Although I would be heckled off the podium at most Christian universities and even Reformed colleges if I began a speech with such a line, I still confess with all the conviction my heart can muster: “Heaven is still my hope. Heaven is still my home.”
As the year of our Lord 2014 begins, my prayer for you, readers of the Standard Bearer, is that you still hope for heaven, too.
We look to the future and embrace what our hearts are set on: heaven. As the world becomes increasingly wicked, we await with joyful anticipation our life in the presence of God and His saints—in heaven. As the church becomes more and more apostate, caring little for biblical righteousness and less for truth, we eagerly await heaven. As we become older, our thoughts more and more turn to our future home—to heaven and dwelling in eternity with God.
This is our hope.
But it’s the hope of fewer and fewer in Christendom.
Many readers of the SB live in a pretty small corner of the church world, but none should be naïve about what much of the church hopes for in 2014. And it’s not heaven. At least not the heaven we have always been taught.
Last week almost 3,000 people in our town gathered to hear N.T. Wright make fun of the traditional view of heaven. N.T. Wright is considered to be “the world’s leading New Testament scholar.” The gathering place was the building of Mars Hill, a mega-church “community” in Grandville, MI, where Rob Bell formerly was pastor. And the connection is not incidental. Sponsoring the lecture was Calvin Theological Seminary. Calvin was promoting a conference that would begin the next day—with Wright as headline speaker—on “A Missional Reading of Scripture.” Missional is the new buzzword for those who want heaven on earth (to be as blunt as possible), and that’s Wright’s primary agenda. He wants to convince his readers and hearers that heaven is here and now.
Wright’s books are wildly popular, especially among seminary professors and students, theologians on the cutting edge of modern theology. One of Wright’s most well-known disciples is Rob Bell, whose trendy 2011 book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, also redefined heaven and hell along the lines of N.T. Wright.
But Wright has other influential disciples. Cornerstone University and its related Theological Seminary have at least one professor who speaks similar language. Michael Wittmer wrote a 2004 book entitled, Heaven is a Place on Earth, tipping his hand in the opening line: “I don’t want to go to heaven.” He would like to go there for a visit, but he doesn’t think he could take too many rounds of “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” So he sides, Wittmer says without shame, with Huck Finn, who complained that heaven sounded boring and that if Tom Sawyer would not be there he didn’t want to be there either. As if that weren’t provocative enough for a Christian pastor, Wittmer’s next section title is a play on the wording of an old hymn, turning it on its head: “Heaven is Not My Home: I’ll Just be Passin’ Through.”
“Heaven is a place on earth” becomes the new but sad refrain of many Christians. Their hope, therefore, is not heaven as the dwelling place of God where Jesus ascended after His resurrection, but this earth as it has been gradually transformed. Heaven is a place on earth. The Kuyperian neo-Calvinists are on Wright’s same band-wagon because of their “transformationalist” worldview. This is why Calvin Theological Seminary would so enthusiastically embrace Wright, as well as make clear their common cause with Mars Hill. This is what it means to be “missional.”
After Wright’s speech, the headline of the denominational (on-line) news report was, “Writer Speaks of Heaven Being Here and Now.” The report’s conclusion noted the speech’s focus on the “hope of the unity God brings to this world…and not necessarily on the world to come” (emphasis added).
SB readers ought to know what N.T. Wright’s books teach. As his works are increasingly embraced and his views repeated in seminaries, so are his redefinitions of all the traditional theological terms. Justification, the judgment, redemption, faith, atonement, hope, heaven, and hell are all given new definitions, based in part on Wright’s “new perspective on Paul.” Paul did not teach what we have always thought.
Let me give a few more examples of what you will read and what students in these seminaries and many Christian colleges will be taught about heaven and our hope.
In Christianity Today Wright said, “The bodily resurrection [of Christ]…is our social and political mandate.” What’s important to him is going “straight from worshiping in the sanctuary to debating in the [city] council chamber; to discussing matters of town planning…green spaces, and road traffic schemes; and to environmental work, creative and healthy farming methods, and proper use of resources.” If heaven is here, this makes sense. Wright wants Christians to make “a radical difference in the material lives of people down the street.” To “eliminate hunger and famine” is the calling of Christians. So that no one misunderstands, he emphasizes that that is “not an extra to the mission of the church. It is central.”
One of Wright’s books, Surprised By Hope, says that Scripture does not say that we will “go to heaven when we die,” but that heaven will come to earth and that the earth upon which we live will be transformed. “Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like.” Thus, the twenty-four elders casting their crowns before the throne “is not a picture of the last day, with all the redeemed in heaven at last.”
One of the most amazing statements Wright makes is a blatant misquotation of the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Read that again. Wright does not reveal that he is misquoting the Lord, twisting His words to fit his own agenda. He only says, “That remains one of the most powerful and revolutionary sentences we ever say.” Indeed. It makes me wonder whether it is one of the best “Freudian slips” since Freud, or a deliberate (and therefore evil) misquotation of the Word of God. The Lord taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What will biblical scholars do next to convince our children of their kingdom on this earth?
This New Year’s editorial is not the place to argue the case for the traditional view of heaven, to defend the historic Christian hope. Instead, I write to alert you to the heresy and its prevalence, and especially call us to renew, and not forget, our hope according to the Word of God.
Of course, those who teach that heaven is on earth point to weaknesses in the understanding of many about heaven. Also, as with all false teaching, those who teach that heaven is on earth include elements of truth in their proposals, and it’s worth pointing these out to highlight what our hopes ought to be.
First, heaven as our loved ones now experience it—glorious reality!—is not the ultimate and final hope of the people of God. These saints now live temporarily in what the church has usually called the “intermediate state,” the state of a man’s soul between his death and the second coming of Jesus Christ. The ultimate hope of the people of God is after Jesus comes again and makes all things new. We must not forget this.
Yet the intermediate state of man’s soul—in the presence of God in heaven!!—is nothing to be laughed off as a tedious singing of unending rounds of “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” What utter blasphemy! (To caricature truth, however, is typical of those who propose error.) But truth is that people of God have been delighting in heaven for 6,000 years! They are delighting in heaven now. They are delighting in the presence of God without boredom! They live in the presence of their blessed Savior. This is a grand part of the hope of the people of God. Our Catechism confesses our hope that “…my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head.” And it confesses, “Our death is…a passage into eternal life.” No, that is not my only hope; but it is a vital aspect of my hope.
Second, our earthly bodies are important! The critics of our traditional hope accuse Christians of forgetting the importance of the body. Indeed, if we forget that God loves us in the body, that Jesus redeemed also our bodies, and that when Christ comes again He will resurrect these bodies, we make a serious mistake. There are two mistakes we can make with regard to our bodies: one is to idolize them; the other is to ignore and abuse them. Do we Reformed Christians, avoiding the error of making too much of our bodies, forget that they are temples of the Holy Spirit that must be cared for now? Do we, knowing that our bodies are going to be buried soon and that without them we will enjoy the glory of heaven, not think enough of the importance of our bodies?
It’s not an unimportant aside to say that, if the trend not to attend funerals is a bad trend, not going to the graveside for an honorable Christian burial is also regrettable. There, Christians gather to remember the confession we make every Sunday, “I believe the resurrection of the body.”
Third, the earth is important. If the critics of the traditional hope expose in us a neglect of this earthly creation, they have exposed in us a serious error. Reformed Christians ought to be the most earnest environmentalists (although for radically different reasons than the secular, green, tree-huggers). But our hope is not the transformation of this earth by earthly or even spiritual means. It is the transformation of heaven and earth into one at the second coming of Jesus Christ…after this present earth’s destruction.
Fourth, we do have some of heaven, already now. Although Wittmer is wrong to deny that the twenty-four elders surround the throne of God in heaven, there is truth in saying that these elders, representing the church, already now engage in this heavenly worship of God on earth. In Christ, old things have passed away, and all things have become new. Because of what Jesus has done in His first coming, it is even possible to say that we now “sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (; see also ). So when the old saints lament when a younger “old saint” passes away that God did not take them yet, let them keep in mind the reality of heavenly life that is theirs presently! What great riches we have even now. And we will have them throughout all of A.D. 2014 if the Lord does not take us home this year.
All these reminders are important to keep our hopes focused as well as full.
But the deep error of those whose hopes have gone off track is to ignore the truth that Jesus is coming again—physically and bodily, as He ascended (). Coming again for judgment. Coming again to redeem His earthly creation. Coming to resurrect those who fell asleep in Him and to change their bodies into heavenly bodies just as He changed their souls into heavenly souls when they died ( !). Coming soon.
This earth will be destroyed. It is not salvageable by man. The political machines of the world will
not be Christianized. The court systems of this world will not mete out justice, but more and more promote wickedness and condemn the godly. And when the cup of iniquity has been filled and the people of God are persecuted for standing for truth, then believers will cry out more than they do now, “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly! Rend the heavens, and come down! Deliver us from our adversaries! And justify Thyself before all those who have rejected Thee.”
The hymn was right: This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.
In 2014, our hope is still heaven.