Monday, December 12, 2005

Antithesis #3: Nobody’s Spending Eternity in Heaven

If I may steal and rehabilitate a tired Gnostic platitude: “Heaven is not your home. God has something much better in mind.”

That’s right. I went there.

Genesis says that in the beginning, the Lord God created the physical cosmos. And that it was good. Every bit of it, part by part, carried the pronouncement from God that it was good. The Lord God planted a garden and created people (after God’s likeness!) to work in it. It was good. Good, good, good. This was and remains an affirmation of Creation and physical existence.

The story of the Fall is a theological statement about the created order. The entire Creation, and the relationships that it was meant to support, are now disordered. The human condition is extremely disordered and idolatrous. That doesn’t make the original idea of the Creation bad, and it certainly doesn’t make physical existence a bad thing. Only in Gnostic Duality (see the Johannine Epistles) and Rapture theology (you heard me) do we find the notion that a platonic, nonphysical, “spiritual” existence is good, and that physical life, grounded in a theology of the body and the making of people in the image of God is somehow inherently bad. To deny the goodness of creation and physicality as such is deeply blasphemous from the biblical standpoint, for it holds that the goodness of God is expressed in the Creation. In addition, God’s plan for salvation is a reaffirmation and restoration of the good work of Creation, and the good relationships that were meant to exist in it. Go read Romans 8, Paul says this is what Creation itself is waiting for: the completion of salvation. And so are we.

Salvation is not about heaven as some kind of “final destination.” Heaven is the “place” where the Reign of God is complete, and in John’s apocalyptic vision at the end of the New Testament we see a city that exists in a renewed heaven and earth. Life is physical, life is real, and life is spiritual. Those ideas are not mutually exclusive, but are rather in separable where God reigns.

Salvation is not limited to an overused courtroom metaphor. Salvation is God’s restoration of relationships and the restoration of the Creation to wholeness. In the Kingdom, those at enmity begin to love. The Church is the community that springs from this Kingdom work, and it is that re-creation and restoration into which we seek to live.

Resurrection is not a sequel to death, a second non-physical life that takes place in another dimension. Resurrection is the reversal of death – all death – in this physical world. This will happen when the vindicated and exalted Christ returns from that “Place” where God reigns to fully consummate the reign that we find sneaking into our lives here and now.

Nobody knows what happens when a person dies, but the Christian hope is that now and then we are waiting for God to raise us up like he raised up Jesus.

See also "Debunking the Rapture" and my little Rapture fantasy from last spring.


naak said...

How many times I have heard preachers speak on the subject of heaven and how we will live with God for eternity up there in the cosmos singing praise to His name. Yet the Scripture dont agree with that at all. It speaks of a time when we will return with Christ to this place and rule with Him. This will be untill the heaven and earth pass away and a new heaven and a new earth will come and the holy city will come down out of heaven. And in the holy city there will be no temple because the Lord God Almight and the Lamb of God will be its temple. We are not created to float in heaven with wings, but rather to live on earth and do as we have for thousands of years. The only difference is that we will be subject to the completed work of salvation (glorification) and therefore be with out sin to do us harm. To me that is a lot more exciting then growing some wings and floating about heaven singing.

Kyle said...

Right! I'm glad somebody else is reading the back of the book! ;0)

rawbbie said...

I had been thinking of this lately. If you listen to christian radio, then you'll hear plenty of songs that are sung to the tune of "this world has nothing for me." I disagree with that and you hit the nail right on the head: it's gnosticism. Creation is good, it's still good, and will get better and better.

theyoungstag said...

care to juxtapose these ideas with that of jehovah's witnesses? Sounds quite similar and I'm guessing I'm misunderstanding considering other posts I have found here.

Kyle said...

Sorry dude, I don't know a thing about the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Expax said...

Don't the JWs believe in a realized millinium? That God's kingdom comes to this earth? Don't they kind of distort the idea of a new creation just a bit? Sorry I am only familiar with the JWs passingly.

Will said...

Right on, Kyle.
Mouw's book When Kings Come Marching In talks about this in a very good way. God is about redeeming the created order, not obliterating it in favor of something else.

Following on this, the whole idea of a rapture is a bit odd as well. The biblical language in Thessalonians speaks of us meeting Jesus in the air and escorting him to Earth as was/is done for political leaders when they arrive in a nation.

God is coming back here to set things right and establish his reign here with a gigantic city (sort of Borg-looking) teeming with life as the capital.

Kyle said...

Niiice... like the Borg analogy. Creepy, but perhaps apt.

Anonymous said...

My friend Caryn Miles gave me a link to your website. You seem energized, knowledgeable, zealous, and young.

While I substantially agree with your series on "casting down strongholds", I detect in them a kind of one-side-onlyism that springs from youthful zeal, and which can result in one's own brand of fundamentalism down the road, if you are not careful.

Lewis says that when the Devil sends deception into the world, he does so in pairs, so that by avoiding the one you fall into the other. In casting down these strongholds, are you not laying the foundation for building new strongholds? You say you are preparing for pastoral ministry. What kind of foundation are you laying for that ministry? Will you build people on the foundation of Christ, or on the foundation of the issues that are near and dear to you?

Let me illustrate:

First, you say "Jesus Christ Does Not Want to Come Into Your Heart and Live." While it is true that an entire conversion theology built on Revelation 3:20 is dubious at best, and idolatrously self-centered at worst, I do not think it merits the "either-or" of your post. EITHER Christ is outside of us, present mainly in the Church, and we must join the Church via Baptism to join Him OR Christ is inside us, our personal love-slave, sent to give us sappy spiritual feelings of warmth.

That is a false dichotomy. It is not either-or, but both-and. Let us take for granted that I agree with you about salvation being found "in Christ" (which I do). But let us also remember all of the many and varied Scriptures about Christ in us, and the Spirit in us, and overflowing with living water from our bowels, and such as that. Let us remember the prayer of Paul in Ephesians 3 about God in us. Let us remember the ancient and venerable idea of salvation as theosis / deification / union with God through Christ via the Holy Spirit.

Salvation is an objective, external relationship with Christ mediated through the Church and her sacraments. Salvation is an internal, subjective relationship with Christ, received by faith and repentance, by the Spirit working within us. There is no contradiction, but rather a completion, implied by these two ideas. Rejecting either side is dishonoring to God.

If one leaves the matter as you do on your blog, or (God-forbid) preaches such a truncated view of the Gospel, then your hearers will logically fall into a dead sort of automatic ritualism, in which one goes through the motions of outward compliance to the formalities and sacraments of the Church, but does not have a living and vibrant faith. Yes, I agree, the practical errors of subjective evangelicalism are every bit as bad as automatic ritualism, but both are twin errors that makes the devil smile.

Second, you say "Jesus Christ Is Not My Personal Lord and Savior. Or Yours." Again, I have similar comments here as above, since your complaints stem from the same concerns. But, saying that Jesus is the Lord of All, and Jesus is my personal Lord, do not contradict, but complete each other.

Is not the same Christ who will "come again in glory to judge the living and the dead" and whose "Kingdom will not end", ALSO the same Christ who walked, ate, drank, sweated, slept, and talked with His disciples, one on one, one on two, and one on twelve.

Again, I agree with you that as an evangelical culture we have hyper-subjectivized the personal nature of our relationship with Christ to the point that He becomes a cuddly stuffed savior to pull out of our pockets when we feel blue. Yet, does not your opposite view lead to an equally unhealthy relationship with Christ?

If one follows your logic to its logical extreme, Jesus becomes a remote, unapproachable, utterly transcendent Lord of judgment who has to be placated by doing the right rituals. The hunger for the immanence of God will eventually lead to a cult of the saints in which the saints, not Christ, become our functional mediators of God. Furthermore, to put Jesus far away as merely the Lord of All and not the Lord of me is to conflate and damage the differences in role between the Father and the Son.

The only way to avoid extremes on either side is to hold both in creative tension. Anything less, and the devil has a field day.

Finally, you say "Nobody's Spending Eternity in Heaven." Agreed. It leads to "pie in the sky" spirituality, and rape-and-pillage environmental stewardship. Gotcha. But leaving it that way leads to insecurity about the purpose and destiny of life.

You can't spout that kind of stuff and not immediately say where we WILL spend eternity. People need hope and purpose, because God made us for hope and purpose. No matter what your theology classes may tell you, people are very much concerned about themselves and their loved ones after this life is over. They want to know- need to know- that it will all be good in the end.

I have an inkling that you probably agree with me on these things, because you seem fairly bright. But, you seem young and steeped in academia right now. Academia is a skewed microcosm of the actual world, where people have the time and the predisposition to pursue ideas, and not have to worry about "inconsequential" things like kids in trouble with the law, or bankruptcy, or suicide, or the mortgage.

Oh yeah, I am not speaking as a bitter anti-intellectual. I say this as a full time student at Perkins School of theology with a 3.9 GPA, who also is a full time minister and a full time husband and dad.

Are you ministering anywhere on a regular basis right now? The perfect cure for the myopia of seminary is to actually be involved in regular ministry with real folk. No, not volunteer projects where you go out once a month and help a new group of folks that you will probably never see again. Ministry as a preacher, teacher, Sunday school leader, counselor, social worker, or something else where you encounter the same people week-in and week-out and have some ownership in their spiritual growth.

It is my firm belief that theology that will not preach is not good theology. Good theology is only that which edifies and makes healthy the Body it is intended to feed. On your theological journey, may Lord of theology keep you balanced and healthy, and bring you to recognize all of the treasures he has hidden among his people, whether they are anglo-catholic, evangelical, pentecostal, or even liberal.

May Christ fill your life,

Nate Bostian

Kyle said...

One-side-onlyism? Your initial point is well-taken, though I thought I'd stated at the beginning that hoped to be constructing something from the foundation of Christ instead of merely setting myself against something bad. Anybody, after all, can do that. I attempted argue for these other views on their own terms, rather than on the basis that "the other thing is bad." Otherwise, I'd just be saying, "The rapture sucks! It's stupid!" Or something like that.

Regarding "Jesus in my heart" - I did acknowledge the slim biblical basis for such phrasing, while criticizing the construction of an entire soteriology on that with little reference to other, more helpful metaphors. There was no dictomomy presented in that post, false or otherwise.

I wonder if you read the comments on that post (mind you, not everybody does)? I thought my stance had moderated somewhat, or at least got more nuanced. If, however, it is too extreme (in your view) simply to say that "Heaven is temporary, 'Ask Jesus in my heart' is biblically unsupportable, and that 'personal lord and savior' is problematic at best," I don't think we'll see much common ground. Arguing that a position is "too extreme" is a very subjective claim.

I think we need a whole lot more than a cliche like "ask Jesus into my heart" to keep us from empty ritualism. I never denied (nor do I now) the necessity of a warm, heart-felt religious committment to Jesus that could be described as deeply personal, and regarding your argument that I have essentially impersonalized Jesus by speaking of him as "utterly transcendent," I recommend you read the last paragraph again:

"I think we would be far better off to talk about the Ruler and Savior of the world who loves us collectively and also knows us as individual personalities whom he adores. In turn, we offer our total allegiance and seek to love him with reckless, embarrassing abandon."

You may argue (should you wish) that my language didn't do what I meant for it to do, but I chose those words very carefully.

And I did say where we will spend eternity.

Finally, I'll take your last four paragraphs in the Spirit in which I think they were intended. People don't write that long unless it's quite well-meaning or a rant of some kind.

I don't claim your (stereotypical!) characterization of "academia" for me or my college. My classmates and tutors are all (down to the person) men and women who have served in parishes for years. As for your other questions about involvement in parish life, you might read absolutely anything I've ever posted on this blog for your answers.

And if you re-read my initial post, you'll note my claim that this whole series emerged out of pastoral and fraternal relationships I've had with others in the Christian Community over the course of several years.


Anonymous said...

Kyle. Admire your restaint on that last comment. Not bad for such a youth! St. Timothy would be proud.

A big thumbs up to you.

Kyle said...

Thanks, Tom. I like to think I've not been burying my head in the Office for nothing...!

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Thanks for the reply...

About your active involvement in ministry, I could tell that you are part of a local parish where you are at, and apparently were involved in a position that you left on or around April 1, 2004... But I could not tell if you were currently involved in the spiritual formation of others. There is a big difference in being a member and being a leader in a local parish- the difference in the level of responsibility from that of the role of "sibling" in Christ versus the responsibility of being a "parent".

I am in academia, and can tell a difference "to a person" who is doing theology for the edification of the faithful versus those doing it for solely intellectual reasons disconnected from the Church. Theology done in the vacuum of academia has wreaked havoc on the Church since the Enlightenment. I wrote my comments in hopes that you would theologize in the context of being a "pastor-theologian". If it offended you, I am sorry.

I do not deny that there is some balance in your posts, and you are not completely "one-side-only". But, yes, the wording and the thrust of your articles is highly imbalanced. If you were aiming at balance, it is not evident in your wording, no matter what your intent may have been.

You can blame your readers for not "getting" what you write. You can blame me for being too subjective. I have done that before. It doesn't work. Or you can try to communicate better. I can tell you which will work better from a pulpit or a parish newsletter.

And furthermore, I do not think it is merely my own subjectivity that would lead me to accuse you of one-side-onlyism:

1. In your article de-bunking "Jesus in your heart" you state that there is only "one occurrence" from St. Paul that could lend credence to the idea that Christ enters into us, while there is a virtual mountain of evidence that salvation is rather a type of immersion "in Christ". You state that "any individualistic language in religion is inherently anti-Christian". And further you state that "Feeling" is "purely optional".

I think you way overstate the case here. Not only are there the Johanine references to the spirit residing in us as "another counselor", and flowing from us as "living water", but there are also Pauline usages such as Eph 3, Rom 8, and Gal 2:20 where Christ is said to dwell in us via His Spirit. If individualistic language is anti-Christian, then how come so many medieval mystics spoke of union in personal terms, not to mention the Scriptures where Paul speaks of personal experiences in Christ (cf. 2Co 12), not to mention books like Revelation where the author constantly speaks in terms of I, me, my (1st person singular) spiritual experiences. Finally, I think you would be hard pressed to argue that "feelings" were not a normative part of the Church of Acts, nor of the vibrant Church of any age. Repeatedly, we are exhorted that normative life in Christ yields joy and love.

If the whole point of the article was to state that we should think of salvation "in Christ" as communal and not governed by emotional experiences, then I agree with you. But, objectively, that is not what your article was saying (no matter what you may have meant to say). Objectively, your article decimated any conception of salvation that includes the entering of Christ's life into us as individuals, accompanied by emotional experience.

2. I will admit that my critique of your article on Jesus as "personal" Savior did not take into account a two very important sentences in which you state that we can have a "friendship with God" through Christ who "knows us as individual personalities whom he adores". I agree that Jesus is not, and will never be, "personal" if by "personal" we mean something to "serve our own individual needs as we understand them and wish to have those needs met". Yet, at the end of the article you advise that we jettison "personal savior" language (which I agree with), but you do not advise any terminology to replace it which conveys the personal nature of our relationship with Him. Non-personal language is fine for most liturgical usage, but what do you advocate when someone speaks of their own life in Jesus? Furthermore, if you were striving for balance, why only spend two sentences out of twenty in this article to advocate for the individual aspect of our relationship with Christ?

3. And actually, in your heaven article you never actually say where anyone spends eternity. In fact, the only place that "eternity" is used in the article is in the title, where it says that "nobody's spending eternity in heaven". You hint at eternity being the result of resurrection and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, but you do not directly state it. You article ends with "Nobody knows what happens when a person dies, but the Christian hope is that now and then we are waiting for God to raise us up like he raised up Jesus." While I agree with that statement, is this how you would phrase it to a child who has lost their grandfather or a husband that has just lost his wife? Is this type of ambiguity how St. Paul stated it to the Corinthians or the Thessalonians?

So, yes, although I agree with the core of your articles, I can objectively say that they came out imbalanced (no matter how you may have intended them).

The base concern for my critique of imbalance was two-fold:

First, for someone who claims evangelical roots in the SBC, and charismatic experience, I would hate to see you jettison it all because of the wonderful thing you have found in anglo-catholicism. This would be to substitute one narrow view of the Christian life with another narrow view. Yet, that is how your articles came off to me.

Second, for someone who wants to be ordained to the presbyteriate, I felt your posts objectively demonstrated imbalance that was unbecoming. Furthermore, your defense of being balanced when, in fact, your articles are objectively imbalanced, makes me worry even more. It would have been one thing for you to say "I was intentionally being one-sided and polemical to make a point". It is quite another for you to protest that you "chose those words very carefully" and were balanced when you actually were not.

I agree that you "stated at the beginning that [you] hoped to be constructing something from the foundation of Christ instead of merely setting myself against something bad".

That was why I was so surprised when you didn't seem to do it. I was expecting a witty balance to be struck between Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism. All I found was an Anglo-Catholic rant against Evangelicalism. I'm sorry if I expected too much. Or did I?

If I were you, I might re-write the articles to more accurately reflect your catholicity and balance. Or, you may choose to just be pissed off and dismiss what I have said. Either way, sorry if I upset you.

Anonymous said...

And by the way...

I am also sorry about the comments about your age. I guess I am sick and tired of people at my own seminary who are too young, who have no life experience, no ministerial experience, who come out of undergrad and think they are theological experts because they have learned words like praxis, exegesis, and eschatology. They talk about how difficult their lives are, how deep their thoughts are, and how naïve the lay people are, and yet they have neither a family nor kids nor a steady job.

Quite frankly, I have found a great deal of the seminary experience to be a great big bullshit session using polysyllabic words and citing European authorities to make one's bullshit sound less like bullshit. If life at Oxford is quite different, I applaud both you and the school.

So, I am sorry about the youth comment. I am sure you are not like that at all, and I have no place to lay that on you. So, to the extent that my comments toward you were unjustified, I am deeply sorry. Please forgive me.

Kyle said...

Amazing. I'll answer a few of these:

The purpose of my degree program is formation as a pastor-theologian. My purpose is formation as a pastor-theologian.

I think your definition of "balance" would preclude anyone holding to any argument at all. I'm not sure what you think "balance" is, but I don't consider it to be a cardinal virtue.

"Individual" and "individualistic" are different words with different meanings and connotations. I stand by what I have written. Further, I have not and do not advocate the use of "non-personal" or impersonal language for one's relationship with God in any context.

If you require "terminology," feel free to invent it. This is a blog, not a volume of systematic theology. I have intentionally neglected to trail off into arrogant pontifications as to what "should" be said about everything in every pastoral circumstance.

I have always affirmed my evangelical roots and charismatic experience. I only use labels in a tongue-in-cheek fashion anyway; that being said, I do consider myself an evangelical Christian. You're free to consider any of this ranting if you wish. You don't know me. It really doesn't matter to me what you consider to be "becoming" to a presbyterial vocation.

And yeah, you project your seminary experiences on me. My fears of ending up in such an environment played a role in my decision not to take an M.Div. And just because you've taken a wife, held a "ministry" job and had a kid or two doesn't mean you have things anymore wired than the seminarians you look down upon.

You make a lot of judgments for being just some guy who happened across my blog.

I try to be polite to my readers, but this exchange is sounding awfully adversarial.

Anonymous said...

If we die and are just waiting for God to raise us from the dead, then what does this whole dialogue mean?

(NIV) Luke 23:39-43, [One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."]

What is this "paradise," if not heaven?

Kyle said...

I don't challenge the existance of this "paradise" and whatever Jesus meant by it, but going to be with God in an "other-worldly" realm is a temporary situation.

Those who die in Christ, according to Paul, will be "with Christ," and "asleep in Christ," but this isn't a permanent thing, as the dead await resurrection.

Anonymous said...


Take note of what Nate said and quit being so defensive, he's absolutely right on his analogy of your blog. Doesn't God want ministers to be "humble" servants? It seems our schools are filled with grad students more interested in trying to change the direction of the Church then to submit to the discipline of the scriptures. The attitude seems to be an earthly view of our lives instead of a spiritual view. Meaning, we died to this world as Christians so our home isn't here, so let's stop arguing as if we're going to live on this earth forever, but prepare ourselves for what's to come.

Kyle said...

Change the direction of which Church? I'm in a Church, and I'm cool with it's direction. As far as I'm concerned my work as a pastoral theologian is about keeping the Church attached to its ancient moorings.

All of the language I'm talking about in the Christian cliches posts are innovations of this particular culture in the last hundred years or so. Except for that heaven thing. People left scripture behind long ago in talking about heaven.

Oh, and go to the dictionary. Look up "analogy." Feel silly. Go away a more clever person.

And yes, I plan on living on this earth forever. That was kind of the point.

Almost as a rule, I delete unsigned comments. Use a name next time, or I will.


Bo said...

Nate and Kyle- What a great dialogue!! Each having insightful opinions and deconstructions, both a bit heavy and defensive and yet, both passionately constructing/deconstructing God-language.

I hope you two work out your differences and maybe team up for other discussions (honestly though, frayed nerves may prevent that). But thanks Kyle for your honesty and "putting it out here". I can feel a bit of Spong in your words and, a hearty evangelistic theology.

And Nate, your critique was good- you articulated some of my own thoughts about Kyle's rant that I found present.

I am a pastor in a UCC church in New Jersey. Both of you have given me much to mull over as I too, continue to wrestle with those pesky Christian phrases and platitudes that, when taken for granted, may lose their meaning. Thanks again!

byron smith said...

Thanks for the post Kyle. In my ignorant youth I also feel that much of the 'heaven' language is not about pastoral sensitivity, it is a capitulation to a pagan worldview. I'm just finished a series on it.

I too found the exchange fascinating - I realise it was a long time ago now, but I'd love to hear if you have any further reflections on it from some more distance.

James Church said...

as always I sympathise with your view- and I have argued the same thing many times myself (but not so elegantly) but then again I am not as confident as you are. I understand the whole resurrection of the body (against Gnosticism). I think that it is important to emphasis that the kingdom of heaven is breaking into earth, rather than earth breaking into heaven (what a horrible thought). However, I wonder how we read texts and creeds that suggest Jesus ‘descended into hell or the realm of the dead’ or that ‘there was a loud earth quake and the dead rose up from their graves and went into the city’ etc. in other words (dare I say it as an evangelical) does the bible have a single clear and coherent picture of eschatology?

I remain confident that there are better people out there than me who can explain these issues. If it was clear that God required me to study this subject (I would) but I am to busy focusing on other things and so I trust the rest of the Christian community with these deep questions.