Monday, March 24, 2008

Heaven is Not Our Home

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home and church. Then I went off to a fundamentalist college. In all my theological training as a youth and college student, I was always told that heaven is my home.

But the more I read the Scripture and pieced together the grand story, the more I saw this was strangely deficient. Yet I started to speak a different message on this topic as my understanding grew. The Jews didn't think this. And the Jews who followed Jesus as Messiah didn't have this view either from what I could find.

On many occasions I would preface the point with, "Now, I know this sounds strange, but hear me out. Don't think I'm a heretic because of what I'm about to say. I just want you to think about it for a moment. If I'm completely off kilter, let me know."

Then I'd share how heaven is not our final home. And to this day, I've not yet had anyone correct me.

How can they? Read Revelation 21. Then, if you're not convinced, read the same promise in Isaiah 65. John, a Messianic Jew with a full understanding of God's promises, linked the Jewish promises with Jesus' promises. Our home is the Kingdom of God and that Kingdom will come on the earth at the end of all things.

Along with that promises is the resurrection of the dead. Death will die.

Humans were made for earth at the beginning and they will be on the earth at the end. And this answers the Sunday School question of "why did God make us on earth if he always intended us to be with him in heaven?" It's a question that pulls back the curtain on our theological inconsistency.

Over the course of a few years, I grew more confident in this, even though I wasn't finding evangelicals talking about it.

It is little wonder that a popular question among teens today is "What's the big deal about heaven?" Because on the common evangelical soul-winning model, heaven is the end-game. And heaven is a disembodied existence. It sounds like bad news, really. Yet the good news is what Jesus told us: Because I live, you will live also. The last chapter of my book, Living with Questions, is dedicated to this very question covering the resurrection, heaven, hell, a New Earth, and the Kingdom of God.

And I'm in good company. N. T. Wright, the preeminent evangelical-Angelical scholar is talking about it now too. His recent article on the matter is found in Christianity today under the title, "Heaven is Not Our Home."

18 comments:

Ashley said...

Dale,

I love how you think outside of the 'norm', and how you are not afraid to ask questions. It's refreshing.

By the way, I put a plug on my blog for you and Jonalyn this evening, trying to get my few readers to check out what you guys do. :-)

Lorijo said...

whoa. i'm going to sit down and read that article and the corresponding verses. i may have to adjust my thinking about this. hmm.

still thinking... but thanks for throwing it out there.
i might be back afterwards!

Dale Fincher said...

Lorijo,

Yes, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Perhaps I have a goofy view of heaven, but all the description about streets of gold and jewel-studded walls are descriptions of the New Jerusalem on the New Earth. They aren't descriptions of some place in the sky we float off to after death.

Now on my view, that certainly doesn't mean we don't go anywhere after death. Certainly not. Some groups believe we just cease to exist until the resurrection. Other's think we just go unconscious until the resurrection. Yet Paul says he doesn't want to leave the tent of his body and be found naked, but that will be the case when he dies (as he awaits the resurrection). But he adds that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. (See 2 Cor 5) I think that we will see the face of Jesus when we die, yet I don't think that will be our home. Our home will still be coming after the resurrection.

I often describe heaven as a lay-over station. Kinda like when you fly a lot, you have to have a lay-over en route to your final destination. Well, heaven is like a lay-over station until the Earth is remade.

It's good to have a body. It's good to be human. One day all will be well and all manner of things will be well! :)

Dale Fincher said...

Ashley, thanks for the plug! I'll have to go check it out.

And thanks for the encouragement. Yep, asking questions. You're the queen of questions! LOL

Lorijo said...

Thanks for your response Dale. I first saw you speak at APU a few years ago and I have been following yours and Jonalyn's blogs for a while now.

I guess I have been so caught up in our Christian cultural beliefs that I hadn't really thought about it, or questioned it. I've just always accepted the idea that Heaven is my home. Doesn't CS Lewis mention the idea that we don't belong? "If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy, I can only conclude that I was not made for here" (Taken from the first line of a song called CS Lewis song by Brooke Fraser)
That idea is something that I really connect with...and I just need to keep thinking about it. I look forward to learning more and thinking about this more. Thanks for your thoughts! lorijo

Philip said...

Great article! I've been wanting to get that book. As you mentioned, we like to think Jesus and his disciples were Greeks talking with Plato or, as Derek Webb puts it, white middle-class republicans. They were Messianic Jews in a way, but ultimately they were Jewish. For instance, the first shall be last and the last shall be first is from the Midrash (Oral Teaching). Who said it first, I have no idea (my guess is the Midrash but I haven't studied when it was), but I don't think that matters much. It is extremely important to view the Judeo-Christian story as a unit and not separate, which is a big tendency. Christians should know their Jewish heritage, Jesus knew his and his disciples too.

Moreover, you are right to say being in heaven forever is not Jewish. The Jewish tradition is all about making the world a holy place for God to enter. When Wright hit on the fact that after death, God remakes a heaven and earth were he can dwell with us. The Jews are not about otherworldliness; they are all about this world. God made us to dwell on earth, this is our home.

Ashley said...

Well, as for asking questions...Einstein once said:

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiousity has it's own reason for existing."

So, I'm just living out my curiousity at its finest. :-)

Philip said...

lorijo,

I think what we need to understand is why we don't feel at home here. We do not belong, as Lewis said, but this doesn't mean that we did not belong or will not belong again on earth.

Abraham Heschel had this to say about prayer and I think it is very pertinent to this conversation:

"The true motivation for prayer is not, as has been said, the sense of being at home in the universe, but rather the sense of not being at home in the universe. . . On the contrary, the experience of not being at home in the world s a motivation for prayer. That experience gains intensity in the amazing awareness that God himself is not at home in the universe. He is not at home in a universe where His will is defied and where His kingship is denied. God is in exile; the world is corrupt. The universe itself is not at home. To pray means to bring God back into the world, to establish His kingship for a second at least. To pray means to expand His presence."

Heschel hits a very deep nerve in this whole discussion. The universe itself is not at home because it is not as it should be. Heschel says later that "Man's sin is in his failure to live what he is. Being master of the earth, man forgets that he is servant of God." So I think it is important to realize we do not feel at home in this world, God is in exile, and the world itself does not feel at home. That is what the New Earth is about. To bring back the rightful relationship's between God, man, and universe so that it is home once again. Adam and Eve were made to enjoy earth, and I believe our human nature has not changed in the respect of where we feel at home. Just my two cents; this discussion reminded me of Heschel's words.

Has anyone read that N.T. Wright book? It seems it could have some huge effects on Christian culture.

Dale Fincher said...

Lorijo,

The Lewis line you refer to, I believe, is in Mere Christianity. And it is an idea that threads through a lot of his work. However, it may not mean exactly what it means on the surface, at least not in light of the rest of his writing.

[Before I go on, I must add that many writers substitute all ingredients of the afterlife into the word 'heaven.' So be on the lookout when people use the word as a placeholder for wider concepts.]

I think the Lewis quotation you refer to speaks directly toward knowing God and finding our place in him. It isn't the earth itself that is unsatisfying for Lewis, but the world system. It's the diversions humans have built around themselves. It's the idols we've created to fill the hunger that only God is big enough to fill.

Most of evangelicalism has mistakenly thought that renouncing the world and "giving no place to the flesh" is an absolution against the earth and the body. When, in fact, the New Testament writers are referring to our tendency to do things unnaturally ('flesh' or 'sinful nature') and the world-systems of the kingdoms of men.

Apart from Lewis being a Christian humanist who values being human, the body, the earth, and all that God has provided for us and is preparing for us in this world, he also celebrates it with vivid metaphors.

Look at the metaphor of the New Narnia in the Last Battle. There we have a New Earth model. It wasn't merely a 'going to heaven' in some sort of ethereal existence. Also look at Perelandra where Lewis paints the picture of what Earth would somehow be like, in all its innocence and meaning, had we never sinned. It is this meaning that God will one day restore to the earth.

Some may argue The Great Divorce is Lewis' attempt to explain heaven. But we must also note that book is written as a dream. The concepts are clear enough but the actual places of heaven and hell in that book are mere pictures, not to be taken literally.

Do keep the questions coming, Lorijo, if you have some more!

Brittian said...

Hi Dalen
I enjoyed your post...

Gotta love good ole NT.

His book was great.

I think I wrote a review of the first part of it somewhere on my stuff (you can check it here: www.sensualjesus.wordpress.com)

Anyhow...good stuff brother.
I hope to get to know you more in this great world of e-kklessia.

Brittian

tracy said...

God has affirmed this concept very personally for me these last few years. anybody can refute my personal experience, and i always seek truth above what "sounds/feels" right...but my first spark of this concept started after i read "Sacred Romance." i don't remember his exact concept of heaven, but it sparked in me this idea that eternal life is more that just floating spirits in a white light, that if God created this earth and its beauty (now flawed by sin), why wouldn't this concept of a new Heaven and new Earth be all that i've longed for in this life and much, much more?? why would i get less than the beauty and wonder and variety and majesty of this earth He's created? He has seemed to affirm that all i long for and can't fulfill right now (because of where He's placed us)-- special childhood places, exploring the world, living near special people in my life-- that the new Heaven and New Earth will be this and SO much more, and as I joke about to my husband, "if not here, I WILL get to climb Long's Peak then." :)
all that to say, His glimpse of what is in store has helped settle and comfort and ease some of my longings here.

Dale Fincher said...

Brittian,

Thanks for stopping by!

Tracy, I'm with you. And I think it's only modern times that has caused us to lose our vision of what is to come. Our bland view of wispy spirits floating in the sky isn't what tradition teaches. Read Dante for a robust view of paradise and the longings to behold him!

And to think that the God who made this world doesn't suddenly lose his creative touch for what is to come. Indeed his goodness, truth, and beauty are inexhaustible. And he's created us to enjoy what he has created. It's very human and very, very good.

~dale

Dale Fincher said...

Philip, you wrote:

"The Jewish tradition is all about making the world a holy place for God to enter."

I write: here, here! ;)

Karen said...

Dale,

This is Karen (Jones) Morris from college. Your blog, what I've looked at of it, is amazing. I am so thankful to see where the Lord has brought you. For a reason I can't explain, He brought you to mind yesterday and today. I googled you and look what I found! E-mail me if you get a chance. I'd love to 'chat' a little more informally! I can be reached at karensmorris at earthlink.net.

Enigman said...

...but is God not now in Heaven, with the angels that did not Fall? And will we not be as angels after we die? So maybe we go to a New Earth eventually (I'm sure there will be one, fulfilling the original motive for Eden; but will a new Fall be impossible? and if so why not before?) if we want to, and deserve to; but surely we go to Heaven first, and maybe some of us remain in Heaven (many of us, e.g. those who never really suited these temporary bodies, might prefer that), or maybe something else (God's motives are mysterious, and His creativity infinite)... But in short, why not our Home? Heaven is where, in Creation, God is present, e.g. Eden sometimes, New Earth (sometimes?) and our hearts. Would we really be happy in a New Earth if God was not there, making it effectively Heaven? The only Really good things about this world seem epiphenomenal (wispy) to me, and remind me of Heaven. But maybe I'm just old; and a New Earth would be good for the kids to play in!

Jeff C said...

Thanks so much for this post. I started noticing that our normal understanding of heaven doesn't seem very well supported by scripture half a year ago.
As I began to study scriptural uses of Heaven is that in the Old Testament, it's often used as a way to describe how distant God is from us, (usually in the context of affirming that God is so mighty that he can hear us anyway.)
The New Testament, obviously, speaks frequently of the Kingdom of God having the potential to be among us, but this is quite different than Heaven itself.
The idea that Heaven might be among us must have seemed radical indeed to people used to thinking of themselves as so far removed from Heaven proper.

Lorijo said...

dear dale,
I just wanted to thank you for provoking thought and for sparking a new interest in the theology of heaven. I have been reading through Randy Alcorn's book, which is enormous, and will take a while to finish, but I have been fascinated by it. It is probably no coincidence that this has interested me so greatly as my dad just died. He is now in the present Heaven and we are so relieved that he is finally pain free and in a new body. He has fought cancer for the last 13 months until last April 20th. It hasn't been terribly hard on me, we weren't really close the last ten years, but I think that God's gift of faith in my life has allowed me a wider perspective on life and hope and trust in my beliefs...in Christ's Promises and the Truth of His Word. All that to say, I have always been a learner...I learn by studying, as my dad did, he earned his Phd in linguistics the year before I received my BA. He gave me a love for learning and seeking truth, he read CS Lewis to me as a little girl, he loved CS Lewis' works very much, considering his rhetoric to be flawless. I highly respect his opinion, even though we occassionally disagreed, both of us are stubborn and stand strong in our opinions - both positive and negatively. (the positive side of stubbornness is perseverance). All that to say...thank you. I look forward to continue learning more about Heaven and helping more people get excited and looking forward to it!!

Dale Fincher said...

I just realized a few comments never got a reply here....

enigman, you raise an interesting question about a Fall in the New Earth. I'd have to think on that some more... some theologians say God seals our love for him once we choose it... and since the New Earth will not be purely analogous to this one (as we were born in this one but only resurrected for the next one), there may be something to the theologians.

I don't hold the concept that God is in 'heaven' with the angels and separate from us. God's kingdom, says Willard, is the 'effective domain of God's will.' And 'heaven' has different meanings in scripture, including the thin air about us. So living on the New Earth, I suspect God will be very much present here as the writer of Revelation tells us in Chapter 21.

You also note that some may not want to be resurrected "and maybe some of us remain in Heaven (many of us, e.g. those who never really suited these temporary bodies, might prefer that)..."

My best answer would be that we'd have to verify that with Scripture since the great hope of resurrection is the great hope of the Jews and the outworking of the promise of Messiah.

What is more, it could likely be said that if we don't yet want to be resurrected, it may be because we don't yet understand it. Paul thinks a disembodied state is uncomfortable (2 Cor 5), so I think it likely that having a new body will be a great relief and a cosmic joy (that even angels want to know about).


_______

Jeff, good point about what 'heaven' meant to the people of old. And even the medieval philosophers favored a geocentric view of the universe because earth, at the center, was most base and corrupt and purity work itself outwards. So the farther out one goes, the more holy and pure it is... and eventually the 'abode of God' (whatever that means).

So that God has rearranged the universe by showing the Kingdom coming near is good news indeed.

Thanks for the comment!


________________

Lorijo, I'm still sorry to hear about your father. And I'm glad you are finding comfort in exploring his current residence with God (how cool that will be!).

Alcorn's book is good... and I find it encouraging how much of it is dedicated to the New Earth.