When We All Get to Heaven?
— Thursday, July 17th, 2008 —
Heaven is the expectation of Christians that life does not end with physical death but, for the redeemed, continues eternally in the presence of Christ.
Theologian Jerry Walls has traced two understandings of eternal blessedness in the history of Christian theology: a theocentric view and an anthropocentric view. In the theocentric view, eternity is “a timeless experience of contemplating the infinitely fascinating reality of God in all of his aspects,” without much element of human fellowship. The anthropocentric view, by contrast, emphasizes “being reunited with family and friends” and sees eternity as the continuation of life without the mar of sin and suffering.
Both strands are seen from the very beginning of the Christian story, with Christian thinkers such as Origen and Augustine emphasizing heaven as beatific vision and spiritual reality and thinkers such as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr emphasizing the creational aspects of the new creation.
In biblical eschatology, however, the eternal state is strikingly anthropocentric but not in the ways found in much of popular piety. Eternity can be said to be anthropocentric so long as we understand that the anthropos referenced is Jesus of Nazareth. Eternity is not a timeless beatific vision or an endless choir practice. But neither is it merely a family reunion in which the circle is seen to be unbroken after all. Eternity means Jesus (and, by extension, those who are in him) finally receives his promised inheritance: everything.
Heaven is defined in Scripture as the dwelling place of God, a place inhabited by the angelic armies, the redeemed of all the ages, and the ascended Jesus himself as he awaits the consummation of his kingdom. At the moment of death, the believer is ushered into the presence of Christ in heaven. Since Jesus is now in heaven, this is where the inheritance of the church waits for us, where our mother, the heavenly Jerusalem, is located. Our inheritance, our Jerusalem, and even our Christ do not stay in heaven though–and neither do we.
Many Christians think of their future existence as heaven, in the kind of disembodied, unearthly abode they know awaits them immediately after death. And yet the time between death and resurrection–what theologians call the intermediate state–is far from permanent. It is itself a time of waiting for the full blessing of salvation–the resurrection of the body and the coming of the kingdom. Karl Barth describes John Calvin’s vision of this heavenly interlude for the dead in Christ with perfect clarity. Believers in heaven are conscious and active “but with the rest and assurance of conscience that comes with physical death, contemplating God and his peace, from which they are still at a distance, but of which they are sure.” These believers are “not yet in possession of the kingdom of God” but they can nonetheless “see what here we can only believe in hope.”
For believers, the intermediate state is blessedness, to be sure. But in heaven there is yet eschatology. The ultimate purpose of God is not just the ongoing life of believers but that his kingdom would come, his will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). That awaits the end of all ends, the return of Jesus and the final overthrow of death.
In Christian theology, the point of the gospel is not that believers should go to heaven when they die. Instead, it is that heaven will come down, transforming and renewing the earth and the entire universe. After the millennium, the final judgment, and the condemnation of the lost, John sees a New Jerusalem coming down from the heavens to earth (Rev. 21:2).
He then describes an eternal order that, consistent with the rest of biblical eschatology, is surprisingly “earthy.” Eternity means civilization, architecture, banquet feasting, ruling, work–in short, it is eternal life. The new earth is not the white, antiseptic hyper-spiritual heaven some Christians expect as their eternal home. Nor is it simply an everlasting family reunion or the resumption of all the pleasures one enjoyed in this life.
It is the Christic focus of heaven that keeps Christian eschatology from veering toward a Platonizing spirituality or toward a secularizing carnality. The Scripture does indeed tell Christians to focus their minds on heavenly things, not earthly things. But this focus on heaven is precisely because the church’s inheritance is there–in Christ, seated at the right hand of God (Eph. 1:20-21). Paul contrasts the Christian mindset with the appetite-driven mindset of “enemies of the cross” who have “minds set on earthly things” by reminding the church at Philippi that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:18-20). But he does not stop there.
Of heaven, Paul writes: “And from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20b-21). Christians lay up treasures in heaven, but the treasure does not stay in heaven. Christians focus their minds on heaven, but heaven comes down to earth.
Ultimately our hope is in new creation: transformation and glorification of our bodies and, with them, the cosmos itself.