Archive for September 21st, 2008

(Ooh) Heaven is a place on earth

So I suppose I better follow up on the last post and the bit about “not going to heaven when you die.” Before the crowd of pitch fork waving believers break down the front door and burn me at the stake for crimes against orthodoxy.

I can only recommend NT Wright and “Surprised by Hope” as a great unpacking of the idea of the Christian hope (where almost all of the following is plagiarised from) and what the Bible actually says about “the resurrection”. There were no mental or theological gymnastics, just a little recognition of a world-view that is assumed without reference to GOD’s word.

The central point of GOD’s redemptive narrative is the death and resurrection of JESUS. I suppose all of us could be happy with that. Some of us will focus a bit more on the death, some a bit more on the resurrection, but we could all agree that neither works without the other.

The central part, to the Christian hope is that CHRIST was raised from the dead. That he was bodily raised in physical form, a physical form that was undoubtedly different from the one he’d so recently been in, but physical all the same. The Bible is quite clear about the resurrected JESUS’s physicality, along with the fact that it not so simply physical as it had been before. And what was so stunning about this is that it is made quite purposely clear that JESUS did not return as a ghost, like Casper the friendly ghost or Nearly Headless Nick. This was something quite different. Indeed a big reason why the beliefs of “the way” in the first century were so unique. Lots of people had a notion of some “spiritual” non-physical continuance of existence. No one had anything like a body physically raised.

JESUS then leaves. Where he goes the Bible is remarkably unclear about – yes to Heaven – but what/where Heaven is is left undefined. Instead we have defined as somewhere “up there” which is why Yuri could (apocryphally) say that once he got up there that there was no GOD cause he couldn’t see him anywhere.

This is where the cultural assumptions come into play. That heaven is a place (somewhere else) with white fluffy clouds and fat babies with harps and bad aim. GOD has a white beard, and a James Earl Jones voice, everyone wears sandals and JESUS never, ever looks like he’s middle-eastern. Heaven is therefore the place where we go when we die, when we will finally be free from these terrible, nasty body things and we’ll float like spirits, free from such boring demands of physicality.

These are ideas that of course have developed within the Christina tradition (centuries of Christian art will give that away) – that does not mean that they are Christian ideas. The idea that we can discard our bodies and float like spirits is good old fashioned platonism (at least a Christian interpretation of it). The idea that the soul is the only important bit of life is not a Christian idea. The soul itself is rarely mentioned in the Bible, yet it is so prevalent in all our talk from salvation to resurrection. This is gnosticism revisited. These ideas are firmly embedded in our belief system but they are not Christian.

Let me emphasise then what is Christian. In CHRIST we have the example. When we die, he promises resurrection. And this will be bodily, physical, in some form not entirely different from what we already have. Though of course there will be some fundamental differences. When we are resurrected we will be resurrected, guess where? Right here. This is the key point. We get new bodies. On a new earth. Rev 21 tells us that CHRIST returns in glory not to snatch us from the evil jaws of the creation but that he returns to rule over the redeemed and renewed creation.

When I think about that I realise I already believe that. This is hardly any new kind of heresy, it’s just that my thinking has been muddied on the whole issue. Because of the underlying cultural (not biblical) assumptions, and all the terrible songs and hymns that we sing that lead us up the garden path in terms of resurrection theology. Let me put it this way. As Christians we believe what non-Christians think that we Christians believe about life after death:

Love of mine some day you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark

No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark
If heaven and hell decide
That they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs

If there’s no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

Death Cab for Cutie (I sang this song in my cafe gig in NZ cause I like songs that reveal what non-Christians believe about the meaning of life. Though only now I realise how far apart we are in our beliefs)

Most of you will have realised that I’ve left a bit out. That yes we die, and when CHRIST returns and makes everything new and rules on the new earth (not in heaven on the clouds with the fat babies – he’ll be bored with all that by then) that we will be with him in our cool new resurrection bodies, not floating round like disembodied shadows on the cave wall.

But what happens when we die? Do we not actually go to heaven when we die? This is where the tricky bit comes. The Bible actually has quite a bit to say about the resurrection and where it fits in. But it doesn’t say quite so much about the in-between. Is it some kind of cosmic hibernation? Paul speaks about preferring to depart and be with CHRIST. Which at first glance sounds like “going to heaven when you die” but surely he must mean something different – as it is he himself who goes on to say so much about the resurrection. Indeed CHRIST does the same. Leaving the disciples and telling them he will return. So where does he go in the mean time. He goes to “heaven” which is loosely defined though perhaps most useful as “with GOD” or “in GOD’s presence”. Beyond that the Bible does not have that much to say, at least not in specifics.

Again let me emphasise that when we die, and go wherever JESUS went to when he left the disciples, it is vital to realise that this is not the fulfilment of the Christian hope. The resurrection is the fulfilment. As NT Wright says. It is not simply life after death, but life after, life after death.

There are lots of implications of this. It’s important in that it’s a proper understanding and articulation of what the Bible says, and reveals it’s uniqueness in the hope that we cling to. That the body and the physical world itself is not evil – it is fallen, but not evil. When we die of cancer it is not that mitosis and cellular division and ultimately (well until CERN tells us otherwise) particle physics that is ingerently wrong – more that it is fallen. Our DNA itself seems part of the fall. Indeed it seems that even that will be redeemed.

[As an aside, there was also in the book a “factoid” about the human body that the actual particles (in terms of atoms and so on) are completely exchanged for different ones over a course of around 7 years (undeniably true to some extent –  though impossible to accurately measure). We (quite literally) are what we eat. And to be delicate – dispose of, in terms of skin, sweat etc…). Fascinating. Well if you like that kind of thing.]

It means that we are not to lock ourselves into Christian self-righteous ghettoes and pray that we’ll be raptured (whatever that means…) before this horrible sinful world gets the better of us. It tells us that GOD is in the business of redemption and renewal, and that both we and the creation itself are going to be renewed and redeemed and that it’s our role to inaugarate and announce the Kingdom of GOD by decalring that JESUS is Lord over all of it.

It’s important for lots of reasons, few of which are outlined here, so perhaps it’s just an exhortation to read the book, and more importantly read the Bible, and read it withoout the Plato-goggles on.

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