Thursday, January 15, 2009

Taking a Line V - Speaking Up for Heaven

I should like to put in a good word for heaven. It’s having a hard time at present, even when it is discussed within the capacious tent that is evangelicalism. First it was hell, now it’s heaven. Whatever is going on?

What’s going on is the domestication of heaven, the propounding of the idea of ‘geo-heaven’. One way of Christianising the belief in a global warming contagion, of providing a motive for caring for the environment other than the reason that it’s an intrinsically good thing to do, or that it is in our short-term interests, is to say, ‘The earth is the place to which the Lord Jesus will return, where he will take up his residence with the redeemed, so let’s get busy and make it nice’. Or keep it nice, depending on where you live. The implication seems to be that there is to be a new earth continuous with this earth, with, for example, the same mountain ranges, oceans and deserts, towns and cities, though with their ‘dark Satanic mills’ dismantled, or at least made angelic through having zero carbon emissions. The environmentally-friendly earth is to be the location of the New Jerusalem. Sometimes the parallel with redemption from sin is drawn more tightly, with CO2 emissions taking the place of sin being. Lower the emissions and so make a palace fit for the Great King.

Maybe this is a mutation of premillennialism. Maybe, on the other hand, it’s a variant of the behaviour of the Levellers and the Diggers of the Commonwealth period. You’ll understand, I hope, if I don’t attempt to go into such things here. Instead, I content myself with putting in a word for the biblical teaching about the unearthliness of heaven.

Sometimes the doctrine of geo-heaven is supported by a critique of what is allegedly the ‘traditional view’, that the redeemed continue as immortal spirits with heaven being the place – if that’s the right word – where such spirits enjoy an unending vision of God. It’s not clear to me whoever held such a view, certainly no mainstream theologian, nor is it the traditional teaching of the Christian church, which affirms the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Perhaps this ‘traditional view’ derives from the Orthodox teaching on deification, and the associated asceticism, which is certainly open to the charge that its language blurs the Creator-creature distinction, despite the good work that Bob Letham has done in interpreting that teaching in line with what the New Testament says about union with Christ. (Through Western Eyes, 253f.)

Occasionally when such matters as the unearthliness of heaven are raised people can be heard muttering ‘Augustine’ or ‘platonism’. But Augustine could not be clearer on the body and its original goodness (after all, he wrestled with the dualism of Mani for more than a decade of his life and finished by vigorously repudiating it), nor on the prospect of the resurrection of that body, which he understood with pre-scientific literalness; the resurrected body is to be this body, with its current physical make up, down to finger nails and hair. So he was pro-body, you might say. You may chuckle at the fact that he rivalled Luther in his interest in farting. The body, this body, will be resurrected.

It's certainly true that in thinking about heaven we need to echo the New Testament’s caution as regards the details. In at least three respects. In terms of location, continuity and the mode of existence in heaven. We see through the mirror darkly. Nevertheless the trajectory of the biblical teaching, of Christ’s own teaching, is clear. Jesus, presumably not a Platonist, speaks pretty clearly about the transcendence of heaven. ‘I go to prepare a place for you…..’ Can this be spiritualised? It is hard to see how we can do this with a straight face. Peter writes of the heavenly bodies being dissolved. 'Eye has not seen……..' Surely at points such as these, maybe at all points in its teaching, the New Testament stresses not sameness but difference. Jerusalem which is above; here we have no continuing city; we are to inherit an eternal weight of glory. After all this emphasis on the unearthly, on the glory, on the transforming face of Christ, wouldn’t a eco-friendly Basingstoke or Blackpool be rather a let down? ‘As long as the earth remains’ there will be seedtime and harvest, implying, presumably, that there is coming a point when it ceases to remain.

Supporting this trajectory is Christ’s own physical resurrection and ascension. Why has he ascended, but as a foreshadowing of the Church’s own ascension? What does Christ’s own ascension foreshadow but his handing over the kingdom to his Father after having put down every rule and every authority and power? (I Cor. 15.24) So shall we ever be with the Lord. Such words seem to promise more than the transformation of Sheffield or Cincinnati into garden cities.

Is such a view of heaven a case of ‘spiritualising’? Obviously not. It is the precise opposite. It is literalising

As to location, it seems to follows as a matter of logic that if a place is prepared for his people, a place where Jesus is, then space is involved. And if the redeemed are embodied, as Christ teaches, and Paul endorses, then movement, and therefore time, are involved. If there is embodiment then the ‘eternity’ of heaven cannot be the ‘timeless eternity’ of God himself. So, space and time. This line is borne out by the presumably not misleading language of the New Testament that heaven is, or is like, a city. But a transcendent city, the new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride for her husband.

But how are we to think of this? It’s not very easy, and we’d best be cautious. Perhaps the least unsatisfactory way is to think in terms of the analogy of God as a literary author. As an author he has written one book, the book of human prehistory and history. But he’s the author of another book with a timeline that overlaps that first book. As the lives of the characters in the first book come to an end so the characters are transferred into the second book, where Jesus is already present, and where the angels always behold the face of his Father. What is the metaphysics of the transition from the first book to the second? We can best answer that question by asking another. What does Paul mean by his phrase a ‘spiritual body’? Once we have an answer to this seemingly oxomoronic expression then I suppose we shall be able to fill in the details of the transition.

As regards the mode of existence, the New Testament seems to focus on the moral and spiritual transformation that takes place in or at the transition. We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Those with such a hope are motivated to purify themselves here and now.

What of continuity and discontinuity? Here also there is room for speculation and debate, though of necessity the debate is rather ill-informed. Are there cultural products of volume one in volume two? If the resurrection of the body, and what we know about the character of the resurrected body as ‘spiritual’ is to be the chief motif of our thinking about the life to come, then this may warrant us in thinking that the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells, will be structured by continuity and discontinuity.

Just as the resurrection body is a ‘spiritual body’, the transformation of the earthly body, are such cultural products carried over in a suitably refined way, fumigated by the Spirit? Perhaps they are. There’s a similar problem with memory, so essential, it seems, to our own present identity. If my memory is to be refined and renewed, how can it still be my memory? Amnesia destroys the sense of self.

So there are plenty of gaps in our understanding, to the point where we hardly know what the correct questions are, much less the answers. But this is to be expected in matters that have not yet entered the heart of man. Nevertheless the strong tendency of the New Testament is to cultivate in Christians an expectation and longing for heaven. Present environmental preoccupations, whether or not we think they are appropriate, should not lead us to overturn the balance and thrust of Scripture’s teaching on the incorruptible and unfading inheritance that is reserved in heaven for the people of God.