Christians believe in life after death. We believe that God is in the heavens and we are on earth, and that death isn’t the end. We often would say that when we die, we “go to heaven” forevermore.
While that’s not wrong per se, the Bible doesn’t teach what I think most people imagine. Having been formed by generations of odd conceptions of heaven, Hollywood depictions of the heavenlies abound. Perhaps we picture startling white buildings, or floating clouds. I’ve noticed a trend in some depictions to picture a bright but austere office building: spacious, and soulless. As though the dwelling place of the living God was another modernist ode to capitalism.
The heavens teem with the glory of God.
Heaven meets the earth
The future is not in the earth being destroyed, although it will be transformed by fire, but in the grand romance of scripture laid out in Genesis 1-2 being completed. It is in heaven meeting earth, in the Christ and his bride. We don’t go to heaven, heaven comes here. We don’t escape, the hellhole becomes paradise.
We are supposed to read the Bible in light of its bookends: Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22. If you want to read the Bible in the way it teaches us to read it, pay attention to these two sections and think of them as they echo through the scriptures. We had a start with a goal, that faltered and was completed in the Christ, and we have an end to which our lives and the world around is heading.
We should read the scriptures in light of these bookends, but also our lives. There’s a story going on through the annals of history. You aren’t the main character, neither am I. We may be no more than the amusing side-quest, but we’re part of the narrative. Our lives are supposed to be decisively shaped by the story: heaven has met earth (in the life, death, resurrection, ascension and spirit-gifting of Jesus) and heaven will meet earth (in the final descending city of Revelation 21).
A new earth
Perhaps we pick up on the exile theme in the New Testament and mention that our home is not here. That’s an important thing for us to grasp. Maybe we do so by saying our home is in heaven. That’s not wrong, but it does obscure the truth. It’s unclear at best. Our home is not in a different place, high above this one, but in a different kingdom. It’s not in a different place but a different time. I find it easier to speak of the age to come, or after the resurrection, or the new earth: the home we await is here, transformed. We belong to this place but with justice rolling like a river.
“Home is heaven” can lead to an attitude where we wait it out in our enclaves for the doorway of death to snatch us into the glories of God. “Home is the kingdom” can lead us to work for the transformation of the earth, for the glory of God to cover the earth like the waters cover the sea. It can lead us to think in terms of investing in institutions, knowing that the very best of what we accomplish here and now will be reflected here and then in the city that descends from the sky.
It’s important we remember that we remain exiles, our efforts will be stymied and lacklustre, but a day will come when in the eyes of our king our efforts will prove to have more worthwhile than we could reckon. Using other language will help us fight the over-spiritualisation of the Christian life—as though your Bible reading was the only thing that mattered—and help us to remember that pastors do not have the most important jobs in the world.
It’s important not to fall off the other side of the wagon: this world will be transformed by fire into a new earth: restored, redeemed, renewed (2 Peter 3, Romans 8). Resurrected in the manner of the firstborn of creation (Colossians 1). There is a pressing need to respond to the king to ensure that when the resurrection comes and you are judged you are found among his people, incorporated in the spotless lamb. And—and its vital that it’s and—we should work to make this world look more like the kingdom of God. Preach the gospel, heal the sick, raise the dead (literally and otherwise), feed the hungry, aid the poor, do the works of the kingdom.
Not disembodied but resurrected
All of this means that our hope for the future is not disembodied. For all our immediate time after death awaiting the resurrection may be; our hope is not primarily in our spirits going to the presence of Jesus but in the much grander, broader and more wonderful truth that Jesus will come to be with us and raise our selves to rule and tend the earth under his kingship.
The future is not disembodied cloud sitting but resurrected farming. Heaven will look like your neighbourhood but much better. Heaven will look like the sharp angles of the Peak District and the bleak expanse of the Yorkshire Moors; the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs and the tamed gardens of our city parklands. If you don’t live in the glorious garden that is England—imagine the beautiful landscapes that God has gifted you with instead, they will be there too.
When John describes the new earth in Relevation he reaches for Eden imagery from Genesis and Ezekiel. It’s a city but it’s a garden. There’s a tree (just one now not two, but that’s a depth for another day) that yields twelve kinds of fruit. I expect that fruit to look surprisingly like communion bread.
Picture heaven. Think trees (and not just the one whose leaves heal the nations). Think flowers and crops, mountains and streams. Think of beautiful cities built of carved stone and forged metal. Don’t think clouds, think soil.
Heaven is made of rich, fresh dirt.