What kind of future are we hoping for? What kind of everlasting future does the Bible offer to us? What was Jesus Himself looking ahead to?
The physical character of the Christian hope is totally different from all the human religions of the world.
In Robin Lane Fox’s book Pagans and Christians he appreciates how totally counter-cultural it was for Christians to actually believe in a bodily resurrection, in a culture that thought of the body as a low-grade container for the noble spirit. He records the incident when Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria in the mid-third century, has to sort out a particular view of the resurrection that was circulating in a small rural village. Alexandria was the intellectual centre of the world… equivalent to Harvard, Yale, London, Oxford and Cambridge all rolled into one. Dionysius could have spent his time conversing with some of the finest minds in the world, and yet he thought it important to deal with the future hope of those living in a little farming village.
A local church leader was proposing that the book of revelation taught that Christians would be resurrected for a 1000 years of hedonistic self-indulgence at the return of Christ. Dionysius describes the man as trying 'to lead them to hope for things which are trivial and corruptible.' For three whole days, from morning to evening, Dionysius took the arguments one by one and proved that they were unfounded, until finally everyone, including the guy who had started the idea, was convinced.
Robin Lane Fox recognizes the significance of this: 'This incident takes us far from the pagan cults and beliefs... Thinking pagans had worried more about the beginning of the world than about its possible end. There was no question of the body being resurrected: the facts were obvious to anyone who opened a grave and saw bare bones. There had been no three-day debates, no refutations of views which were "heretical". No pagan philosopher had travelled from his city to small townships in order to establish the meaning of Greek texts for local residents.'
The first generations of the followers of Jesus took the future very, very seriously. They wrote a lot about it. They talked about it all the time. They discussed it when they got together. They worked through Biblical teaching slowly and carefully. Their future hope seemed completely bizarre and illogical to the surrounding world, and yet they rejoiced in that physical hope of the future. They turned the world upside down and graciously gave their bodies to martyrdom for Jesus. What can we learn from them?
The significance of the primitive Christian hope is hard to miss – but it is not so easy to see it today. I recently came across a challenging comment: 'Modern Christians believe in only one resurrection, if at all, but not in resurrection as such. If a modern Christian is asked if they believe in the resurrection, they might talk about the empty tomb of Jesus – but it will rarely occur to them to think of the goal of redemption – the regeneration of all things.'
The Christian hope, in those first centuries, was a much more concrete and specific final hope than modern western Christians have been used to. It was considered appropriate then to spend days considering what kind of bodily life we were going to receive at the appearing of Jesus Christ. My experience today is that Christians think that there is nothing to discuss, that the Bible has nothing to say about the kind of bodily life we will live. Even mature Christians will say things like, 'Well, the future is mysterious… it will be nothing like anything we can think of… it will be a total surprise to us all.'
For example, 1 Corinthians 2:9 is sagaciously quoted…but not the whole of the quotation!
However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" - but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no-one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: "For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2: 9-16)
The physical future in Jesus could not be imagined by human speculation, but it has been revealed to us in the Scriptures.
That is why the early Christians spent so much time thinking about it.
This kind of a hope was not some small addendum hidden away at the end of a systematic theology – it was at the centre of the Christian life, sustaining and challenging Christian living in a pagan setting. Because of this hope, grounded in a specific seriousness about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, these Christians took on and out-lived, out-thought, out-wrote and out-died their flimsy pagan opponents.
This concrete ultimate hope has been replaced with intermediate hopes – that is, the grand vision of a renewed universe in which the LORD will come to dwell with His people whose bodies will have been made incorruptible – that grand vision has been generally diluted to hopes of the intermediate state in heaven and/or discussions about 'end-times' (raptures, milleniums, middle-eastern politics and European unions).
Justin Martyr (110-165) spends very little time on the intermediate state – the time when Christians are absent from their bodies but present with the LORD in paradise, the third heaven. This temporary waiting place, although a wonderful place – because it is in the immediate presence of the LORD with the Father – is nevertheless not the Christian hope at all. Justin Martyr mentions this intermediate state in passing only while he is discussing more important matters. However, Justin spends a significant amount of time, over and over again, emphasising the real Christian hope, which is the resurrection of the body in a redeemed universe. In fact, Justin regards it as a heresy to regard the soul’s temporary visit to heaven to be the Christian hope.
'There are some who are called Christians, but are actually godless, impious heretics, and they teach doctrines that are in every way blasphemous, atheistical, and foolish… For I choose to follow not men or men’s doctrines, but God and the doctrines [delivered] by Him. These who are called Christians, who venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven forever; do not imagine that they are Christians.'
Justin is not denying that we temporarily go to heaven while we await the appearing of Jesus – but he regards as heretical any attempt to invest this intermediate state with any final significance.
But, this same emphasis is evident in the Bible. The hope of Job is not to die and go to heaven, but rather it is the ultimate resurrection hope: 'I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!' (Job 19:25-27) Job is not interested in an intellectual beatific vision after death – no, he is yearning for the final hope, seeing God with real eyeballs in a solid body with real skin.
This resurrection hope receives the same focus throughout Paul’s epistles. In Romans 8, the great hope is the redemption of our bodies, which marks the redemption of the whole creation from its bondage to decay. The only occasion in which Paul gives any serious attention at all to our temporary absence from the body is the section of 2 Corinthians 5, where he is discussing our final clothing with the same body that Christ received when He was raised from the dead.
The great prophecies of Isaiah, looking forward to a renewed creation in which all the animals are vegetarian, are too often demythologized into an anaemic symbol of vague hope – rather than a concrete expectation of cosmic redemption. Jewish Christians understand the seriousness of such passages, whereas modern western Gentile Christians too quickly convert such language into symbols for something more intellectual and abstract.
There can be little doubt that some tragic twist has occurred in our theological heritage which has brought the side issue of briefly going to heaven into the centre-ground and has pushed the true Biblical hope out to the perimeter. It is not difficult to show that this has happened – though finding out why is something we can’t easily look at today, though I’m sure we all know the usual suspects.
I’m from a Primitive Methodist background, and we really love the greatest hymn book ever conceived – the Methodist Hymn book. However, even the great Charles Wesley sometimes falls into mistakes. Although the later verses are true to Revelation 21, yet the first verse of "Away with our sorrow and fear" reveals the problem:
Away with our sorrow and fear!
We soon shall recover our home,
The city of saints shall appear,
The day of eternity come:
From earth we shall quickly remove,
And mount to our native abode,
The house of our Father above,
The palace of angels and God.
Hymns are always a good guide to theological temperature, and according to that thermometer the Christian hope has become simply 'escaping from this world to go to the next, where we will remain forever.' The eschatology of these hymns does not lie in the future – it exists now in heaven. The final appearing of Christ doesn’t seem to perform any significant function at all – possibly apart from dealing with the devil.
John Mason Neale’s rendering of the great 12th century hymn begins:
Brief life is here our portion,
Brief sorrow, short-lived care;
The life that knows no ending,
The tearless life is there.
From the concrete, physical and cosmic hope of the Bible and the apostolic fathers, a sizeable section of Christian thought has been reduced to a straightforward Gnostic desire to be free of the body – to escape from the physical universe. The hope that the whole creation would be redeemed, is too often now simply a desire to 'be right with God' in merely abstract relational terms.
The excitement in the realisation that the resurrection of Jesus signalled that the kingdom of God would finally fill the universe, seems to have been replaced by something far less tangible and physical. Jurgen Moltmann’s comment is telling: 'As the realistic eschatology of the kingdom of God receded, heaven was increasingly declared to be the place of salvation for the soul. The prayer for the coming of the kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ was replaced by the longing ‘to go to heaven’ oneself. The kingdom of God’s glory and the salvation of the whole creation was reduced to heaven; and heaven was reduced to the salvation of the soul.'
Some statistics are interesting. In Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity, the resurrection hope is given 6 pages out of 316. The incomparable Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology devotes just 70 out of over 2000 pages to 'The Last Things', and even then, his ultimate hope is the redeemed of God glorifying Him away from the world in the throne room of heaven. In Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology the resurrection of the dead, the last judgement and the final state are all dealt with in 17 pages – out of 750. These statistics wouldn’t mean anything if the logic of the resurrection were written into the fabric of the theology – but this is not so. So much theology speaks as if the purpose of the Work of Christ were simply to grant our souls safe passage to the throne room of the Father. But, this effectively Gnostic gospel, fails to grasp the Biblical presentation of Creation, the cosmic Fall, and the cosmic redemption.
The creation account of Genesis 2, focusing on the creative activities of day three and six, brings us into the inner logic of the creation. The climax of creation is physical life on earth: not the heavenly creatures or even heaven itself. The creation was given purpose and movement. The creation was not supposed to simply temporarily exist while humanity gathered into a big crowd around the great white throne. No, the creation had a direction. Genesis 1:28-29; 2:4-17: when humanity was created, the LORD said, 'OK, here’s the creation, what can we do with it? What can we produce together here?' The creation of the world was the starting point for the world – and from that beginning the LORD pointed out a direction to travel in. He set this project in motion when He planted a garden.
Athenagoras of the 2nd century AD, argued that if we were created as bodily creatures in a physical world, then that is what the Father intended our lives to always be. If we do not have a bodily resurrection and if the physical world is not renewed, then the purpose of creation would have failed. 'The reason for man’s coming to be guarantees his resurrection, for without this he would not be permanent as man.' To become an immortal spirit in heaven is simply not human life as it was created by the Father.
In the Genesis account of creation, the LORD God shows that He has a future for the creation when He points out a direction for it and starts the process off. The earth didn’t have any horticultural development to begin with – but this engagement with the world is not left to humanity to initiate. The Lord God is the first One to use the potential of the creation when He plants a Garden for Himself. Why would He do this? What is He telling us about His plans for this glorious physical realm? Isn’t He getting ready to live here? Beginning the unfolding of the history of the universe with a very hands on project? Genesis 1:28 and 2:5 tell us that the world was not yet subdued. This is very important because it frees us from the romantic view of nature as something to be merely looked at – or, in fact, some versions of contemporary ecological thought that make the ecosystem something that we have no authority over.
No, the creation is something that is full of potential – well, considering the size of it, it has an everlastingly large amount of potential! And the LORD intends for us to explore what can be done in such a wonderful creation together. Eden was a cultivated area – cultivated by the Son of God Himself, setting the pattern for life in the creation. That’s the really exciting thing about the Garden of Eden – the LORD is as keen to enjoy and explore the world as even the most curious human. Before the paint has dried on the creation, before even humanity has been formed, the Lord God has begun the adventure of everlasting life in the universe.
The Biblical doctrine of the Fall is a much bigger and deeper teaching than the kind of 'existential angst' language that so often passes for a doctrine of the Fall. For all kinds of well-documented reasons, the doctrine of the Fall has been reduced to humanity being unable to cope with mortality.
'Adam and Eve were going to die anyway, but because they rejected the gospel of Christ they didn’t enjoy dying now – they were afraid of death.'
Obviously this is far removed from the Biblical framework in which the entire cosmos became subject to vanity, groaning under a bondage of decay. We are not mortal because we are created and finite – which would not bode well for the future, because we will always be that. The Fall was cosmic – and the cosmos will be redeemed from this curse.
We should not hope to leave the earth – we should long for the earth to be redeemed, for the regeneration of all things at the return of Jesus. And it is this cosmic, physical, realistic eschatology that needs to be refreshed. It is very hard to get excited about the prospect of being taken away to some entirely alien kind of existence that looks like an infinitely long Church service. One has to be very 'spiritual' to find that even slightly appealing. What kind of 'good news' is that to turn the world upside down? It is a hope which bears no obvious connection to human life and is explicitly set in opposition to the kind of life we know. This is why Christians always ask, with a certain degree of nervousness, questions like, ‘will we recognize each other in heaven? Will I know my mum and dad in heaven?’ Such a question has become a valid because heaven is specifically described as the negation of the world. It is everything that human life is not – it is disembodied, it is said to be timeless and spaceless, it is devoid of sensation. It appears as an entirely alien environment – and thus inevitably makes us afraid to go there. A secret reluctance about spending forever in such an alien state is very common. The classic pastoral remedy for this is something like – 'well, imagine everything that makes you happy, what you really enjoy – and multiply it all by ten. Heaven is unimaginable but it will be really nice.' Okay, but what makes me happy is playing football on the beach in Cornwall on a hot sunny day, with plenty of excellent food and drink, and the prospect of a nice cool swim later… or maybe I like to have all my friends round for a huge slap-up meal and a couple of bottles of wine. 'Ah, well… ', says my pastoral adviser, 'you can’t look forward to any of the basic pleasures and happinesses of human life and friendship. They are all done away with… but whatever it is, it will be great.' This kind of a hope is hardly able to give us joy and excitement – rather it becomes almost a threat to be afraid of. To say to a person, 'you are going to heaven,' no longer reassures them. It gives rise to a conversation where the person needs to be persuaded that heaven is worth looking forward to. I can’t look forward to such abstract happiness – the disembodied intellectual contemplation of the beatific vision might be sufficient to kill the time while I await the day of resurrection, but it hardly captivates my heart. And the simple reality is that in modern times genuine meditation on the final state plays an exceedingly small role in Christian discipleship.
How much more appealing is the Bible’s final scene in which God moves house, bringing His dwelling to earth, where He lives with us here, wiping away our tears and seeing to it that everything that makes life bad is done away with. That is good news to hope for, something that can inform and sustain us as we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. It forces us to take this kind of life seriously, bodily life in a physical world – because we will, apart from a possible brief interlude, experience nothing but this kind of life for ever and ever in fellowship with God.
But, isn’t this kind of a hope just too crude and literal, too simplistically physical and worldly? One writer takes us back to the Apostles’ Creed in answer:
But if we think that 'Resurrection of the Body' is crudely physical in its interpretation then we will surely find that the original wording of the Creed is yet more so. The words 'of the Body' are of comparatively modern origin. The original version was sarkos anastasin in the Greek version or carnis resurrectionem in Latin which was correctly translated as 'resurrection of the flesh'.
There seems no doubt, therefore, that the writers of the Apostles' Creed believed that the resurrection was literally to be a physical resurrection - not simply something that looked like a body but a literal body made of flesh and bone. When one considers that, for the New Testament writers, the 'flesh' is virtually synonymous with sinfulness and that Paul speaks of 'crucifying the flesh', we are forced to realise that the inclusion of this word in the creed must have been for a good reason.
Instead of this grand cosmic hope, many of the paperbacks circulating at the moment under the name of eschatology are nothing more than novels about something called 'the rapture' and middle-eastern politics. The real danger of a rapture-based eschatology is not so much that it has such a small exegetical foundation, but that it abandons the earth to the wicked. The righteous are taken away from the world, whereas the wicked remain – the exact opposite of Christ’s point, where, with Noah on the ark, the eight Christians remained alive on the earth, whereas all the wicked where taken away by the flood. It is the meek who inherit the earth – not the wicked.
The thing that is really different about the gospel of Jesus Christ – in contrast to all the futile nonsense of human religion – is the fact that the final state is the resurrected body in a renewed physical universe. For all Eastern religion, which is increasingly the religion of choice for the post-modern consumer, death is about moving on to higher levels of being. For us, because we know that God has pronounced this kind of life very good, definitively in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – we know that any non-bodily existence for humanity will be swallowed up and eclipsed by the highest kind of life of all – immortal, incorruptible bodily life. It is for this reason that Jesus constantly comes back to the marriage feast of the Lamb as His preferred way of anticipating resurrection morning – an epic time of eating and drinking and celebrating in glorious bodies, all hosted by God the Father on the top table.
But what difference does a robust, Christ-centred eschatology make to our theology?
This life, this world, this ecosystem is to be valued and taken with seriousness and joy – not as a temporary arrangement, but as the kind of life that the Living God has chosen to be everlasting life. We were designed to enjoy fellowship around a meal table – because that is the kind of thing that our God likes to do. The greatest of all the Levitical offerings is the fellowship offering, because it enters into what all the others prepare for. The one who brings the offering is able to bring all their family and friends along too, so that they may all eat together enjoying the fellowship of the Angel of the LORD who sits enthroned between the cherubim.
The whole of life is different when it is lived in the light of that resurrection hope. Ecology is important. We don’t abuse the world under the idea that it’s all going to be burnt up anyway in the end. No, we live in it as our home – where we will live forever as the history of the universe really begins.
We end with a quotation from that great early Christian we began with - Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria:
'Almighty God Himself will raise us up through our Lord Jesus Christ, according to His infallible promise, and grant us a resurrection with all those that have slept from the beginning of the world; and we shall then be such as we now are in our present form, but without any defect or corruption.'
Paul Blackham is the minister of St Crispin's Church in London and produces the Book by Book Bible study series.