I saw this Time Magazine article today at https://time.com/5743505/new-testament-heaven/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the-brief&utm_content=20191230&xid=newsletter-brief.
Some excerpts are included below, but I recommend reading the entire article. It points out for us again that we always need to be mindful of the scriptural authors’ world view at the time they were writing. It is too easy for us to superimpose modern day theological ideas on what those authors actually intended.
“To understand what the first followers of Jesus believed about what happens after death, we need to read the New Testament in its own world — the world of Jewish hope, of Roman imperialism and of Greek thought.”
“The followers of the Jesus-movement that grew up in that complex environment saw “heaven” and “earth” — God’s space and ours, if you like — as the twin halves of God’s good creation. Rather than rescuing people from the latter in order to reach the former, the creator God would finally bring heaven and earth together in a great act of new creation, completing the original creative purpose by healing the entire cosmos of its ancient ills. They believed that God would then raise his people from the dead, to share in — and, indeed, to share his stewardship over — this rescued and renewed creation. And they believed all this because of Jesus.”
“The scriptures always promised that when the life of heaven came to earth through the work of Israel’s Messiah, the weak and the vulnerable would receive special care and protection, and the desert would blossom like the rose. Care for the poor and the planet then becomes central, not peripheral, for those who intend to live in faith and hope, by the Spirit, between the resurrection of Jesus and the coming renewal of all things.”
There are times when our thoughts naturally turn to heaven. The recent Easter season is one of those times, as we are reminded of the resurrection and our hope of eternal life. We also tend to think about heaven a great deal whenever a loved one passes from this life. We wonder what they are experiencing in their new spiritual home, and we take great comfort in our faith that their soul lives on in the presence of the Lord.
Of course, we actually know very little about heaven. And we aren’t sure if what we do know is literal or metaphorical. Such has been the case every since Jesus said he was going there to prepare a place for us. Concepts of heaven have changed over the centuries, and they often reflect the culture and needs of believers at the time.
The cover story in the April 16, 2012, issue of Time Magazine is “Rethinking Heaven”. I recommend that you read it. Readers are not likely to agree with all that is included there, but the article includes much to learn and ponder. It points out that “In earliest Christianity, the understanding of life after death was, like so much else in the young faith, the product of both classical pagan and Jewish thought and custom.” It goes on to explain that many of today’s concepts of heaven and hell originated in the art and literature of the middle ages. I was also struck by the author’s statement that “In the more prosperous 20th century, heaven became a kind of glorious Disney World … a place where the redeemed were rewarded with the type of riches they had sought in life.” Christian views of heaven have evolved over the years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are any more accurate or meaningful today than they were in the first century.
I remember hearing a phrase when I was growing up in the church: “He is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good.” I know that this sentiment isn’t necessarily Biblical, but we all know what it means. N. T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop wrote that “Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like.” Whatever we may imagine heaven to be, we need to remember that heaven is where God is now, the earth is where we are now, and the two overlap and interlock according to God’s design and plan.