POSTED ON JUNE 22, 2011:
Heaven is a Place on Earth
Debunking the haloes, harps and clouds theoryfor something more glorious
It was time for some new glasses.
The rimless spectacles I had worn for the last four years were growing weary. Scratches on the lenses, discoloration on the frames, wobbly screws. My vision hasn't changed much during these four years but at times, gazing through the scuffs, it felt as if it had. I picked up the phone and called the optometrist.
I've always had a fascination with the art and science of optometry. The phoropter, the swinging flashlight test, the slit lamp machine.
My favorite portion of the check-up is when the optometrist drops a combination of lenses in front of each of my eyes, asking me to gaze at the letters on the wall and conclude which is more or less clear. As the test progresses, letters that once were foggy become unclouded.
My optometrist wrote a prescription that brought me a bit more definition and I went off to a local optical store to pick out some new frames. The next day, I was sporting my new glasses and I felt as if I was seeing things more luminously and in more detail than I had before. In a sense, what was once unseen was now seen. Clarity.
I laid my cards on the table last week and said that I believe what the Christian Bible teaches about the afterlife: Jesus will return a second time to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5) but we don't know when that moment will be. Moreover, in Hebrews 9:28, we see that Christ will come again "to save those who are eagerly waiting for him." And since there is life after death, we have to do business with the words from the writer of Hebrews -- are we a part of the "who" that will be saved? If not, how do we become a part of the "who?"
Just like Nicodemus, the religious leader who asked Jesus the identical question, the Christian Bible teaches that us that to be a part of the "who," we must be reborn spiritually by following the One the Pharisee questioned, the Christ. For our faith in God, we receive forgiveness and eternal life. It is the great exchange.
But what about eternal life for those whom God saves? What does that look like?
When most think of heaven, they think of Gary Larson's famous The Far Side comics, which play up the idea that heaven will be boringly mundane. In these cartoons, Larson's captions say things like, "Welcome to heaven, here is your harp" or "Wish I'd brought a magazine." In his book The Journey of Desire, Christian writer John Eldridge wrote, "Nearly every Christian I have spoken with has some idea that eternity is a never-ending church service. A never-ending sing along in the sky. And your heart sinks. Forever and ever? That's it? That's the good news?"
Even the larger culture envisions heaven as haloed spirits floating around in white robes, playing stringed instruments, and sitting on clouds. For most, this doesn't sound any better than Larson's hell where everyone has to pass through one of two doors labeled "Damned If You Do" and "Damned If You Don't."
What if heaven is nothing like this? I want to let you in on something: it isn't.
In the past few years of my life, my understanding of heaven has probably been one of the most deconstructed and reconstructed elements of my internal theology. Growing up in one of the "notches" of the Bible Belt in the boot heel of Missouri, my conception about the Kingdom come was informed by Southern Gospel-tinged hymns. "Some glad morning when this life o'er, I'll fly away" formulated a theological framework for me that heaven is a place you "go to" and it isn't here.
Boy, was I wrong.
The Bible actually teaches something very different than my childhood version of heaven. 2 Peter 3:13 says, "But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." God's ultimate plan is not to take us up to live in a realm made for him, but to come down and live with us in a realm made for us. Theologian N.T. Wright says:
... chapters 4 and 5 of Revelation ... is a vision of worship in heaven that people imagine describes our worship at the end of time. In fact it's describing the worship that's going on right now. If you read the book through, you see that at the end we don't have a description of heaven, but, as I said, of the new heavens and the new earth joined together.
What the New Testament teaches is that God's kingdom is coming in time and space and He wants us to be a redeemed human race helping him renew his creation in the here and now. This is what many Christians call the last clarion call of the gospel story: restoration.
The world was created by God, man fell from God's holy standards, and Christ redeemed those whom would place their faith and trust in him. But it doesn't end there. The redeemed are invited in to be God's agents of restoration, to join God as He renews the earth in real-time.
Though largely invisible to our eyes, God's kingdom is coming through a real-time renewal movement led by redeemed human beings. It is like another dimension that is largely imperceptible but over time is becoming more and more lucid. And one day, for those who are followers of God, this will be their forever home.
One day, maybe very soon or a far way off, we will see that Belinda Carlisle was right, "Heaven is a place on earth." But whether you see the new heavens and new earth will depend on which set of glasses you have on.
-(Brad Andrews is lead pastor at Mercyview)
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