in Acts chapter 3, we are waiting for “The period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3:21, italics my own). The hope of humanity is about a God who has not forgotten nor abandoned His creation, and about a God who is utterly devoted to its rescue.
Somehow it seems as if we have far too often forgotten the climactic end to the Christian story, and indeed the end to history itself—“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4, italics my own).
Although we have done little more than scratch the surface of new creation, I hope at this point it is somewhat clear that the emphasis within modern Christianity on going to heaven is but a shadow of the true Christian hope. And the implications of this view, while maybe not immediately obvious, are both numerous and far-reaching.
New creation and the ideal of heaven and earth finally being joined together, of resurrected people living in a resurrected world, is part of the foundational fabric with which the Biblical authors weave their story. It is not a peripheral belief, not a happy ending just tacked on haphazardly—it is the very framework with which they see the world, the lens by which everything else is seen and made sense of, and the very end to which everything that comes before it points. History itself is heading towards a very specific end, and what we believe about the telos of creation and humanity has massive implications on how our lives might fit into the larger narrative.
Much of what the Bible wants to tell us only makes sense within this larger scheme—one that has unfortunately been buried under the contemporary notion of human souls escaping earth and going to heaven. Every story gets reinterpreted in light of how it ends, and the Christian story is no different. If you come to the Bible thinking it’s trying to tell you about how to get to heaven, then the rest of the Bible must be forced to work within that framework. Like a child trying to pack game pieces back into the wrong box, some pieces are forced to be bent and misshapen in an attempt to fit them in, while others are just left out—for the box is simply not meant to contain them. We are in much the same position as the child, as people who now have many doctrines and beliefs misshapen by our constant attempts to make them fit within a story that ends with humans going off to heaven. May we be people who go humbly back to scripture in light of the glorious ending to our story, enabled to see it in a fresh way, and letting it reshape our thinking on everything from the life and teachings of Jesus to the role and mission of the church.
I pray that we might be a generation of Christians firmly rooted in the hope of new creation, a generation not longing to leave but anxiously awaiting the coming of our King, reinvigorated by the cosmic reach of God’s grace and redemption, and overwhelmed by a God who says “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).