Theology of glory/Theology of the cross

One of the many contrasts in Christian thought is the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Generally these are presented as either-or, as two poles between which one must choose. In the last few days, I have started to regard them as a spectrum along which many different positions can be found.

The most extreme version of the theology of glory I can imagine is promising a Christian full glory in this lifetime—great worldly wealth, perfect physical and mental health, unending joy and peace, and victory over all enemies, whether earthly or spiritual. Some preachers and writers approach this extreme as they describe Christianity and its benefits. The most extreme version of the theology of the cross I can imagine is a dour, frowning Christianity, one which forbids all worldly pleasures. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic holy orders have included some groups which encourage that sort of asceticism, but Protestant Puritan movements also have a reputation of moving toward that extreme.

The proper place on this spectrum is not at the middle. Christian living focuses more on the cross of Christ than on the glory. The theology of the cross does not deny the reality of glory—God’s glory and the glory of the new creation—but it discourages focusing upon that glory today. When a Christian is so obsessed with glory that he or she has forgotten the cross, that Christian is vulnerable to the attacks of evil.

This particular train of thought began with a post by InsanityBytes (which you can read here) and a lengthy conversation in the comments to that post, a conversation in which I participated. IB asked whether a Christian should hate wickedness. She concluded that hate should not be part of a Christian’s life. The Bible says that God hates wickedness, but IB suggested that a perfectly holy God can properly hate evil. She suggests that permitting ourselves to imitate God’s hatred for evil is akin to permitting a four-year-old child to operate a car.

IB and I have exchanged thoughts for a while, and I know that she is no heretic, no threat to genuine Christianity. She is not oblivious to pain and suffering—on her blog she has spoken of difficult and painful experiences in her past life, and she describes her present dwelling place as the seventh circle of hell. Perhaps that is why IB appears to tilt in the direction of the theology of glory. Perhaps for her it is comfort in the face of evil or contrast to the evil she has seen. Make no mistake—IB has a clear and vivid understanding of the power of Christ’s cross. She recognizes it as the only source of redemption for sinners and reconciliation with God, the only hope for fellowship with God in this lifetime and in the new creation. On the other hand, IB speaks far more than I do of the glory in Christian life today. In our conversation, she said, “we are called to be over comers, to be seated with Him in victory. Even now death has no sting.”

While I agree that we are called to be overcomers—we are even described as “more than conquerors”—I suggest that the Christian in this world must regard life as being lived on a battlefield. Our enemies are beaten, but at the same time they are alive and well, always on the prowl, prepared to attack. Jesus did not promise unending glory in this lifetime—he spoke of persecution, blessings for those who mourn, having enemies whom we should love instead of hating them. He spoke of denying ourselves, taking up a cross, and following him.

Before his crucifixion, Jesus had to deal with a group of disciples who preferred the theology of glory. When three of them saw Jesus glow with light one night while he visited with Moses and Elijah, Peter wanted to capture the experience by setting up booths for the three heroes. Later, not to be outdone, James and John asked Jesus to promise that they would sit at his right and at his left when he came into his kingdom. Jesus told that that those positions were not his to assign, and that they would be given to other people.

But all this theology becomes tangled as soon as we realize that, for Jesus, the cross is the glory. He tried to explain this to his disciples, but they didn’t understand what he said. After Pentecost they understood, and they rejoiced to be considered worthy to suffer for the sake of the kingdom. When Jesus said, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), he was speaking of his death on the cross, not of glowing with light or of sitting on a throne to rule the nations.

When Jesus came into his glory, when he claimed his kingdom, who was seated at his right and at his left? Two thieves—one who mocked Jesus, and another who recognized Jesus and confessed faith in him. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he asked, and Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth—today you will be with me in Paradise.” Pontius Pilate determined who would be to the right and the left of Jesus when he claimed his kingdom, but Jesus did not want James and John to be in those places. He went to the cross to spare them from receiving what sinners deserve.

This observation does not answer the question about whether or not Christians should hate wickedness. It still seems to me that acknowledging wickedness without hating it—without regarding it as a danger and an enemy—risks apathy and a failure to love our neighbors. For when Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he was not including the devil, the world, and our sinful natures within that command. When Jesus entered the battle to fight for us, he did not take on the Romans or other human enemies. He fought the devil, the sinful world, our sinful natures, and death itself. He won that victory, and he shares it with his people. We are “more than conquerors” because we have a victory we did not fight to win and do not deserve to own.

Why does God hate wickedness? Does he hate it only because wickedness is rebellion against him? No, God hates wickedness because it damages the good creation he made. He especially hates wickedness because it damages the people he loves. Not only does it bring physical suffering to people, but wickedness also becomes a barrier between God and the people he loves. He hates wickedness because it separates sinners from the God who loves them, threatening them with eternal death and suffering.

In the end, though, the question of hating wickedness pales in comparison to the question of where a Christian stands on the spectrum between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Should all singing be praise songs, or should Christians also sing hymns that describe our sinful condition, our inability to save ourselves, and the enormous price Christ paid to defeat our enemies? Should all preaching be promises of glory, or should preachers also threaten judgment upon sinners who do not repent, remind their hearers that all people are sinful and need a Savior, and then describe the cross as the instrument of salvation? To me, the answer is obvious. The cross remains front and center, not only as a symbol of victory, but also as a reminder of the high cost of sin and wickedness.

In the end, I hate wickedness, not because of what it has done to me, or even because of what it has done to the world, but because of what it did to Jesus. He had no sin, but he became sin for us and was treated accordingly. My Lord died at the hands of sinful men—not merely the Jews who rejected him, and not merely the Romans who mocked him and tortured him, but all the sinners from Adam down to me. I hate what we have done to Jesus, and I rejoice that his love has overcome that wickedness and reconciled us again to God. 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.

Are you ready?

This time of year, the usual greeting of “How are you?” tends to be replaced with the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” For some reason, this year that question is striking me as a rather odd thing to ask.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” It sounds as if people are preparing for a storm. In Florida people prepare for hurricanes by boarding up windows, carrying moveable things indoors, and tying down whatever cannot be brought indoors. Further north, people prepare for a winter storm by checking on their snow shovels and sidewalk salt, perhaps running out to the hardware store to buy a new shovel or another bag of salt. Then they stop by the grocery store to buy milk, eggs, and bread. When the grocery store is running short of milk, eggs, and bread, you know that the weather forecasters have predicted that it is going to snow.

I don’t know why forecasts of winter weather make people hungry for French toast. I have my own favorite meal to prepare for winter weather, but it is a lunch, not a breakfast. It starts with a pound of cubed meat–my first choice is summer sausage, but I can use hot dogs, ground beef, chicken, pork, or ham. (Fish doesn’t work as well.) I chop and sauté some onion and green pepper, add a can of diced tomatoes, the meat, oregano, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile I prepare a box of macaroni and cheese. When everything is prepared, I stir the macaroni and cheese into the skillet of meat and vegetables and bring it to the table. I have been known to walk a mile to the grocery store in four inches of snow to buy ingredients for this meal if some were lacking in the kitchen.

But, “Are you ready for Christmas?” No doubt this question means different things to different people. To one person, it might mean, “Have you bought and wrapped Christmas gifts for everyone on your list?” To another, it might mean, “Have you made fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies, along with peanut brittle and fudge?” To a third, it might mean, “Have you finished decorating your home and your office for Christmas?” To a store owner, it might mean, “Have you stocked your shelves with everything your customers will want to buy?” To a preacher, it might mean, “Have you prepared your sermons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I’m tempted to answer, “With appropriate counseling and the right medications, I think I will survive.” The other day, I heard someone answer, “Is anybody ever ready for Christmas?” I think the next time someone asks me if I am ready, I will reply, “Is Christmas ready for me?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I have not finished my shopping for gifts, and I have not started wrapping gifts. I am still in the process of adding decorations to the house, one decoration each day until the 24th of December. But, yes, I am ready for Christmas. I am looking forward to celebrating the Incarnation of the Son of God. I am looking forward to sharing good news about how the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I am primed to remind Christians that the real meaning of Christmas is not found in the gifts or the sweets or the decorations, but in the birth of Jesus who came to fulfill the meaning of that name: “The Lord saves.”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” If my job was to prepare myself for Christmas, I would have to say, “No. I’m not ready.” But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who are under the Law.” God has made his people ready for Christmas, and ready for an eternal celebration in a new world, one in which every day will be a holy day. J.

The Sea of Time

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippiin’, into the future.” Fly Like An Eagle, lyrics by Steve Miller and Steve McCarty, ©1976.

For some reason those lyrics keep rolling through my mind as I try to compose a post or two for this blog. I didn’t want to write about that song. I wanted to write something timely for Thanksgiving. I also wanted to write about a workshop I recently attended on microaggression. Somehow the two subjects keep on merging into one potential post.

I am uncomfortable when someone dismissively refers to our National Day of Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day.” I am uncomfortable when advertisers portray the best part of the four-day weekend as the opportunity to go shopping. Our National Day of Thanksgiving has already been consumed by the excesses of the traditional feast; to see even that feast and family gathering disappear for many families, because of the excessive demands of shoppers and business-owners, borders on the tragic. I remember when the Day of Thanksgiving featured a special service at church to give thanks to the Lord for all his blessings. The feast and family gatherings, the televised parade and football games, all took second place to the church service. Now that service has been moved to Wednesday night… because we are too busy celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to actually stop and give thanks.

Other potential posts are also swirling in my mind. This fall Mrs. Dim has been spending hours each day trying to clear her lawn and flowerbeds of autumn leaves. Every morning, of course, new leaves have fallen. This fall I have spent one hour a week dealing with autumn leaves. I bought biodegradable paper bags, and every Saturday I fill five bags and leave them by the curb to be taken by the city. When my grandchildren have grown, my leaves and bags will long have decomposed into fertile soil. Mrs. Dim’s leaves will still be trapped in their plastic bags.

When Christmas is on a Sunday (as it is this year), Advent is a full twenty-eight days long. Advent always includes four Sundays, but the season can be as short as twenty-two days when Christmas is on a Monday. As we observed a Super-moon this month, now we can enjoy a Super-Advent this year.

And time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future. That song has never made sense to me. I think of time as linear, and existence in time is like a train traveling down the track. Each moment of existence, there is a little more of the past and a little less of the future. It would seem that time is slipping into the past, not into the future.

But Albert Einstein demonstrated more than a hundred years ago that time and space are relative. Perhaps that is why the future exists—perhaps it is fueled by moments from the past that slip into the future. George Santayana famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (When read in context, that sentence does not mean what people think it means, but that is yet another topic to consider.) Perhaps as our memories of the past fade to gray, the future becomes correspondingly brighter.

We know that a Day is coming when history as we know it will end. The Lord Jesus will appear in glory with all his angels and with the spirits of all the saints. All the dead will be raised, and every person will stand before his throne for judgment. Some will be welcomed into his perfect new creation, while others will be sent away. To open his kingdom to unworthy sinners, Jesus has already entered this polluted creation and paid the penalty for all sins. Therefore, for those who trust in him the Day of the Lord is not Judgment Day; the Day of the Lord is the beginning of a new and eternal life. The new creation will not follow the rules of entropy and decay that we know in this world. There will be no pain, no suffering, no tears, and no death. In that world, time will indeed be perpetually slipping into the future.

For that, we can be truly thankful. J.

Noah, the ark, and the Flood

Noah, the ark, and the Flood are familiar to almost every person living in western culture. Efforts to recreate this account for movies inevitably bring new details into the story; the description in the Bible does not provide nearly enough material for a feature-length movie. Many people probably think that they know about Noah, the ark, and the Flood, but much of what they know might be fiction that has been added to the Bible’s account.

Noah is easily seen as a picture of Jesus. Noah is a savior, obeying the commands of God and—through his obedience—rescuing and preserving lives from God’s wrath and judgment. From the time Noah began building the ark until the time rain began to fall, 120 years passed, according to the usual understanding of Genesis 6:3. During this time, by his words and by his actions, Noah was able to warn his neighbors of the coming destruction, warning them to repent before it was too late. By the same token, Jesus spent about three years teaching in Galilee and Judea and the surrounding area, calling upon people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The structure which Noah built to save lives was made of wood; the cross where Jesus suffered and died to bestow eternal life was also made of wood. Those who were to be saved entered the ark through an opening in its side, faintly echoing the Bride of Christ coming from his side as Eve came from the rib of Adam.

Those who accept the premise, based on John 1:18, that God the Father is revealed only through Jesus—and that, when God speaks or is seen in Genesis, Jesus is present among his people—will picture Jesus visiting Noah and giving him detailed instructions about how to build the ark. We are told that Noah was righteous and blameless, but we also know that only Jesus is without sin. Noah was made righteous and blameless through his faith in the promised Savior. All believers, from Adam and Eve until the glorious appearing of Christ, are saved in the same way—by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus.

Often the Flood is seen only as an act of wrath, God’s judgment on a sinful world. The water of the Flood also had a cleansing action, washing away sinners and the consequences of their sins. The apostle Peter wrote about the time “when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you….” (I Peter 3:20-21). The water of the Flood lifted Noah and his family out of a sinful world and carried them safely in the ark until they landed in a new world, a world which had been washed clean by water. Likewise, Christians are carried through this sinful world by the work of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit until we land safely in the new world God has promised us—a world won for us by the work of Christ.

Peter stresses that eight persons were saved by the Flood and by the ark. He stresses this number, so it must be significant. God created the world in seven days, establishing the length of the week. Sets of seven in the Bible often represent completeness. The eighth day is the beginning of a new week. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and ends on the eighth day, Easter Sunday—the day that Jesus rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory over sin and death, the day that promises his people new life in a new creation. Like Peter, early Christian writers often associated the number eight with a new beginning, as they also associated Baptism with a new beginning. The apostle Paul wrote, ”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

When Noah and his family exited the ark, Noah offered sacrifices to God, continuing the tradition of “pre-enacting” the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Afterward, he planted a garden. This garden is no minor detail; it reinforces the concept of a new beginning, since Adam and Eve began in a garden. Yet, as Adam and Eve sinned and were driven from the garden, so Noah’s garden also became his downfall.  He drank wine, made from the grapes of his vineyard, became drunk, and lay naked, uncovered in his tent. In spite of his new beginning, Noah was no longer clothed in righteousness. One son laughed at Noah’s nakedness, bringing trouble upon himself and his family. The other two sons covered Noah’s nakedness, bringing blessing upon themselves and their families. In the same way, Christians today should not rejoice in the wrongdoing of others, but instead should seek to share the good news of Jesus with sinners, hoping to clothe them in his righteousness by the power of his Word. We do not desire to humiliate them over their sins or condemn them, but we hope instead to call them to repentance and faith.

God promised Noah that he would never again flood the world to destroy it. He established the rainbow as a sign of that promise—a reminder to God of the promise he had made. Rainbows mean different things to different people today, but they remain to God a reminder of his mercy upon his creation. Light shines through the clouds, and through the drops of water they produce, to display a rainbow upon the earth. God’s light comes through water to his people to display God’s promise of new and eternal life for all those who trust his promises.

 

Christ in Genesis: In the Garden

In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates everything in the universe by the power of his Word. In the second chapter of Genesis, God gets himself dirty, interacting directly with the materials he had created. Critics have noticed this and other differences between the two chapters and have suggested that the accounts contradict each other. Conspiracy theorists have said that the two accounts developed in different parts of Israel and were stuck together by an editor long after the time of Moses. The presence of Christ in Genesis provides a more satisfying explanation for the differences between these chapters.

Chapter one describes the Creator as God (Elohim). God creates the world by speaking; creation is accomplished through his Word and for his Word. Chapter two describes the Creator as the LORD God (Yahweh Elohim). The personal name of God indicates his personal involvement in creation. When God is this personally active in the world, we can be sure that Christ is at work. While the Father speaks, the Son gets dirty fulfilling his Father’s will. This happens again in the Incarnation of Christ, when he is born and placed in a manger and spends more than thirty years among sinners, including some who reject him and execute him.

The order of creation appears to vary between the chapters. Chapter one presents a clear order of events, organized over six days. Plants were created on the third day, and land animals–including the first man and the first woman–were created on the sixth day. But in chapter two, the order of creation appears to be the man first, then plants, then animals, and finally the woman. The plants that are mentioned, though, are specifically garden plants. God created a garden after making the first man; he had already created vegetation earlier. Mention of the animals after the creation of the man but before the creation of the woman does not mean that God created in that order. The Hebrew language has only two tenses and uses them in various ways. The best translation of verse 19 is that the LORD God “had formed” the animals before making the man, and that after the man was formed and the garden planted, the LORD God brought the animals to the man.

Genesis 1:24 quotes God as saying, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures.” Christ, the Word of God, responds by forming animals from the earth, as described in Genesis 2:19. Then he formed the body of Adam. I suggested earlier that the body of Christ as experienced in Genesis is the same body that was born in Bethlehem, that walked the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea, that was beaten, crucified, and buried, that rose on the third day and later ascended to fill the universe in both space and time. If I am correct about that body, then the hands which shaped the body of Adam were already scarred from the nails that held him to the cross.

After forming Adam from the earth, God ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The same Hebrew word (ruach) can mean breath, wind, or spirit. Frequently the Bible makes use of this pun, as on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit announces his presence with the sound of a rushing wind. At the beginning of creation the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Here he is mentioned again as the instrument by which Adam receives life.

God brought every animal to Adam so that Adam would name them. To assign a name is to exercise authority. As in chapter one, authority to care for the planet and for its living beings is assigned to humanity. God had a second purpose for bringing the animals to Adam. He was preparing Adam for a special companion by first giving him the desire for a teammate with whom he could share his world and his authority.

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said. Does God know how it feels to be alone? Outside of space and time, God is eternally three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In a sense, then, God has never been alone–except for one occasion when the Son of God was truly alone. Hanging on the cross, atoning for the sins of the world, Jesus was forsaken by his Father. For a few hours, the Son of God was truly alone.

Jesus endured the torture of the cross, including the rejection of his Father, to redeem his people. He paid in full for the sins of the world so he could build a Church and claim a Bride. Paul wrote that every marriage is a picture of Christ and his Church. This surely must be true of the first marriage. To provide a bride for Adam, God had Adam fall into a deep sleep. To claim his Bride, Jesus fell into the sleep of death. After Jesus had died, a soldier prodded him with a spear, opening a wound in his side from which blood and water flowed. Medically this certifies that Jesus truly had died, since fluid had accumulated in his chest around his heart and lungs. In matters of faith, it also pictures the Bride of Christ, the Church, coming from the crucified Savior–water reminding us of Baptism and blood reminding us of the Lord’s Supper, both important events in the life of the Church. And both Adam’s sleep and Christ’s sleep happened on a Friday, the sixth day of the week.

Eve was taken from Adam’s side. Someone has said (It’s attributed to various people.) that she was not taken from Adam’s head to rule him, nor from his foot to be trampled by him, but from his side to be next to him, from under his arm to be protected by him, and  from near his heart to be loved by him. They were a team, both created in the image of God, both given authority over the planet and its living beings.

All this happened in a garden. The theme of gardens and wilderness runs through the Bible. Israel was promised a land flowing with milk and honey; but before they arrived in the Promised Land, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Jesus battled temptation in the wilderness. He was arrested in a garden and forced out of the garden, as Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden after their sin. Yet when he had won the war against evil, he was buried in a garden. In that garden, the news of his resurrection was first announced. The last two chapters of the Bible (Revelation 21-22) describe the new creation which will be our home after Jesus reveals his glory and announces his judgment. That description of the new creation signifies that our home, once again, will be a garden.

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.