The Homecoming of Jesus Christ

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both fully human and fully divine. This one person possesses in Himself two natures, the nature of God and the nature of man. Unfortunately, this is hard for us to understand. We cannot get how someone can exist in this way, so we naturally tend to lean towards error. Too easily we begin to lose sight either of either Jesus’ deity or, in my experience, more often His humanity.

Losing sight of Jesus’ humanity is, to be an honest, a pretty easy thing to do. We forget things like that Jesus grew up as a boy. He had a home, a house where he lived with His mother and His adoptive father. Nazareth was His hometown, and He certainly had favorite places to go and sights to see throughout His childhood and onward. He was, and remains, a human being with a human history and a human home. Indeed, Jesus grew up in our own world, shared in our experience of this world, and enjoyed its mountains, waters, and produce.

With this in mind, I would like to point out that Jesus is currently, in a way, away from home. While He reigns from heaven, which is truly the proper home for Him according to His divinity, He is not locally present at His human home. Jesus hasn’t walked the streets of Nazareth in two thousand years, or felt the warmth of our sun, the cool of an autumn breeze, the refreshment of flowing water. He is physically away from His earthly home, from the planet and country and town in which He lived out His childhood with Mary and Joseph.

This is, of course, far from an ideal situation. Home is a powerful part of human existence. We do not easily move past the sentiments and memories of our formative years. To say that any of this does not apply to Jesus would seem to imply that His humanity is not quite fully human, that His human life has some kind of more exalted dimension that’s just a little less earthy and personal than ours. Such an implication would be a heretical one. Can we really suspect that Jesus will be content to never return home?

Yet we know from Scripture that Jesus is not away forever. He has promised to return, and this will not be exclusively for our benefit, but for His joy as well. One day Jesus will come back to His own land and live once again among us in full physical, human life on the same earth where He played and laughed as a boy. He will be able to visit old sites, the locations of precious memories, with Mary and Joseph if He pleases. When this happens, all of creation will sing for joy and find itself radically transformed to reflect His glory. Jesus is coming home, and His homecoming will give the world, including His many brothers and sisters in the Spirit, a share in His resurrection life that will never die or fade. This is our hope. Our Elder Brother is away, and in the meantime the house is chaotic and messy. But He will return, and when He does the reunion will be everything. Lord Jesus, come. Come home.

[As a side note, I recognize that some of you will be thinking, “This can’t be quite right because this earth will be completely destroyed when Jesus returns.” With this line of thinking I do not agree at all. For the sake of space, I will simply say that I believe the destiny of creation is the same as Christ’s fate: death and resurrection. I’ve written and preached on this previously, and so I refer you to such posts.]

The Homecoming of Jesus Christ

N. T. Wright on the New Creation

The world is created good but incomplete. One day when all the forces of rebellion have been defeated and the creation responds freely and gladly to the love of its creator, God will fill it with himself so that it will both remain an independent being and also be flooded with God’s own life. This is part of the paradox of love, in which love freely given creates a context for love to be returned, and so on in a cycle in which complete freedom and complete love do not cancel each other out but rather celebrate each other and make one another whole.

N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope

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The Real Heavens of God’s Word

In my previous post Heaven Is a Myth. Sort Of. I began the question of what the Bible really teaches about heaven. I suggested that most popular ideas of heaven are myths, though I did not specify exactly what is mythical and what is real. Finally, I listed the three Biblical “places” people call “heaven.” My goal in this post is to continue explaining what each place is for real and give Scripture to back up what I’m saying.

Heaven #1: God’s World

The place in Scripture most often called “heaven” is the place where God and His angels dwell. The Bible says that God is in heaven 1, as well as the angels 2. Yet it does not appear to be some kind of uncreated, purely spiritual presence of God, like some people imagine. Instead, despite the ambiguity created by the use of the word “heavens” also to refer to the sky/space, it does appear to be the case that heaven is a place created by God alongside of “earth,” our physical world 3.

It is at this point we can see a concept of twin realities made by God in creation: earth as man’s place and heaven as God’s place. In heaven we see God and his subject angels 4, and on earth we see man in the image of God and their subject animals 5. God reigns in heaven directly, and His will is always done there 6. On earth, God rules through human beings 7, and because of that weak link His will is not always done here.

Nowhere in Scripture are believers said to go here after death. Indeed, if this heaven actually does have some kind of space, but the dead no longer have spatial bodies, then they cannot “go” there. In fact, they can’t “go” anywhere.

Heaven #2: Paradise

So what happens to believers when they die? They go to Paradise, which the Jews sometimes called Abraham’s bosom 8. We should not think of this place as somewhere physical. It isn’t, because we go there without bodies. After we die our bodies lie in the ground, and our spirits/souls/whatevers, which are not physical, experience whatever happens next. They are not our bodies, so they do not have eyes, noses, ears, skin, or tongues. They do not have senses. Moreover, they lack brains, which largely control the kind of consciousness we experience in our bodies.

What does this mean? Paradise is not at all a normal state that we could imagine. We do not have normal consciousness there, seeing and hearing and feeling and thinking. It has something in common with sleep, but is nonetheless different. This can be proved throughout the Scriptures 9.

Paradise is a peculiar state. It is, on one hand, somewhat abysmal and empty, due to our existence without the bodily half of our nature 10. We’re meant to be in bodies, not without them. Yet it is also blissful and in fact better than our current state of tension with sin and weakness 11. Once we’ve died, the last of the old man will be completely gone, which means we will be with Christ in a better way than now 12. At present we are incomplete and have sin, but then we will be incomplete and without sin.

Heaven #3: Resurrection and New Earth

The final and ultimate reality often called “heaven” (but not by the Bible) is the new creation coming at the last day. This is mostly testified by Isaiah and Revelation, though of course the hope permeates the Scriptures. In the end, when Christ returns to judge the world, everyone will be raised from the dead. Those who are in Christ and have His Spirit will be resurrected to eternal life 13, while the rest will be raised for condemnation 14.

This resurrection will be the second stage of new birth. What God did for our spirit when we first believed He will do for our bodies: a new creation, not starting from scratch but incomprehensibly transforming the old 15. Jesus’ resurrection body is the prototype of our future bodies, and His was not a brand new creation. It “used up” the matter of His original body, leaving an empty tomb 16. It still bore the scars of His saving death 17. God didn’t scrap the original body and make a brand new one; He renewed, restored, and glorified the first physical body. 18

Of course, even though these bodies will remain truly physical and tangible, they will be different than our current bodies. Apparently they can bypass certain normal spacetime restrictions 19. No longer mortal or subject to decay, they will be immortal and incorruptible 20. In some way, even though our bodies will be still physical human bodies, they will be radically changed and new as well 21. C. S. Lewis captured the picture well when he suggested we should “remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

As to the new earth, the same pattern of death and resurrection follows. Isaiah and John both wrote about the “new heavens and earth” 22. This world will die in fire 23, but the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead will similarly raise the entire creation 24. Again, we’re not dealing with God scrapping the old creation and making a new one from scratch. It is recreation, restoration, renewal. It is resurrection, just like Jesus, who is the firstfruits of the new creation 25.

This place, our final destination, will be a completely physical world, somehow connected to the current one, for it will be where we live in our resurrected physical bodies. Its crowning capitol will be the New Jerusalem, described beautifully by John in Revelation 21-22. There God’s heaven (the #1 listing) and our earth will become one 26, since we see that there “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them” 27. The new creation, not the Paradise where we go when we die, will be home to the “streets of gold” 28 and other beauties, though more than likely these are not literal details but a fanciful and symbolically loaded description meant to give off a particular picture of glory and wonder. It will be our home for all eternity.

Everything beyond this point becomes somewhat speculative. I do think that, since this will be a resurrection world and not some start-from-scratch creation or spiritual plane, there will be lots of stuff remaining from our present age. Art, architecture, music, and such made by Spirit-led believers to glorify God may well surviving the purification by fire. Church buildings hallowed to God’s glory where He has touched many lives may stick around. Natural wonders are sure to remain and be even more glorious than before. The world will dazzle with God’s brilliance, “for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with an awareness of the glory of the Lord” 29.

So What?

Having said all of this, why does it matter? What difference does the Biblical picture of heaven make compared to the popular ideas? Much in every way. On the one hand, it is always worthwhile to speak Biblically instead of following unbiblical traditions (the same reason we Protestants pointedly reject certain Catholic doctrines about Mary, even though they’re unimportant). But there is more to it than that.

Framing the issues this way keeps our focus clear. God’s heaven is what we want to emulate and bring to earth, anticipating the way that they will become one in the new creation. Understanding Paradise reminds us how much God cares for our bodily existence, so that we will not neglect or undervalue them. If the physical world will be renewed for our eternal home, there is reason to get out and do real things, knowing that our labors can be preserved. Resurrection brings hope and a certainty towards the defeat of death. Honestly, I could go on, but it would be easier to simply point you to the book Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright, who covers all of this and the practical applications in much detail.

I’ll close with this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone.

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.

Revelation 21:3-8

The Real Heavens of God’s Word

Heaven Is a Myth. Kind Of.

“So now he’s saying heaven is a myth. What has gotten into Caleb’s brain today?” This is may be something like the reaction you had to the title of this post. And that’s probably justified. I’ve already pulled pretty well the same stunt with I Don’t Believe in Hell a while back. It’s just that heaven and hell are such deliciously popular topics that such titles always attract attention.

Anyway, what am I actually saying this time? Well, first off I’m certainly not saying that there is no such thing as heaven. That would be Biblically absurd. When I say “heaven is a myth” I mean specifically the popular conceptions of heaven that dominate books and movies, whether Christian or not. There is certainly a real heaven, but it’s not what most people imagine it is, and that is the message I mean to get across in this post.

Define “Heaven”, Please

What’s wrong with the common perceptions of heaven? Part of the problem is the lack of precision. People use the word “heaven” to refer to God’s presence, the place believers go after death, and the future state elaborated in Revelation 21-22. Because many Christians use the same word for all of these places, the differences get muddled to create a strange, murky, and unbiblical mix. My goal here is to distinguish between the different things and clarify the Biblical vision of heaven.

First off, the word “heaven” itself in the Bible is never used for where people go when they die, nor does it ever refer to the new creation after Jesus returns. It is used primarily in three ways (note that I’m only referencing the New Testament to make things easier for me, but what I say can also be seen in the Old):

  • “Heaven” can refer to the sky and/or space, e.g. Matt. 3:16, 16:2, Mk. 7:34, Lk. 9:16, Acts 11:6, Jas. 5:18
  • “Heaven” can be used as a substitute for “God.” This is clearly seen in Matthew. Everywhere the other gospels say “kingdom of God” Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven.” 
  • Finally, “heaven” can refer to the place where God and His angels are, e.g. Matt. 5:16, 22:30, Mk. 11:26, John 1:51, Acts 7:55.

Search the Scriptures and see for yourself: never is the word “heaven” used in relation to where a human is, with precisely two exceptions. The first is that of Jesus, who is exalted in heaven at the right hand of God and intercedes for us there. The only other exception is Paul in a vision being caught up to the third heaven. But these exceptions prove the rule. Heaven is never mentioned as the destiny of the dead righteous.

There is a word used in Scripture for the place where the dead righteous are. This word is “paradise.” Jesus Himself used it to the thief on the cross, and it is one of two direct names for the place where dead believers are. The other reference is “Abraham’s bosom” in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. These two references to the dwelling of dead believers are the only ones which name the place, and neither uses the word “heaven.”

Is it semantics I’m playing here? Not merely. What we must learn to make sense of the Biblical teachings on heaven is to distinguish between the three places associated with our concept of heaven. I’ll give a basic overview of each here, and later I’ll give details on the Biblical case for each.

The Three Things People Like to Call “Heaven”

First, heaven is the space God created alongside “earth.” Our visible world is parallel to the world of heaven, and both were created by God in the beginning. Heaven is flooded with the glory and presence of God, and His will is always carried out there. Angels also dwell there. This world is not the purely spiritual presence of God, but a created space with its own created order which parallels ours. Heaven and earth are distinct, but together. They are separate, but right beside each other. They occasionally intersect and get messily involved with each other. God reigns in this heaven, Jesus’ physical human body is currently present there, and angels go to and fro between there and here to accomplish God’s purposes.

Next, paradise is where believers are after death. It is not equal to heaven, but is something else. For believers, it is a place of rest and comfort until the last day when we are to be resurrected. This is not likely to be a physical or material place, because it is neither in heaven nor earth and the people who dwell there are without bodies for the time being. It is a truly immaterial existence, without sight, touch, smell, or sound. There are no mansions, streets of gold, or anything which can be physically sensed there. Paradise has bliss for the righteous, a bliss that results from God’s caring embrace by the Spirit, but there is still a degree of discomfort because they are “naked” and lack their bodies. This place is ultimately temporary, an immaterial existence which will no longer be relevant in the resurrection.

Finally, the new creation (also called the new heavens and earth) is where believers are destined to live in eternity. This is a physical world birthed out of our current one, a recreation. Just like the Spirit radically healed and transformed us at our new birth to make us a new creation, so will He do to the entire world in the last day. Just like Jesus’ dead body was restored to life and made altogether fresh and new, so will the entire cosmos die in flame and be restored to a new and fuller glory in Christ. This will still be our physical universe, but fixed, renewed, and brought to its true destined purity. 

Obviously, by this point I’ve said a lot that you may not have heard before, and very well may prove controversial. So be it. But alas, I’m nearing a thousand words here, so it’s not the time to go on. I’ll continue this series. In my next post, I’ll start defending and building with Scripture what I’ve said about these three places. In the mean time, try reading the Bible with these thoughts in mind and see if it makes sense. You may be surprised.

Heaven Is a Myth. Kind Of.