Thursday, 5 April 2012

Heaven is not my home

Sometimes misunderstandings and mistakes become so pervasive that we cease noticing them. Before the Reformation, Christendom took it simply for granted that the "Church" and the (corrupt) institution centred at Rome were basically the same thing, though the latter needed some reforming. The suggestion that this identification could be a completely mistaken idea sounded revolutionary - which is why it took a revolution to displace it.

Since the Enlightenment, the idea that the point of Christianity is to spend eternity in heaven has taken root so comprehensively that few realise how unbiblical it is. Our songs and sermons continually belt it out: we hope to get out of this creation and into the eternal state as soon as we can.

And yet, we do still remember and often preach the truth: that heaven is not the eternal state: we look for resurrection and the renewal of this earth. Our hope is not to go up and stay there: the Bible preaches that the New Jerusalem is to come down from heaven to earth. Jesus will come back and bring the saints with him. The righteous will inherit... the earth, as both Testaments teach (Psalm 37:4, Matthew 5:5). The point and climax of the Biblical story is that through heaven coming down to earth in the person of Heaven's Glory, Jesus Christ, that eventually the fullness of that glory must follow it. It comes now as the gospel is preached in the Spirit's power: it will arrive finally in the consummation of all things.

It is right to emphasise that during this age, we are strangers and pilgrims in the earth. We pitch our moving tent and must not look for foundations now. We await a heavenly city. But that does not mean a city which is in heaven and remains there; but one which is heavenly in its glory and will come down to the earth.

Yesterday I was reading to my children, and the text said that Jesus was coming to take us home. A few weeks ago, I heard the preacher saying that Jesus was coming to take the church. Those statements are false. The Son of Man, when he returns to the part of creation that was made to be man's sphere of dominion, will be bringing the church with him, not taking it away. When he returns, he will not be taking anyone anywhere: he will be staying. The earth does not belong to Satan or his servants; they will be banished: the righteous will remain.

There is a kind of "stranger and pilgrim" teaching which neglects and subverts the Biblical basis for that language. The Biblical model of the alien/foreigner/stranger/pilgrim is Abraham, in Genesis 12-25. Where was he a stranger and pilgrim? In the land that was promised to him to inherit. He toured it and lived in tents in it, believing and knowing that this was the land given, via his seed, to be his. There is a flavour of teaching that comes to us today and tells us to be "strangers and pilgrims", but by that it means that we are to behave as if the present creation and all of its institutions and structures had little significance for Christians. We just try to live as salt and light in them, to make them tolerable before the whole stinking lot is dumped in the eternal trash heap. Jesus is King, the kingdom is present in little pockets, but this creation is not the realm of his rule - it just has small outposts here and there, made up of people anticipating the real arrival of the kingdom. That way of thinking is wrong.

The real arrival of Jesus' kingdom was 2000 years ago. As he told his disciples quite plainly, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power" (Mark 9:1). Soon afterwards, he died, rose and ascended to God's right hand to receive all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18-21), and commissioned his disciples to make known that glory throughout all nations on earth (heaven being already pure and perfect, Matthew 6:10). When Jesus told his followers that within one generation they would see his arrival on the clouds in power and glory (Matthew 24:30, 34), every Jewish ear knew immediately that he was directly quoting Daniel chapter 7. They were not words about the end of the universe, but about the establishing of the "fifth kingdom", which Daniel 7 said would be in the days of the Roman Empire - not many thousands of years later.

Since the Enlightenment many Christians have sadly retreated from a robust doctrine of creation. They preach as if our goal was to get out of the material world, out of the body, and into the spiritual, float realm of heaven. The first verse and chapter of the Bible refutes that way of thinking: in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth: and gave the earth to man to have dominion over. The Son of Man came as the "last Adam" (1 Cor 15:45) to complete what Adam failed to accomplish; and his method of accomplishing it is through his death, resurrection, ascension, pouring out of the Spirit and sending out of his disciples in his name until the end of the age. Our great hope is the final resurrection when he comes back in power and glory; not to remove us from this creation, but to glorify it as was his original purpose.

We are not "strangers and pilgrims" in the sense of living lightly in relationship to this present creation, but in the sense of living lightly in relationship to this present age. There is a huge difference. Like Abraham, we are not strangers in a land that has nothing to do with us, but in the one we know we will inherit. We work and labour for Christ in the power of his Spirit today because we both anticipate what he will do in future at the completion of all things and we expect to see his kingdom take the progressive steps towards all that must be done before that completion. Our lives do not only reflect heaven as an anticipation of the future-final-coming-down, but in order to bring more of it down now. We are not just trying to get along and stop the stinking corruption of this world until he whisks us away. The earth today belongs to king Jesus, and we call all to submit to him.

The post-Enlightenment compromise on this robust doctrine of creation has been a disaster for the Christian church, and it is one of our most urgent needs today to recover the Biblical position. We are not "strangers and pilgrims" who will one day return to another country somewhere else, but also heirs who are certain to inherit. Getting that distinction right will make a massive difference to the way we worship, live, raise our children, evangelise our communities and confront secularist idols as we proclaim the Lordship of Christ in all things.