Rethinking Heaven 1: Out of the Platonic Fog

WHY ‘GOING TO HEAVEN’ IS NOT THE ULTIMATE CHRISTIAN HOPE.

What happens when a loved one dies? Their body is laid to rest while their eternal soul goes to be with the Lord. This is true, but not the end of the story. It seems that for many this is the natural process: Our physical life on earth ends but our soul/spirit lives on eternally somewhere else (a place called Heaven, often far away, usually filled with clouds and harps, and maybe some glimmering streets of gold). This heavenly fate is usually viewed as a disembodied, spiritual existence somewhere far removed from earth. Most don’t envision rocky mountain peaks, flowing rivers, rolling meadows of grass and flowers, or anything resembling the scenes of Animal Planet or National Geographic. Why?

It’s a long, complicated story, but it has to do with an ancient Greek philosopher named Plato who lived some 400 years before Christ. Plato saw reality split into two categories: matter and spirit. We lived in the world of matter—of material, dirt, rocks, flesh, bone, or the “physical stuff.” Yet, everything we see and touch here on earth are only inferior, imperfect shadows of the pure, perfect, untainted ideas, or “forms”, of the spirit realm. This separation of matter and spirit, the physical and spiritual, led to the widespread belief around the time of Jesus (and up to this very day!) that the physical world, including our bodies, was ultimately corrupt and the ultimate hope is for our spirit/soul—that pure, untainted part of us—to escape this “prison house of our physical bodies” and to find rest in the perfect, spirit realm far removed from this material world.

So, this dualistic view is called “Platonism”, and was later adapted by another Christian heretical sect called “Gnosticism”, which is making a comeback in our day. The Gnostics sort of “Christianized” Plato’s dualistic views, and understood human beings to have the “spiritual spark of the divine” trapped within our physical bodies, and Jesus came to share with us the secret knowledge (or, in Greek, “gnosis”) that could release our true spiritual selves from their physical confines and find lasting rest in the spirit realm of the Divine All. But enough Greek philosophy.  Let’s get back to the Hebrew understanding as revealed in the Bible, and the early Christian hope of salvation and redemption.

Over and over in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 God declares that his creation “is good.” Having created humankind in his divine image he declares, “And it was VERY good.” The Psalmists declare over and over the glory of God’s created handiwork (Ps 8: 19). There isn’t a hint of scorn, a devaluing of the physical, material world. Sure, it soon becomes a war zone filled infected with the effects of Sin and death (Rom 8), but this just leads the prophets to paint pictures of a future day when God’s creation will once again be restored to it’s former glory. Listen to Isaiah’s words:

“For look, I am ready to create new heavens and a new earth! …The sound of weeping or cries of sorrow will never be heard in her again. Never again will one of her infants live just a few days or an old man die before his time… They will build houses and live in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build a house only to have another live in it, or plant a vineyard only to have another eat its fruit, for my people will live as long as trees, and my chosen ones will enjoy to the fullest what they have produced.”
(Isa 65:17-22)

Or, elsewhere he writes:

“A wolf will reside with a lamb…an ox and a young lion will graze together, as a small child leads them along. A baby will play over the hole of a snake; over the nest of a serpent an infant will put his hand. They will no longer injure or destroy on my entire royal mountain. For there will be universal submission to the LORD’s sovereignty, just as the waters completely cover the sea.”
(Isa 11:6-9)

The Age to Come foretold by the prophets speaks poetically of a time when God’s creation will be restored to its original glory and innocence; when all of nature (humans, animals, plants) will once again be in proper balance and harmonious relations. Once again people will work the ground with ease and reap a harvest without the sweat and toil that resulted at the Fall. No more carnivorous lions hunting down and devouring innocent gazelles. My wife used to challenge me on the question of whether or not there will be food in Heaven. I, a very tall shrimp scampi lover, insisted that there would be—and plenty of it! She saw food as something unnecessary to the perfect spiritual bliss of heaven. That’s because her view of heaven was of clouds, choirs of angels and harp strumming in the fog of otherworldly bliss (biblical images from Revelation hardly meant to be taken literally). The New Testament challenges this in some significant ways—unless you continue to interpret its pictures through Platonic, Gnostic, or dualistic framework as the church has continually done for centuries (however unknowingly).

So, what then is our ultimate hope? When we die, our spirit/soul goes to be with God (call it heaven if you want—heaven is where God is fully present and where his will is done). But that is NOT THE END. That is just an intermediate time as we await our final hope. What is that? RESURRECTION unto new life! So many people talk about the resurrection of Jesus as if it merely provided us a way to “go to heaven.” That’s NOT the point, though. The point that the New Testament writers and apostles are insistent upon, and the truth on which the entire faith rests is that the tomb was empty on the third day. No body was found. Jesus didn’t just die and his spirit float off to some heaven in the clouds while his body decayed. His body was resurrected from the grave. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty” (1Co 15:13-14).

When he appeared to his disciples his flesh was restored, though his scars still visible (which tells us that our resurrected, glorified bodies will also bear some resemblance to their present, earthly existence). His resurrected body was somehow different than our corruptible bodies in that he could pass through locked doors easily enough (Cool!). Yet it was also quite physical. He was not a blurry phantom, like Casper the Ghost. Thomas touched his scars. Jesus ate (and hopefully digested) fried fish on the seashore (John 21:12-15). 1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s long discussion of what this glorified, resurrected body will be like. Go read it yourself.

What is made clear is that: (1) Our ultimate hope is not to escape our physical bodies, but to have our physical bodies resurrected and transformed into a glorified, incorruptible state; (2) the ultimate destination is not a disembodied, cloudy realm in the sky but a transformed quasi-physical existence where fish still tastes good over a hot fire. (Wow, fire in heaven? That’s an interesting thought.)

The point I want to drive home is that we should be suspicious of any Christian theology, or “eschatology” (things concerning the “last things”), that promotes a devaluation of the physical, material realm that God has declared “good” and who desires to restore and redeem in the Age to Come (Rom 8:20ff). Romans 8 speaks of “all creation”–- not just people, but the whole cosmos—groaning for its long-awaited redemption, when God “makes all things new” (Rev 21:5). Note that the passage doesn’t say, “I make all new things” but rather “I make all (existing) things new (again).” Thus we use language such as re-storation, re-newal, re-conciliation, re-surrection and re-demption because God is bringing tainted things back to their original glory before the Fall.

Revelation 21:5 is a passage pointing to God’s coming restoration of all things. This is why numerous bells and whistles go off when I hear Bible teachers speaking about a “rapture” where we get beamed up like Star Trek, and God torches the earth with fiery judgment. Tim LaHaye fans will need to be patient here, and await another discussion on the individual Bible passages that they use to get this idea of people flying away on clouds leaving their unoccupied car crashing into others on the free way. (Yikes! My faith can kill people.) But that’s for another day. . .

Right now I am trying to make you aware of the framework or underlying interpretive grid Christians have unknowingly brought to the text as they read Scripture and form their beliefs about “Heaven”, “Resurrection”, “Spirit” and so on. Are we reading Scripture through the worldview of first century Jews, understanding the Word in its native context and culture? Are we reading and interpreting the Bible through the worldview shared by Jesus, Paul, Matthew, John, Peter and the other New Testament writers? OR, are we reading these Jewish writings through the Greek philosophical framework of Plato and Gnosticism, and drawing all sorts of anti-creational conclusions as a result? It’s a serious question, but it must be asked.

SUMMARY: The ultimate hope of the Christian faith is not to escape this material world and to live in some disembodied spiritual place in the clouds called heaven. Rather, the ultimate hope of biblical Christianity is to share in the resurrection unto a new life, enjoying God’s renewed creation with our new, resurrected, glorified, incorruptible bodies.

In part 2 I will discuss the location of Heaven. Is it someplace far away? Is it this earth restored? Or is it somewhere in between? Is Heaven even primarily a term of location?

Stay tuned…

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