Sunday, November 8, 2015

It's Not All About "Getting to Heaven"

What I have come to label as Americanized Christianity presents a view of the Christian life that in many ways varies significantly from Scripture and church history. One such variance is the almost universal emphasis on "getting to heaven" and this being virtually the sole reason for devoting our lives to Christ.

The Bible actually says very little about heaven, but much more about the future resurrection of all who have ever lived. Jesus taught about "the kingdom of heaven", but that teaching was about the principles and laws of how God's kingdom functions, not about the afterlife. The principles of the "kingdom of heaven" are about how believers are to live and relate to others in this life, as prelude to what the world will be like when Christ returns and brings his kingdom to earth.

What the Bible does talk about frequently is the resurrection. The Old Testament prophets spoke of the great "Day of the Lord" when the dead would be resurrected from their graves to face judgment. Virtually nothing is said in the Old Testament about heaven as an abode for departed spirits, but it says much about a the great day of the resurrection. Daniel chapter 12 is an example:

“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake:some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

When Jesus went to Lazarus's tomb, He told Martha "Your brother will rise again." Her response was, "Yes, Lord, I know that I will see him in the resurrection." Notice Jesus didn't say "Your brother will go to heaven" and Martha didn't say, "Yes, I know I'll see him in heaven one day." That's because the Old Testament...the inspired Scriptures up to that time... spoke of a future resurrection, but not about going to heaven.

This doesn't mean that there is no heavenly realm. Paul spoke of being caught up "to the third heaven" where he saw and heard things beyond his ability to describe. There are other references to a heavenly place in Scripture. So heaven is perhaps where we abide until the resurrection day. But Paul also says that on that day "the dead in Christ will rise first", and that's the resurrection. And note that they "rise", indicating they have remained on the earth until that moment.

And then what? The saints that arise will then reign over the earth with Christ and the earth will become "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven", what God intended the world to be like before Adam and Eve rebelled and the world became fallen. Now the earth will live and function as God intended in the beginning.

Until that day, we who have devoted our lives to Christ are to live as Christ did, to model Christ and His kingdom to those who have yet to be born into the kingdom through faith. We are to live lives guided by His Spirit, lives of generous, unconditional love and kindness, being other centered. A theology that promotes receiving Christ in order to "get to heaven" is a theology that starts off with the wrong emphasis, an emphasis on the self-serving punching of your ticket to heaven just to escape the gruesome alternative of eternal separation from God. Instead, we receive Christ so that we can become like him and minister to the needs of others, and in so doing, invite others to join us as citizens of Christ's kingdom.

Whole books have been written on this subject and my point here is not to deny the existence of heaven. I believe in heaven, but not in the way that we have distorted it. Perhaps as the result of the "me" centered hedonism of our culture, Americanized Christianity's theology virtually ignores the resurrection, substituting it with an eternal abode in a sort of cosmic Disneyland of endless bliss, leaving unanswered what the purpose of it all is. The resurrection has been virtually forgotten and more importantly, this theology ignores the purpose of the resurrection, when God through Christ reconciles all things to Himself and restores the earth to the way it was meant to be. Resurrected believers from all of the ages reign with Him over the earth, each one having a purpose to carry out and to give glory to God. It's not one long eternal vacation cruise. We have a purpose to serve in God's kingdom on earth and in glorifying him forever.

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