Heaven Can Wait
Hello, my friends, and welcome to the second installment in a series of articles that I am calling Metamorphosis. I’ve titled this second part, Heaven Can Wait.
Because, you know, I assume most of you reading this are HUGE fans of Meat Loaf. (And if you didn’t get the reference, stop reading this article right now and go listen to this. If you’re a fan of 70’s ballads, you won’t regret spending 4 minutes and 40 seconds of your life on it. Just make sure you come back afterward.)
But seriously, I think the reality for many of us is that heaven is the point. Therefore, heaven simply can’t wait.
But heaven can wait. I don’t think it’s the point at all.
There, I said it. Heaven isn’t the point. At least, not in the way you’re thinking.
Now, with that, I’ve attempted to destabilize one of the most tightly held beliefs of many a Western Christian. Why? Because it’s in the deconstruction of long-held assumptions that reconstruction and transformation can occur. It’s a case I’ve attempted to make in the first article of this series.
Before I push further into what I mean by “heaven isn’t the point,” let’s do a small recap.
I won’t belabour you with a lengthy summary of the first part of this series. After all, I wrote an entire article that goes into much greater detail. So, if you missed it, you can read through it here. In fact, if you haven’t read part one but want to read part two, don’t. This article won’t make much sense without it. I would highly recommend reading that article before pushing ahead into this one.
However, here is a quick summary:
Deep down, all of us – whether conscious or not – ask this question: what’s the point? In the Church, the question looks like, “What’s the point of discipleship?” In other spheres of life, it looks a lot like the following: “What’s the point of life?” or, “Why bother doing work?” or, “Does anything really matter?”
And here’s the rub: often, the answers we provide to that kind of question leave us wanting. More often than not, we preface the answers we arrive at with words like, “Is it just?” Deep down, that kind of answer betrays a dissatisfaction with the result. Why? Because it causes us to experience cognitive dissonance. It’s not so much that we think the answer is right, it’s that we think the answer should be right. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that, in the end, we desire, nay, require it to be sufficient and satisfying.
“Why bother doing work?”
Is it just to make money?
When we answer a question with a question, something’s amiss. If that question answer begins with, “Is it just,” then it seems like we require that answer to be satisfactory and sufficient.
Because it’s easier to maintain unchallenged and comfortable assumptions than it is to destabilize that which we thought was true and foundational.
And fair enough. I’d rather be comfortable with the status quo, too. But is that kind of life worth having?
I don’t think so.
It’s why theologian N.T. Wright has become one of the greatest influences in my ongoing metamorphosis. He’s willing to destabilize long-held assumptions for the purpose of reconstructing our view of God, the Bible, and the point of everything. He does this by gently deconstructing that which we have assumed to be true, and then going so far as to help us reconstruct that old assumption with something far more profound and helpful. And it is, precisely, in that reconstruction phase that we can journey down the path of creating a life in which we are fully alive. In his life, he has taken many pervasive beliefs of the Western Church and both deconstructed and reconstructed them. One of those pervasive beliefs is about the next life. You know, the whole “heaven is the point” thing. I know our “final destination” may seem like a foregone conclusion; however, I think it’s time that many of us began to engage our assumptions about the next life. I think we must because so many of us are so hopeful for what is to come that we are blind to what is at this very moment. I think we need to engage, challenge, and deconstruct our long-held assumptions about the next life so that we may experience abundant eternal life now.
Back to “Heaven Isn’t the Point” and A Word From N.T. Wright.
According to N.T. Wright, the notion of going to heaven when we die has become the focal point of Western Christianity. It is a fundamental element of belief. Upon that doctrine, he would suggest that many good and kind, charitable and God-fearing people are hanging the entirety of their faith. If heaven isn’t the final destination, then none of this can be true. (Interestingly, we often equate belief/faith to intellectual assent. However, what we believe is best witnessed by observing how we behave. But more on that later.) In a recent piece for TIME he writes:
“One of the central stories of the Bible, many people believe, is that there is a heaven and an earth and that human souls have been exiled from heaven and are serving out time here on earth until they can return. Indeed, for most modern Christians, the idea of “going to heaven when you die” is not simply one belief among others, but the one that seems to give a point to it all.”
He goes on to say:
“But the people who believed in that kind of “heaven” when the New Testament was written were not the early Christians. They were the “Middle Platonists” – people like Plutarch.”
So there you have it. It’s possible to conclude that the modern Church really isn’t exceedingly Christian in thought. We’re Middle Platonists.
And here I was thinking I was a follower of Christ. A person of The Way. An a-theist, as the first-century Romans would have said. Turns out, for the first twenty-or-so years of my life, I was a closet Middle Platonist. So was everyone I knew.
Yet none of us knew it.
But. Wait. What? What’s a Middle Platonist?
There Once Was A Philosopher Named Plato.
Middle Platonism isn’t that difficult of a concept. It sounds difficult, but let’s break it down. Middle simply refers to an era in the development of the philosophic ideas of a man named Plato. (More on him in a moment.) Most scholars suggest it began around the year 90 BC until the development of Neoplatonism in the 3rd Century AD. Easy enough, right? After all, that is half of the terminology.
Well, there is a little more. And that brings us to Plato.
Plato and His Ideas.
One could make the case that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. He’s that important. That is, his seminal ideas are what have driven the field of philosophy for over 2000 years. Now, if that’s the case, we better have some knowledge of his ideas. They obviously matter.
As it turns out, ideas and matter are what Plato is all about.
If you were to scour the works of Plato in order to develop a more systematic way of understanding his thought, you would arrive at what is now known as Platonic dualism. In a nutshell, Plato believed that life could be divided into two categories: the Cosmos (i.e., matter) & Ideas. Let’s briefly consider these two categories.
First, let’s examine the Cosmos. We’ll start there because it’s the easiest of his categories to understand as it deals with that which we experience around us. Many of us would agree on this point: the universe is a material universe. It can be studied and experienced. It can be categorized, codified, and quantified. We know the density of trees, the mass of a human, and the flavour of filet mignon. Now, according to Plato, these categories, codes, and quantities are ever-changing. That is, they are in flux. For example, one tree is like another tree, but not identical. There are oak and walnut, maple and pine, hickory and beech trees. They are all trees, but they are all different. Furthermore, not one maple tree is identical to another. The same can be said for people, dogs, cats (if you like that sort of thing), planes, trains, and automobiles. They are categorically the same, but they are different. They are orderly and disorderly. The important thing to understand about Plato’s Cosmos, though, is that all of these things are impermanent and, thus, imperfect. Hold on to that nugget for just a moment more. So, summarily, Plato’s conceptualization of the Cosmos deals with matter. It deals with that which is material. The things we can touch, taste, and see. And all of those things are impermanent and imperfect. But that’s not all there is to his philosophy. There’s one more category we need to talk about.
Second, it’s necessary to examine the Ideas. It’s important to understand one thing from the beginning: Plato didn’t mean ideas as in our inner thoughts. So, let’s not equate those two. In Plato’s philosophy, the Ideas are that which is eternal, changeless, and purely intelligible. As such, Plato’s conclusion was that Ideas are orderly, permanent, and perfect. Remember what I said about the Cosmos? The Cosmos, according to Plato, is imperfect. Conversely, Platonic philosophy suggests the Ideas to be perfect.
Okay, that’s great. But what does that mean for our lived experience?
Simply this: what we experience in the Cosmos is a pale and imperfect reflection of what exists in the Ideas. For every maple tree you encounter in the Cosmos, there exists a perfect and permanent maple tree in the Ideas. The same is true for buildings. The same can be said of birds. Have you seen a triangle lately? If you have, it is simply the poor representation of the perfect triangle in the Ideas. Now, triangles play by certain rules. They’re three-sided polygons, and the sum of their angles is 180 degrees. Those are the rules that govern triangles. In the Ideas, there is a perfect triangle. In the Cosmos, there are pale and imperfect representations of that perfect triangle. In the Ideas, there is full perfection of the poor representations we witness around us. And this is true for everything.
And there you have it, Plato’s thought and philosophy summed up in a few paragraphs.
Great. This matters precisely why?
Why Plato’s Ideas Matter.
It may seem moderately esoteric to dabble in Platonic thought. After all, he’s long dead. True. But his thought lives on, and it permeates much of our Christian thought. (And believe me, what I just offered is a cursory and simple explanation of Platonic philosophy. It’s way more detailed, nuanced, and staggeringly beautiful than one small section of one small article can manage.)
Here’s what I mean:
Plato presents the Ideas in stark contrast to the Cosmos. The Ideas contain all that is good. When we comprehend the phenomenon that is the Ideas, we come to idealize them over the Cosmos. Why? Because the Cosmos incarnates all that is good; however, it does this in an imperfect and impermanent way. The natural endpoint of this kind of thinking is that there exists that which is good and that which is bad. The good is that which we must strive for. The bad is that which we must forsake. The Ideas are good because they are perfect. The Cosmos is bad because it is imperfect. The Ideas, on many levels, are constituted by immaterial spirit. The Cosmos, on the other hand, is made up of material matter. In short, the spirit is good and matter is bad.
And how does that play out in Christian thought and theology?
At the level of the individual, a Christian worldview creates a Platonic dualism in our being. It happens at the level of the soul and the body. Our soul is spiritual, immaterial, permanent, and therefore good; if not, ultimately, perfect. We must care for the soul. In contrast, our body is material, impermanent, and imperfect; it is a pale representation of the ideal body. Therefore, we must escape it.
On a grander and more universal scale, heaven is immaterial, permanent, and perfect. As such, we must strive to obtain the heavens. The earth, though? Comparatively, the earth is bound up in the impermanence and imperfection of matter. It’s a pale representation of the ideal realm of heaven. Accordingly, we must escape this earth.
How do we escape the material world?
We escape the material world by waiting for the death to snatch our souls from the clutches of our inhumane bodies. We wait for the shackles of this earth to be broken by a spiritual force that enables us to ascend to the throne room. It would follow, then, that death is God’s chosen mechanism to do this. It is our destiny to inherit heaven upon our death. In fact, we have a one-way ticket to the divine realm once He sacrificed his mortal body.
See how easy it is to trace Platonic thought all the way to “one day we will die and go to heaven”?
My guess is that none of us have ever really thought about it ourselves, though. It’s also possible that no one ever explicitly stated that line of reasoning to you, either. No one ever told me that when I was growing up. I totally understand how it happens.
And yet there is nowhere that we can point to in all of scripture that unequivocally states that we will one day inherit and dwell in heaven.
So how do we achieve that belief?
We achieve it by doing nothing. It’s true. The first way that we achieve that belief is by doing nothing other than blindly accepting what someone else tells us. It’s made all the easier when we are too lazy to fact check. Personally, I’m not proud of this. I’ve done this far more often than I care to admit. But I also know that I can do something to change that. But that’s not all there is to it. There’s another reason behind our tight grip on the belief that we will one day go to heaven when we die.
The second way we achieve that belief is because of a natural desire to be comforted. In the face of death and suffering, it seems a lot better to believe that heaven is waiting. It makes God seem loving, and it gives us hope for our loved ones and for ourselves. It’s much harder to think that heaven isn’t on the other side of the veil. But, honestly, it seems to me that our professed belief in an inevitable inheritance of heaven is symptomatic of our conformity to a weak ideology that is made more palatable because it asks nothing of us. And so we conform to it’s non-reality so that we may remain comfortable. Comfortable and stagnant. Succinctly, heaven is a placebo that alleviates present suffering. But, ultimately, the hope of heaven one day may just be the very thing that keeps us from experiencing heaven on earth now.
I know that’s strong language. I do. But if it’s about transformation then why do we assume it would be comfortable and easy? Transformation, but it’s very nature, requires honest and ruthless self-examination. It requires that we challenge that which we believe, and consider if those beliefs can withstand the weight of rigorous cross-examination. You can’t change what you don’t know. But it is often easier to not know. They say ignorance is bliss. But it’s also true that what you don’t know can also kill you. To me, that doesn’t sound blissful. Conformity requires nothing. Transformation asks for everything. Conformity is comfortable. Transformation is destabilizing. Heaven sounds far more comfortable than earth. But earth is all you have been given, so why is heaven the end goal?
And that is precisely a question we need to push further into. And to do that, I want to go back to a beginning of all things.
//Spoiler Alert: Heaven isn’t the end goal. At least, not as we may have assumed it to be.//
I know the sentence about going “back to a beginning of all things” may have sounded strange to read. Believe me, it felt strange to write and speak. My editor didn’t like it either. However, it seems to be the most accurate way to describe the opening lines of the Bible.
If you were to look at the first Hebrew word of the Bible, you would see this: בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית
I know, it’s all Greek to you, too.
The first Hebrew word of the scriptures is, in English phonetics, written as bere’shit. And no, the last four letters are pronounced differently than your thinking. Its accurate pronunciation is something akin to bear-a-sheet. Say it with me: bear-a-sheet. Excellent! In the English translations we read today, that word is translated to In the beginning. It’s the most epic opening for a story, isn’t it? But, I want to let you in on a little secret: it doesn’t literally mean that.
You mean the translation I’ve known for my whole life is wrong?
Well, sort of.
There aren’t always direct equivalents in language. After all, words from one language aren’t invariably present in another language. As such, when we translate something from one language to another, we must always invoke some sort of interpretation. (Language is messier than we give it credit.) And that means two important things. First, translators are always attempting to interpret original meaning. We can’t always arrive at an unequivocal understanding of what an author meant to write when they penned a specific text, and so we must attempt to infer the original meaning. Second, it also means that we have to smooth out the translation from one language to another. That is, we have to make it readable to the modern tongue. In the case of the Old Testament, we have to smooth Hebrew into English.
What that said, the most literal translation you could make of the Hebrew word בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית (i.e., bere’shit) is In beginning.
Did you notice the omission in that second translation? Yeah, it’s missing the definite article “the”.
In the beginning.
What you’re most familiar with.
A more literal interpretation.
“The” is not present. It’s almost as if the original authors want us to understand that we are simply dropping in at some point in time that may or may not be the absolute beginning of everything. In a strange way, it points to the eternal nature of all things while also reminding us that we are late-comers to this created order.
If I were to paraphrase (and impose my own thoughts on the initial writers: see, interpretation once again), it would look something like this:
“There was lots going on before we got here. This isn’t the beginning. After all, eternity is a time that knows no bounds. It’s infinite. We cannot really understand what it means that there was a starting point in eternity. And, hey, we don’t really know what it was like before us. After all, there were no humans to tell us what it was like. But let’s pick up in the ongoing, unfolding of the universe. Let’s talk about a beginning.”
In my estimation, there is a great mystery that we miss if we don’t acknowledge the humble first word of the biblical narrative. It invites us to marvel at the glorious expansiveness of all things. It causes us to question and consider the mystery that is God. Where did he come from? How was he here? At what point in time (?) was it deemed a good idea to create? Given that I don’t know everything about, well, everything, it seems that questions are a good idea. After all, we are talking about all things; and that’s a lot of things to discuss.
So, there’s a small case-study of translation, interpretation, and Hebrew. But why does that matter?
Because what happens next in the logic of the Genesis narrative is the unfolding of that beginning.
Gardens. People. Names.
In beginning, God creates.
In Genesis 1, we are regaled with tales of seven creative movements. Six days are spent doing things. One day is used to rest in the glory of what was done before.
(Notice the narrative isn’t complete until that seventh day. In fact, you might say that the seventh day was the definitive moment of Creation. The culmination of all activity was rest. Rest, not activity completes things. But that’s for another time.)
There’s something that we often miss that I would like to draw your attention to. We are told that God created the cosmos, and he created people. (I’m summarizing things, obviously. But you can check out the texts I’m referring to here.) However, for years I made a very easy (i.e., lazy) assumption because I didn’t stop to think. I assumed that the whole of Creation was the Garden and that humankind was but the last addition to it. But that’s not what the story seems to tell us. Take a closer look at the narrative of Genesis 2:4-9 for a moment.
“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” [emphasis mine]
Notice that last verse; verse eight.
Don’t let it out of your sight.
God created a special place within the totality of Creation that we know as the Garden. It was in an Eastern place called Eden. When I carefully read that verse, I cannot help but awaken to the idea that the Garden was not all of Creation. That bears repeating, I think. When I carefully read that verse, I cannot help but awaken to the idea that the Garden was not all of Creation. Conversely, we can say that all of Creation was not the Garden, too. All of Creation was still good. But it wasn’t the Garden. That’s an interesting thought. And, according to the logic of the Creation narrative, humanity was created from the ground outside of the Garden, and then placed in the Garden.
Is your mind blown yet?
When I first encountered this, mine was. It still is, in fact.
It seems to me that our ancestors were set apart. Accordingly, we were, and are, set apart. By God. We were chosen to be placed somewhere special. That’s an interesting thought. It seems as though God is up to something. Why else create all this space and then demarcate a special boundary to put humankind in it? (Note: adam is the Hebrew word for man or mankind. Hence the name “Adam” within the narrative.) It seems that there was a purpose to placing us in the Garden. If that’s possible, then what kind of purpose could there be? Take a look at Genesis 2:19-20a:
“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” [emphasis mine]
Why Gardens, People, and Names Matter.
And that’s precisely why these critical verses matter. Because they give purpose and meaning to our existence.
In beginning, God created a place for us to be and put us there. He then gave us the pleasure and privilege of continuing to help with the unfolding of all things.
Naming animals may sound like a stupid task to us, but it is a tremendous honour. Most parents that I know have agonized over what to name their child. Some get it better than others. (I’m looking at you Swedish couple that proposed Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 as an adequate moniker for their son. By the way, they say it’s pronounced Albin.) But have you ever noticed that the name you give your child often shapes who they are and how they are? Names have meaning, and it’s interesting how people often embody the name they are given. I can only imagine that the same would ring true in the Genesis narrative.
Naming things is a noble task.
Until there’s a name, it’s as though the being is only a thing.
Names make things come into being.
Naming was a task that God bestowed upon us. It’s an invitation to participate in the ongoing creation and unfolding of the cosmos.
We were co-creators. Junior creators, if you like.
And that vocation never went away. We are still co-creators to this day.
But there’s one other reason that these verses matter.
One Other Reason that Gardens, People, and Names Matter.
They also tell us that matter matters. That is, in stark contrast to the Platonic dualism that is rampant in our philosophy and theology, the revelation of God (through the world, scriptures, and, especially, the incarnation) shows us that God values matter. The physical world matters to God. Why else would he create? Why else would he clothe himself in flesh? Did he create to simply destroy it and have us escape the evils of the material world?
Quite the contrary.
It seems that he values matter so much that he made everything out of it and invited us to enjoy it and participate in it with him.
It’s as if God is subtly saying: I don’t want to do all of this by myself, I want you to be invested in all of it; because matter matters.
But if that’s true, then what’s the deal with Revelation? Doesn’t it all get obliterated in the end anyway?
Let’s take a look at an ending.
It’s interesting, many of us have been taught that there will be an end to all things. That is, we’ve been led to believe that the scriptures teach that this world will come to an end, and we’ll be whisked away to heaven for all of eternity. It’s as though the material fades into nonexistence. At that point, the real substance of spirit can take over, and all will be well. The bad will give way to the good if you’re Plantonic enough. If you’re nihilistic enough, then the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, will burn to ash, and everything will evaporate into nothingness. If you’re pious enough, then you will have done well enough to earn your place amongst the chosen ones in the spiritual realm of heaven. If you’re shamed enough, then God will be merciful and, you almost dare not to hope, he will kindly keep you safe. If you’re indifferent enough, then you don’t care about any of it. But, if you’re human enough, you likely wonder what might happen, and if you should be scared enough to do something about it.
See, it’s important to think about an ending.
Revelation 21:1-5 talks about it this way:
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”” [emphasis mine]
We Missed The Plot.
I’m not sure how it has happened, but so many people that I know (including myself for many years) missed this part of the narrative of scripture. I don’t know, maybe it’s because you have to read through 20 chapters of hellfire and brimstone to get there, or maybe it’s all the strange creatures. Although let’s face it, some of them would be most welcome in the worlds of Westeros and Middle-Earth. Regardless, for whatever reason, many people miss an end of all things.
Or, dare I say, a continuation of all things?
I gave a little Hebrew lesson when I talked about a beginning. So, I figure I should give a Greek lesson here at an end.
New Heaven. New Earth. Down.
When you read Revelation 21:1, it says that John saw “a new heaven and a new earth.” But does it really mean that? I mean, we now know that every translation involves some kind of interpretation. So, what’s meant by those words exactly?
The Greek word we translate as “new” in English is καινός. (It’s pronounced ky-nos, by the way.) Interestingly, there can be two broad ways in which we can translate that word. It has two meanings if you will. It can be translated to mean: 1) new in form; or, 2) new in substance. Let’s break that down by thinking of cars.
A car can look new in form when, well, it’s brand new. It comes out of the shipping container and everything looks great. It’s unused. It’s shiny. But you can also make old cars look new, too. Take your car in and get some bodywork done, and you might be amazed at the transformation. Throw on a new coat of paint, clean up the tires, wax and buff it, and it can look like new. A lot of used car salesmen know how to do this really, really well. A used car can look unused and unworn with a little tender loving care. It can look refreshed and restored. It looks new. The harder trick, though, is to make it new in substance.
To be new in substance is a divine feat. It’s an imperfect analogy, but older cars were basically solid metal. They were like tanks on wheels. Today, there’s a lot more plastic and a lot less metal. It’s a new substance. Look at a car from the 50s and you wouldn’t think the things we’re driving today are still cars! Remember chrome bumpers? Yeah, neither does anyone who is under the age of 20. Remember when starter switches were built into the floor? Yeah, that’s from the 50s. Fast-forward to today, and we have plastic bumpers that crumple when the wind blows, and push-button starters built into the dashboard. Cars still require the same components to be a car. But, they are made of entirely new substances now. Show a person in the 50s a rendering of a car from the future and I’m sure they wouldn’t recognize it. It’s new and not just in form; they’re made of entirely new substances.
Now, when the writers of Revelation crafted these lines, I believe they were referring to both kinds of newness; the newness of form and newness of substance. But the question really becomes this: what’s going to be made new in both form and substance?
Everything will be καινός. Everything will be new.
Heaven & Earth.
As the narrative continues, we see that John saw a new heaven and a new earth.
It sounds a lot like what we read about at a beginning of sorts. “In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
In end, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
There’s something different about these ones, though, isn’t there? They’re new. They appear recently made. They are fresh, unused and unworn. But it’s not just that, they’re also novel. The material in them is unheard of, unseen, and of an unprecedented substance. It’s not just a renewal that involved knocking the dings out of the body and slapping on a fresh coat of paint. It’s that, but it’s also of a never-before-seen substance. Forget chrome and try a polymer that is eco-friendly and that we had no idea existed.
One of the things I can safely infer from these verses in Revelation is quite simple: God isn’t in the business of destroying that which he made. He’s set on making it new. It will be just enough like what you have known that you will recognize it, but just enough new that you will have no idea what it is.
And there it is.
That’s where all things are headed.
That is, the whole project, from the beginning, has been headed somewhere. And that somewhere is right here in Revelation 21. It’s a refreshed dwelling place of the divine and a refreshed dwelling place of humankind (and all the animals we named, too). It’s found in the final lines of the scriptures.
But wait, there’s more.
There’s something much more subversive at play in these verses, though. After all, it’s not such a radical idea to hope for all things to be made new. I mean, if you have a bad knee, you want a new one. Wishing for new isn’t so radical. The truly radical piece of these verses has to do with directions.
And it’s all about one direction: down.
Look again at Revelation 21:2a. it says:
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”
There it is. Coming down.
That newness is coming to you. You’re not going to it.
In his book, Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says this:
“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”
That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.
It’s interesting because we often gloss over that line in the Lord’s Prayer. You know, the one that says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
This isn’t a wishful thinking kind of prayer. It’s a radical and subversive petition for the culture and eternal life of the heavens to permeate, invigorate, and radically transform all things. All things here. All things now.
All too often, we profess a belief in, and a desire for, the Cosmic Scotty to beam us up. To be crass, for many a human, that’s the utility of believing in Jesus. His sole purpose is to make sure we go up to heaven. I hear it from the pulpit and platform so often. “One day, when we go to heaven…” Or this one at Good Friday and Easter: “Jesus died so you could go to heaven.” Or we hear it in the all too real suffering of losing loved ones: “They’re looking down on us from heaven, and one day we will go up there to meet them…” I understand the desire. I do. We pray and say these things to find a modicum of comfort in a world that can beat the life out of us.
And yet, these are inversions of a noble theology that circumvent our suffering to provide us with comfort by dangling the hope of hope. But placing hope in nothing more than hope often leads only to hopelessness. Hope in a future that you can never realize now will always give way to despair. It’s only human.
But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for heaven to invade earth. Another way of saying it is this: we beg the life of heaven come and invade earth now.
It’s not about snatching people away from earth to heaven. It’s about colonizing earth with the life of heaven.
It’s all about heaven coming down.
And when heaven comes down, it brings with it a city and a garden.
Cities & Gardens.
Now, I will confess, I am inferring (but not in an unfounded way) the presence of a garden in an end. The vision of John seems to quite clearly depict a city. And what a city at that! Gold and precious jewels, and walls that enclose an area of 1.96 million square miles. (Yeah, I did the math. But that square mileage makes the New Jerusalem the same size as Mexico, just for reference. This is no small place. Given that it’s not likely a literal reality they are speaking about in these verses, let’s just remember that it’s way bigger than Palestine, which meant something to early Jewish readers. This new city, this New Jerusalem, is huge! Way bigger than anything you can comprehend. That’s the key point here.) But those few verses in the last chapters of Revelation don’t only speak of a city. They also speak to a river flowing directly from the throne of God. And along the banks of that river is the tree of life. And that tree bore fruit and crops, and it’s leaves provided healing. Now, where else do you find crops and fruits growing? A garden.
In a beginning, there was a garden.
In an ending, there was a garden and a city.
Who builds gardens?
Who builds cities?
The garden gives life.
The city gives a place to dwell.
The things of God and the things of man come, in an ending, together at last. In perfect unity.
Conform or Transform?
So, there it is.
As clear as I can make it, that is the stunning belief that Christians, for generations, have held onto. One day, heaven and earth will unite, and God will dwell with his people.
But, somewhere along the way, we got sidetracked with irrelevant details and ideas. Plato came along and offered immediate hope and eternal hopelessness. And through the course of history, that belief has permeated much of Christian thought and theology.
The real question, though, is do you desire to conform to Plato or be transformed by the (re)Creator of all things? Conformity requires no work at all. Transformation requires every bit of courage you can muster.
Because you are going to need it to live a life worth having, here in the middle of all things.
And that’s where we are headed in the next installment.
One Last Request.
Before I close out this article, I would love to ask three things of you:
First, if you want to keep up-to-date on this series, Metamorphosis, please join me for the experience. If you want to be the first to know when the next article drops, you can subscribe to my mailing list. Everyone there will be the first to receive word that the new installment is live. You can subscribe here.
Second, share this article with people who might be open and interested. Let them know it exists, and get them involved in the conversation. It’s easy to do. As you were scrolling, there was a little box that popped up and said, “Who needs this?” You can click the link right there and share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.
Third, you can comment on the articles. Scroll down a little further and leave a comment at the bottom of this page. I’d love to engage with your thoughts on beginnings and endings and create an even better space to engage in the transformative work of the Spirit.
And, on that note, I leave you with a little bit of Narnia. Grace and peace as the life of heaven invades you here on earth, right now.
“And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)