Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash
The Church has been directed by Christ to pray this:
“Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9-10)
What does this say about the Christian goal? What does it say about Jesus’ relationship with – and design for – the earth? It does not say, “Our father, who art in heaven, get as many souls to heaven as possible before you destroy the earth.” Instead, it invites the Church to see God’s kingdom come on earth, while says nothing about “getting to heaven.” This is problematic for those strains of our evangelical theology which make the earth almost entirely inconsequential by presenting it only as the place to escape from. I submit this, that biblical Christian faith is not in that we will escape to heaven, but rather that – after all is made right – we will witness heaven arrive on earth and the dwelling place of God will “be among men” (Rev. 21:3).
As I mentioned in this blog’s prequel, “Continuity 1: Body,” it is correct to see that God is absolutely concerned with saving souls – so long as you understand that “soul” refers to one’s “deepest self” rather than a disembodied spirit. God is actively saving souls, in this sense, by inviting them to repentance, to the forgiveness of sins, and to reconciliation. There’s a richness and beauty in this that evangelicalism has not forgotten and has done well to pursue with energy.
But some of us have forgotten that resurrection, and not disembodied escape, is what reconciliation with God ultimately wins for us. This is the contention I made in my last blog; We are invited by Christ to hope for our embodied resurrection – for when we will be like him. Our final state and fulfillment will not be as disembodied spirits, but rather as restored bodies. This is, I think, an enrichment of an otherwise lacking telling of the gospel. There will be a continuity of, and complete restoration of, the body.
And now I contend in addition, there will be a continuity and complete restoration of the earth. The earth upon which God invites us to pray for the Kingdom to come – this earth is the one that God remains invested in. I think that the Church should not be shy to celebrate and hope for the continuity and restoration of the earth in the final creative order. Otherwise, wouldn’t it be futile to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth? Why would we, if God is just going to get rid of it?
Paul explains, in Romans 8, that creation (earth/universe) is under duress at present but will not always be so. Presently, it is “subjected to futility” (v.20). It knows entropy and death and decay but that is not its final state. Paul remarks, “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains,” in order not to say that it is condemned and doomed for annihilation, but rather to say that it is pregnant with expectation of its restoration. Paul celebrates that, “the whole of creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v.21). What is that freedom of glory of the children of God? Paul presents it in verse 23 as “the redemption of our bodies,” which is the resurrection. Paul compares the earth’s restoration to the resurrection of the human body. The earth will undergo its equivalent of resurrection.
We can confirm then, I submit, that there is a clear continuity between present earth and future earth. It will be the same earth but different in the same way that Jesus’ resurrected body is the same body but different.
Jesus' resurrection is paradigmatic of and effective toward so much more than we give it credit for. Christ is he who “fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23). Christ’s resurrection marks a substantive change in everything. The earth will know the restoration that this brings.
In the ultimate scene of revelation, the One who Sits on the Throne says, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5). Since we’ve established a continuity between present body and future body, and continuity between present earth and future earth, then this means that God is renewing everything rather than completely starting over. Our bodies and our earth will be completely made new – restored. He is restoring everything, revitalizing it, and re-creating it as he takes it through Christ’s death and into his resurrection. The new Heavens and new Earth mark a totally restored order of things (v.1).
Where does the Bible end? What is the goal, the “telos”, of the gospel? Certainly, the final chapters of the Bible should give us some sense of what we should be looking forward to. With this in mind, we ask, where does the Bible end? Is it in heaven? The answer is both “yes” and “no”. Why “no”?
God’s statement of making all things new in Revelation 21 is accompanied by the image of Jerusalem coming “down from heaven” to earth (v.2). What is the result of this development? The result is found in the following glorious proclamation, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them” (v.3). The scene presents God making his dwelling place on earth, having sent down the seat of his reign. So does the Bible end in heaven? Not really! It appears to end on earth, with God dwelling with humanity in their natural habitat, the land they were made for.
This scene is not at all the escapist picture of disembodied spirits finding bliss in an ethereal plane. Rather it’s a picture of earth in complete restoration and in perfect harmony with God and with heaven. The resurrection of the body has been accomplished and the reign of God has arrived. His kingdom has come, and his will has been done on earth as it is in heaven. What we pray for will be actualized.
The Bible ends with resurrected humanity on restored earth. Why then does Jesus ask us not to store up treasures “on earth” but rather “in heaven”? The answer might be found in a biblical understanding of what heaven is. How does Jesus use the concept of heaven? This will give some clarity regarding why the Bible holistically invites us to hope for a restored earth while Christ at the same time invites us to hope in heaven. We’ll find in the end that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that heaven is a principle order as well as a place.
Jesus says in Matthew 6:19, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
When we read this, we must remember that this is the same Jesus that commanded his disciples to pray for the kingdom of God to come on earth. Knowing this, it cannot be the case that Jesus in Matthew 9 is telling his disciples to consider the earth a lost cause.
To store up treasures on earth is to invest in one’s wealth and esteem in the present kingdoms rather than in the kingdom of God. The quoted passage is from Christ’s sermon on the mount in which a persisting theme is the dichotomy between a worldly mode of life and a heavenly mode of life. Both modes are lived in the present and in the physical, but the first is done to gain men’s esteem while the second is done to accord with the Father’s will (6:1-6, 16-18). The worldly mode of life is done to establish one’s own investments and security, while the heavenly mode is enacted in faith that the Father will provide (5:38-48, 6:19-34). To store up treasures in heaven is to live righteously and according to the faith that God will provide for you and vindicate you.
To store up treasures in heaven does not mean to have no regard for the earth, but rather to have no identity-level investment in its present authorities and power schemes. Have no faith in the earth as it presently stands. You can, however – and I think it's biblical do so – have faith, for the earth. We may know that Christ has given us citizenship in a world that is better than the one we live in now, and we may invest in that world, “the kingdom of heaven”. We may also know that that world is the redemption of this one. To store up treasures in heaven is a mode of life which is still lived on earth in a body, but which is invested not in the present order of things, but in the future order of things when all things are restored. Storing up treasures in heaven is not an abandonment of the physical world, but a transcendence above the corruption that the physical world finds itself in.
Heaven stands in contention with the evils of the world, and we must choose either the life of heaven or the death of a broken world (which for so many is the only option they can see). Heaven also is that new order which – all things having been fulfilled in Christ and indeed even judgement having run its purgative course – will constitute New Earth’s (a physical world’s) redemption.
It’s helpful perhaps to note that “world” (κόσμος) in the New Testament, more often has the sense of “humanity,” “constitution,” or “order,” than it has the sense of “land” or physicality (Matt. 18:5, Luk. 12:30, John 1:29, 1 Cor. 1:20, Rev. 11:15). Scripture is pretty clear as to the “world” being corrupt and sinful. By this it means not that the physical is evil but that the present order of the earth, particularly of humanity, is evil.
Even this will be redeemed, however. An angel announces at the end of Revelation, “The kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ: and he shall reign for ever and ever” (21:15b). Christ becomes the monarch of the world which before was evil but under Christ is good.
We notice in scripture that God remains invested in the earth. We notice also that Christ stands in contention, not with the physical but rather with the corruption of the physical. We see that heaven represents an alternative order for the world, which we can choose to live in now.
Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc., and all materiality including humanity, are creative movements of God and are redeemable. Perhaps this is the point that excites me the most. Heaven is not an abandonment of these first miracles. Heaven is not a contingency plan for God’s failure. Heaven is not plan B; rather heaven is phase 2. Heaven is the redemption of all that came before. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand, and is the deliverance of what is broken.
Doesn’t it become exciting then, to pray for that kingdom to come here, now? In recent years this theology of resurrection and new creation sunk into me at a soul level and it changed my vision of everything. Among other things, affirming God’s persisting investment in the earth gave me permission to pray for the earth’s restoration, gave me the ability to affirm social justice as an outworking of faith in Jesus, and also, interestingly, gave me greater permission to be an artist. It helped lift my depression. It enabled me to affirm people’s worth as well as their sinfulness. This theology has significant ramifications for what it means to be Christian and even what it means to be human. I probably have a lot more to say about ramifications, but I’ll let this suffice for now, as for now, I’m just arguing that it's biblical.
Consider also the beatitudes, which also are found in the sermon on the mount. In the first beatitude, the poor in spirit are assured that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). Theirs will be heaven. In the third, the meek are blessed for that “they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Theirs will be the earth. Are heaven and earth mutually exclusive? Will God give earth as the habitat of the meek and heaven as the habitat of the poor in spirit? Is it either/or? Nay, I think that those who are in Christ will get both.
The “Kingdom of God” and the “Kingdom of Heaven,” are terms Christ used often. It has been argued that the two are basically synonymous with each other and I’m going to operate with that assumption. One scholar, I forget which, defined these as, “the reign of God.” This treats the term as a principle or an order. The Kingdom of Heaven is the reign of God. Jesus says to his disciples that, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Matt. 10:7; Luke 17:21). The reign of God is within us. To store up treasures in heaven is to live according to the reign of God within us, instead of in the broken systems of the world. This can still be done on earth, but requires faith in God above the earth.
Now, this view of heaven does not necessarily preclude that heaven is also a place. Scripture does often speak of heaven as a place. But scripture also seems to treat heaven as a reality that Christ has caused to permeate earth. It appears to me that Scripture presents heaven entering earth even now, and coming more fully still. In John’s Revelation, God sends Jerusalem, the seat of his reign, down to earth. In a meaningful sense, this is a picture of heaven coming to earth. For the embodied creatures that we are, this will be the best possible result for us. It evokes and affirms the imagery of many of the prophets, but I think particularly of Isaiah 11:9b,
“For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Yahweh, as the waters cover the sea.”
God is invested in restoring his earth. Taking this seriously gives voice back to passages like the above from Isaiah in which the reign of God is presented in very physical terms and the assumed territory is earth.
Those whom Christ has saved look forward to resurrection and to the restoration of all things. They look forward to what has been called the marriage of heaven and earth – at least my professor Jerry Pauls referred to it that way. In this marriage of heaven and earth, God will dwell with humanity. All will be well. The redeemed of Christ will have inherited both heaven and earth.
The Bible does not end with, “And the earth was a charred mess, but it was OK because God had gotten some souls out of it into heaven.” No, instead the Bible ends with the earth having become the tabernacle of God and with souls being given resurrected bodies.
One might wonder if emphasizing the restoration of all things as I have done, is inherently a negation or dismissal of scripture’s many proclamations of judgement. I say not at all! Judgment absolutely has its place. What is evil must be overcome. I’m of the view that the “natural consequence” of an evil and the intervention of God are not always, or ever, mutually exclusive. In any case, there will be and already is punitive action against the evils of this world. God will be glorified in giving no permanence to these aberrations. But as we find in scripture, the retributive works of God surprise us by their becoming restorative. The judgement of God purifies.
And just as the resurrection of Christ is the final state and not his death, so also will restoration be the final state of all that Christ has claimed, including the world, even though it may need to undergo its own death of sorts.
So, Christians, store up for yourselves treasures in the new order of things and do not resign to the present evil. Place not your faith in the broken world but rather place your faith in Christ who has overcome and who will restore the world (John 16:33. Rev. 11:15). I hope that Christians can begin to hope again in Christ’s just reign over the earth and regain the reason why we pray for heaven to come and God’s will do be done, on earth.
If there is a disembodied escape to heaven that happens, it is temporary and provisional. Our hope as Christians is not escape but resurrection onto the earth that God did not give up on, but which God made Christ ruler of, and which he comes down to dwell upon. The earth groans in expectation and we groan with it as we wait for the day when there will be no dissonance between heaven and earth, and God will have reclaimed it all. Hallelujah! Our Father in Heaven, may your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.