Here is the text of a talk I gave today to the Beckenham Deanery Chapter study-day:
The theology of Heaven
Missiology and Eschatology
Why is our understanding of heaven so important? Because missiology follows eschatology. What we believe about the future will determine what we do in the present.
The history of the Church of England, at least since 1945, is a study of failure in mission. In a report published that year titled Towards the Conversion of England, it was stated that:
In England the Church has to present the Christian Gospel to multitudes in every section of society who believe in nothing; who have lost a whole dimension (the spiritual dimension) of life; and for whom life has no ultimate meaning.
Therefore it proposed to make evangelism in every parish the Church’s mission priority:
To evangelize is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His Church.
The Church of England then dedicated its energies to revising the Canons of 1604. It then revised the liturgy. It then ordained women. It then revised the liturgy. It is now consecrating women bishops.
It has not evangelized the nation. Nor is it proposing to. Why not? I would venture to suggest it is a failure of eschatology.
Think, for a moment, of the eschatology, and the understanding of heaven, that lies behind Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:3-8:
I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. (Matthew 18:4-8, NIV)
Or again, consider Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10, where we learn about both his eschatology and his understanding of mission:
The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Our lack of clarity on salvation
There are several things to notice here. First, the notion of coming judgement and the threat of wrath and eternal fire.
If we are not clear about these things, then we will hardly be clear about mission. In 1995, the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission published a report titled The Mystery of Salvation.
The first page of the report observed,
... the ease with which it is possible to speak of being saved when the nature of the peril is clear, and, by contrast ... a much greater difficulty when the danger being faced is either not clear or is the subject of controversy.
Significantly, after 216 pages it was still a mystery what the report’s authors thought we were actually being saved from.
By contrast, the statements above are clear. Is it any wonder, then, that the missiology of Christ and the apostles had an urgency that the Church of England currently lacks?
Our confusion on the kingdom
Secondly, however, and crucially to today’s topic, the theology of heaven is actually a theology of the kingdom of heaven.
In the early church, this kingdom is an imminent reality — imminent in the sense both that it could be upon us at any moment and in the sense that it is not yet fully here, although Christ reigns already as king.
The kingdom is a thing ‘to come’. And it comes now when Christ is acknowledged as king and it will come in the future when Christ is revealed as king.
Coming on the clouds of heaven
We see something of this in the way that the New Testament refers to Christ coming in the clouds of glory.
Matthew and Mark both record that at his trial Jesus said that his opponents would see him, “Sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mk 14:62; Matt 26:64)
Often that has been taken as a ‘second coming’ reference, but of course the image is drawn from Daniel 7, where Daniel describes “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” who is led into the presence of the Ancient of Days and is given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him”:
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
The initial reference of Jesus’ words, therefore, must be taken as being to Daniel’s throne-room scene, and the direction of movement in the first instance is, as it were, not from heaven to earth but from earth to heaven: Jesus’ opponents will see, through his being raised from the dead, that he is who he claims to be — the Son of Man who receives dominion from the Ancient of Days.
And so the present situation is one of Jesus in heavenly session. He is now the King. Thus at his martyrdom in Acts 7, Stephen declares,
I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56)
And in Ephesians 2, Paul applies the whole imagery to the church:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus ... (Ephesians 2:4-6, NIV)
Indeed, I would argue that the puzzling scene in Revelation 20 of the millennial reign of Christ is actually a reference to this present reality (Rev 20:4-6).
Away from the conveyor belt
To become a Christian, then (as the 1945 report recognized), is not just to accept Christ as Saviour but to serve Christ as King. We will return to that point in a moment.
Nevertheless, there are other references to Christ coming with the clouds of heaven which are more clearly ‘Second Coming’ references. In the New Testament framework, however, these are related to the first reference point in Daniel via the notion of the ‘apocalypse’ of Jesus
What lies in the future is the apocalypse of Christ — that some day soon, Christ will be revealed from heaven. So Luke 17:30; 1 Cor 1:7; 2 Thess 1:7; 1 Pet 1:7, all speak about the ‘revelation’ of Christ, when people will see what is a present reality — the reigning Christ coming to earth with the clouds of heaven.
The great Christian hope in the New Testament, then, is not that we will go to heaven but that heaven will come to earth.
Over the centuries, however, this hope has been obscured by the very different idea that we are going to heaven when we die, and that’s it — what I call a ‘conveyor belt’ theology: life is a conveyor belt carrying us towards heaven or hell in what we quite naturally have come to call ‘the after life’.
You see this reflected in our hymns:
There’s a home for little children, above the bright blue sky ...
When we’ve been there ten thousand years ...
When I stand in glory, I will see his face and there I’ll serve my king forever, in that holy place ...
Dancing with Elvis
In modern times, this has been compounded by the notion that if anything does happen to us after death, it is bound to be good.
In a recent series of adverts from the Co-op Funeral Service a woman speaks of her friends ‘listening to the king, while I’ll be up there, dancing with him’.
The king is, of course, Elvis.
No one in these adverts expresses a glimmer of concern that death might be something to worry about — certainly not because of any danger of facing judgement.
This is a very long way indeed from the Christian view, but we need to recognize that the difference this makes is not just to our understanding of judgement.
The concrete reality of the kingdom
This can perhaps be best understood when we consider the Old Testament hope.
In the OT there is very little by way of a concept of the afterlife. Instead, the dead are in sheol, almost without distinction, and this is not a good state in which to be.
There are hints at something more. We sometimes read of people being gathered to their fathers. The message from the Lord to the penitent Josiah via the prophetess Huldah is:
... I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. (2 Kings 22:20)
That sounds at least like something positive. And repeatedly we are told of the kings that so and so ‘slept with his fathers’ (NIV, rested).
Again, the writer of Ecclesiastes, for all his puzzling about the vanity of life, still says in his heart, “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed” (3:17) — but it is not at all clear how or when.
Meanwhile, the arena for God’s actions is this world. It is here that we see both salvation and judgement — which goes part way to helping us understand some of those very uncomfortable bits of the Old Testament.
This world, in the OT, is not a vale of tears through which we pass until we enter eternal joy — rather it is a ‘make or break’ situation, where righteousness is either clearly present or disturbingly absent.
True, the disappointments of life raise questions about the fulfilment of God’s promises. The writing prophets, moreover, stress a future kingdom to resolve the problems of the present. But the future contains ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ — it is not ‘going to heaven’.
Jesus and the OT hope
When we come to the NT, this OT hope is alive and well, although the expectation of the resurrection has become much clearer.
So in Luke’s gospel, Mary rejoices that God has,
... helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers. (1:54-55)
The Song of Zechariah has this even more so:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Lk 1:68-75)
The difference that emerges focuses, naturally, on the person of Jesus, exemplified in the narrative surrounding the raising of Lazarus.
In John 11:11, Jesus announces, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” (In the same way, of course, deceased Christians are regarded as ‘asleep’.) This would sit entirely comfortably in an OT context.
Moreover, when Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” (11:23) she replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (11:24). Once again, there are no surprises here.
Belief in the resurrection is not as such the transforming message of Christianity. (In this, I think Tom Wright is mistaken. He seems to treat it as the transforming message, which it is not.)
But Jesus’s next words do bring in a new dimension:
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11:25-26)
The resurrection is now brought forward into the present and located in Jesus.
The resurrection life is no longer just a future hope! Like the kingdom itself, it is ‘at hand’. And secondly, Jesus is the life-giver.
Thus in 2 Corinthians 5:15 we read,
... if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
We are not ‘waiting to go to heaven’. We are already raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places.
The resurrection is not simply something lying in the future, but a state which affects the way we live in the present. Not least, it means our bodies matter to God. So in 1 Corinthians 6:13-14, when identifying and dealing with sexual immorality, Paul writes this:
The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.
The body matters to the Lord, therefore what we do with our bodies matters. He continues:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! (1 Cor 6:15)
Now it would have been much easier to say, “It is wrong to go to prostitutes” — and that would have been true. But Paul wants them (and us!) To understand exactly why it is wrong, not least because he has a general principle to apply in vv 19-20:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit ... Therefore honour God with your body.
The body is indeed a temple, not however for self-worship, but for the presence of God through which we serve him in the world.
A new life now
And this is where our Old Testament background should be informing our thinking, because the OT makes quite clear that this world, and justice and righteousness in this world, does matter to God, even though it is denied by our circumstances.
We might illustrate this via a famous statement of Thomas B MacCaulay, who wrote that,
The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. (The History of England, 1854, Vol 1)
That, however, was not true (indeed a relative of MacCaulay assured me that much of what he wrote was simply not true). Here are the words of an actual Puritan, Phillip Stubbes, writing in 1583:
What Christian heart can take pleasure to see one poor beast to rend, tear, and kill another, and all for his foolish pleasure? ... For, notwithstanding that they be evil to us, and thirst after our blood, yet are they good creatures in their own nature and kind, and made to set forth the glory and magnificence of the great God, and for our use; and therefore for his sake not to be abused. (The Anatomie of Abuses,1583)
That is just a small example, but we can surely multiply them. God’s reign over his people — albeit that it was expressed through the law — extended to every area of life, because life mattered and creation was important.
In the same way, Christ’s rule as king should extend into every area of our lives. The problem with ‘conveyor belt’ theology, whereby we are being carried through this world towards heaven, is that the impact of the coming kingdom has been lost.
We do not bring everything under Christ’s rule.
Life under Christ’s rule
By contrast, the NT church lived the resurrection life now. Listen to Colossians 3:1-17 and hear how it joins heaven and earth in practical daily living:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:1-17, NIV)
This is not to deny or diminish the importance of the fact that this world will one day end.
But it is to say that there is a continuity, as well as a discontinuity, between this world and the world to come, and that the present reign of Christ is to be expressed therefore in the lives of his people in this world.
Hence if our right hand offends us, we are to cut it off. Hence we are to call people to forsake false idols and serve the true and living God as we wait for his Son from heaven.
Eschatology is not some branch of theological theory. It is the heart and soul of our mission.
England now is even more desperately in need of conversion than in 1945 — and still we are discussing how to organize our own affairs.
When Christ does come, what will he have to say to you and to me? Let me close, if I may, with the words from the Prayer Book ordinal, which some of you will have heard at your ordination and which all of you should have in mind:
And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord's family; to seek for Christ's sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.
Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.
Let us pray.