Here’s the text of that sermon I gave at Network Vineyard Church on 12 July 2009.
I want to talk about an area of faith where my whole way of thinking was turned upside down. And that’s about heaven. I’m anticipating three possible reactions – boredom, disagreement and excitement. I hope the excited group of people is the biggest one. If you already know everything I’m going to say, come see me and I’ll arrange for you to get your money back out of the offering. If you disagree with me because you have a strong contrary opinion, I understand, but have a think about it. But I’m thinking there are some of you here today who will be inspired to find new hope and meaning in your life and your understanding of what your faith is all about.
I spent the first nineteen years of my life with an unhealthy view of physical reality. I believed that God was going to destroy the Earth one day. I believed that my future state was to live as a soul floating around in heaven, with no physical body.
When you think that God is going to destroy his creation, plucking out as many souls as he can before he throws the Earth on the fire, you tend not to care as much about what happens here and now. The injustices that plague our world become unimportant. Doing good seems futile. Things can only get worse; why try to do good? Why care about the environment? About climate change? It’s only going to get worse; the whole earth’s going to be thrown out like a disposable cup. More than that, all of life feels a bit pointless. You’re waiting around for heaven, and the only useful thing you can do is evangelise.
When I was nineteen and studying theology at uni, at one stage I got overwhelmed. I had so many questions and challenges to what I’d thought in the past. Fortunately, there was a man named Ian who was a mentor to me. I rang him and he told me to come around. I didn’t have a car, so I had to catch a bus into the city and then one out to his place; it took nearly two hours. When I got there, I was ready to pounce on him with all my questions about the sources and authorship of Genesis and Deuteronomy and the history behind them. But instead, he asked me a question. I think the Holy Spirit inspired him to ask it, because on the face of it, it had nothing to do with my situation.
He asked me, ‘What happens after we die?’
I said, ‘We go to heaven.’
But then he asked, ‘What about after that?’
And when I looked at him like he was playing a trick on me, he told me two things.
First of all, that the Earth wasn’t being thrown in the bin, but was going to be redeemed and renewed.
Second of all, I wasn’t going to live as a disembodied soul in heaven forever, but at Christ’s return, I would be resurrected to live on the renewed Earth. Our resurrection bodies were to be more physical, more real than our current ones – not less. Heaven, he told me, was only a waiting place for something better.
Basically he told me that Christianity was bigger and better than going to heaven when I died.
This was something I needed to hear. I went home encouraged, at peace for the first time in ages. The world made new sense. I felt comfortable in my body for the first time in my life. I wasn’t just waiting to go to heaven. Life had new purpose and meaning.
I want to unpack these two ideas of the renewal of the Earth and the resurrection of our bodies. If I was preaching for four weeks in a row, I would like to take you carefully through each of the passages I’m about to discuss, and give you the background and cultural context and interpret each part. I think that’s the type of preaching we need sometimes. However, I’ve only got one week and I need to give you an overview of the whole New Testament. So I’m going to take us through Jesus, then Paul, then 2 Peter, and then Revelation, before talking about how this is going to affect our lives and our church. At the end, I want to give people a chance to ask questions.
In the Lord’s prayer, we say, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:10)
Our prayer isn’t that the earth will be destroyed so we can vacate to heaven. Our prayer – given to us by Jesus – is that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. And one day this will happen when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness.
Stuart has been preaching a lot about the kingdom of God over the last two years that I’ve been at this church. If you’ve been listening, you’ll know that when you hear ‘the kingdom of God’ in Luke or ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in Matthew, Jesus wasn’t talking about heaven. Instead, he’s talking about God’s reign as king. And it’s God’s desire for the earth to be subject to his kingship. To end the rebellion of every creature, every human, every power and principality. And that process got a massive kickstart in Jesus. It continues today in God’s work through the Holy Spirit empowering the church, but it will culminate in Jesus’ return when everything, all of creation will be renewed and set right.
So when Jesus talks all the time about the kingdom of God, he is not talking about going to heaven when we die. He’s talking about heaven – God’s realm – coming to Earth.
As you process that, maybe some of you are remembering Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:42-43 and wondering how they fit in.
Then [the thief] said, ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’
The New Testament scholar Tom Wright says:
‘Paradise’ is here, as in some other Jewish writing, not a final destination, but the blissful garden, the parkland of rest and tranquility, where the dead are refreshed as they await the dawn of the new day. (Surprised by Hope: 162)
Jesus is telling the thief that he doesn’t even have to wait for Jesus to come in his kingdom. This very day when they both die, the thief will be with Jesus in paradise or ‘heaven’. But it’s not the final destination. Instead, the picture in the New Testament is of us waiting after death with God in heaven for the resurrection on the renewed Earth.
We are going to be resurrected like Jesus. Reflecting on the significance of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20, Paul uses the language of Jesus being the firstfruits for our resurrection. Pretend there’s an apple tree and long before any of the blossoms have even appeared, there’s a single apple that comes out and we get a taste of the harvest of fruit which is to come. If we want a taste of what is in store for us, the best place to look is in Jesus’ resurrection.
Luke and John, and to a lesser extent Matthew, all have stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. They give us some clues about what it’s like to have a resurrected body. Let’s read one of these stories from Luke 24:36-43:
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of grilled fish and he took it and ate it in their presence.
Let’s take some clues about our own resurrection from this story.
First of all, if you have the eyes to see, the resurrection body is recognisable; and yet it is also different. There is both continuity and discontinuity in the resurrection body. We usually go too far in emphasising the discontinuity. Our resurrection bodies will be recognisable. Our identity carries over in an important way. The discontinuity is that we will be more ourselves than we are now; we will be who we are meant to be.
Secondly, the resurrection body is physical but in a new way. Jesus can walk through walls but he also has flesh and bones and he can eat fish. Next time you find yourself singing a song about floating on clouds forever in heaven, remember this part of the story. Remember that you will have flesh and bones and be able to eat when you are resurrected. Next time you are tempted to think that food and bodies don’t matter, that they’re not spiritual, not eternal, remember that they are.
Thirdly, the old life is relevant. The scars of Jesus’ crucifixion remain. The life we’ve lived, the experiences we’ve gathered, the memories we’ve collected – they don’t just disappear. Somehow, God includes them in our perfect resurrection bodies. So as death and age brings you down, as you feel the loss that the passing of time brings, remember that there will be redemption, that in resurrection there will be remembering.
But don’t take any of those three points as definitive answers; they’re just glimpses of possibilities for our resurrection bodies that we’re given in Jesus’ resurrection body.
Let’s move on from the gospels to the epistles. What did Paul teach about resurrection and the renewal of the Earth? One of the most intriguing glimpses we have of the renewal of the Earth comes in Romans 8:18-23. This time I’m reading from the NRSV:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
We can read this as the culmination of Paul’s argument in Romans 5-8. He’s been talking about the renewal of God’s covenant, and now his argument culminates with this wonderful picture that the renewal of God’s covenant results in the renewal of God’s creation.
In this passage, we have our two ideas coming together: creation itself, the wounded, polluted Earth is groaning, waiting for the time of resurrection and renewal. Humans haven’t fulfilled their God-given mandate to care for creation as stewards. Creation has been in bondage or slavery to decay as the consequence of bad stewardship, of sinful humans having dominion over it. Creation awaits the time when we’ll be proper stewards in our resurrection bodies, looking after it like we were meant to.
Creation doesn’t groan like a dying dog waiting to be put out of its misery. It groans like it’s in the throes of childbirth.
This image gives us a clue as the relationship between the creation we know now and the new creation. One way to picture it is like the resemblance between mother and daughter. The daughter is similar to the mother, has some of her traits and knows her story, her history, and has come out of her, and yet is also new and different. It’s a helpful picture, but it’s only one picture and Paul is always mixing up his metaphors, bringing in as many figures of speech as he can to evoke the difficult, strange, new things he has in mind.
4. 2 Peter
If you were going to challenge the renewal of the earth from the New Testament, the place you’d probably go is 2 Peter. In chapter 3, the writer compares the present time before God’s judgement to the days before the flood in Genesis. Just as people mocked Noah and went on in their ways back then, so will people mock Christians. But just as the flood waters destroyed the world of that time, so fire will lay everything on the earth bare and destroy the ungodly. The writer finishes by saying that we are looking forward to ‘a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.’
You could understand the writer as meaning that the earth is going to be burnt up, but this seems to ignore the whole comparison to the flood story. The flood was devastating, but it was not the end of the earth. The point of the water or the fire is to cleanse and purify the earth. Interestingly, this is the only place in the New Testament which even hints at the earth being destroyed, and yet somehow the idea has become very entrenched. Whatever, the case, the writer of 2 Peter isn’t looking forward to a disembodied life in a cloudy heaven, but a resurrected life on a new earth.
I want to finish our whirlwind tour of the New Testament with a passage from the penultimate chapter of the final book – Revelation 21:1-4. We have a wonderful picture here of what life will be like when all of creation recognises Jesus as Lord.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished. And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: ‘Now God’s home is with humankind! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God.’
In this picture, heaven and earth are made for each other in the same way as male and female are made for each other. When they come together, it will be an occasion for rejoicing in the same way a wedding is.
It does not picture us going to heaven, but heaven coming to earth. God can finally be fully at home amongst his people.
Now that you’ve had a whirlwind tour of the New Testament, what are the consequences of resurrection and renewal?
1. Firstly, climate change matters. I bring this up not because it is the only issue facing the world that matters, but because it is one of the most urgent, and one which Christians have been too slow to act on. In a recent book called Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living, Nick Spencer and Robert White write:
We ought to work for the restoration and flourishing of creation as part of our work for the kingdom of God, to see God’s will ‘done on earth as it is in heaven’, and to work in this world in the confidence that what we build that is trustworthy and true will not be rendered futile by the future coming of Christ and judgement, but will be taken up into Christ and fulfilled in the new heaven and new Earth. (90)
This earth is a part of God’s plan of salvation. Our failure to take care of it properly is sin. We are working against God’s good creation. We are adding to the thorns and weeds that mark a creation gone wrong. As stewards of an earth God hasn’t given up on, we need to look after it. We need, as Christians, to not let everyone else do our work in standing up for creation, in making a stand against its exploitation. Let’s be a people who are known for loving the earth which God has made.
2. Secondly, we should try to change our language. It comes off the tongue so easily to talk about ‘heaven’, as if that is our future state for eternity. Language is important. It ends up shaping how we think, how we picture things. So instead of talking about ‘heaven’, talk about the renewed Earth, or the new heavens and new earth, or the resurrection.
This will mean you need to start thinking about what you’re singing, and realise what sort of future the song is talking about, and whether it does justice to the New Testament. We get far more of our theology from songs than we realise.
3. Thirdly, it means emphatically that our lives are meaningful. The apostle Paul, at the end of his long exhortation about resurrection, says in 1 Corinthians 15:58 ‘Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’
We are not here killing time until we get to heaven. We’re not here just to win more souls to heaven. Instead we have a job to do here and now, in giving tastes to the world of God’s kingdom, in living out the new way of life here and now. Tom Wright says it beautifully in Surprised By Hope and I want to finish with a lengthy quote from him:
You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to fall over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown in the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings, and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed which spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which has begun with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there. (219)