What will be

“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.

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Waiting for the shadow of the moon

I’ve never made a bucket list. I am much more inclined to live in the moment, to take one day at a time. However, if I had composed a bucket list, right at the top would be viewing a solar eclipse like the one happening next Monday.

I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a boy. I watched the Apollo space program on television and wanted to be an astronaut. I learned about the planets in our solar system (back when Pluto was still a planet) and read about comets and meteors, stars and galaxies, quasars and supernovas, and all the other fascinating things to be found in the heavens. Part of the appeal of Star Trek and Star Wars is the dream of interplanetary travel, although the reality is likely to be far closer to 2001: Space Odyssey. I have seen a comet, experienced several partial solar eclipses, and watched lunar eclipses from beginning to end. I’ve gotten out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch meteors. The coming eclipse will round out years of watching the sky and marveling at God’s creation.

No doubt many Christian writers and speakers are trying to find spiritual metaphors in the eclipse of the sun. A few are even making apocalyptic predictions based on this perfectly ordinary event. Aside from the classic contrast of light and darkness, I don’t see that the eclipse has much to tell us about redemption or new life in Christ. On the other hand, such an eclipse does speak of the wonder of God’s creation. Our Earth is the only known planet whose moon appears to be the same size as does the sun from the surface of the planet. An eclipse with a much bigger moon or with a much smaller moon could never be the marvel that this eclipse will be. The entire arrangement is beautifully planned.

Needless to say, I have long since been sure to be on vacation for this event. I will have to drive several hours, but I am blessed with family living right in the path of the totality. My room there is already reserved. The only problem is the question of the best location for viewing the eclipse. Some of the family is content to relax in the back yard; after all, the sun and the moon will be overhead—what else would anyone want? My father and I already understand one factor that the other members of the family are missing—the arrival of the moon’s shadow will be dramatic as it soundlessly roars across the landscape at a speed faster than sound.

Every shadow has two components—the entire shadow, and the core of the shadow. Generally we see shadows projected across a surface that is near the object causing the shadow. Therefore, we do not observe the two components. When a more distant object casts a shadow, the blurred edges of the shadow are outside the core, but they are still part of the shadow. The moon is about 239,000 miles from the earth. A dramatic difference exists between its entire shadow and the core of the shadow. A partial eclipse happens outside the core, in the rest of the shadow. At ninety percent or more, the partial eclipse can still be spectacular. But as the core of that shadow arrives, everything changes. My father and I want to be sitting where we can see that shadow tear across the landscape toward us. Yet we do not want to oversell the experience (or give away too many secrets), so we are looking for a compromise that will give us some chance to see the shadow approaching without straying far from the property.

Thinking about shadows, and light and darkness, leads me to another random observation. We see with our eyes. In the back of our eyes are two sets of receptors, called rods and cones. With rods we sense light and darkness; with cones we perceive colors. The cones require more light to work than do the rods. Therefore, in dim light we see things in black and white and in shades of gray. In brighter light, we are able to make out more colors. As the Moody Blues remarked (“Nights in White Satin”), in the nighttime and early morning, “red is black; and yellow, white.” Or, as I tease my children, one sees many yellow cars on the road during the day, but hardly any yellow cars are noticed at night. Do people who own yellow cars only drive during the daytime?

Here is my spiritual take on light and darkness. We see and comprehend many things about creation now, but as the Bible says, we see in a glass dimly. In the new creation, we will see and know things more fully. Other bloggers that I follow have been speculating about heaven in the last few days. I think that the contrast between the lives we live now and the lives we will live then resembles the contrast between what we can see early in the morning before sunrise and what we can see when the sun is high in the sky. Much more will be revealed to us in that new creation than we are capable of perceiving today. What puzzles us now will make sense then, and the harmony of creation will resonate in our lives in ways we cannot even picture or describe today. J.

Four heavens

A more accurate title for this post would be “four meanings for the word heaven,” but that struck me as unwieldy. As used in the Bible and among Christians, the word heaven has four distinct meanings, and when people confuse those meanings, their concept of heaven becomes muddled.

The first heaven is the sky—where the clouds are, where birds and airplanes fly. It could perhaps to considered equivalent to the Earth’s atmosphere, although sometimes it is said that the orbit of the moon marks the boundary between the first and second heaven.

The second heaven is the vastness of the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere or beyond the moon’s orbit. The sun and all the objects orbiting the sun are part of the second heaven, as are the other stars in our galaxy and whatever objects orbit around them. The second heaven also includes the other galaxies and everything they contain. Whatever physical objects exist outside of galaxies are likewise part of the second universe.

The book of Genesis starts with this sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The two heavens—the immediate sky and the vastness of the universe—are included in that sentence.

The third heaven is the presence of God—a special presence, since God is present everywhere in the universe. Paul wrote of being caught up into the third heaven (II Corinthians 12:2). In Revelation, John saw a door in the sky (the first heaven) and, moving through that door, entered the third heaven (Revelation 4:1-2). When we speak of a believer who has died and now is in heaven, we are referring to the third heaven. Jesus mentioned the third heaven twice while on the cross. When a criminal being executed with Jesus said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Therefore, we can describe the third heaven as Paradise, the Father’s hands, being with Jesus, or—in the case of one of Jesus’ parables—in Abraham’s bosom.

The fourth heaven is a shortening of the expression “new heavens and a new earth.” This new creation is promised to Christians as a future reality. On the Day Jesus is seen in the sky, with all his angels and all the believers who have died, he will restore creation. Everything in creation will be new—it will be like the world Adam and Eve experienced before they sinned. Everything that was very good then will be very good again, and it will remain very good for all eternity.

Unbelievers mock Christians as if we believed that the presence of God—the third heaven—was somewhere in the sky—the first and second heavens. They describe Christians as picturing God as an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. The third heaven cannot be found by traveling anywhere in the universe. Instead, one could think of it as another set of dimensions overlaying the familiar dimensions of height, width, and depth. (Time has dimensions too, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Christians sometimes mix together the third and fourth heavens in our minds and our conversations. The third heaven is an ongoing reality. God, his angels, and the saints who have died are in the third heaven now. The fourth heaven is a future reality. It is the new creation established by Jesus on a Day that has not yet occurred. The Bible says many more things about the fourth heaven than about the third heaven. Therefore, Christians sometimes make the mistake of describing the saints in Paradise as having the blessings of the new creation. They are guaranteed those blessings or they would not be in Paradise; but they are waiting for the new creation even as we are waiting.

Eternal life in the new creation is the ultimate Christian hope and God’s firm guarantee. Heaven will be like Paradise because we will always be in the presence of God and always experience his presence. Yet heaven will also be this planet—and the rest of creation—restored to perfection. As Adam and Eve had tasks in Eden, so we will have things to do for God and for one another. None of them will be burdensome or boring. Each of us probably will do the things we love doing most in this world—singing, gardening, woodcraft, or many other possibilities. Yet many vocations will have disappeared. We will not need legal professionals, health care professionals, military professionals, and the like, because the world will be perfect. Deadlines will no longer be a problem, because there will be no death. Nothing in all of creation will be harmful or dangerous. Best of all, we will be with the Lord forever.

We are looking forward to a new creation, the home of righteousness. Our faith includes the guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. When Jesus spoke of heaven, he did not say much about white robes or harps. Instead, he compared it to a wedding reception—a joyful party with food and drink, music and dancing, and people celebrating the glory of a loving relationship. This is our future, and no power in all creation can take it away from us, for Jesus has already paid the necessary price to make this new world our home. J.