I have been reading the Bible with new eyes the past couple of years.
My practical Dutch parents, although nominally Christian, were functionally humanistic in their outlook and worldview, and I imbibed a this-worldly perspective on life with my mother’s milk. Heaven wasn’t on our radar – our focus was very clearly on earthly affairs.
Although grateful for many positive aspects of my upbringing, as a young man my heart was hungry for spiritual reality. Yet even after coming to personal faith in Jesus, I could never seem to get really excited about going to heaven.
Jesus was now the Lord of my life, and I was certain that he had been raised from the dead and was alive. After being baptized in the Holy Spirit, an increasing body of personal experience had convinced me that there was a realm of existence beyond what I could see with my eyes and touch with my hands, and that there were real, accessible heavenly powers which could touch and transform our earthly life.
In church we would sometimes sing hymns about spending eternity in glory, singing to Jesus. I was learning to love Jesus more and more, and I wanted to be with him. I loved what I had already experienced of the glorious presence of God, and looked forward to more. I also loved to sing. But something didn’t quite add up. What about all those guys who loved to build houses, or fix cars? Would they have a place in heaven? If they did, would they enjoy it? I sure appreciated their help when I had jobs that had to be done. Was that somehow unspiritual? Didn’t God make them to enjoy doing those things? Did they have to become choirboys to serve God and enjoy what He had in store for them? My heart was telling me that there had to be more to God’s plan than this.
Much of what Christians traditionally believe about heaven is gleaned from descriptions of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. But John wasn’t describing a place that we would go after we die. He was describing a glorious city that would come to a restored earth after Jesus returned to banish evil forever. So why didn’t the church believe – and preach – what the Bible taught?
The answer lies partly in a process that began in the fourth century after Christ. By this time, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire. In the great university at Alexandria, intellectuals who had been raised on Greek philosophy began trying to meld their new Christian faith with the worldview that they had brought with them from Plato. The result was a hybrid – a synthesis of Platonic philosophy and Biblical belief that influenced the entire course of Christian thinking for centuries. Whereas the Bible views the heavens and the earth as one continuous reality, with constant interchange between the two, Plato divided reality into the material and non-material realms, and taught that only the immaterial was “really real”. Christian theologians and philosophers who sought to integrate the Bible with Plato’s philosophy ended up distorting the simple message of the Scriptures, so that the goal of faith became to flee the evils of the material world and escape to some non-material spiritual realm.
So, over the past couple of years I have embarked on a major Bible study project. I am learning to read the Bible with new eyes, seeking to allow its worldview to speak for itself.
Guess what? The Bible, taken on its own merits, doesn’t teach that God’s purpose for our lives is to escape to some non-material glorious realm of bliss. Nor does it teach the popular modern view that life is really all about the here and now, and that God’s purpose for our lives is to transform this world and make it heaven on earth. The Bible presents the overarching purpose of God as a restored creation, in which we will have resurrected and glorified bodies, and God’s will is done on earth as in the heavens. The way to participate in that glorious new creation (also called the Kingdom of God) is by conforming our lives to the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus, who came to earth to pay the price of our rebellion and demonstrate the power and purity of a life lived in faith, love, and servanthood.
So what happens when you die? The Bible does indeed teach that until Jesus returns and death is rolled back, those who die in faith will be with Jesus after they die. But nowhere does it imply that this is our final destination. Throughout the New Testament the message is the same. To sum it up very briefly, Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand, waiting for the great day when he returns to finish what he started. After all nations have heard the good news of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ bride has made herself ready for him, there will be a final time of struggle in which the powers of darkness will seek to destroy the people of God. Jesus will return to earth for his bride, will win a great victory and usher in a glorious Kingdom on a restored earth. Eventually, Satan will escape from his prison and start one last war, after which evil will be banished forever and all things will be made new.
So what happens between now and then? I’m very thankful that we get to do more than just wait. We get to grow up in our salvation, so that Jesus can return for a bride who is truly glorious. Those who belong to Jesus receive the Holy Spirit now, in this age, as a down payment or advance taste of the glories of the Age to Come. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through people of faith, wonderful things can happen. People are healed, set free from demonic oppression, receive dreams and visions, and more. But the people who experience all of these wonderful things – called signs in the Bible – will still die. The signs of the Kingdom point us to a coming new age when death itself will be rolled back and Jesus will rule openly on a restored earth.
Some may say that this is beyond belief – a fairy tale. Surely, they say, you can’t believe that. Yet this is the simple faith of the apostolic church, which transformed the entire Roman world. It’s also the faith that springs up whenever the Holy Spirit is poured out in power in times of renewal. It’s what inspires and gives courage to those who are persecuted or imprisoned for their faith – as described in my previous post.
Greek philosophy, while fascinating, is vastly different from Biblical faith. Although I’ve been dimly aware of its influence for years, it is only recently that I have seen the extent of this influence, and I am still learning to recognize and shed the “old skin” of Platonic thinking. I don’t have it all figured out. But I do understand that there is a reason why I could never get excited about going to heaven. God doesn’t want me to escape from earth. He wants me to look forward eagerly to a transformed life as part of a resurrected people living on a restored earth under renewed heavens. That is the new creation that Jesus died for, and it’s what I’m living for.