From John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress to Rick Warren’s more recent bestseller The Purpose Driven Life, Christians have long been taught that the point of life is to get us to heaven. Old hymns sing of the Sweet By-and-By and contemporary Christian music “can only imagine” a worshipful paradise. The common narrative of most Christian funeral services repeats it: Let’s rejoice that today Aunt Martha is in heaven with Jesus!
Lately, heaven has even gained eyewitnesses in There-and-Back-Again travelogues, like Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real, an account of his young son Colton’s experience of heaven during emergency surgery.
As a Bible publisher, I’m keenly aware that in this version of the Christian journey, the Bible becomes the B.I.B.L.E.: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. If escaping the broken Earth for glorious heaven is our destiny, then the Bible is mostly an owner’s manual for the temporary life we know before getting to the real thing when we die.
But this is not the original Christian hope, nor the way the Bible tells our story.
As New Testament historian N. T. Wright puts it, the Bible promises not just heaven, but a new and bodily life after life after death. We have been misreading the Good Book’s good ending, and it’s time to ditch the idea that the Bible pledges a heavenly reward. Here’s why:
1. Heaven is the wrong answer to the problem of evil.
It’s ironic how we fight battles over the origins of the universe, and then are apparently eager to dump the material world once we’ve established how it got here. The Bible tells the story of God’s struggle in this time and this place to defeat evil, not run away from it. The hope for heaven is a backdoor way of admitting God is too weak to bring his original intention to fruition.
Heaven is not our home; earth is. It is the place God made for us. So the right response to injustice and brokenness is to engage the struggle to overcome it, not to check out.
2. The hope for heaven misreads the sources.
Seeing the Bible as a heaven-promising book blinds us to biblical texts about a renewed creation. Scripture’s description of the destination of the story is never “heaven,” but rather the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of all things, the time for God to restore everything, the liberation of creation, the new heavens and the new earth, and the life of the age to come. This is all about terra firma — the ground and stuff made from the ground. Restoration language dominates the vision. This is the kind of story the Bible is.
But Christians have a profound disconnect with the Bible’s message. We manage to say good-bye to our loved ones at funerals without the slightest mention of the resurrection of the body. We celebrate Easter yet don’t notice the cognitive dissonance: Jesus rose from the dead and had breakfast on the beach with his friends, but our destiny is a disembodied eternity in another realm?
3. The Bible’s key tension is between now and then, not here and there.
In the New Testament, the present evil age is beginning to be overcome by the triumph of good in the age to come. Heaven (God’s realm) and earth (our realm) are somewhat separated for now, in this era of in-between. But the promised future is always heaven and earth reunited. Time will bring the estranged places back together.
The true biblical picture points us toward the reunification of God’s sphere and our sphere — a new heavens and a new earth — as a single created reality, made whole and functioning for our flourishing as God always intended.
In other words, if you buy that ticket for the Glory Train, you may want to make it round trip, since the final action is going to be right here.
4. Our view of heaven bears a striking resemblance to ancient Elysium.
The “I’ll fly away” scenario explicitly borrows lyrics from the Greek philosopher Plato and his escapist fantasies. Every time we sing about freeing ourselves from the prison-house of the body, we are not speaking in our native Jewish and Christian tongues. Those beliefs and sentiments are Greek and Roman, not biblical.
The Roman poet Virgil describes a scene in which a newly released soul entering the afterlife encounters a path that comes to be split in two: the branch on the left leading downward into dark Tartarus, the one on the right rising into bright Elysium. Over time, as Christianity was influenced by its Hellenistic surroundings, that view of humans’ eternal destination moved to the center of the Christian story. The eternity the Bible actually speaks of — this very world being renewed, and our bodies along with it — was hijacked.
5. We’re supposed to be reading the Bible for life, not for death.
Hoping for heaven distracts us from our fundamental human calling. From start to finish, the Bible is inviting us in to a certain way of being in the world. To be made in the image of God is to reflect God’s character and intention in the way we shape life on earth.
What we have in the Bible, says Wendell Berry, “is a story and a discourse about the connection of a people to a place.” If we fail to see the Bible this way due to a preoccupation with otherworldly hopes, we miss the myriad and detailed ways the sacred writings are trying to transform our lives as part of the renewal of all creation.
As another beloved but misleading hymn has it, if we turn our eyes upon Jesus, “the things of earth will grow strangely dim.” But if we turn our eyes upon the real Jesus of the Bible — the incarnate, embodied, fully human Jesus — the things of earth might just grow strangely clear, and we’d see how to help heaven come to earth in the here and now.
The Bible shows no strong interest in an afterlife. It is there, of course, but functions merely as a necessary stage on the way to the ending that matters: the return of the king, his reckoning of the world, and the full institution of the healing, restoring reign of God over all things. Changing what the story says about our destiny is more than quibbling about a few details tacked on at the end. It alters the fundamental nature of the biblical drama, and it revises our understanding of how we live our roles within the story. It changes why and how we read the Bible.
We are in a new creation story, not a post-creation story or end-of-creation story. Heaven knows, it’s critical we get this right.
Image by Ron Waddington.