Tuesday, October 7, 2008

You will not be in heaven forever and why this matters

When you read my title, depending upon who you are and what is your theological background, you might have immediately branded me a heretic, became panicky, or were instantly bored with old and irrelevant theology. All three reactions are wrong and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
  • If you reacted by assuming that I was a heretic, mistaken, unbiblical, or confused, you may have misunderstood the teachings of Scripture on the eternal state. The Bible does not teach that we will spend eternity in heaven. Our hope instead is based in our future bodily resurrection, made possible by the bodily resurrection of Jesus (I Corinthians 15). Romans reminds us the we look forward to 'the redemption of our body'. So we are raised bodily- I guess I knew that- but what does that have to do with heaven? Just like we are not headed for an eternity away from the body, neither are we headed for an eternity away from God's physical creation, the earth. We, and the earth, are looking forward to the day when the flawed will again become perfect, as God created it to be. As we look to the day when we will no longer sin, age, or die, so we look forward to the day when the earth will be without the curse, recreated back in line with God's original assessment: good. Romans 8, Isaiah 65, and Revelation 21 make it clear that there will come a day when God's physical creation will be freed from the effects of sin and God will create a new heavens and a new earth. It is here where we will dwell for eternity and rule with Christ, not in the celestial realm lounging on a cloud with our harps and halos.
  • If you began panicking at the thought of not spending eternity in heaven, don't! This is a good thing not a bad thing. This does not mean that we will away from God's presence, God's presence will be more obvious and enjoyable than ever before. Revelation 21:3 declares that, "...the tabernacle of God is among men and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them." This magnificent passage continues with the well known and often quoted verse, "and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." This is not a description of heaven, as we so often assume, but of life on the new earth! The new earth will be beautiful beyond description and unmatched by any place we have ever experienced. Try and imagine life without death, pain, and evil. Attempt to describe a place without the effects of sin and the curse. We have no idea what this means because we are so used to living with these things. They've become what we think of as normal, yet this was not what God intended to be normative. What will life be like there? Something like life was supposed to be here before Adam and/or Eve (whomever you prefer to blame) messed it all up, only better. No longer will sin rear its ugly head or Satan entice us to rebel against our Maker. We will have pure and unhindered fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
  • The third reaction is a common reaction to theological truths, but it is perhaps the most wrongheaded of all. We are tempted (myself included) to think that theology doesn't matter or that it has no relevancy to our daily lives. Perhaps this is partly the fault of theologians and pastors whose approach to theology makes it seem so, but if this is you, you're wrong. As a professor of mine says, you always live your theology, whether you are aware of it or not. Here are several reasons I think it is important that we understand our 'earthly eternity':
  1. If we think and speak of our eternity as merely a heavenly one, we may believe, or at least communicate to others, that our destiny is merely spiritual and not physical. We may be tempted to believe that the physical does not matter because 'it's all going to burn anyway'. The physical is important to God. God created us as physical beings in a physical world with physical realities. How we handle our bodies and our world matters.
  2. We should not view or accept sin and death and pain as normal but as a perversion of God's creation. All creation groans because of the effects of sin and death; we ought to groan with it.
  3. All creation eagerly awaits the redemption of the physical, so also we ought to live in anticipation of not only a new earth, but a new us. I Corinthians 15 again: "Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory?O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." But doesn't this reinforce the idea that our physical bodies are of no importance in the here and now? Doesn't the belief that there will be a new heavens and earth support the idea that the heavens and earth we have now matters little? No more than the belief in that our justification and the forgiveness of our sins allows us to live however we want. We recognize that the way that God intended life and the way that God created the world is how it should be and what is best. Someone who lives life fleeing God's intended purpose for her will not be satisfied in her pursuits. They will all be vain and empty. A life lived as God intended and designed will come the nearest to true satisfaction in fulfilling one's purpose in this life.
  4. Living with eternity in mind ought to remind us that how God created us and the earth to be originally and how it and we will be in eternity is best also in the present. We ought to take care of this earth because God originally set us as caretakers over it. We ought to take care of our physical bodies because God created us as physical beings and our bodies are good and gifts from our Father. We ought to treat them as such. This does not that we become narcissists who worship ourselves for our own beauty nor pagans who worship the creation of the Creator; but that we are thankful, appreciative, and good stewards of God's gifts and entrusted responsibility.
  5. The last reason is similar to the second: We ought never to forget that we are not fighting a losing battle. As a premillenialist, I may be tempted with or accused of the 'its all going to pot' mentality, but this is wrongheaded thinking. God will redeem the physical. Our efforts on this earth will not end in defeat. Creation will once again be beautiful as God's original design was beautiful. Our primary mission on this earth is to 'make disciples'. This will have lasting value, not only in our temporary holding place (heaven), but upon our eternal dwelling, the new earth. We need not work with a defeatist attitude but with the realization that one day, creation will worship her creator without the effects of sin's intrusion. The work we do in this life on this earth will reverberate in the next life and upon the new earth. We are not fighting a losing battle, only a very long battle with only apparent defeats along the way.
I wish to close this with Paul's exhortation from the last verse of I Corinthians 15:

"Therefore, my brothers (and sisters), be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."

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About Me

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Tacoma, Washington, United States
"It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt." Fyodor Dostoevsky. I'm a Northwest Baptist Seminary graduate (MDiv) and current student (ThM). I plan on someday going to Africa and teach Bible and Theology at a Bible College or Seminary level. I hope to continue my studies and earn a PhD, either after I go to overseas for a few years or before. I'm a theological conservative, but I like to think outside of the box and challenge conventional thinking and consider myself a free thinker. I am currently serving in my fourth year as a Youth Pastor at Prairie Baptist Fellowship in Yelm Washington. My blogs will reflect my thoughts on both seminary and ministry life, though not (of course) exclusively. I enjoy literature and occasionally try my hand at writing stories and poems. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes..." Paul