As I mentioned earlier this week, I am currently reading through N.T. Wright’s significant work, Surprised By Hope. In this treatise of his, Wright addresses particular topics such as the resurrection of Christ, the resurrection of believers, heaven, hell, paradise, purgatory, the second coming, and how this all practically should affect the mission of the church. Quite an interesting and stirring read.
For many a Christians, or what we might term as the ‘lay Christian’ (though I am not a fan of the term), there is a real lack of biblical understanding on the topic of eschatology. That word simply mean the study of last things. I find that literal definition much more helpful than utilising phrases like end times. I feel particular wordings bring up all sorts of unbiblical and/or scary images.
I’m not sure where we got off track on a lot of these things. I am not referring to discussions of when dispensationalism, a system of theology I don’t entirely agree with, become the major eschatology of so many Christians. I’m simply talking about the wrong understanding across the board on things like the kingdom of God, heaven, or the resurrection of the saints in the age to come. We’ve gone off track in a more gnostic, dualistic way that puts God’s kingdom rule ‘up there’, while also despising things like the physically created world, including our physical bodies.
Thus far of what I have read, Wright’s book stands as a strong corrective to much unbiblical theology on these matters.
So I wanted to lay out two quotes I recently read in Surprised By Hope that I believe are quite helpful and thought-provoking on the specific topic of heaven and the more general topic of eschatology. I hope, no pun intended, they stir us and get us thinking a little more in the right direction.
‘The early Christians, and their fellow first-century Jews, were not, as many moderns suppose, locked into thinking of a three-decker universe with heaven up in the sky and hell down beneath their feet [with earth sandwiched in between]. When they spoke of up and down like that they, like the Greeks in their different ways, were using metaphors that were so obvious they didn’t need spelling out. As some recent writers have pointed out, when a pupil at school moves “up” a grade, from (say) the tenth grade to the eleventh, it is unlikely that this means relocating to a classroom on the floor above. And though the move “up” from vice-chairman of the board to chairman of the board may indeed mean that at last you get an office in the penthouse suite, it would be quite wrong to think that “moving up” in this context meant merely being a few feet farther away from terra firma.’ (chapter 7)
Heaven is not ‘up’, per se. Heaven is consistent with the terms kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven. Heaven is first and foremost about the rule of God. Hence why Jesus strongly exhorted us to pray that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). I share more on this here.
And with some later words, Wright gives these thoughts on the general topic of eschatology itself:
‘The word eschatology, which literally means “the study of the last things,” doesn’t just refer to death, judgment, heaven, and hell, as used to be thought (and as many dictionaries still define the word). It also refers to the strongly held belief of most first-century Jews, and virtually all early Christians, that history was going somewhere under the guidance of God and that where it was going was toward God’s new world of justice, healing, and hope. The transition from the present world to the new one would be a matter not of the destruction of the present space-time universe but of its radical healing. As we saw in the last chapter, the New Testament writers, particularly Paul, looked forward to this time and saw Jesus’s resurrection as the beginning, the firstfruits of it. So when I (and many others) use the word eschatology, we don’t simply mean the second coming, still less a particular theory about it; we mean, rather, the entire sense of God’s future for the world and the belief that that future has already begun to come forward to meet us in the present. This is what we find in Jesus himself and in the teaching of the early church.’ (chapter 7)
These words are a great summary reminder of what eschatology is first and foremost about, the reality of the kingdom rule of God breaking in with the reign of God’s Messiah. That eschaton (or end) has come into the present even now. For as Wright says, eschatology is about the entire sense of God’s future for the world and the belief that that future has already begun to come forward to meet us in the present. And as we move towards the final summation of all things in Christ, we must also be reminded of this great purpose, as Wright sets out: The transition from the present world to the new one would be a matter not of the destruction of the present space-time universe but of its radical healing.
Oh that we would develop a healthy, biblical view of eschatology, of the kingdom of God. For, in doing so, it will affect our lives now, our mission to the world, and our outlook of where we are headed.