Sunday, February 10, 2008
What is Heaven?
What is heaven? If you ask most Christians that, they will likely say something about our souls going to be with God when we die. Popular images will include clouds and wings and harps. And yet this is not an orthodox or biblical Christian belief about the afterlife. For some strange reason, this body/soul dualism has crept into Christian beliefs, to the point where most people don't even realize what the Bible actually does say about life after death. The biblical vision is not of our souls being separated from our bodies and taken up to heaven for eternity after we die, but of our bodies (and souls) being resurrected to new life and heaven coming down to become one with earth. This is why the ancient creeds refer to the "resurrection of the body" not "disembodied souls in heaven" as our ultimate hope. This is the historic understanding and teaching of the church.

And yet if you tell the average Christian these days about this, they will look at you as if you're crazy. I had never heard of this myself until I got to college, and when I told some of my other friends there about it, they thought I was going off into some weird, controversial new beliefs. These days when I bring it up, people will often assume that it's another one of my wacky "emerging church" beliefs, or that it's some "liberal" Christianity thing. Even my atheist friends accuse me of reinventing Christianity to make it more palatable, or something to that effect, when I tell them that I don't believe in disembodied souls floating around in heaven for eternity. It's fighting an uphill battle to explain to them that while I do have some beliefs now that differ from traditional doctrines, this is not one of them. I'm amazed at how difficult it is to convince people that orthodox Christian doctrine has always been about the resurrection of the body and the union of heaven and earth at the end of history.

That's why I'm glad to see NT Wright tackle this head on in his latest book, Surprised by Hope; and even more than that, I was excited to see that Time magazine even had an interview with Wright on the subject. Here are some of his comments:
There are several important respects in which [the typical view] is unsupported by the New Testament. First, the timing. In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, "Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven." It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.

It's important to note that these two views are more than just theological trivia. Wright points out that they have very specific moral implications:

If people think "my physical body doesn't matter very much," then who cares what I do with it? And if people think that our world, our cosmos, doesn't matter much, who cares what we do with that? Much of "traditional" Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won't be going up there to him, he'll be coming down here.
Read the rest of the interview here.

via Bob Hyatt


posted by Mike Clawson at 3:32 PM | Permalink |


At 2/10/2008 07:08:00 PM, Anonymous Dave

I am _so_ glad that Wright is dealing with this topic. I'm with you Mike, whenever I start referring to heaven in these terms it is as if people believe I'm talking heresy!

- Dave.


At 2/11/2008 09:35:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

N.T. Wright lectured on Resurrection and Heaven at a college (Friday night) and church (Saturday morning) in my locality a year or so ago. I think the recordings of those lectures may still be online. He had a lot of great things to say, and I've been quoting bits and pieces of his talks to people ever since. This book sounds good.


At 2/11/2008 11:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

I haven't read Wright's book, but it sounds like he is pointing out a lot of similarities with Randy Alcorn's "Heaven", which is a pretty good handling of the subject. Have you had a chance to read it?


At 2/11/2008 01:39:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

No, I haven't seen that one Nicholas.


At 2/28/2008 08:27:00 PM, Anonymous Random lurker

Has anyone here ever heard of the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis?

I read this blog and I usually stay out of discussions, but I just wanted to throw that in there since I have also wondered at how so many people these days manage to mangle the concept of Heaven.


At 2/28/2008 11:34:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hi lurker, thanks for jumping in.

I am familiar with theosis. How do you see it relating to this view of heaven?


At 2/29/2008 11:18:00 AM, Anonymous Random Lurker

Well, you said this above: "I'm amazed at how difficult it is to convince people that orthodox Christian doctrine has always been about the resurrection of the body and the union of heaven and earth at the end of history."

I have experienced this as well. You also said something about how many people envision heaven as disembodied souls floating around somewhere, which is just plain strange in my humble opinion... this made me think of theosis because the question of just what we do in the afterlife often arises. People associate it so often with playing harps and floating around on clouds and whatnot, and it's not like that at all... to my understanding, this world will be transfigured, the dead will be resurrected, and those who love God will seek communion/theosis with Him, while those who reject Him will suffer in His presence. It seems to me that the concept of heaven and the afterlife has been warped to something completely unrecognizable by many denominations these days.

Anyway, this all ties together from my point of view, and I thought I'd throw it in there to see how the emergent church feels about these things. It seems to me that the Eastern Orthodox (especially converts from Protestantism) and emergent folks make a lot of the same arguments about Western Christianity, so I'm curious how far that actually goes. :)


At 2/29/2008 11:33:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Yes, I see what you mean. Brian McLaren has often discussed how Eastern Orthodoxy has influenced his views, and in his most recent book when he describes the "emerging view" of the gospel he acknowledges that it is really not new, but merely a rediscovery of themes that can easily be found both in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Anabaptism, among other sources.

So yes, I do see many resonances and even direct connections between Orthodox (big "O") theology and the emerging church. However, I should also remind us all that this view of heaven I'm talking about isn't just an "emerging church" thing. It is a historic, orthodox (small "o") Christian belief. I came across this theology long before I discovered the emerging church - basically after I got to Wheaton College and discovered that historic Christian belief is not always the same as popular evangelical belief. Though I suppose you could say that this view of heaven did lay the groundwork for my later emerging beliefs. Once you realize that the goal of salvation is the renewal and resurrection of this world, not escape to some other world, everything starts to look different. You've opened the door to a more wholistic gospel.


At 3/01/2008 01:41:00 PM, Anonymous Random Lurker

"Once you realize that the goal of salvation is the renewal and resurrection of this world, not escape to some other world, everything starts to look different."

So true! Thanks for your helpful comments. :)

PS -- is there a difference between "emergent" and "emerging?" I've seen both terms used, and I noticed you used "emerging" when I used "emergent" in the previous post... I get the idea that they're not necessarily interchangeable.


At 3/01/2008 11:00:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Re: emerging and emergent

It's complicated and not everyone uses them in the same way, but generally speaking "emerging" is a broader term that encompasses many different streams of what God is doing in the church. "emergent" usually refers to the particular emerging stream revolving around Emergent Village, those emerging folks who tend to be more theologically "experimental" shall we say.

However, this distinction is not universally understood or adhered to and thus you will likely be able to find many examples to the contrary.


Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link