Part of what it means to grow as Christians who love the Lord with all our minds is to be constantly reflecting on our beliefs about God, our selves, and the world in light of what we are learning from our study of Scripture, tradition, and reason. Over the following three posts, I will demonstrate some ways that my theological formation has probed the assumptions of cultural Christianity, challenging some of my earlier thoughts about the Christian faith.
Example #1: Heaven: What About Life After Death?
I grew up believing that the goal of Christianity was for me to make it to heaven. This life and this world didn’t really matter that much, in light of the fact that heaven was my true home. As the classic hymn “How Great Thou Art” puts it:
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation /
And lead me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
After all, Chris Tomlin was keen to teach me, this planet was going to be consigned to the trash heap of the universe anyway:
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine /
But God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.
(Side note: when I worked through this topic with some of my students, they were more troubled by the notion of God being “forever mine.” Fair enough: the individual and consumerist resonances are there.)
And, to make sure I got the point, the old spiritual “I’ll Fly Away” made the dualism more explicit:
Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away /
To that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away in the morning /
When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.
When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away /
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away.
My body, this earth — it’s a prison, and the goal is for my soul to fly away to a disembodied eternity.
The problem with all of this, of course, is it is not attentive to what Scripture actually says (or the testimony of historical theology, but we need not even go that far afield to fix this one). In his Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright demolished this idea and convinced me of my need for a more nuanced theological method. The notion of our disembodied souls spending eternity with God in heaven is, he made clear, derived from Platonism and not the world of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.
Rather, Wright points out, orthodox Christianity has always spoken of the bodily resurrection as part of God’s new creation. Christ’s resurrection is a sign and a promise of what God will do for us and for the whole world (cf. 1 Cor 15). Heaven, then, is better understood as a realm or reality intersecting our own in any number of significant ways, rather than some place that is spatially far off. Indeed, when Christ returns, heaven and earth will become one (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer), and He will make our bodies like His own (cf. Phil 3:20-21).
So what happens when you die but before you are resurrected? The Bible in fact has much less to say about this so-called “intermediate state,” a temporary place of restful happiness with the Lord (note the Bible does not use the word “heaven” for this) until we are resurrected to share with God’s work in the new creation (cf. Rev 21-22). The practical consequence of all this is that the work that we do in this life and in this world is actually bringing forth, into the present, God’s ultimate renewal of all things. More careful attention to what Scripture actually says, rather than what popular Christianity often presents, would have clarified this for me and been the basis of a more nuanced theological method.