Category Archives: Theology
Why do heroes ride off into the sunset? Wouldn’t it be better if they stayed? Who wants a hero who skips town as soon as the crisis is over? The hard stuff is what comes next. Sure you beat up the big bad guy, but what about all the little ones? What about all the problems you didn’t fix? What about the daily grind of living in a broken world? Look at you on your cool horse. Who do you think is going to clean up all that poop it left behind?
Forget the sunset. I want a hero who sticks around, not one who takes off.
But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? His people waited thousands of years for him to come. And finally, the Messiah arrived. Then….bam! He’s gone. One minute he’s there with the disciples, and then “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
He ascended. He left.
I can just picture the disciples standing there, staring into the sky like a bunch of kids watching all their balloons float away.
The Messiah rode off into the sunset.
What is that all about? Why wouldn’t Jesus stick around? You’d think a few thousand years would be enough waiting already. Did he really need to take off and make us wait longer? That’s like telling the kids on Christmas morning that they’ll need to wait until New Year’s to open their presents.
That’s just mean.
So something must be wrong with how I’m telling this story. The ascension isn’t a mean trick that God played on us. And it certainly isn’t about Jesus leaving us just when we needed him most. The way the Bible tells it, the ascension is fundamental to God’s story.
5 Reasons the Ascension Matters
Luke begins the book of Acts with the ascension for a reason. In Luke’s story, which includes both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the Ascension is the critical hinge between the life/death/resurrection of Jesus (Luke) and the story of his Spirit-empowered people at work in the world (Acts). And that’s because, for the biblical authors, the Ascension is critical.
1. The Kingdom
It’s really with the ascension that Jesus establishes the Kingdom. Although Jesus lived his entire life in fulfillment of God’s Kingdom promises, the ascension is key. That’s why the Bible pictures the Ascension as Jesus going up into heaven leading a host of captives (Eph. 4:8), the defeated enemies of the Kingdom. And, arriving in heaven, he sits down at the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1; Heb 1:3). His rule has begun. The Kingdom is here! With his birth the King arrives. With his life, death, and resurrection the King redeems. With his ascension the King rules. If you stop short of the ascension, the story dies.
2. The Priest
And, having returned to the father, Jesus also serves forever as our true High Priest (Heb. 9), the perfect priest who cleansed the people from their sins and will always represent them before the Father. The ascension breaks the cycle of God’s people continually needing a new priest to offer a new sacrifice. With the ascension, Jesus becomes our true priest forever.
3. The Spirit
In one of the most amazing statements in the Bible, Jesus says that “it is to your advantage that I go away” (Jn. 16:5). I can think of several people who could make the world a better place just by leaving it. But Jesus? How can his departure be good for us? Because the ascension is when Jesus sends the Spirit to God’s people. His departure is good news because the Spirit is good news. So, having promised to send the Spirit once he was gone, that’s exactly what he did. After Acts 1 comes Acts 2 – Jesus ascended and the Spirit came. Good news.
4. The People
But now for an interesting question: Why did Jesus need to leave in order to send the Spirit? Couldn’t the Spirit have come while he was here? To be honest, I have no idea if God could have done things differently. Probably. So why do it like this? As I’ve said before, I try to avoid answering “Why did God…?” questions. But I do wonder if Jesus ascended and sent the Spirit to empower God’s people so that we could do what we were always supposed to: image God in creation as his people. Jesus could have continued doing that for us. He does it far better than we ever could. But God’s plan was never to carry out our role for us. He wants us to do it. So I wonder if the ascension is about God creating space for his people to be his people and carry out their calling in the world. I don’t know, but I wonder.
5. The Future
Finally, I think the ascension is a powerful reminder of our destiny. Here it’s important to remember that Jesus did not stop being human when he ascended. It’s not as though his humanity was a costume that he put on at Christmas and hastily discarded at the ascension. Jesus represents us as our High Priest forever specifically because he remains one of us forever. So the ascension points to our destiny as humans – ruling over God’s creation and manifesting his glory everywhere.
The ascension is not an optional add-on to the story, a piece that we may choose to discuss if we have any time after dealing with the more important parts. The ascension is critical. The ascension is when the King rules, the Priest represents, the Spirit comes, the People serve, and the future shines with the brilliance of God’s plan.
Jesus didn’t just ride off into the sunset, leaving us to clean up the mess he left behind. Jesus ascended to the right hand of the father so that God’s plans could be accomplished. Once we really understand that, we’ll agree that it truly was better for us that he go.
[I asked someone to read through my gospel book, and he pointed out that I didn’t have anything in there on the ascension. What a tragic oversight! So this is my first shot at addressing that omission. Let me know what you think.]
My daughters don’t believe in Santa Claus. They never have. That’s mostly because my wife and I are evil and we told them from the very beginning that Santa Claus wasn’t real. (If this is news to you, please accept my apologies for breaking the news in such a heartless way.) We made sure they knew that many people like to pretend that Santa is real. And, since we don’t want to ruin their fun, we shouldn’t tell other kids the truth about Santa. The last thing we wanted to deal with were a bunch of angry parents wanting to know why our kindergartener had ruined their holiday traditions.
Although I like how we’ve handled the Santa Claus issue, and I wouldn’t want to do it differently, it’s hard not to notice that my daughters never approached Christmas with the same kind of anxious anticipation as other children. There were no eager questions about “When will Santa be here?” or whispers of “I think I hear him.” An element of expectation comes with the story of Santa Claus that has a nearly irresistible sense of childish delight. And, when he’s finally arrived, all of that pent up expectation–all the anxious hours of waiting, all the uncertainties and anxieties–explode in the delighted yell, “He came!”
To some degree, that’s what the Advent season is all about.
I was recently listening to a song by M83, and I was struck by what an interesting allegory this could be for the church: a people transformed by the power of the gospel such that they see the world in completely new ways and are drawn together into a new community that will someday fill the earth with joy and laughter forever.
I’m pretty sure it’s actually about drugs.
But that’s okay. I’m a frog now. So I see things differently.
Raconte-Moi Une Histoire
it’s a very tiny frog
but it’s also very special
you can only find it in the jungle
so far away from me
but if you find it and if you touch it
your world can change forever
if you touch its skin
you can feel your body changing
and your vision also
and blue becomes red and red becomes blue
and your mommy suddenly becomes your daddy
and everything looks like a giant cupcake
and you keep laughing and laughing and laughing
nothing is ever quite the same really
and after you finish laughing
it’s time to turn into a frog yourself
it’s very funny to be a frog
you can dive into the water
and cross the rivers and the oceans
and you can jump all the time and everywhere
do you want to play with me?
we can be a whole group of friends
a whole group of frogs
jumping into the streets
jumping into the planet
climbing up the buildings
swimming in the lakes and in the bathtubs
we would be hundreds, thousands, millions
the biggest group of friends the world has ever seen
jumping and laughing forever
it would be great, right?
Over at Western Seminary’s Trans·formed blog, I’ve been reflecting on 4 key problems that arise from the way that we normally tell people about the gospel. (It was originally supposed to be 3 key problems, but I cheated.) If you haven’t been following along, here are all the posts in that series.
- What’s Wrong with Our Gospel?
- What’s Wrong with Our Gospel? There’s Power in What You Don’t Say
- The Problem with Our Gospel #1: The Self-Centered Gospel
- The Problem with Our Gospel #2: The Individualistic Gospel
- The Problem with Our Gospel #3: “getting in”
- The Problem with Our Gospel #4: The (un)Social Gospel
Is there something distinct about physical people gathering in a physical location to worship and serve as Christians? Or, with the advent of modern technology, is there a sense in which the people of God can still gather, even if they are physically distant from one another? In other words, can a church meet online?
This is the question that Robert Herrington addressed in his ETS paper “Online Churches and Christian Community: Does Christian Fellowship Require Embodied Presence?” And it’s a question that many people are wrestling with today.
But I’m not convinced that the answers we’re offering do justice to the questions involved. And I’m afraid that if we don’t do a better job answering the question, people attracted to online communities will (justifiably) ignore our answers. So I’d like to summarize Herrington’s argument and then identify 5 things I think are commonly missing in these discussions.
1. How did we get here?
After a few comments on the widespread use of the internet for religious purposes, Herrington points out that most of those who use the internet for religious purposes use it as a supplement to some more traditional form of Christian worship. But a real shift is beginning to take place with younger Christians, who are more likely to see the internet as a viable form of community not just a means of communication. It thus becomes a viable replacement of, rather than a mere supplement to, traditional churches.
2. Types of Online churches
Herrington reported that there are 580 or so churches that are run entirely online. But he pointed out that most churches today maintain some form of online presence, even while retaining a significant physical presence as well. So he broke churches down into three rough categories:
- Traditional churches that have some minimal online presence (e.g. a church website or Facebook account).
- Traditional churches that have online extensions (e.g. a church with both a physical campus and an online campus).
- Churches that are entirely online with no physical campus.
In this section, Herrington also offered a brief summary of key arguments used by those in favor of fully online churches.
- Missional Effectiveness. Online churches are an effective way of reaching a large population with the Gospel. Indeed, many proponents point out that the internet is possibly the largest mission field in the world today. So wouldn’t it just make sense to plant churches in this key mission field?
- Community Restoration. Proponents often point out that traditional churches are far from perfect. Rather than being bastions of intimacy and community, traditional churches often allow people to hide behind shallow masks of perfection. Online communities, on the other hand, provide a safe environment for many people to share their struggles, develop greater intimacy, and form better expressions of Christian community.
- Union with Christ. If all believers are united with Christ in the Spirit so that we form one, universal body, does it really matter that we’re not physically present with one another when we worship?
- Media Neutrality. Many proponents of online churches presuppose that media are essentially neutral. We all use various media in ministry; online media are just different. They’re all tools for accomplishing the same purpose.
3. Media ecology
Herrington spends some time critiquing that last point. Drawing on Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, he points out that media are not mere conduits that transmit content unchanged. Instead, the media we use to communicate a message necessarily affect and shape the message itself. We need to think of media in more ecological terms. Everything in an environment affects everything else. Change on thing, and you affect the whole ecology. And he thinks that online churches have not given sufficient consideration to this fact and the ways in which online technologies might be reshaping the church and its message.
4. Does Community Require Embodied Presence.
In this final section Herrington argues that online churches fail because they cannot adequately address 7 things necessary to true biblical fellowship (koinonia).
1. Sharing. The early church placed a high value on meeting “material” needs through sharing. But Herrington thinks that online churches will necessarily struggle here. This is partly because the people involved in these churches are physically distant from one another, making it more difficult even to identify material needs, let alone meet them. But he also thinks the internet has a “bias” toward nonmaterial realities (all media are biased in certain ways). So an online church is predisposed from the beginning in ways that will make it difficult to address material concerns.
2. Gathering. The biblical authors all argue that the church needs to gather on a regular basis. And Herrington argues that online churches not only downplay the value of gathering, but they actually contribute to the growing isolation of the modern person. He reports that for every hour that someone spends online, their face-to-face interaction with other people decreases by thirty minutes. So online churches, along with other forms of social media, actually create isolation rather than community.
3. Sacraments. No surprise that one of his key concerns is with communion and baptism. Although he recognizes that online churches have tried to find ways of including the sacraments in their worship (e.g. avatars taking communion together, physical baptisms streamed on the internet, etc.), there’s no question that online churches face a significant challenge here.
4. NT metaphors. According to Herrington, several NT metaphors for the church suggest that online churches are inadequate. The body and family metaphors suggest more organic, embodied relationships that cannot be sustained by online interactions alone. And he thinks that online churches downplay the gifts of the Spirit in that he doesn’t think the whole spectrum of gifts can be adequately expressed in online churches.
5. One anothers. This one seems similar to the first, but Herrington points out here the many “one another” commandments in the NT. And he doesn’t think that online churches are up to the task of living out these one anothers.
Yes, I know that’s only five things. But apparently I missed the last two. Maybe someone will chime in and let me know what I’ve left out.
5. Conclusion and Critique
This was an interesting paper on an important topic. And I must say that I have my own strong reservations about church that meet entirely online. But, like many of the arguments against online churches that I’ve run into, this one left me dissatisfied in several ways.
1. Engage technology more seriously. Even if you contend that current technology isn’t up to the task of sustaining biblical forms of Christian community, you still need to address the question of whether this is actually a theological problem or merely a technological limitation. What if technology reached the point where we could “meet” in the form of fully interactive 3D holographic images or physical avatars? I realize that sounds like science fiction, but it can be a useful thought-experiment for considering if the real problem is theology or technology. For this argument to work, it needs to demonstrate that the former is the real issue by engaging the latter more seriously.
2. Recognize the limitations of biblical technology. We really need to stop pointing out that NT churches met physically. Of course they did. What else were they going to do? Yes they could write letters, but no one is going to argue that letter writing can replace physical gatherings. But letter writing is a far cry from modern social media. This isn’t to say that the latter is adequate either, but we need to stop making facile moves from the limitations of NT technology to the inadequacy of modern technology to sustain true community.
3. Define terms more carefully. These discussions are always frustrated by a failure to define terms like “community” and “presence” more clearly. Herrington made moves in this direction by associating “community” with biblical “koinonia,” but this needed to be fleshed out more and extended to other terms as well. It’s hard to determine if online presence is better/worse than physical presence if I don’t really know what we mean by “presence.”
4. Stop letting preferences guide judgments. This is probably impossible, but these discussions always seem overly colored by a person’s personal preferences. For example, Herrington’s point that “gathering” is a problem for online churches seems to be driven by his own preference for physical gatherings. So of course he’ll see an online gathering as inadequate. But that simply presupposes his conclusion (i.e. online gatherings are inadequate) and then uses it as an argument to support the conclusion.
5. Let the arguments cut both ways. How many of these arguments could also be used against many traditional churches? I know that many of the churches I’ve been a part of have struggled with recognizing and meeting material needs, living up to the NT metaphors, expressing the full range of spiritual gifts, and carrying out the “one anothers.” Does this mean that those weren’t real churches either? If not, if those were simply real churches with important weaknesses, why not view online churches in the same way? (I’m not saying this is the right conclusion, only that this question needs to be addressed.)
We need to engage this issue in a more nuanced way and in a way that takes seriously the concerns and ideas of those attracted to online communities. Otherwise, they will simply reject these arguments as inadequate and continue with what they’re doing.
[The following is a section from the Gospel book where I’m trying to deal with the concept of “substitution” in the atonement. I’d love to hear what you think about how I’ve approached this one.]
How well do you think this would work as a threat: “If you don’t behave, I’m going to spank your brother?” I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure this would make me want to misbehave even more. Not only am I not going to be punished for this, but you’re going to punish him instead? Outstanding! Sign up me.
I actually use this threat with my high schools guys sometimes. If one of them is acting up, I’ll tell him that if he doesn’t start behaving, I’m going to beat up one of the other guys. They usually stop for a second and then laugh at how absurd that sounds. It’s such a stupid threat that it makes them pay attention just long enough for me to get them back on track. Punish someone else for what I’ve done? That’s just dumb. It doesn’t make any sense.
If you think about it, punishing another person for my actions isn’t just dumb; it’s unjust. Think about all the stories we’ve heard in the last few years of people who were on death row, about to be executed for some crime, and then it was discovered that they were actually innocent (of that crime at least). Every time that happens, the country is outraged. We were all set to kill these men for crimes someone else had committed. That’s not just. It’s not right.
But isn’t that exactly what God did with Jesus? According to Paul, Jesus “gave himself up for us” as a “sacrifice for God.”[i] In other places, he says that Jesus “died for our sins.”[ii] He even goes so far as to say that though Jesus himself “knew no sin,” God “made him to be sin” so that his people could be made righteous. Elsewhere, we find Peter talking about the “just” dying for the “unjust,”[iii] and in Isaiah we have a promise that someone would come and be “crushed or our iniquities.”[iv]
How can this make any sense? If we’re the ones who sinned, how does punishing Jesus accomplish anything? Isn’t that like getting angry at someone you work with, and then coming home and taking it out on your kids?
And yet we know something deeper must be going on here. The Bible makes it clear that God is a God of justice and righteousness: “His work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”[v] God is so concerned about justice, that he routinely commands his people to live just and fair lives.[vi] So we must be missing something here. If it’s unjust, God wouldn’t do it. If God did it, then it’s not unjust. Those are our only options.
The problem is that we’re probably looking at Jesus’ death the wrong way. It’s not as if God suddenly reached the point where he was ready to fix the whole sin problem, so he looked down at Palestine and thought, “Hmmm, that carpenter looks nice. I think I’ll kill him.” And then, after killing some random person, he went on to forgive the rest of us. That would be unjust.
This is different. Jesus isn’t just some carpenter; he’s the second Adam.
In an earlier post, I argued that Adam and Eve’s sin impacted all of us because we were “all in it together”? Although it’s hard for us to understand, their actions in the Garden affected us all. Standing at the beginning of the story of humanity, their decision shaped the story for everyone who followed. Every human since then has been “in Adam.” That means that we are in the family that Adam began, part of the story he created. And, as we’ve emphasized throughout this book, being “in Adam” means being east of Eden, in the darkness of the fall.
So what we need is another Adam, someone who can start a new story—one with a much better ending.
And that’s exactly what we have with Jesus. He’s the “last Adam” who has come to include all of us in a new story, a new humanity.[vii] Jesus didn’t replace us when he died for us on the cross, as though God just picked some random victim to abuse, he included us in his death on the cross so that we might experience the new life of being “in Christ.” Everyone who belongs to Jesus died with him on the cross.[viii] But we died with him so that we might be raised with him into the new life of the people of God.[ix]
Our problem is with thinking that Jesus was just our “substitute” when he died on the cross. He didn’t just take our place, but he made a place for us within him so that we might all be included in his death and the blessings that flowed from that act of loving faithfulness.
That’s why the New Testament places such strong emphasis on the fact that God’s people are now “in Christ.” Jesus is the “last Adam” who has come to bring life and recreate humanity after God’s image.[x] Both “Adams” made decisions that affected everyone, but in very different ways. All of those who are “in Adam” experience sin, death, and condemnation; but those who are “in Christ” receive grace, righteousness, and forgiveness.[xi] Or, as Paul says elsewhere, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”[xii]
If you want to sink your teeth into this one, I strongly recommend spending some time reading Ephesians 1. Just notice all the times that Paul emphasizes that God’s people are “in Christ” or “in him,” and consider the tremendous blessings that come as a result of being a part of that new family, that new story.
The good news is that Jesus included all of God’s people “in him.”
[i] Ephesians 5:2
[ii] 1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. Galatians 1:4
[iii] 1 Peter 3:18
[iv] Isaiah 53:5
[v] Deuteronomy 32:4
[vi] e.g. Deuteronomy 16:20; Leviticus 19:36; 1 Kings 10:9
[vii] 1 Corinthians 15:45
[viii] Romans 6:8; Galatians 2:20
[ix] Ephesians 2:4-6
[x] 1Corinthians 15:45
[xi] Romans 5:12-21
There’s something attractive about every heresy. Otherwise, no one would had bothered with it in the first place. People didn’t come up with the ideas that eventually came to be labeled as heresies because they were bored and wanted to rile the “powers that be.” No, heresy comes from an earnest attempt to answer life’s most difficult questions. Although the answers heresy offers were eventually found to be inadequate and/or unacceptable, that doesn’t change the fact that they were honest attempts at good theology – attempts that many people found compelling for some reason.
So every heresy has some attraction. For example, consider the following. (These are over-simplifications, but you get the point.)
- Adoptionism: The belief that Jesus was born as a regular human, and was adopted into the divine life at some specific point (e.g. baptism, resurrection). With this one, we get an obviously human Jesus. He can empathize with our weaknesses, because he lived a frail human life just like ours, untainted by some divine nature lurking behind the scenes. And we also get the image of a relationship with God that can be achieved through faithful living. If Jesus did it, so can we.
- Docetism: The belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion and that he didn’t really die on the cross. In one fell swoop you eliminate all the difficult questions surrounding the incarnation (since it never happened) and how the divine nature can suffer (it didn’t).
- Marcionism: The belief that the god of the OT is a separate (and rather nasty) being from the loving God of the NT; so, Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with OT scriptures or those aspects of the NT that have been corrupted by OT influences. Forget about all those troubling OT passages about wrath and violence, and get rid of some difficult NT passages at the same time. And you get a God who is all about love and forgiveness. Sounds good to me.
- Modalism: The belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three “aspects” of the one God (kind of like the idea that I am one person who is a father, a husband, and a teacher). The Trinity is confusing. So forget about notions of God somehow being both three and one. Let’s just go with oneness. That’s much easier to understand.
- Arianism: The belief that the Son was the first of all the created beings and the one who serves as the intermediary between the infinitely transcendent Creator and the rest of creation. This one is particularly helpful because it does away with so many problems at once. The incarnation isn’t an issue because the Son is a created being to begin with. There are no trinitarian problems because there’s no real Trinity. And you get to keep your completely transcendent Creator without worrying about how he can be involved in the suffering of a fallen world (he’s not).
- Apollinarianism: The belief that in the incarnation the Son only assumed a physical, human body and not a truly human soul (i.e. the Son puts on a human body kind of like I might put on a costume). With this view, offers a more readily understandable view of the incarnation. It’s not that you really have a union of two natures (divine and human), but you have a divine person simply clothing himself in human form for a time. That’s a picture I can wrap my mind around.
- Nestorianism: The belief that the incarnation involves the union of two complete persons: the eternal Logos and the human Jesus. This one is basically the inverse of Apollinarianism. Instead of solving the problems of the incarnation by basically denying that there’s a fully human person involved, Nestorianism solves the problem by making the “union” more of a partnership. You’ve got two full person who just work really closely together. I can get on board with that.
- Pelagianism: The belief that God has already graced us with everything that we need to achieve salvation; we simply need to be disciplined and use these God-given gifts to walk the path laid out for us. This one is great because it so clearly teaches the goodness of God’s creation (especially humans), avoids the difficulties associated with the concepts of total depravity, original sin, and predestination (by denying or significantly redefining them), emphasizes the importance of discipline and godly living, and decries any form of “easy-believism.
I could go on: Adoptionism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Donatism, and more. Every one of them offered something compelling: an approach that made difficult questions understandable. And they all thought they were defending Christianity against ideas that would ultimately undermine Christian faith, life, and ministry. Although they all went on to be condemned, that doesn’t change the fact that they each have their attraction.
What’s your favorite heresy? Which of these, or some other, do you find most compelling?
I have to admit that I can see the attraction of several of these heresies. But, if I were to pick my favorite, it would have to be Adoptionism (though Pelagianism is a close second). I think I just grew up on so many stories of the human Jesus, and so much emphasis on how important it is that he was truly human. So, I don’t find myself gravitating toward heresies like Docetism or Gnosticism. Their Jesus is too transcendent and otherworldly to tempt me much. But the earthy, faithful Jesus of Adoptionism is someone I can get behind. And I suppose that Adoptionism and Pelagianism both tempt because they both play to my own achievement mentality. At its core, the Christian life is about disciplined faithfulness. Just follow Christ’s example: be disciplined, work hard, and live faithfully. That’s all it takes.
I like that. Of course, that’s because deep down I really want the story of salvation to be about me and what I can achieve.
What about you? What’s your favorite heresy?
“I’m bored,” the young man says, setting his golden harp down on the soft, white mound next to him.
His companion sits up quickly, sending small puffs of cloud scattering in every direction, several catching on the shimmering halo that had slipped slightly to one side at her sudden movement. “Stop saying that. You’re going to get us in trouble.”
“But I am bored. There’s nothing to do.” Reaching down he fiddles absently with one of the harp strings, sending soft notes through the golden light and causing the small cloud puffs to float rhythmically around his head. “All we ever do is play these stupid harps and sing.”
“Shhhh. Someone will hear you!” she says, glancing around in a futile effort to see if anyone was close enough to hear. Futile, of course, because in this place, someone always hears.
“What are they gonna do? Kick me out?” Jerking his head, he slaps at the swirling could puffs, looking every bit like an angry camper trying to disperse a swarm of hungry mosquitos. “I almost wish they would.”
She just stares at him, too stunned to reply. After a long silence, she whispers, “You want out?”
He responds with a deep sigh, “I don’t know. Four thousand years is a long time to sit on a cloud playing a harp. A little change might be nice.” Staring down at his white robes, he adds, “I know the other side is for bad people. But maybe they’re at least having some fun.”
I’m sorry to say that the way most people describe Heaven sounds rather boring to me. Ask what they’re looking forward to about Heaven, and many people will say something about finding lost loved ones—sometimes even lost pets—the end of pain and sorrow, finally being able to dunk a basketball, run a marathon, or possibly even fly through the clouds. And these are all great things, I suppose. But I’m guessing that after a few thousand years, they’d all grow a bit stale. I love my friends and family, but after a millennium or two, I can pretty much guarantee that I’d be hiding in a closet every time I heard one of them coming around the corner. It’s possible that I just have an unusually short attention span and get bored easily. But 4,000 years of the same old thing sounds boring.
The problem is that our idea of eternity is badly confused. Ask us about Heaven, and we start describing some ethereal city in the clouds. When people do that, I always ask, “Where are the trees?” After waiting a few seconds for that to sink in, I’ll add, “God made trees, so apparently he likes them. Where are the trees in Heaven?” Then, while they’re scrambling about for an adequate answer, I’ll follow up with, “And don’t forget dung beetles. God made those too, so we should figure out where the dung beetles will be in Heaven.” Finally, pausing for effect, I’ll add, “And the fleas.” That always gets their attention. Trees are okay. Everybody likes trees. But dung beetles sound rather disgusting. And who wants to believe that there will be fleas in Heaven? That can’t be right. Heaven is holy and spiritual. Surely there won’t be fleas in Heaven. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the logic of this argument cannot be applied to cats since they were the result of an evil scientist’s failed experiment and were not actually created by God. It’s true, Google it.)
Since we see Heaven as a wholly spiritual place, we have a hard time conceiving of it having any room for such earthy things as insects. But “earthy” is exactly how the Bible describes our eternal destiny. The focus of the Bible is not on our eternal destiny up among the stars somewhere, but a new city coming down on a new earth completing the plan that God has had in mind since the beginning (Rev. 21).
Our picture of “Heaven” is wrong because we’re looking in the wrong place. Rather than gazing up in the clouds trying to picture what heaven will be like, look down at your feet. Take your shoes off and dig your toes into the damp soil. Reach down and tip the little pill bug over on its back. Watch its squiggly legs kick in the air. Then, turn it over again and let it scurry away. Nearby, see the earthworm wriggling deeper into the freshly turned earth. Look closer and examine the tiny grains of dirt, each a different shape and color, yet combining to form the lush hue of fertile soil. It even smells brown. Turn over the small rocks and explore the exquisite glories that hide in even the most innocuous crevices of creation. I can’t tell you what the new earth will be like. The Bible gives us very little detail. But I can say that this one’s pretty amazing. And, whatever God has in mind for our future, it will not be any less than this.
Who came up with the idea that we’d be disembodied spirits living in some spiritual universe forever? The Bible never says anything about that. Indeed, the Bible describes our future lies as resurrection to a true physical body, appropriately fitted for our new life (1 Cor. 15).
And our picture of eternity is out of whack because we’re selfish. Once again we find that we tend to twist the story so that it’s primarily about us—no more pain, sadness, loss, or loneliness. We can be happy forever. It sounds great. Why wouldn’t it? It’s all about us. For deeply selfish people, this sounds like the ultimate paradise.
But once again we have to remind ourselves that this story isn’t about us. Sure, eternity will be great. God loves us and wouldn’t have anything less than the best for his people. But that doesn’t mean that this is all about us. The new earth is still about God (Rev. 21:22). And that’s good news. As long as eternity is about us, it will be a boring place to be. We’re just not that cool, and eventually we’ll get bored with ourselves and our own happiness. But God? He’s another story entirely. We could spend an entire eternity pursuing him in his infinite mystery: constantly learning new things, being challenged in new ways, rediscovering over and over again how far beyond us he truly is.
Setting his harp down on the velvety soft grass, he looks over at his companion. “That’s enough for now,” he says. “I’m going to go tend the garden for a while. The corn is almost ready.”
“Thank you,” she replies, “that was lovely.” She moves slowly away meditating on the song, already looking forward to sharing it with everyone at the feast later, so they can all sing it together. But right now, she’s going to the lake for a swim.
A dung beetle watches her pass.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m doing a series over at Western Seminary’s new blog on What’s Wrong with Our Gospel? The first post looked at Paul’s Gospel summary in 1 Cor. 15:1-3 and pointed out that Paul assumed that his readers already knew the story of redemption as the proper background for his concise summary. But, since most people today don’t know the story, we need to be much more careful about offering story-less Gospel summaries. And the second post, which just went up this morning, offers a brief summary of the story.
These two posts are really just setting me up for the real focus of the series: three key ways people misunderstand the Gospel when they only hear our story-less Gospel summaries.
Follow along over at Transformed and let me know what you think.
Leaning back against the soft cushions, book held loosely in one hand, chocolate chip cookie in the other, coffee cup perched delicately on my knee, I snuggled in and looked forward to a quiet afternoon of reading. Does it get any better?
The doorbell rang.
Normally I would have ignored it, but I was staying at my parents’ house for a few days, and I thought I should at least see who it was. So, with a sigh, I thumped my cup on the table, set aside my barely tasted cookie, jammed a bookmark in its place, and hoisted myself out of the comfy confines of my parents’ couch.
Opening the front door, I was greeted by three older gentlemen in their Sunday finest. One even held a black leather Bible in front of his red tie. Another fiddled with several small pamphlets that looked suspiciously like evangelistic tracts. And, the third stepped forward with a warm smile: “Hi, we’re from First Baptist Church. You filled out a visitor card last Sunday and we’re following up to see if we can answer any questions for you.”
“Oh, I don’t live here,” I responded. “My parents moved to town a few weeks back and they’ve been checking out a few churches in the area.” Looking for a quick end to the conversation I quickly added, “If you want to leave some information, I’ll make sure they get it.”
But, these were men on a mission; they wouldn’t be dismissed that easily.
“Do you know Jesus?” Pamphlet Man asked. It probably wasn’t quite that abrupt, but that’s how I remember it.
Fortunately, I was just about to graduate from Bible college, so I was well-prepared for difficult theological questions like this. With a little smile, I looked him in the eye and confidently replied, “Yes.”
That was four years of college tuition well spent.
But, they still weren’t done. Leaning closer with his Bible clutched in both hands, the third man asked, “But, do you know where you’re going after you die?”
And there it was. The question that trumps all other questions. What could be more important than knowing the answer to a question about your eternal destiny?
Still a bit annoyed that I wasn’t back on the couch with my book, I nearly said, “Disneyland.” But, he didn’t seem like the type to appreciate a joke about eternal destinies. So, instead, I gave him what he was looking for. “I know that I’ll live forever in heaven after I die,” I said, “because I believe in Jesus with all my heart and trust him as my Lord.”
That’s what they needed—assurance that I’d reserved my spot in Heaven forever. So, they gave me some material about the church, shook my hand warmly, and went on about their business.
Too bad. They missed an excellent opportunity to explain what I’d gotten wrong.
Where did we get this idea that the whole point of the story was to make sure that we make it into heaven, and that our primary concern should be where we go after we die? Do you know that if you read through the entire New Testament, you’d end up with only a handful of verses that have anything to do with what happens to us after we die? They are there, and we shouldn’t neglect them. But, why make them such a central part of the story? Why make that the most important question you can ask someone?
Interestingly, that’s the one question Jesus almost never asked. And, he asked a lot of questions:
- Do you really think it’s that impressive if you’re nice to people who are just like you?
- Why are you anxious about little things like clothing?
- Why do you spend so much time considering the flaws of other people and ignoring your own?
- Why are you afraid?
- Why do you think about evil things all the time?
- Do you believe that I can do this?
- Who is truly a part of my family?
- Why did you doubt?
- Who do people say that I am?
- What could you possibly give in exchange for your life?
- Can you endure what I will have to endure?
- What do you want me to do for you?
Those are all great questions, just a few of the ones Jesus asks in a single book (Matthew). And, notice their focus: living faithfully in response to the Gospel today. As far as I can tell, in the entire book, Jesus only once asks a question about a person’s eternal destiny (Matthew 23:33). Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on making people think about what they are doing right now.
Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom. That’s not a message for some far off future, but it’s good news for right now. It has obvious implications for the future. We’d mess up the Gospel just as much if we thought that this story was only about the here and now. That would rob the story of purpose, hope, and direction. But, the mistake we more commonly make is thinking that the most important question we can ask is about where we’ll be in the end.
What’s the most important question that you can ask? It’s not, “Where will you go when you die?” That’s a fine question. And, it’s one that’s worth discussing. But, the most important question? I don’t think so. A far better question is, “Who will you follow while you live?” Answer that question, and the other will take care of itself.
[This is part of my series on unpacking the Gospel.]