“Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven.” The sentence looks and sounds correct at first, but at best it is sloppy theology, and at worst it is packed with doctrinal errors.
The words “coming back” suggest that Jesus has left and is currently not here. But he promised his followers, “I will be with you always, to the end of the ages,” and, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Jesus will not come back because he has never left. The Greek word “Parousia,” generally translated “coming” in Matthew 24 and in Acts 1:11, has a more complex meaning of “arrival” or “appearing.” It has no sense of returning, but more of an unveiling, a revelation of what already exists.
One passage of Scripture could be used to defend the idea of Jesus coming back—John 14:3 says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Although some scholars apply this verse to the ascension and Parousia of Jesus, its context refers instead to his arrest and execution, his burial, and his resurrection. Jesus is not busy now preparing a place for us in his Father’s Kingdom; Jesus prepared a place for us by his death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection. He came back Easter morning after spending the Sabbath with his body in the tomb and his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. Through the work of his Church he takes us to be with him, even as he is with us as he promised.
Other scholars suggest that the divine Jesus is with us now, but the human Jesus will return at the Parousia. This thought conflicts with Biblical Christology. The divine nature of Jesus and the human nature of Jesus cannot be separated; he is one Christ, always fully divine and always fully human. The Son of God was born and learned how to talk and how to walk, even though as God he can do anything and knows everything. The Son of God was hungry, thirsty, in danger from storms and enemies. He was arrested, tortured, and killed—the Son of God died and was buried, and he rose to life again. Likewise, the Son of Mary is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything and can do anything he chooses. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. When we pray to him, he understands our needs and desires, because he is like us in every way, except that he never sinned.
Likewise, the words “take us to heaven” distort the Bible’s description of the Parousia. I Thessalonians 4:13-18 describe what Jesus will do on the Day of the Lord. He will appear in the sky, seen by every person on earth. All the angels of heaven and all the saints in Paradise will accompany him. Believers alive at that time will meet him in the air (the “Rapture”), but that meeting in the air is a brief event. It is like the officials of a city meeting a king at the city gates to escort him into the city. It is like children seeing their grandmother’s car arrive and rushing out the door to meet her in the driveway. They do not stay in the driveway with her, but they accompany her into the house. I have often considered the Rapture to be our Shepherd’s sorting of the sheep and the goats, described in Matthew 25:32-33.
When Jesus announces his Judgment, unbelieving sinners will be sent away from this world to the devil’s prison. Believers will remain in this world, but we will be changed. All the dead will be raised, and the bodies of all believers will be restored to the original plan of the Creator. Injuries and sicknesses will be removed, never to return. Even birth defects will be canceled. As our bodies will be changed, so also the world around us will be changed. It will be restored to its original perfection, the very good world inhabited by Adam and Eve before their sin brought death and decay into creation. Will there be dogs and cats in heaven? Undoubtedly, for they were part of the first perfect creation. Will they be the same dogs and cats we have known and loved in this lifetime? I don’t know, but I cannot find a verse in the Bible that says that our beloved pets will not be with us in the Kingdom of God.
“The meek will inherit the earth.” Jesus did not describe eternal life as spirits sitting on clouds playing harps. He described eternal life as a wedding reception, an unending celebration of his victory over sin and evil and death. Jesus ate with his disciples after his resurrection; he also spoke about eating and drinking in the kingdom of God. The Old Testament prophets also spoke about the heavenly feast—consisting of the finest foods and the best wine. The new creation will be as physical as the first creation, and it will be on this same planet we inhabit today. Jesus is not going to take us to heaven—he is going to bring heaven to us, making this world perfect so it can be our home with him forever.
Careless and sloppy sentences (such as “Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven”) distract us from the clear message of the Bible. They prevent children from learning what they need to know about Jesus, about salvation, and about the Day of the Lord. They weaken our efforts to share with mission prospects the hope that we have in Jesus our Savior. Those nine words require nine hundred words to clarify and correct. The real promises of the Bible are far better than our casual summaries. May God grant us firm faith and correct understanding of all that he has told us. J.