If you are like me, you grew up with a certain picture of Christianity. At the center of this picture was heaven, a realm of eternal bliss, where one would drift through pleasant clouds as they played a golden harp and worshiped a white-robed, gray-haired, and magnificently-bearded God. This is the portrayal of heaven often depicted in popular culture. It is a world that has left the earth behind to lie in ruin and ash. It makes perfect sense: God is up there doing his own thing, we are down here doing our own thing, and when we die, we will stand before God and either enter through the pearly gates or be cast out into the lake of fire. This picture is simple. It is easy to understand, and even a child can grasp it. It provides a sense of purpose to one’s life-saving souls that is-and it paints a clear vision of what the end, life after death, will look like.
It is also a lie.
The ultimate hope, the goal at the end of the Christian gospel, is not heaven, but a completely renewed and redeemed earth. A new creation to be precise. Let us look at some of the evidence: (All Bible texts are from the NASB translation)
Romans 8:18-22: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, [i]in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul spends the first 8 chapters explaining his gospel and the salvation offered to both Jews and Gentiles. Chapter 8 is arguably the victorious climax of the letter; the believer has been delivered from sin and is promised that nothing will ever separate them from the love of God, which in Jesus the Christ. Paul then goes on to explain in chapters 9-11 how the word of God to Israel has not failed (9:6) in light of the good news. The point though is that Paul claims an important aspect of the good news is the deliverance of creation itself from corruption. In other words, Paul is explicitly stating that the creation itself awaits the end, the revealing of the sons of God, where it will be set free from its bondage to corruption. Creation will be rescued, not simply left behind as a failed project.
In Philippians 3:20, Paul says that the Philippians’ citizenship is in heaven. At first, this appears to support the traditional idea of dying and going to heaven above. However, dig a little deeper and the verse means something completely different. Citizenship in a Roman colony like Philippi worked differently than citizenship in modern times. Philippi was established after a civil war between two Roman leaders, Mark Anthony and Octavian, as a place to send old soldiers. The last thing Rome wanted was more mouths to feed, especially those belonging to trained killers. These soldiers settled in Philippi would have possessed the great honor of Roman citizenship, yet the plan was for them to, in a sense, bring Roman civilization to the colony, not go back to Rome. Likewise, Paul continues on in verse 20 to say that Jesus will come from heaven to transform our corrupted bodies into resurrection (spiritual->1 Cor 15) bodies. The image is not of us going up to heaven, but of Jesus coming down.
Isaiah, the old testament prophet, provides readers with a vision of what it would look like if everything were put right by God in Isaiah 11:1-10. He will accomplish this through a ruler descended from Jesse (the father of David), strongly referring to and describing King Jesus:
Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse,
And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And He will delight in the fear of the Lord,
And He will not judge by what His eyes see,
Nor make a decision by what His ears hear;
4 But with righteousness He will judge the poor,
And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth;
And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,
And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.
5 Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins,
And faithfulness the belt about His waist.
6 And the wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat,
And the calf and the young lion [a]and the fatling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
7 Also the cow and the bear will graze,
Their young will lie down together,
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra,
And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
Notice that this vision of what will happen when God sets everything right is not of escaping to heaven, but of the earth being full of the knowledge of Yahweh. The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the lion will be a harmless vegetarian, and the child will place his hand over the viper’s den without fear. This is poetic language of course. We do not know if these are literal descriptions of a renewed earth, but we do know that these are earthly descriptions of a world set right by God. Again, the point is that the biblical hope set forth is one of a creation renewed and not a creation forgotten.
The vision of John of Patmos at the end of Revelation is the most illuminating passage we have for understanding what the ultimate destination of the Christian is. Throughout chapter 21, after the resurrection of all people and the final judgement, a new earth and a new heaven is stated to have replaced the old. And get this: the picture is of new Jerusalem coming out of heaven and down to earth, effectively bringing heaven down to earth to be the same place. Once again, the hope expressed is not one of souls ascending to heaven but of heaven coming down to earth and the earth being restored.
The truth cannot be stressed enough. God created this world, and he loves it, and he will rescue, restore, and renew it. God called his creation good for a reason, and He will not abandon it so easily. This is the good news, and part of the good news is that believers will be there, forgiven and with rescued, restored, and renewed bodies to match. God’s intention from the beginning was to shape the world from its humble beginning in the garden to the wonderful place he imagined through humans. Therefore, the forgiveness of sins takes on a new meaning. Yes, forgiveness is necessary for avoiding God’s wrath, but it is not the means of getting to heaven. If the destination is a new earth, then God does not declare humans justified and transform them to get them into heaven so much as He saves humans so that He can save the creation through them.
“Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
(In the next couple posts, I will be addressing what happens after someone dies and what the final judgement (hell) will be like. Hint: It is not as simple as people have made it out to be…)