Heaven is a hot topic these days, thanks to N. T. Wright and some of his noisier interpreters.
On Thursday, Matt pushed back a little on some of the more sweeping criticisms of the evangelical view of “heaven,” arguing that most evangelicals really do have a pretty healthy view of it. We believe in our future resurrection, and we see heaven in personal and communal terms. That far, I think he’s right, and I’ll even grant that many of Wright’s followers have gotten a bit pushy on the issue of the “new heavens and the new earth.” When every use of the word “heaven” seems to invite an immediate correction, we’ve missed the point.
So I think Matt’s push back here is warranted – but I also think we could advance the conversation by asking why so many people are so pushy about the new heavens and new earth.
I was in a Sunday school class a month or so ago in which we were discussing “heaven,” and people were struggling to reconcile a sort of dualism (seeing earth and bodies as bad and spirits as good) with our right and natural affection for this glorious home and these marvelous bodies. The reminder that we are destined not just for some ethereal, floating existence but for resurrection cut right through that knot.
The people in my class all knew that we are headed for resurrection, but it didn’t shape the rest of their theology. The reminder still surprised them.
I doubt, then, that most evangelicals have a particularly robust view of resurrection. That is not to say that we are unorthodox – just that we don’t necessarily expend much mental energy on this point. The hope of resurrection is central to Christianity (else, why is it on the resurrection that Paul hangs his argument in 1 Corinthians 15?), but not so much to the ways we evangelical talk or think about life.
This should sound familiar; Matt sounded much the same note about the evangelical view of the body in Earthen Vessels. As he put it there:
The evangelical legacy with respect to the body seems to be more one of inattention than outright rejection or even a conscious ambivalence. If we are uncomfortable with the body, we are so tacitly. When we go on the record about the body, we do so in an orthodox fashion: God created the body as good, it is currently tainted by the presence of sin (but it is not the source of sin per se), and God is going to raise it up again on the last day. In our understanding of heaven and our theological anthropology, we have emphasized the presence of God, which is the right thing to emphasize….
If we do not cultivate a strong and thoughtful evangelical understanding of the body and enact practices that integrate this understanding into every part of our lives, then we will end up incorporating ideas and beliefs into our systems that are contrary to what we would consciously affirm.
Substitute “heaven” for “the body” in this passage and I think you’ve got an equally accurate picture of evangelical views of the resurrection (indeed, Matt touched on the point in that passage). Is it possible that we are orthodox, but not careful? I suspect we evangelicals do not so much think wrongly about the new heavens and the new earth as not think of them at all.
Matt may be correct that “heaven” is often shorthand for “resurrection bodies in new heavens and a new earth when we dwell in the presence of God and all tears are wiped away.” But shorthand, left too long as shorthand and without ongoing careful reflection, can become the extent of our thought about a subject. That’s been all too common in my own experience with other believers in the last few years – and we can’t afford to miss out on the hope God has given us here.
Now, this does not excuse the noisome insistence on the part of those making this point. Perhaps we can chalk it up to the same sort of thing that gives rise to the “cage phase Calvinism”: not (necessarily) a defect in the theology, but rather a mix of delight at having discovered truth more clearly and frustration at never having heard it taught. (Note: I’m not getting into the question of Calvinism’s veracity here; I’m explaining why people respond this way.) I suspect that for many, Wright’s work is their first exposure to a more full-throated declaration of the heavens-and-earth promises of God. Feeling the importance of the point, many suddenly feel the need to shoehorn it into every conversation, however awkwardly or inappropriately.
Exuberance is one thing; rudeness another. Like Matt, I could do with less of the latter, but let’s not toss the baby out with the bathwater. I want more hope in our coming resurrection, not less. I simply want that hopeful joy communicated kindly and judiciously. We don’t need to become eschatological language police, but we can and should encourage each other to be careful and joyful in our thinking about resurrection.
1Randy Alcorn has also provided a good introduction the new heavens and new earth for many evangelicals, and I like Alcorn’s approach better than Wright’s. Though it’s been a few years since I read it, I recall that he spends Heaven almost entirely on hopeful description. This approach is more effective and sets the tone of ensuing conversation better than Wright’s critical stance. In fact, if Wright has a major rhetorical weakness, it is that critique is his default position. He is at his best when he forgets to attack other positions and simply revels in the glorious work of God. In any case, Alcorn makes Matt’s point about shorthand admirably in a book that does a great job on resurrection and the new earth he titled simply Heaven.