This past Christmas season, like every Christmas season, we were surrounded by images of heaven. You were sure to see floating cherubim amongst the clouds, playing harps and trumpets in a heavenly realm that is separated from the earth. 81 percent of Americans believe in heaven, according to the most recent Gallup polls, and I suspect that this image is something like the one most Americans have in mind when they affirm their belief in heaven. The problem? This image bears little resemblance to the Biblical teaching on heaven. A great tragedy of American Christianity is that we have taken the characters and plot of the Bible and superimposed them onto a new set of places, leaving the Biblical story not only unrecognizable, but disjointed and impotent.
In Heaven in the American Imagination, historian Gary Scott Smith explains that contemporary popular depictions of heaven present it “as a site for achieving self-understanding, an entertainment center, and a place of personal happiness as much as a realm for worshipping and serving God.” Many Christians readily lament this misconception of heaven as a place intended for our fulfillment; one can only laugh at Stephen Colbert’s brilliantly ironic description: “Well, God’s there, but He’s like mom and dad upstairs. We’re playing in the basement, we know He’s there and everything is safe because He’s there, but He leaves us alone.” Against this kind of thinking, there has rightfully been a push within American Christianity to recall that whatever heaven is like, God must be at the center of it.
Nevertheless, our understanding of the afterlife remains extremely limited. Though we’ve emphasized the right character in the story, American Christians still tend to have a very otherworldly interpretation of its setting. But setting matters, and how we understand the setting of the Bible has real practical implications for how average Christians place themselves in relationship to the world. Philosopher Stephen Crites has written that, “stories, and the symbolic worlds they project, are not like monuments that men behold, but like dwelling-places. People live in them.” Theology is one type of story that people use to understand the world; it offers a guiding narrative into which individuals fit themselves as they go through life. When the theology is bad—when the setting of the story is wrong—then people are living in the wrong sort of story. Or, as southern novelist Eudora Welty put it, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art,” she writes, “if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” When our theology distorts the setting of our story, the tale becomes unrecognizable and we begin living in profoundly false symbolic worlds.
Because of their deep misreading of the setting of the afterlife, American Christians dwell in these misguided symbolic worlds. We envision a spiritual realm utterly distinct from our current world, a heaven and hell both isolated from the earth and capable of existing once the earth is destroyed in the End Times. The setting of the afterlife is divorced from the setting of our present life. It’s hard to pinpoint a perfect example of the error, because it is so widespread in our culture that it infects all our language about death and heaven. Every conversation that answers the question, “What happens to me when I die?” with a simple, “You go to heaven,” is evidence of the problem. This understanding of the afterlife is a defective one, and the consequences of this misunderstanding for the witness of the church have been drastic.
N.T. Wright, one of the world’s finest academics and New Testament scholars, corrects these misunderstandings about the setting of the Biblical narrative in his popular book Surprised by Hope. Wright explains, “The early Christian future hope centered firmly on resurrection. The first Christians did not simply believe in life after death; they virtually never spoke of simply going to heaven when they died… the early Christians hold firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world” (emphasis added). In Wright’s conception of the afterlife (or as he puts it, “life after life after death”), the earth becomes the primary setting of the story. To unpack and understand this position, we have to understand the overarching narrative arc of the Bible, which has been largely lost in the confusion of our discourse about heaven.
The key to understanding this grand narrative is found in the first three and the last three chapters of the Bible. In Genesis 1-3, God creates the world and declares it all to be “good.” He creates man and woman, who enjoy the Beatific Vision—being in the very presence of God—and are made to be stewards over the earth. And as we all well remember, they eventually eat the forbidden fruit, egged on by the serpent, and lose the privilege of being in God’s company. The setting is earth, wonderfully created by God, but now cruelly ruled over by Satan.
In Revelation 20-22, Jesus Christ defeats Satan, the dead face judgment, and God forms the new heaven and new earth. The church is presented as Christ’s bride, and God dwells with mankind once more in the New Jerusalem, a city that comes down with a river of eternal life flowing through its streets. Mankind’s story is still set on earth, but God has redeemed it, ruling over it from His heavenly kingdom, as it was always intended to be. The NIV translation hints at the connection between the introduction and conclusion of the Bible, titling Revelation 22:1-5 as “Eden Restored.” The end of the story is not the abandonment of God’s good creation turned wrong, but the redemption and restoration of it—to become even more abundantly beautiful.
In between these bookends, God sends his own son in the form of man, Jesus Christ, to accomplish this task of redemption by dying on the cross for mankind’s sin. Three days later, he defeats death through his resurrection from the grave. The centerpiece of Christianity is the cross and resurrection; St. Paul informs the Corinthians that if Christ was not raised, “your faith is in vain.” If heaven is simply a reward disconnected from God’s original creation, the role of the cross and resurrection seem entirely arbitrary. Why did God have to suffer and die as a man? Why was Christ resurrected instead of God simply offering a booming voice from the clouds to confirm that this man was indeed His son? This is, to me, the clearest evidence that our conversation about the afterlife is deeply flawed. In a correct understanding of the Biblical narrative, Jesus’ resurrection is not some strange event, unrelated to the forgiveness we experience in his sacrifice on the cross. Rather, it is both the evidence of his victory over death and the model of our own future hope.
Wendell Berry summarizes it nicely: “The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction. It says that they cannot be divided; that their mutuality, their unity, is inescapable; that they are not reconciled in division, but in harmony. What else can be meant by the resurrection of the body?” In other words, in the grand narrative of scripture, our ultimate end isn’t escaping from a broken earth to some separate, heavenly realm. Rather, our afterlife is set in a broken earth, redeemed as God’s kingdom comes here as it is in heaven. Metaphysically hazy souls do not float among the clouds but re-inhabit real, physically resurrected bodies on a restored earth.
Before I read Surprised by Hope, the grand narrative of the Bible made little sense to me; I failed to grasp the whole sweep of scripture. The story I had been taught had something to do with Genesis 3 (the fall that explained my guilt), and something to do with John 19 (when Jesus died because of my guilt), and somehow never got around to this stuff about a newly remade world.
Eden, the resurrection, and heaven: each idea seemed grand by itself, but my image of the Bible was fragmented. There was no overarching narrative unity to the story, because at the deepest level, there was no unifying setting. It was all about trading my disappointing setting on earth for a more fulfilling one in heaven. Yet when see the full picture of Creation (Eden), Fall (Disobedience), Redemption (Christ’s Death & Resurrection), and Restoration (Our Resurrection on Earth), all of a sudden the fragments come together in a beautiful mosaic that is even grander than the bits by themselves. The story is not that God is simply shaking clear the etch-a-sketch that His children have messed up or replacing the picture with another, but rather that He is delicately restoring a painting that we have ruined with the intent of making the original canvas even more glorious than before.
Tragically, most American Christians share the same theological limitations that Wright helped me see past: they have never appreciated the inherent connection between the resurrection as both past event and future hope, nor have they recognized the narrative unity between the beginning and conclusion of the Bible. The average parishioner, educated enough to attempt interpretation but not trained enough to do it well, can easily read into the text all of the bad theology they’ve been taught over the years.
Even notable Bible teachers, like Pat Robertson, have a poor understanding of the picture of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. He understands it as a depiction of heaven rather than earth, despite the text’s obvious statement that the city is “coming down out of heaven” to the earth. It’s no surprise, then, that American Christians who feel secure in their salvation as an escape from this earth are little invested in restoring it. They might offer community service and financial generosity in small pittances to relieve guilt, but they have no real incentive to fix the world they imagine will ultimately be destroyed.
The implications of properly understanding this redemptive story about creation are many: Christians have a great deal to contribute to the healing of the world as we strive to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Wright explains that “‘God’s kingdom’ and ‘kingdom of heaven’ mean the same thing: the sovereign rule of God (that is, the rule of heaven, of the one who lives in heaven), which according to Jesus was and is breaking in to the present world, to earth.” This is the way to understand that otherwise mysterious line in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The great joy of the Christian is getting to participate in this great campaign of sabotaging Satan, the ruler of this world, in service of the one true King who has returned. Our mission, then, is both to bring in new subjects, new soldiers in service of this King, and to be good stewards that help God’s kingdom to come.
This is radically different from popular conceptions of heaven, and it confounds all the pathologies that spring from our misunderstandings. The American Church is deeply individualistic, focused on the personal salvation of the individual’s soul to the exclusion of communal concerns and care for this world. An accurate view of the afterlife in which God’s kingdom finally reigns on earth as it is in heaven, and thus enjoins us to build up the kingdom even now, is a cure for these other problems. The call to serve a king to the point of death dismantles therapeutic notions of self-actualization, self-entertainment, and self-fulfillment.
It equally demolishes the common Christian conception that proselytization is our only proper goal. Street preachers will often say, “Your soul is the only thing that lasts,” to justify an exclusive focus on evangelism. If serving others enters into the equation, it generally takes the form of required works necessary to demonstrate true saving faith. Atheists rightly point out that if one only does good deeds because God requires it for salvation, then virtue is simply selfishness.
When heaven is a reward disconnected from the rest of creation, the incentive to help others is reduced to selfish motives. Yet if the story of salvation is not just for your benefit, but rather a message about the coming King pressing you into his service, then you are naturally compelled to serve others for God’s sake and not your own. The kingdom of God lasts forever and His purposes for mankind—stewardship over creation as was offered in Eden—are unchanging. In this framework, all of life falls under the purview of our king, and we should do all things in his name in a way that emphasizes his Lordship. This opens us up in a greater capacity to love our neighbor and to serve God.
Christians, then, should not long for escape from the broken world, but should delve deeper into it to work as God’s agents in bringing about restoration. As Wright explains, “the world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are taken, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the ‘now, already’ of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the ‘not yet.’” Often it is by engaging deeply in these communities that the gospel is most effectively shared.
Rodney Stark effectively argues in The Rise of Christianity that the Christian faith came to predominance in Rome in part because of the Romans’ willingness to minister to the sick during times of epidemic. Focusing on ways to restore the physical body often leads to spiritual conversion, which, in turn, promises bodily resurrection. As Julian the Apostate wrote about the 4th century Christians, “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.”
The world is deeply broken: sex-trafficking, educational inequality, the AIDS epidemic, starvation, marital breakdown, poverty, the burgeoning debt crisis, and more all point to the fact that the earth needs a great deal of fixing. The Christian solution must be to steward the gifts and opportunities that God has given us to begin this process of worldly restoration. According to theologian James K.A. Smith, this idea that, “God is not only interested in saving souls from the city but desires to see the flourishing of the city,” is present in Christian theology as early as Augustine. The good news is that there are Christians on the front line of this battle, fighting for human flourishing.
Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, cites his faith as the motivation to be with the most disadvantaged and explains the need for community involvement to improve the educational achievement gap. Christianity Today tells of a group of Christian friends who moved to Richmond to faithfully serve in an urban community there and decided to send their children to local public schools rather than withdrawing from the existing educational system. They answered a call to engage more deeply in their communities and to resist making education an idol. This level of engagement promotes human flourishing in a way that offers the gospel witness more richly than preaching alone.
Around the world, sex trafficking is a $32 billion dollar industry that exploits millions of men, women, and children. The International Justice Mission assists victims and prosecutes perpetrators, having secured the freedom of more than 1,000 girls and women held by force in the commercial sex trade, in addition to 4,000 forced labor slaves. IJM cites scripture as its primary motivation; Isaiah 1:17 commands, “Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Their work is an affirmation that Christianity is not simply deliverance when this life ends. Like light streaming through the blinds of a window, creating strong but discrete spots, so the kingdom of heaven streams slowly to earth.
Such stories demonstrate to the world that Christianity is deeply concerned with both the afterlife and the present life. They affirm a proper understanding of the setting in the Christian narrative by actively participating in the bringing of God’s heavenly kingdom to rule over the earth. Canada and other educational reformers are working to bring about the racial equality that will no doubt exist when all nations and tribes join together as brothers and sisters in Christ. IJM secures freedom for the oppressed in the present, modeling the ultimate freedom they will have when their present bodies are exchanged for imperishable ones. A proper understanding of the setting within the Biblical narrative encourages us to properly value and encourage such accomplishments.
Evangelicals often warn that Jesus will come like a thief in the night, so we must act urgently to ensure we are right with God and ready for being raptured away to heaven. They are right that our work is urgent, but they have failed to recognize that our goal is the redemption of the earth and not escape from it. When heaven becomes a place for our “escape,” when we conceive of heaven as our end destination rather than as another realm slowly breaking into our own, it’s no wonder that it soon becomes a location for us to avoid the imperfections, boredoms, and dissatisfactions of the current life.
In contrast, when we conceive of the earth as our home and heaven as how home ought to be, we are confronted with a calling. The implications of this calling are clear throughout scripture, from the stewardship in Eden to the communal life of the apostles in Acts. “Time has numbered our days,” and this should make us all the more diligent in playing what small role we may have in bringing God’s kingdom of heaven to reign over the earth. This is how we fulfill our purpose in the story that God has declared in the scriptures and woven into our lives.