The Need for Heaven

Michael S. Horton
Michael Wittmer
Wednesday, August 31st 2016
Sep/Oct 2016

Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a vineyard, a mustard seed, virgins, a king who held a wedding feast, and a master who left his home. Revelation 21 talks about walls of jasper and cities of pure gold, with the foundations of the walls adorned with every kind of jewel and each of the gates of the city a single pearl, with streets of gold clear as glass. We know that heaven will be wonderful—beyond any conception of “wonderful” that we can imagine—but what exactly it will look and feel like is a bit harder to articulate.

In this roundtable, Michael Horton talks with Scott Swain and Michael Wittmer. Scott Swain is professor of systematic theology and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. With Michael Allen, he serves as general editor of New Studies in Dogmatics (Zondervan Academic) and International Theological Commentary (T&T Clark). He is also co-chair of the Reformed Theology Consultation in the Evangelical Theological Society. He blogs regularly at Reformation 21 and Common Places. Michael Wittmer is professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Christian Worldview at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He is author most recently of Becoming Worldly Saints: Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life? (Zondervan, 2015).

HORTON: Many of us were raised with the hope of “I’ll fly away” more than “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” In reaction, some evangelicals now define salvation in antithesis to “going to heaven when we die.” What do you make of the current message we hear in Christian circles about our ultimate hope?

WITTMER: Your question alludes to the pendulum swings I’m seeing in the evangelical world. Some Christians have reacted to the otherworldly Platonism they grew up with (and still find in our books, songs, and churches) by emphasizing that the kingdom of Christ has already come to earth. While this is true, some focus so much on the “already” of the kingdom that they forget its consummation is “not yet.” They talk a lot about the here and now but say little about our ultimate hope in the age to come. This extreme sets off a counterreaction, as more traditional Christians attempt to pull our focus back to heaven.

It’s time to stop the pendulum and declare the nuanced, biblical view. Praise God that our souls go to heaven when we die. What an immense comfort to rest in the presence of our Lord! But Scripture says little about this intermediate state, probably because heaven is neither the focus of Scripture nor our final destination. Christians believe in the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the restoration of all things. We believe that our flight to heaven is the first leg of a journey that is round-trip. When Jesus returns he will bring our souls with him, raise our bodies, and put us together once more. Then we will live forever with him here, on this restored earth.

It’s not heaven or earth, but heaven and earth. First heaven, then our return with Jesus to the place we humans were always meant to live. Jesus is our spiritual home, and earth is our ontological home. More simply, Jesus is the one with whom we are meant to live, and earth is where we are meant to live with him. We’re Earthlings, for heaven’s sake!

SWAIN: Many Christians have been taught a sub-biblical hope that consists in “going to heaven when we die.” Whatever the source of this error, I am grateful for the renewed emphasis on both the bodily nature and the earthly location of our everlasting home. As Mike said, we need a balanced view that rightly conveys the place of heaven and earth within our eternal destiny. However, I would want to go beyond Mike’s identification of heaven as the “first leg” of our journey to God’s eternal kingdom. While earth is the place of our eternal home, heaven defines the character of that home. We look for a “better country.” And what makes that country “better” is its “heavenly” character (Heb. 11:16). The same may be said regarding the character of our resurrected bodies. As we have borne the image of the “earthly” man, so we look forward to bearing the image of the “heavenly” man (1 Cor. 15:49).

Classical catholic and Reformed teaching instructs us that “grace restores and perfects nature.” I worry that by overemphasizing the earthly nature of our eternal destiny, we fail to give grace its full due. Grace doesn’t bring us back to the Garden of Eden. It brings us to “the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22), which will ultimately rest on the earth. But the character of that Jerusalem will transcend the glory of the present creation and the present age, for it will shine with the brightness of God himself (Rev. 21:1–22:5).

HORTON:Scott, you pointed out the importance of seeing our final destiny as something more than picking up where we left off or even of returning to Eden—”Paradise Regained.” It’s something “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (1 Cor. 2:9). Yes, it is in this body—raised and glorified, and in this world renewed—that we will behold God. But how do we find that right balance between continuity with our earthly existence and discontinuity (the newness of the new creation)? Do the post-resurrection narratives and 1 Corinthians 15 give us some clues by considering Christ’s exaltation?

SWAIN: That’s a difficult question to answer, partly because the nature of our final destiny “has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2), and partly because of the radical disproportion between the glory of the future age and the fragility of the present one (2 Cor. 4:16–18). If we are to find any guidance, then it must be in Jesus, the “firstfruits” of the new creation (1 Cor. 15:23).

If we look at the post-resurrection narratives, we see that Jesus was raised in the same body that he assumed in the incarnation and that his body still bears the marks of his suffering on our behalf. We also see that Jesus’ body was raised in a glorified state, capable of doing things our bodies can’t do in their present form. This is in keeping with Pauline teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 that different kinds of bodies are characterized by different kinds of glory. It also fits with Paul’s claim that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50).

Here we may be better served by metaphor than literal description. Perhaps the best metaphor for the continuity and discontinuity between the present and future creation is provided by Jesus in John 12: the grain of wheat sown in death is raised and fructified in the resurrection. There is continuity between grain and stalk—but there’s also progress, growth, and transformation. Of course, the transformation here is not natural but supernatural, a product of the crucified and risen Lord’s power to transform the present age into the eternal kingdom where God is all in all.

WITTMER: As Scott says, we cannot say for sure what is new about the new creation and what stays the same. But we do have some strong hints. Second Peter 3:13 says the new world will be “the home of righteousness.” What stands out to Peter as new is not any new thing but a dramatic ethical change. Unlike this world, which is ravaged by sin and its effects, the new earth will overflow with righteousness. This fits with God’s declaration, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Notice God does not say he is making new things to replace what is already here. Rather he is taking what is already here and making them new, or redeeming them. This also fits with Isaiah’s vision of ordinary life on the new earth: the redeemed “will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21).

We have more questions than answers; but if redemption restores creation, then a biblical rule of thumb is that if something belongs to creation, then expect it to reappear on the new earth. If something belongs to the fall, then expect it to be gone. The only exceptions I know to this rule are marriage (Matt. 22:30), the scars of Christ (John 20:27), and the serpent forever cursed to slither on the ground (Isa. 65:25). If the new earth and our resurrection bodies are too different from our present bodies and earth, then we will not have been redeemed. We will have been replaced. This is not the Christian hope. But the good news gets even better. God does not merely redeem his creation; he also consummates it. He takes it to that higher level it was always intended to go. This is what Scott is getting at when he mentions the “heavenly character” of the new creation. Our new world will be better in at least five ways:

In all these ways, and perhaps more, grace doesn’t merely restore nature, but perfects it too.

HORTON:What are the top two or three ways in which the biblical promise of heaven is different—not only from other religions but especially from the general ideas you hear on the street (and in best-sellers from people who claim to have been there and back) Why does it matter for us here and now?

SWAIN:We see a rather stark contrast, for example, between what Islam promises regarding heaven and what the Bible promises regarding heaven (on earth). The promise of seventy virgins to faithful martyrs takes a good that belongs to the present life (sex) and simply multiplies it. What heaven promises, in the Islamic scenario, is the quantitative expansion of sensual pleasure. The Bible, however, promises a form of pleasure and happiness that qualitatively transcends the joys of this life even as it brings those joys to their full realization (Ps. 16:11). The joys of marriage will be transcended in the fellowship of the Lamb and his Bride, the church (Rev. 19:6–9; 21:2, 9–21). The beauty we behold in the sun and the moon will be transcended as we behold the radiant glory of the Triune God (Rev. 21:23–24; 22:4–5).

For this reason, I would be reticent about literally applying to the eternal kingdom the statement in Isaiah 65:21 about building houses and planting vineyards. Not only do the immediately surrounding verses mention the presence of infants (which presupposes procreation) and death—neither of which will be found in the eternal kingdom (Matt. 22:30; Rev. 21:4)—this application also fails to distinguish our work in the present creation from our work in the eternal Sabbath. As in the rhythm of six days and the Sabbath, so it will be in the rhythm of this age and the age to come. The distinction is not between human activity and cessation of human activity (the Bible does not permit the denigration of human action). The distinction is between the kind of activity that characterizes our work in history and the kind that characterizes our work in the eternal Sabbath of God. No longer will the cultivation of creation and human culture be the immediate object of our labor. The immediate object of our activity will be God himself: We will see his face, and we will serve him in a state of everlasting worship and everlasting bliss (Rev. 14:13; 22:3–5; cf. Gen. 2:1–3).

If I am right about this, then much of what I hear in popular Christian teaching and preaching is wrong. We shouldn’t promise folks an opportunity for a second career in the eternal kingdom (e.g., “You’ve been a teacher in this age, and in the age to come you can be an artist”). We should rather tell them that all the goods of this life, whether social (e.g., marriage) or nutritional (bacon!), are but finite tutors, preparing us for our infinite good in God. He will be the great and satisfying lover of our souls. He will be the food that forever satisfies our hunger and the drink that forever quenches our thirst. Satisfied in God, we will exercise the fullness of our capacities as human beings—intellectual, volitional, emotional, physical, social—together in worshiping the “High King of Heaven” as a kingdom of priests. Now that’s a second career!

Why does this matter for us here and now? The promises of heaven’s bliss not only determine the character of Christian worship (Heb. 12:28–29); they also help us endure earth’s sorrows, reminding us that the sufferings of the present time cannot be compared with the glory that is to be revealed, and moving us to set our hopes fully upon the grace that is to be revealed when Jesus returns to lavish the glories of his heavenly kingdom on the sons and daughters of earth (Matt. 5:8; 2 Cor. 4:16–18;1 Pet. 1:13; 1 John 3:2–3). By enabling us to endure affliction with joy, we gain opportunities to share the reason for the hope that is within us (1 Pet. 3:14–15); by enabling us to hold lightly to earthly goods, we gain opportunities to share those goods with those in need (Ps. 37:21–22). As my friend Michael Allen says, being heavenly minded prepares us for much earthly good.

WITTMER: It seems that Scott and I represent the church’s division over what to expect in our final state. He suspects that attention given to normal earthly life distracts from the glory of God, while I fear that spiritualizing our final state into an eternal worship service sounds more like the Roman Catholic beatific vision than the Protestant belief in the restoration of earthly existence. I’m not sure what role the earth plays in Scott’s understanding of the end (why must it occur here, on this planet?), or how his view appreciably differs from the otherworldly, Platonic view that we both oppose. What does his final state offer that is not already enjoyed by the departed saints in heaven? Is our final state merely the intermediate state extended forever?

This matters because if we lose the earthiness of the Christian faith, then we will eventually lose the faith itself. Some evangelicals, for pious reasons, so emphasize the Creator that they minimize his creation. Some have even declared themselves to be panentheists, believing that this world is nothing more than an idea in the mind of God. But if this is so, then we are not actually separate from God, which means we can never know or love him. We cannot love the other if there is no other. Without a good and separate creation, we have no place where we can stand and love God.

The climax of the new earth will be the worship of Jesus—much like Scott described (though as creatures we will always exist in time). But our glorious worship of Jesus will not exclude ordinary human existence. Adam and Eve walked with God in Eden, but they also named the animals, tilled the ground, and did other human activities. I don’t see a biblical reason why our end would be so drastically different from our beginning. If grace restores nature, then redemption restores rather than obliterates whatever humans do—worship, work, play, and befriend others.

The earthiness of our faith is a Christian distinctive. Every other religion says the good stuff happens someplace else, high up and far away. Muslims want to go to paradise. Buddhists want nirvana. But Christians pray for the kingdom to come (Luke 11:2). We long to hear John’s “Hallelujah Chorus”: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). And so we say the closing prayer of Scripture, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

This exhilarating,cosmic vision of redemption puts an exclamation point on any Gospel presentation. We are not offering a choice between heaven and hell, but ultimately between hell and life with Jesus on the new earth. Do you like being human and living here? Then repent of your sin and put your faith in Jesus, and you will live forever with him and your friends who did the same, enjoying the fullness of life on this redeemed earth. You don’t need a bucket list, because you will have forever to do whatever you didn’t get to this time around.

To be clear, I affirm Scott’s inspiring emphasis on the worship of Jesus. This will be the rightful center of our activity on the new earth. But there is also a circumference. Jesus will “make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Joy to the world!

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, August 31st 2016

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