During my growing up years I attended a wide variety of Christian churches and rubbed shoulders with even more flavors of individual Christians. Many of them believed the Bible provided an accurate time-line for the “End Times”, if only one could properly decipher the book’s hidden clues and cryptic symbols. I knew a lot of people who – back then – claimed we would never make it to the year 2000 before either Jesus or The Beast, depending on your reading, showed up in person to make life interesting. Or the year 1988, 40 years after the state of Israel was established, supposedly a key eschatological event.
I’ve never been one to argue theological points with much passion. My personality is such that I can live with a great degree of ambiguity and uncertainty, and it doesn’t bother me much if others hold a different perspective than my own. Perhaps it comes from having lived in so many different cultures and contexts; I have seen authentic, vibrant Christian faith lived out in many different ways, and I believe God is good with this diversity. There are good Christian people, full of the Spirit, respectfully reading the Bible and arguing one point of view, while at the same time another group of good Christian people, also full of the Spirit and equally earnest, argue an opposing point of view. An awful lot of time and energy goes into defending secondary, or even trivial, issues; effort which could better be put to use in acts of loving God and neighbor. At the moment we are all somewhat blinded, but a day will come when we will see clearly.
Recently I finished Tom Wright’s book “Surprised by Hope” in which he gives a convincing exegesis of what happened at Christ’s resurrection and what that means for us as we contemplate our lives and deaths, the hereafter, and the “End Times”. Bishop Wright is one of the most prolific theological writers in Anglican circles these days, but this was the first book of his I’ve read. Unfortunately I fear it won’t find a wide readership: it’s too theologically heavy (and wordy!) for the average church member. But I liked the book, maybe especially because it reflects my own reading of the Bible in recent years. Here’s a brief summary, from his last – and most readable! – chapter:
“…the resurrection stories in the gospels aren’t about going to heaven when you die. In fact, there is almost nothing about ‘going to heaven when you die’ in the whole New Testament. Being ‘citizens of heaven’ (Philippians 3:20) doesn’t mean you’re supposed to end up there. Many Philippians were Roman citizens, but Rome didn’t want them back when they retired. Their job was to bring Roman culture to Philippi.
That’s the point which all the gospels make, in their own ways. Jesus is risen, therefore God’s new world has begun. Jesus is risen, therefore Israel and the world have been redeemed. Jesus is risen, therefore his followers have a new job to do.
And what is that new job? To bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical, earthly reality….The bodily resurrection of Jesus is more than a proof that God performs miracles or that the Bible is true. It is more than the Christians’ knowing of Jesus in our own experience (that is the truth of Pentecost, not Easter). It is much, much more than the assurance of heaven after death (Paul speaks of ‘going away and being with Christ’, but his main emphasis is on coming back again in a risen body, to live in God’s new-born creation). Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project, not to snatch people away from earth to heaven, but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.
….When Paul wrote his great resurrection chapter, I Corinthians 15, he didn’t end by saying ‘So let’s celebrate the great future life that awaits us.’ He ended by saying ‘So get on with your work, because you know that in the Lord it won’t go to waste.’ When the final resurrection occurs, as the centerpiece of God’s new creation, we will discover that everything done in the present world in the power of Jesus’ own resurrection will be celebrated and included, appropriately transformed.
….with Easter, God’s new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, the rebirth of the entire creation…that every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity – every time justice is done, peace is made, families are healed, temptation is resisted, true freedom is sought and won – that this very earthly event takes its place within the long history of things which implement Jesus’ own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation, and act as signposts of hope, pointing back to the first and on to the second.” (Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, pp.304-307)
In this view, all that is good in our present world – all that is good in creation including the earth, all that is good in cultures, languages and societies, in the arts and industry, everything which honors God – will survive. “Heaven”, where we go when we die, is just a holding tank for the righteous, who await the day when they will return to take up residence again on earth, in resurrected bodies. (At present, only Jesus has passed into this glorified state of human existence, but one day we who are “in Christ” will also be transformed.)
Holding this perspective changes the way one looks at the world and at one’s life and work. Everything we do, everything we create, everything we are that is inspired by the Spirit of God and is pure, will endure beyond the big clean-up at the end. So we are not just hanging around waiting to go to another dimension when we die. In Christ, we are participating, now, through our own creativity and industry, in God’s re-creating, restoring and reconciling of all things in Christ.
“…Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”