Harps, clouds, and Heaven

April 18, 2012

A friend recently showed me a very intriguing cover story on the April 14th edition of Time Magazine. Entitled Rethinking Heaven, the article describes how modern evangelicals are seeking to recover the hope of "heaven". Though the article lacked a correct biblical perspective and had no mention of Jesus and His glory, I did appreciate the article's emphasis on a need to reevaluate the widely-held understanding of a "never ending worship service in the clouds" that many believers (and unbelievers) have in their mind when picturing "heaven".

At the deepest core of our being, God has given every human the longing for an immortal body and the restoration of this very earth that we live on. In contrast to an eternal existence in ethereality, the Bible presents this picture of the culmination of all things in the most vivid and tangible terms in passages like Revelation 21-22 and Isaiah 65. There is coming a day when we will live on this earth with no sorrow, crying, sickness, or pain. But until that fixed Day in the future (Acts 1:6-7, Acts 3:20-21, Acts 17:31; Daniel 2:21) we are called to bear witness to Jesus by taking up our cross and walking as He walked. Jesus is the anointed King who will restore all things when He returns to reign in Jerusalem, not the one who will "take us to heaven" or "bring heaven to earth" now.

A series of historical events, patterns of thought, religious and social reforms, and scientific "progress" in the Middle East and in Europe largely beginning around 200AD have stripped us of this biblical understanding. Because we were born into these patterns, most modern Western Christians believe that a "harp and cloud" in heaven is the final destiny believers after it's all over. According to the "heavenly destiny" gospel, God will destroy this corrupted earth and we will live in heaven with Him forever in an ethereal spirit form. This is typified by cartoons, movies, books, and songs all presenting clouds and "pearly gates" that we will "fly away" to when we die or Jesus returns.

Recent Christian scholarship has been trying to weed out these deeply rooted, unbiblical ideas. The astute New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in describing a physical bodily resurrection of believers to live on the earth, says:

"The early Christians hold firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world... within early Christianity there is virtually no spectrum of belief about life beyond death... whereas the early Christians were drawn from many strands of Judaism and from widely differing backgrounds within paganism, and hence from circles that must have held very different beliefs about life beyond death, they all modified that belief to focus on one point on the spectrum. Christianity looks, to this extent, like a variety of Pharisaic Judaism. There is no trace of Sadducean view or of that of Philo... We have plenty of evidence of debates about all sorts of things, and the virtual unanimity on resurrection stands out. Only in the late second century, a good 150 years after the time of Jesus, do we find people using the word resurrection to mean something quite different from what is meant in Judaism and early Christianity, namely, a spiritual experience in the present leading to a disembodied hope in the future. For almost all of the first two centuries, resurrection in the traditional sense holds not just center stage but the whole stage."

-"Surprised by Hope", N.T. Wright, page 41-42

The "heavenly destiny" gospel that we have eaten and feed to unbelievers is like McDonald's - it seems like a fast, easy way to get them "saved", coming to church, and not living in gross sin (mostly because unbelievers seem to have the same understanding of "heaven" and the end of all things as believers do), but it leaves them malnourished and unprepared for the crisis at the end of the age. It leaves toxic residues in their heart and mind, never able to eat the "solid food" of God's word and requiring an infant's "milk" in order to be nurtured (Hebrews 5:12). Randy Alcorn, an author and pastor, summarizes this issue well in his book Heaven:

We do not desire to eat gravel. Why? Because God did not design us to eat gravel. Trying to develop an appetite for a disembodied existence in a non-physical Heaven is like trying to develop an appetite for gravel. No matter how sincere we are, and no matter how hard we try, it’s not going to work. Nor should it. What God made us to desire, and therefore what we do desire if we admit it, is exactly what he promises to those who follow Jesus Christ: a resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected Earth.

-"Heaven", Randy Alcorn, page 7

The resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15) and the restoration of the earth (Acts 3:19-21) that both commence when Jesus returns are core elements of the gospel message. The true gospel alone has the impetus to sustain the heart in trouble and cause the heart to ache with longing in circumstantial comfort.

As we approach the end of this age where this is arguably much more critical to understand than in ages past, don't settle for gravel or McDonald's.

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About the author

Joshua Hawkins is a pastor, Bible teacher, and content creator for disciples of Jesus from College Station, Texas. He co-hosts The Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast, a weekly audio show exploring how a first century Jew would have understood the Gospel. He's also an all-around tech nerd and enjoys road cycling.

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