It often seems as though many Christians simply speculate on heaven, eschatology, and the ‘afterlife’. In my experience, at least, people often tend to just guess at what heaven will be like, or even simply interpret it as whatever they want to be. This idea of heaven simply as a place where a select few *go* to after death, in my view, ought to be abandoned, and I see little Biblical support for it. Similarly, we ought to dismiss the idea of heaven and hell as simply polar opposites, future realities where we simply get lumped into one or the other at the end of time. I will elaborate on heaven later.
Creation and eschatology
According to the common usage of ‘eschatology’, one might see it as an entirely independent theology, or one with not much relevance to modern day life, or other areas of theology. Sure, we can talk about atonement, natural theology, or whatever, but what use are the precise details of the end of the world? Does the exact chronology of the last days affect my daily life? Does the precise nature of Christ’s return have anything to do with the world until then? On this view, it is easy to see eschatology and creation as self-sustaining theologies. Perhaps they are the two ends of a linear progression, both related to God, but separated by the fog of the present, fog that we are caught up in ourselves. Too seperate to add much significance to each other, we think. God began the world, God will end the world. One is in the past and we are unable to change it, the other is entirely God’s prerogative, and damn us if we interfere!
I would like to challenge this. For me, creation and eschatology are inextricably linked, and we cannot hope to understand one without the other. Not only this, but they link in such a way that affects us, and in such a way that we can affect it. God has brought about this universe in the hope of realising a purpose, and this brings us our doctrine of creation. He hopes to guide the universe towards this realisation, and this brings us eschatology. Creation is not just about origins; that is deism, God pulling out a toy for his child and leaving him to play with it, regardless of whether it is harmful. Rather, Theism is the idea that he and his child share in the joy the toy brings; if the child is injured, God redeems the situation if the child will allow him to get near. There are new ways of using the toy, new situations that arise, but all point towards a common goal. Every moment of the universe implies a creative act by God, God upholds creation *throughout* time, and his decision to sustain the universe at each moment is one of creativity. Similarly, eschatology is not just concerned with the end, but with the realisation of God’s purpose in each moment of creation, in individual moments and as a whole. In the old view, creation is the seed of a tree, sufficient to start it off but then insignificant. Now, creation is the roots, upholding the tree, while eschatology is the way the gardener uses the tree for its overall purpose, the roots a necessary component. Analogies, however, can only go so far.
God’s general purpose in creation
It would therefore be appropriate to consider some issues in creation, and God’s purpose, in brief- this necessarily precedes a discussion on the ‘afterlife’, at least. I would argue that the Bible advocates a Christ-centric idea of creation- this point is key to understanding Christian eschatology. Paul emphasises it throughout his writings; everything that has been made, has been made through Christ, in Christ, and for Christ. Creation is by God’s Word (to be identified with Christ) in Genesis, and this Word is portrayed through the figure of Wisdom in Old Testament and other Jewish writings. This is what creation centres around, and Paul leaves us in no doubt: God’s Word is the means and the goal of creation. Christ becomes a ‘type’ or even ‘blueprint' for us, something which we are to fulfill, yet revere as unique. We are to become part of the body of Christ, doing his work and sharing in his love. Humans are made in God’s image (imago Dei) in Genesis, and by becoming more like God, we become more of what he intended us to be. Paul sees this image as culminating in Christ; the Spirit transforms us ‘into his likeness’, as he puts it in his second letter to the Corinthians. He is the ‘visible image of the invisible God’, assuming bodily form to give a unique revelation of God’s purpose for us. We are to take up our cross daily, take action in doing God’s work, and follow Christ in his life of self-sacrifice, love and, contra some ideas with emphasis on ascetism, joy. Through the transforming power of the Spirit, we become increasingly Christlike (Christian)- our humanity is emphasised through Paul’s comparison with Adam, and our transformation is compounded through Paul’s vision of us as followers of Jesus. This sets the tone for Christian eschatology. We are created by God by his Word (he is our Creator), for his Word (he is our Lover), and in his Word (we are his image-bearers). God has a plan, not for us to destroy ourselves, but to redeem us, transform us into his likeness, and be in communion for him. By Christ becoming human (the Incarnation), he shares in our humanity and our sufferings. By Christ’s death, we are redeemed from our sin and self-centredness. By Christ’s resurrection, we are given a promise.
Jesus and eschatology
This promise is, for me, the heart of Christian eschatology. Through creation, we learn of our humanity, the condition of our humanity, and the goal of our humanity. This much is known, and is affirmed as part of our purpose through the Incarnation. God rejoices in who we are, despite our need for redemption. ‘The Word became flesh’ as an example to us, and so that God might share in our humanity. What next? Whence eschatology? I would like to draw on two aspects of Jesus’ ministry.
First, there is Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. This is one of the most well attested facts concerning the historical Jesus. The overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars agree that Jesus talked of the Kingdom of God, and saw himself in a unique position to initiate a new manifestation of it. The phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ is translated from the Greek ‘basileia tou theou’ (βασιλεια του θεου), ‘basileia’ being translated as kingdom, kingship, or reign. Jesus is demonstrating the coming reign of God, but what significance it would have had for the earliest Christians! In some sense, they are the words of a madman. In another sense, they are quite profound. In any sense, they are revolutionary. Israel, occupied under Roman rule, was expecting a military Messiah to overcome the Romans and liberate themselves. Jesus performs the miracles expected of the Messiah, yet nothing seems to change on a big scale. “Lo, the Kingdom of God! Follow me!” he cries. A few fishermen listen. Jesus teaches on the Kingdom of God, “Here it is! There will be no more death! Follow me!” All we witness is a slightly eccentric preacher from the suburbs. Time passes. The preacher dies, a gruesome death on a cross. No more Messiah. But what is next? “The Kingdom of God is here!” cry the rabble of fishermen. “You are drunk”, is the reply. More time passes. The Romans destroy the Temple. God has finally left Israel. “God is dead!” they shout, pre-empting Nietzsche, “Long live Caesar!” And STILL, repeat the scrawny group, “Jesus is Lord! Caesar is History! The Kingdom of God is here! The reign of Caesar is over!” … The rest is history.
Why this madness? It will be different for various New Testament scholars. For me, it is the resurrection. My aim here is not to discuss the historicity of the resurrection, but a brief few sentences on the resurrection are necessary for understanding eschatology. Through Jesus’ resurrection, death is conquered. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is vindicated as the son of God, and Messiah, and initiator of a new reign of God. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is, as Paul puts it, the ‘firstfruits of the resurrection’. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is brought into new life through the resurrection, God has raised him from the dead, and this gives us a promise. By becoming Christlike, by becoming part of Christ’s body, by doing his work to take care of the poor, shelter the foreigner, and heal the leper, we are following Christ into the Kingdom of God, into his resurrection, into this new life he brings. This is the heart of being ‘born again’, and it is in this context we must look at look at the nature of Christian eschatology.
The ‘afterlife’ in Christianity
We have considered God’s general purpose, creation, Jesus’ ministry from an eschatological perspective, and we have taken note of our own role in bringing about the Kingdom of God, the focus of Christian eschatology. We will now turn to the nature of the ‘afterlife’, briefly.
Let me state plainly that I consider the idea of a body-soul dualism to be a contamination of Hebraic thought, from Greek (specifically Platonic) dualism. Hebraic and Judaic thought has always emphasised a psychosomatic unity, and it was only the influence of Hellenic philosophy upon early Christian thought that led to this kind of dualism, which became prominent in the thought of philosophers like Descartes. The reality is that the traditional Christian view has always meant to emphasise an unashamedly physical creation, and that the afterlife is not so much an escape of the soul as in the Eastern traditions, but rather a transfiguration and redemption of the *whole* person (as an embodied soul) by God, to bring about his ultimate purpose. One might say that the soul is not trapped by the body, but at home in it. My contention is that Biblical thought, from Genesis to Revelation, is very much content with a psychosomatic unity as a view of humanity, and that this is an essential part of our nature.
If we are to be content with the physical realm, what happens to us? As I have repeated, we are not a soul trying to escape from our body, we are people as a whole. God delights in our physical nature, he delights in our spiritual worship. We are instruments designed to bring about his Kingdom, through following the example of Jesus. This is where the figure of the archetypal Christ/Word enters, again. We are portraits of Christ. We are paintings, he is the real thing. We follow him into the image of God, we follow him into bringing about the Kingdom of God, we follow him into death, and we follow him into resurrection. We stand on the edge of the ineffable, we are on the tip of a paintbrush, guided by the genius of the divine. This is his crowning glory for man. From a world of decay and death, we are brought into a new creation at the end of time. We are brought into new life, with Christ as the firstfruits of this promise. All those who are willing to participate in the Kingdom of God are brought into a new creation. While it’s debatable whether it refers specifically to resurrection, I would argue that, at least as a prototype, God’s vision for humanity is beautifully pictured in Ezekiel 37:1-6,
“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
Despite this not necessarily being a picture of the resurrection, we can see a hint of God’s plan for us here, to bring us into new life. We see God’s plan for the new creation; there is a new earth where God fully reigns, where the Kingdom of God is manifest in all its glory. There is new life, we are resurrected into a new, glorified, transfigured, physical body. We are to be clothed in Christ, to be clothed in a body which can never decay, and to be active creatures revelling in the love of God, in relationship with him and with others. This is the picture Christianity paints of the ‘afterlife’, though I would rather call it ‘new life’. It is an even more full life, free from ‘death or mourning or crying or pain’, as John pictures it in Revelation, ‘for the old order of things has passed away’. Here, finally, the Kingdom of God is manifest. Justice reigns, mercy triumphs, and righteousness rolls on like a never-ending stream.
NB: It will be pointed out by many that there is a part I haven’t mentioned, and this is simply because I do not feel I have the knowledge to reflect on it at all. It is the idea of Sheol, a kind of waiting place before the final resurrection. This is where the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory comes from, and there are different interpretations of it. For more, see http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html
Heaven and conclusion
Where then, does heaven enter? Heaven is difficult, there seem to be different uses of it, in various contexts. I should also add that this is much more speculative, and my personal interpretation of what heaven might mean in the context of the Bible and Christianity. The general idea, to me, is that heaven is the dwelling place of God, and the presence of God where he is recognised in the fullness of his glory. NT Wright calls it ‘God’s space’. Obviously, this must be some sort of metaphor. Any Christian who has meant that heaven is a place where God *is* in the sense that God is part of a spatio-temporal world has surely not grasped the concept of the metaphor, and I would argue that seeing heaven as God’s dwelling place is, rather, acknowledging all the different situations and senses in which God is seen as sovereign creator and Lord of all: essentially, the heart of worship. One might argue that Matthew sees it similarly, using the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’, rather than ‘kingdom of God’. God is therefore not *in* heaven in a physical sense, but rather heaven is the culmination of all things disposed towards reverence for the Creator, and this is the reason for the metaphor of God being in heaven. The way we relate to heaven, then, is that heaven and Earth ‘collide’ in places (to use Wright’s metaphor), and that certain times in this physical world, there is a revelation of God, or even in somewhat mundane circumstances, a general didactic or ineffable revelation of his nature. This can be from natural theology, or through revealed theology, the more specific Christian claims, such as the Incarnation (some would argue that it is also a part of other world religions, probably myself included). When heaven collides with earth, there is a clear manifestation of God at work in our world, and we are aware of a future promise.
I should clarify that the afterlife is absolutely *not* equivalent to heaven. My personal preference would be to avoid the use of the term ‘heaven’ to avoid confusion, although heaven is obviously an important part of Christian theology. The afterlife is grounded in physical experience, but with heaven ‘colliding’ with the ‘new earth’ so clearly that all of creation will cry out with praise to God. All of creation will appreciate the Sovereignty, beauty, and goodness of God, and will bow down in worship to him. We can see heaven as not just a future reality, but as a present reality. God makes his dwelling among us, and at times we fully appreciate him. Even now, we can picture angels ‘in heaven’, rejoicing at God’s goodness, far from the end of the world. I wouldn’t like to say that heaven is metaphorical in the sense that it is only a symbol of something, but it is metaphorical in the sense that God couldn’t possibly ‘inhabit’ it! Heaven is a reality, and a present one. We are called to bring about the Kingdom of God, through treating those around us with compassion, justice, mercy, and love. God created us for Christ’s glory, with Christ as our archetype and goal. We work for Christ, through Christ, and towards Christ. Christ leads us into new life and resurrection. Our eschatology focusses around how we respond to Christ’s call to “Follow me”. We are to become part of a new creation, where God is God. Now let us get on with being Man.
1. I hope to elaborate on creation at some point.
2. Thanks to Prof. P. Clarke for the blueprint analogy.
3. For example, cf 1 Cor 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
4. To clarify on what the Kingdom of God actually *is*, Wright writes, “His invitation to people to ‘enter’ the kingdom was a way of summoning them to allegiance to himself and his programme, seen as the start of God’s long-awaited saving reign. For Jesus, the kingdom was coming not in a single move, but in stages, of which his own public career was one, his death and resurrection another, and a still future consummation another.”
5. Bones were considered one of the strongest symbols of the physical body for Jews, when the flesh had decayed on a dead body, they would collect the bones, put them in an ossuary, and rebury the bones ready for the final resurrection.
6. As Anthony Phillips put it.
Joel Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life (Michigan: Grand Rapids, 2008)
Anthony Phillips, God B.C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)
The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and NT Wright in Dialogue, ed. R. Stewart (London: SPCK, 2006)
Keith Ward, God, Faith and the New Millenium (Oxford: Oneworld, 1998)
Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion (Pennsylvania: Templeton, 2008)
David Wilkinson, Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges, Chapter 1, ed. R. Berry and T. Noble (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009)
Tom Wright, Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2006)
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007)
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003)