Heaven and Eschatology

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.

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20 thoughts on “Heaven and Eschatology

  1. 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.

    Scott, that is a penetrating insight. It echoes a criticism of mainstream Christian eschatology that we Biblical Unitarians have been repeating for several hundred years.

    If you want to know when the church jumped its eschatological rails, look no further than the 4th Century. There you will find the works of faithful Christians such as Papias and Polycarp mocked and derided as primitive nonsense by theologians who saw the Kingdom of God reflected in Constantine’s reign, and concluded that the resurrection of the dead was a redundant theology.

    From this point it was all downhill.

  2. Fort –

    Well, I believe Wright would say he is not trying to conform to Christadelphian eschatology. 😉 Actually, there are many before Wright who have very sound doctrine in the area of eschatology.

    I believe Christadelphian eschatology seemed somewhat similar to JW eschatology in some of its major tenets, which I don’t agree with. But maybe the connection is not as close.

    Also, I believe Israel is no longer the physical Jewish people, but that Christ is the Israel of God, and all those in Christ are the true Israel of God. I’ve written on this quite a bit.

  3. Scott, I agree that Wright is not trying to conform to Christadelphian eschatology. That’s the beauty of it. He is approaching the Christadelphian view as a result of his own personal Bible study.

    Wright is not the only significant theologian to recognize that the apostolic teaching said nothing of immortal souls going to heaven or hell at death.

    His comments have been carefully hedged for the sake of orthodoxy, but they have raised more than eyebrows, in the same way as his comments on the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ (actually the ‘old perspective’ from the Christadelphian view), and his comments on the identity of Christ (Wright knows Jesus did not believe he was God).

    From the Christadelphian point of view, it is encouraging to see major scholarship catching up with us after 150 years.

  4. Fort –

    Again, he (or we) are not approaching Christadelphian views or Reformed views or Baptist views or etc. I know you know this. But the goal is faithfulness to God and His revelation, rather than catching up to Christadelphian views. 😉

    It’s just like saying that, if Christadelphians began to finally believe in the present-day activity of the charismata gifts, then I might state, ‘Christadelphians have finally caught up to the charismatics.’ That sounds silly and you would despise me saying such, I think.

  5. Scott, Wright is indeed approaching Christadelphian views, and as I have pointed out he is not the only one to have done so (Dunn has as well). Approaching here doesn’t mean ‘trying to get close to’, it means ‘getting close to’.

    I am not saying that Wright and others are trying to catch up to us, just that mainstream theologians (traditionally so dogmatic against Unitarian beliefs for centuries), are finally coming around. There’s no getting around it, that’s what’s happening. How many quotes would you like me to provide?

    It’s just like saying that, if Christadelphians began to finally believe in the present-day activity of the charismata gifts, then I might state, ‘Christadelphians have finally caught up to the charismatics.’ That sounds silly and you would despise me saying such, I think.

    It doesn’t sound silly in the least. You’d have every right to say that.

  6. Scott, I can’t presume to speak for Fortigurn, but as far as I can tell, he is simply saying that Wright’s eschatology is moving towards Christadelphian eschatology. He is not claiming that Wright is becoming a Christadelphian, nor that Wright is aware his developing eschatololgy is increasingly consistent with our own. He is simply making an observation about the gradual convergence of Wright’s eschatololgy with Christadelphian beliefs.

    If I start moving way from the Christadelphian view of flesh and sin, and begin to flirt with a position which views flesh as inherent sin (not just inherently sinful), you could legitimately say that I am moving towards a Calvinist position. This would remain true regardless of whether nor not I was aware of it.

  7. Scott L,

    Surprised by Hope is indeed a great read on matters of eschatology.

    Yes, definitions do play a part in how we think about these matters. More than anything, Wright’s work is a corrective one, and rightfully so. I believe it should have come a few years soon, to combat the distortions of the Left Behind series.

    If we in the West can only get our eschatological categories right, we would not be so heavenly-minded and not much earthly good (to echo a phrase). 😉

  8. Fort & Dave –

    I understand what you are saying, and I don’t want to portray that Christadelphians have it all wrong and we cannot find common ground. But let me explain it from the ‘bigger picture’ setting.

    The specific group known as Christadelphians have been around for a total of about 150 years. The body of Christ has existed for 2000 years. There have been plenty of people for a long, long, long, long time that existed before both NT Wright and Christadelphians who held to such [healthy] eschatology, and other beliefs like that of the mortal soul/soul sleep at death, and so many other varying beliefs.

    So, to say Wright is approaching (or catching up) to Christadelphian views is somewhat of an unhelpful picture in light of the greater picture here. Again, it would be just as silly for me to say that, if Christadelphians believe that healings and miracles were still available today, then they have finally caught up to the charismatic church. The charismatic church, in the ‘movement’ sense, has only existed for 50-60 years. But there have been plenty of continuationist believers/groups from the early centuries right through to today.

    There is a bigger picture going on here than the specific circles we relate to. That is my major point, which I do believe is the ‘greater’ point in this discussion.

  9. Dave –

    If I start moving way from the Christadelphian view of flesh and sin, and begin to flirt with a position which views flesh as inherent sin (not just inherently sinful), you could legitimately say that I am moving towards a Calvinist position. This would remain true regardless of whether nor not I was aware of it.

    I know this was a side point, but I don’t think you fully understand the more reformed view on ‘the flesh’. There are two ways this is used: 1) speaking of the body (i.e. Rom 1:3; 9:3) and 2) speaking of the sinful passions/nature (i.e. Rom 7:5; 8:6).

    Reformed people would say the first is good and the second is sinful. Otherwise, reformed people would be heavily accused of being gnostic. And they have spent quite a lot of time defending against a gnostic Christianity.

  10. Scott, I didn’t claim to be presenting the Reformed view on “the flesh.” I merely presented a view which tends in that direction. I understand how the Reformed understand “the flesh.”

  11. Scott:

    I understand what you are saying, and I don’t want to portray that Christadelphians have it all wrong and we cannot find common ground. But let me explain it from the ‘bigger picture’ setting.

    The specific group known as Christadelphians have been around for a total of about 150 years. The body of Christ has existed for 2000 years.

    Are you saying we’re not part of the body of Christ? And what does the age of our church have to do with anything? (Just remind me: how old is Cornerstone International Church…?)

    If you take a little time to look at the history, you’ll find that the eschatology to which Christadelphians subscribe is present in the earliest years of the church and enjoyed theological dominance until the 4th Century AD, when millennialism fell out of favour for reasons I briefly touched upon in an earlier post.

    There have been plenty of people for a long, long, long, long time that existed before both NT Wright and Christadelphians who held to such [healthy] eschatology, and other beliefs like that of the mortal soul/soul sleep at death, and so many other varying beliefs.

    I agree. I made the same point here.

  12. Dave –

    Are you saying we’re not part of the body of Christ? And what does the age of our church have to do with anything? (Just remind me: how old is Cornerstone International Church…?)

    Well, I will not reserve the judgment that most people like to take upon themselves. I’ll trust Him who knows who are His. But, you would not typically be considered part of the orthodox historical church. But you would already know that. And I am not sure I could be considered part of the true church with such apostate beliefs that I hold from the Christadelphian view, or that is what I perceive.

    This is not about how old Christadelphians or Cornerstone or NT Wright or Dave Burke or Scott Lencke is. That is my whole point. There is a much bigger story going on here. So to say this person is moving to be more like ‘us’ is a bit off knowing that there have been many in the church long before to hold to such beliefs.

  13. Scott,

    The specific group known as Christadelphians have been around for a total of about 150 years. The body of Christ has existed for 2000 years. There have been plenty of people for a long, long, long, long time that existed before both NT Wright and Christadelphians who held to such [healthy] eschatology, and other beliefs like that of the mortal soul/soul sleep at death, and so many other varying beliefs.

    Irrelevant. That has nothing to do with what I’m talking about.

    So, to say Wright is approaching (or catching up) to Christadelphian views is somewhat of an unhelpful picture in light of the greater picture here.

    Not in the least. The greater picture is that modern theologians are increasingly correcting mainstream theology, and bringing it into line with what a number of allegedly ‘unorthodox’ groups have believed for a very long time. These changes have taken place on the following subjects:

    * The ‘immortal soul’ (no such thing, immortality is conditional and is granted after resurrection)
    * Going to heaven or hell at death (doesn’t happen)
    * The Trinity (not taught in the Bible, God is one person, the Father, and Jesus Christ is a man who is the son of God)
    * The atonement (penal substitution is wrong, participatory atonement is correct)
    * Satan and demons (there are no such supernatural beings)

    These are not insignificant changes. The gulf between the lay pew sitter and the mainstream theologian is signficant. I’m surprised at how few laymen are actually unaware of this, but since they’re insulated from the scholarly literature by their pastors, it’s shouldn’t be a surprise:

    Actually I think a belief in souls often exists despite religion. David Myers pointed out to me that most mainstream Protestant theologians reject the idea of an immaterial soul/, but he observes that the “people in congregational pews” have a very different view; they are dualists.

    In his book, The Problem of the Soul, Owen Flanagan gives an example from Catholicism: In 1999, Pope John Paul II stated that heaven and hell were not places where souls reside, but rather states of life involving being in relation with God or out of relation with him. The response by many devout Catholics was not submission to Papal infallibility—it was to wonder if the aged pope was losing his mind.

    http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge140.html

    Occasionally there’s a trickle down effect however. Over the last 30 years there has been a significant push by evangelical theologians and academics to get people to drop the false idea of immortal souls burning in hell (this is a continuation of a push which is centuries old). But it has been steadfastly resisted at the grassroots level, until comparatively recently. However, change is now happening at an unprecedented level.

    * In 1989, a conference of 350 evangelical leaders in the US who met to discuss ‘Evangelical Essentials’ (doctrines considered essential to the evangelical faith), were unable to reach consensus support of the traditional doctrine of hell, since at least half of the leaders in attendance simply didn’t believe in it.

    * In 1992 or 1993 (I’m not sure which), the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches passed a new resolution on their understanding of hell, in which they deliberately omitted dogmatism on the question of whether or not it is a place of literal fire, ‘because many of the Pastors and people of the GARBC fellowship do not believe there is Îliteral fire’ in hell”’.

    * In 1996 the Anglican Church issued a statement that there is no hell as traditionally understood, and that the punishment of the wicked is permanent separation from God by annihilation (no ‘immortal soul’ living forever in endless torment).

    * In 2000 the Evangelical Alliance of Britain issued a report on the doctrine of hell, acknowledging that ‘conditional immortality is a significant minority evangelical view’ (conditional immortality is the view that humans are completely mortal, and that immortality can only be granted by God, there is no ‘immortal soul’ which goes to heaven or hell at death), and saying that belief in the literal hell of former teaching was no longer to be considered necessary.

    There is plenty of literature on this subject. The fact is that groups such as mine just have to keep waiting a little longer, and keep watching the mainstream groups keep shifting over to our beliefs. I’m looking forward to the time when they’ll finally recognize we’re Christians too, and we can fellowsihp. That’s the bigger picture here.

  14. Fort –

    Thanks for sharing some of these statistics. It is interesting to watch the development of theology. Each of us are always being challenged to hold to biblical theology. Again, all I can say is that these specific beliefs were held by believers well before the mid-1800’s.

    Well, I know you will disagree and you might hit me with some quotes here, but while some might be defining the doctrine of the Trinity with different wordings than some of the more ‘boxed’ terminology of mainstream texts, I don’t think that many ‘mainstream’ theologians are moving away from the understanding that the Father, the Son and the Spirit as the one true God to be worshiped.

    But, I guess there is no need ever for the Christadelphians to reform their theology? It is all correct and set perfectly in stone right now, or since the mid-1800’s? If that is the case, it sounds a bit like this group in the 1400-1500’s known as Roman Catholics. 😉

  15. Scott,

    Again, all I can say is that these specific beliefs were held by believers well before the mid-1800′s.

    Of course they were, I agree. I don’t know why you keep coming back to this as if it’s a significant point. Christadelphians aren’t the first to get things right.

    Well, I know you will disagree and you might hit me with some quotes here, but while some might be defining the doctrine of the Trinity with different wordings than some of the more ‘boxed’ terminology of mainstream texts, I don’t think that many ‘mainstream’ theologians are moving away from the understanding that the Father, the Son and the Spirit as the one true God to be worshiped.

    Careful! I didn’t say anything about the Trinity being redefined, or people moving away from ‘the understanding that the Father, the Son and the Spirit as the one true God to be worshiped’. I talked about mainstream theologians accepting that the Trinity not being taught in the Bible, and that the Bible’s teaching is that there is one God, the Father, and Jesus Christ is a man, His son. Of course there are also mainstream theologians who have moved away from the Trinity as well, but that’s another subject.

    But, I guess there is no need ever for the Christadelphians to reform their theology? It is all correct and set perfectly in stone right now, or since the mid-1800′s?

    So far it’s looking good. It helps when you have a simple theology. We can affirm every single creedal statement in the Old Roman Symbol and Didache without qualification.

    If that is the case, it sounds a bit like this group in the 1400-1500′s known as Roman Catholics. 😉

    Nope. They’ve always been changing their beliefs. Newman wrote the definitive work on doctrinal development in the RCC.

  16. I keep coming back to it because there is something bigger here than people aligning with Christadelphia theology, and from your perspective, correct theology. I believe it isn’t about Christadelphains, Baptists, Mormons, RC’s, Pentecostals, etc saying they are catching up to us.

    And, I am not trying to throw mud here, but what I have noticed is that one of the first signs of becoming cult-like is when a group believes that they have it all completely right and won’t ever need to change. That is not a healthy position to be in, at least from my biblical study and walk with God in my life.

  17. Scott,

    I keep coming back to it because there is something bigger here than people aligning with Christadelphia theology, and from your perspective, correct theology.

    I’ve said that myself, the bigger thing is the greater fellowship which will result. But what has this to do with people prior to Christadelphians believing what we believe?

    And, I am not trying to throw mud here, but what I have noticed is that one of the first signs of becoming cult-like is when a group believes that they have it all completely right and won’t ever need to change.

    No, it’s when a group believes they’re the only ones who have ever had it completely right. You have to be really careful with this, or you end up with the Old Testament church hopelessly ignorant, and the apostles in error.

    Do you really think Moses was sitting there wondering ‘Do we have it right, or should we actually be burning our children to Molech?’, or Paul was saying ‘Well I know I’ve been preaching about Jesus coming back again, but am I actually heading in the right direction here?’, or do you think that they were pretty sure they had it right? There was never a more dogmatic expositor than Paul.

  18. Pingback: The Soul and the Body « The Prodigal Thought

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