Heaven Is All Well And Good, But Its Not The End Of The World

The title of this post is a much loved quip by NT Wright. The Bishop of Durham, interestingly, has given me an answer to my question about how to deal with the death of Jerry Falwell, a man I disagree with about many things but agree with on the most important things. Well, that last sentence is misleading since Wright didn’t address his brief column in the Washington Post directly to me.

At least not explicitly.

I know you love me Tom. Its time to admit it.

May he rest in peace and, with the rest of us, rise in glory where we shall look back on present disagreements like an adult looks back on childhood squabbles in the playground.

Once, I worked with a very brainy Ukrainian woman and I didn’t hit it off with her immediately. I know that its hard to imagine someone not instantly falling for my Clooney-esque charisma but there you go. Then one day over lunch we got into a great discussion when she admitted to me that she didn’t look forward to heaven. She thought she’d get bored by it. If the idea of it bores her now, imagine how boring it would be for all eternity. Back then I took the line of reasoning that I had held for many years. Pie in the sky when you die religion is a travesty and Karl Marx was right. Religion is the opiate of the people. But authentic Christianity should be anti-religious, hated by the religious establishment because it sides more with Marx than it does with a doped-out, calm eyed Jesus, meek and mild, that most dangerous of fantasies.

I was well aware that I was skirting the issue by trying to refocus her on the fact that we believe in life before death. She was brainy after all. She could see right through me and wasn’t for a moment distracted by the fact that I was avoiding the conversation she wanted to have about life after death.

Back then I was utterly inept on the topic of heaven. Then we preached a sermon series on the book of Revelation and things started to get interesting. The reason I had nothing to say about heaven was because my idea of heaven was a fabrication. I had thought heaven was about the afterlife, in a different plane of existence. Of course I didn’t think it was on clouds. I’m not that stupid. But honestly I was thinking that underneath the ground of heaven, it all might be floating on clouds. It might as well have been, considering how fluffy my thoughts were.

Christians have given up thinking about heaven in any meaningful way. This shouldn’t surprise us. There are still plenty of educated adult Christians who insist that they know hell is a firey pit, and they maintain that even after they are informed that Jesus refers to Hell all but once as Gehenna, which was the always-on-fire dump on the edges of Jerusalem. Hell might be a firey pit, but Jesus’ hellfire and brimstone talk (by the way, Jesus spoke of hell more than everyone else in the Bible combined) is a clear cut case of having a literal meaning that is more than the plain meaning.

Which brings us nicely to the Biblical treatment of heaven. Where were we told about clouds and babies with wings and smart-arsed girls who love cream cheese? The idea of heaven we carry around is no more or less faithful to the Bible than say, the Simpsons:

The Bible begins with the Tree. It sits in the centre of the Garden of Eden and it contains the knowledge of Good and Evil. The first humans ate from this tree that was forbidden and the whole rí rá agus ruaille buaille began. The Bible ends with a Tree too. Its the Tree of Life and its fruit and leaves are for the healing of the nations who stream into heaven. Heaven, by the way, is a city called New Jerusalem that God builds.

Heaven is a city God builds and then lives in.

God moves in and welcomes us home. This is what the Bible says heaven is. It is not the end of the world and then an escape plan to the clouds. It is right here, where we stand, but its all made new. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus says when the vision of the regenerated Earth is completed,

Behold, I am making all things new.

So will heaven be boring because all we do is sit around and worship God? Hell no! Worship doesn’t just mean singing. Thank God it doesn’t mean interpretative dance either. Heaven as a renewed Cosmos as opposed to a cloud-bound place in the sky is a setting where such trivial concerns as boredom can’t really be anticipated. The picture painted by the Bible is a place where there is great rejoicing, healing, relationships with others (presumably that span time and race entirely), and most importantly relationship with God, who will be your neighbour. The best parties are places where you meet new people you really click with, who you are certain to become friends with. Without slipping into an 80’s montage where we are all wearing Hawaiian shirts and spending the weekend at Bernie’s, heaven will be a party like this. As dawn breaks, and the chillout really begins, we’ll sit around with our pints of water and listen to Old Man G tell us some funny stories about a possible universe He was going to bubble out one day but He never got around to it.

Oh wait, I forgot to tell you one of the cool things about this Biblical heaven. There will be no dawn. There won’t even really be night or day because God himself will illuminate things. When you get close to him, darkness has fled.

This is heaven, briefly, as clearly as I can communicate it for you in a blog entry. Its not an irrelevancy because Jesus says the regeneration programme began on that first Easter and he has invited us to join in with the recreative process. So it turns out that Belinda Carlisle was a theological genius with her classic 1987 hit. (I had such a little boy crush on Belinda Carlisle). No one on the Interweb has brought this out better than Byron at Nothing New Under The Sun.

If you found any of this post beyond the bounds of good sense, write a complaint to the Atheist Complaint Box.

Your Correspondent, His feet won’t dance with just anyone at all.

6 Responses to “Heaven Is All Well And Good, But Its Not The End Of The World”

  1. jimlad says:

    You have come across to me to be saying that heaven is the same as the new earth. I don’t think the bible says this. It says there will be a new heaven and a new earth. And it often references heaven as another place to earth, not meaning the sky and the land.

    Interestingly, while the earth was originally void, heaven is not described as such. Maybe this is because its creation doesn’t concern us directly, or maybe it is because it is formed by God out of God rather than out of nothing? Then it makes sense for angels to exist in heaven as they are messengers of God. But now I’m really waffling very speculatively.

    I was thinking about hell recently too. I think that the whole idea of hell simply being a place where we are separated from God doesn’t quite get to the point, though it seems to be popularly quoted. It sort of goes with the nice meek and mild image of God that you mention. The bible seems to say it is a place where we are punished, where God pours out his wrath on us rather than simply forsakes us. Am I right here? I think about how much God loves us, and I wonder if it would be too easy for Him to forget about us, too easy to hate us? I think it is harder, and more in His character, to deal with us eternally. Imagine the love of God focussed on someone who completely rejects Him. Imagine if you have a perfect Father who loves you with every bit of his heart, and imagine that you reject him utterly. Imagine that He loves you too much to forget you and that since you treat him like dirt, the only option left is for him to be angry with you. Imagine that infinite love showing itself as pure anger. Imagine how much God loves us and imagine the strength that his anger must have against us. It moves us to repentance. Imagine our joy when instead of seeing anger we see arms held open to embrace us.

  2. jimlad says:

    Oh, sorry I see now that I’ve misinterpreted you.

  3. zoomtard says:

    The New Earth is not yet here. Heaven is the places where God is King. This territory is advancing since Jesus announced its inauguration. It is here but not here fully. When it is fully here all things will have been made New and the New Earth will be heaven, where God comes to dwell with us in the Cosmos He created.

    Does that clarify my fully Biblical perspective on heaven? 😀

    I have neither the guts nor the spine to talk about hell. Can we just brush it by and hope it doesn’t hurt anyone?

  4. […] On The Kingdom… Me and Jimlad were having a chat about my heaven post in the comments and it got me thinking about The Kingdom of God, that most under-nourished of all theological ideas (its even more neglected than Covenant)! The Kingdom is here and is coming. That is the standard line. Jesus defines his mission as coming to declare the Kingdom of God. We often think therefore that Jesus brings the Kingdom. […]

  5. jimlad says:

    I guess it is better to let the bible talk about hell than for us to make up theories of our own on it. It is good to remember that Heaven and Hell are a matter of God’s ruling judgement and not ours all right.

    If the new earth is the same as the new heaven though, how do you explain Rev 21:1 saying that there is a new heaven and a new earth? I know the writer (assumed to be John) uses imagery by necessity, but he could just as easily have said that he saw a new earth. Why does he mention a NEW heaven if it is the same heaven? I think that what we get is a heaven and earth that are in agreement. The Kingdom of God is the place where God is King, and heaven is always in the kingdom of God, whereas Earth is not completely there at the moment and needs to be renewed. Since Earth is somehow connected to Heaven, maybe Heaven needs to be renewed also to accommodate the new Earth.

  6. zoomtard says:

    I think your comment could be my comment if I was a bit better at writing. Just a little wee bit better.