No, I’m not questioning your eternal destiny. (Well, maybe. But not how you think.)
The other day, a friend shared five things we get wrong about heaven. (I reacted by overenthustiastically quoting half the article on Twitter… which may have cost me a few followers.) All five things lead back to the question question of where. The answer to this question may surprise you if, like me, you grew up on a steady evangelical diet of “this world is not my home” and “I can only imagine.”
But it’s not just the where that we get wrong. It’s the why. How did our view of eternity get so muddled? I think lot of it’s the result of how we answer one question: Does this world matter to God or not?
Did Jesus mean it when he talked about “the renewal of all things”? Or does he only care about snatching disembodied souls from the (not-so?) proverbial fire?
Is creation worth saving? Or is it destined to burn?
If God made this world to be his temple, will he occupy it again someday?
How we answer these questions will in large part determine why kind of eschatology we embrace. A world that matters to God is a world worth saving, not destroying. A world that matters to God is one worth coming back for.
(Not-so) Late, great planet…
It’s funny how one of Scripture’s most powerful images of God returning to earth became the basis for an escapist vision of the end.
The idea of the rapture—a faithful few being evacuated by Jesus before the world burns—hasn’t been around that long, historically speaking. It was developed by John Nelson Darby in the early 1800s and popularized more than a century later by the book The Late, Great Planet Earth — and by the Left Behind series a generation after that.
1 Thessalonians 4 is often cited in support of the rapture:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
But a rapture-friendly reading hinges on something the text never actually says: that Jesus will escort the faithful back to heaven after they meet him in the clouds.
The scene Paul describes mimics a royal visit by the emperor of Rome. These visits were not unlike those made by heads of state today — full of pomp and fanfare. N.T. Wright describes the scene in Surprised by Hope:
When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly.
But here’s the crucial detail. After you met the emperor—after you heard the trumpet call and hurried out the gates—he didn’t whisk you away to some far off place. You escorted him back into the city.
This is the picture painted by Paul. Notice how he never says, “And then we will go away to heaven.” More from N.T. Wright:
When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord “in the air,” the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.
Heaven is indeed for real. But in the biblical narrative, we don’t go there to be with God. He comes here to be with us.