December 12, 2019

A Confusion of Place and Time

The essential mistake in most Christian eschatology, as it is presented and understood, especially in popular, grassroots Christianity, involves a confusion of place and time.

To most Christians, the most vital issue is what happens to us after we die. And the most crucial question about the afterlife is where will we go? Common answers include heaven, hell, and purgatory. These are imagined as real places and a lot of biblical imagery is assigned to them, as well as many centuries of church history and teaching, art and literature.

Exactly how (in what form) we exist in these places is a matter of much discussion and debate. Most posit some kind of immaterial existence — our “soul” or our “spirit” is taken into God’s care. As N.T. Wright puts it, it’s as though the “hardware” goes to the grave, while the “software” goes to God, awaiting the day when the “software” will be reinstalled into brand new “hardware.”

But it is hard for us to grasp what un-embodied life would be like. So, when I attend the deaths of my patients, I commonly hear people talking about their deceased loved ones now dancing with joy and interacting in common ways with other family members who have gone before. They even talk about their loved one having a new body, as though death leads directly to resurrection so that people can literally walk on the streets of gold and play cards again with Uncle Billy.

Indeed, some theologians have posited that we receive some kind of body for the intermediate state that then becomes transformed at the resurrection into the permanent eternal body.

Though not as widely proposed, some take the biblical metaphor of “sleep” literally and say that we have no conscious existence between death and the day of resurrection when our bodies are raised and made new.

Regardless of one’s position on the human state after death, however, all agree that the ultimate goal is for us to go to a new place — to heaven, our “eternal home.”

This, however, misreads the Bible. The essence of the Christian hope is that there is an age to come that will play out in this world, not an alternative place where we are going. We confuse time with geography.

We are not looking to relocate. Where we are right now will do fine, as far as God is concerned. According to Ephesians 1:10, …this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth” (NLT).

The point is that God will dwell among us — we will not go away somewhere to God’s “house.” Heaven will come to earth, as the metaphorical description in Revelation 21 indicates. Christ will reign here. God will transform this world and raise us up to live in it — we will not leave it to go to a better place somewhere else. The creation God made will become a new creation, the One who created “the heavens and the earth” will make “a new heavens and a new earth.”

That is why this life and this world should mean so much to us now. This is our home. And somehow, in some ways, there will be radical continuity (as well as discontinuity) between our life now and our life to come.

I know why people want to focus on a place, especially when a loved one dies. They want to know their loved one is somewhere safe, where he or she is cared for. I believe this to be the case, even when trying to envision what an intermediate state actually looks like is hard. So I usually just try to reassure people by saying their loved one is now in God’s care.

As for the ultimate hope, I think we lack imagination that a world like ours, with all that humans have done to corrupt it, can ever be fully transformed. However, this is the Christian hope — a new me, a new you in new bodies living a transformed terrestrial existence, a new humanity experiencing shalom in God’s presence in this very world, made new.

Comments

  1. anonymous says

    ” For I know that my Redeemer liveth,
    and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the Earth:
    And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:
    Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another”

    (Job 19)

  2. “I think we lack imagination that a world like ours, with all that humans have done to corrupt it, can ever be fully transformed.”

    I think it’s a lack of imagination in general. Just look at what passes for “Christian art” in America today. Imagination is something relegated to children, and held in slight suspicion even then…

    • You’re talking my language brother. If dreams are a gift to our nights imagination is a gift to our days.

  3. Robert F says

    That is why this life and this world should mean so much to us now. This is our home.

    And yet it hasn’t felt like home to me — it has felt like alien, hostile territory, from the moment I became self-aware as a child. Maybe it should mean as much to me as you say, CM, but if meaning includes feeling, that’s just not something I can order myself to do. One cannot make oneself feel on the basis of an imperative. Quite apart from and before consideration of the degradation of creation that humanity is at fault for, I find this world that includes so much suffering and loss ain’t all that hot. If my early Christian indoctrination hadn’t filled me with the fear of hell after death, a fear I haven’t been able to shake loose from since childhood, I would be quite ready and happy to depart this world without protest however soon that occasion might occur. This world has never felt like home to me, and if it doesn’t feel like home, how can it be?

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      Perhaps the world does not feel like home because it is so ****ed up? I know people who have been burgled etc will often say their home no longer feels like home because it feels “violated”: maybe you don’t feel the world is like home because you are all too aware of what it should be like and isn’t. My home also often feels like it isn’t “home” when it’s just me and my family isn’t there: maybe when (to paraphrase Revelation) God himself is with us, and he is our God, and we his people, and the world truly is as it should be, then it will feel like home for you? Just a thought.

      • Robert F says

        Of course that’s possible. But it’s not just what humans have done to it that has made it seem “so ****ed” up to me. It seems to me that the nastiness of the world is embedded in it, and however much worse humanity has made that or accelerated it, it came to us already nasty. Maybe this world will become home, but it is not that now, nor can I believe that it ever has been. A lean-to in the wilderness is not a home.

        • Christiane says

          “A lean-to in the wilderness is not a home.”

          it sounds pretty good to me, Robert F

          a story: my son and his fiance from Latvia are driving across country this summer and given choices, the dear girl chose the Yellowstone over Las Vegas as one of the destinations. . . . . ( her parents brought her up right ).

          what makes a place ‘home’ . . . . . can a campfire and the sounds of a brook and the light from the Milky Way Galaxy offer sanctuary from the stresses of our modern dehumanization?

          I’ll take the lean-to with gratitude, Robert.
          I’m older now and I tire of the worldliness and the materialism. I can find my ‘hygge’ and ‘cozy’ elsewhere in the wilderness of the moose and the reindeer.
          I want so much to go ‘home’. But I don’t know where it is anymore.
          I need to re-calibrate my compass and set out for it soon, while I still breathe and am able to move.
          “home’ out there:
          I can sense it with all my being: it’s ‘out there’ waiting for me to come and live there in peace. I’ve waited a long time, so very long. 🙂

    • Robert, whether or not this world “feels” like home, the point of the post is that the Jewish and Christian faith and our sacred scriptures tell us that it IS our home, in this age and in the age to come. Our questions, doubts, laments, and even our disapproval of the way the world is is certainly a legitimate topic, one which we visit regularly here on Internet Monk. It is an integral part of the “wilderness” and “exile” themes that run through scripture and our lives. The pain and questions are sometimes so acute that it is natural for many to look for another home, another place. But there is no escaping this world. According to Genesis 1, our calling as humans is to live in God’s blessing so that we flourish, subdue the evil in this world, and exercise stewardship as God’s representatives in it. Tikkun olam — repair the world, gather the light that will ultimately overcome the darkness. Or, in Jesus’ words, seek the Kingdom that has dawned in him, and hasten the day when all the world will be under his authority, filled with shalom and justice.

      • Robert F says

        It may be the only place I have, that God has given me, but it is not yet a home. It is a wilderness, replete with predators, in which shelters may be set up, but none of them are permanent or adequate. My faith will have to settle for the idea that my home is currently under construction, by God, and I can either help by practicing tikkun olam, or I can make things worse. In the interim, I’m skeptical about how much flourishing, subduing, and representing I or the rest of the human race are up to; evolution seems to have engineered us for focusing on relatively short-term survival goals, and we have to overcome an awful lot of hard-wiring to counteract that engineering. God help us.

  4. David S. says

    Heaven is the presence of God. Hell is the absence of God. Christ followers are the body of Christ. By living Christ’s example, followers bring heaven (home) to earth. As we are a fallen people, it is no wonder our home is f***** up.

  5. Ah… the doctrine of “soul sleep”!

    I grew up in a small rural Southern Baptist church. One Sunday the minister was away for some reason and one of the deacons was given the task of delivering the sermon. Everyone expected one thing and got something completely different! The deacon preached about the doctrine of “soul sleep”, where as Chaplain Mike says, “we have no conscious existence between death and the day of resurrection when our bodies are raised and made new”. Well this was most assuredly not SBC doctrine and much consternation and furor resulted.

    I was a small kid and somewhat precocious and I remember pointing out that when you fall asleep at night and then wake up in the morning you have little if any sense of time passing. So what difference did it make? Your experience of death and resurrection would seem almost instantaneous. Alas, no theological discussion ensued – I was shushed. The fact I remember this incident so well tells me it made a significant impact. These folks didn’t just think the idea was wrong, they were afraid of it. Very telling.

    • thatotherjean says

      Many, maybe most, people are afraid of ceasing to exist, even for a little while. Anesthesia–and sometimes even sleep–tends to freak people out, because a person under anesthesia has no awareness of being. Natural sleep may result in dreams, but is sometimes a void between night and morning. It is, I think, normal to be afraid of death, especially if you believe that there is a period resembling sleep between death and resurrection. What if you don’t wake up?

  6. The departed, I think, are not so much in a different where as they are in a when which is rapidly disappearing over the horizon.

    It is very, very hard for me to understand the a-temporality of the intermediate state. My brain is so wired to think of myself as a discrete point moving from the past into the future, somewhat as the “fog of war” lifts in video games as your character moves through the virtual landscape.. I believe, but I am not certain of the Church’s teaching on this, that every human being who ever has drawn breath or who will ever draw breath were/are/will be in Sheol when Christ descends there.

  7. How does what you are saying fit in with Jesus words, “I go and prepare a place for you that where I am there you by be also”?
    The majority of my spiritual mentor-ship has been focused on the teaching that eternal life is all about going to heaven/ escaping this corrupt world — that “this world is not my home.” But, my perspective has shifted. I have come away from the emphasis of thinking that eternal life means going to heaven and “walking the streets of gold.” I believe now that eternal life is not about a place / knowing where you are going but about a person / knowing Jesus Christ. John 17:3 I do not feel at home in this world, but as I seek to grow in my knowledge of Jesus Christ, I find that there is a desire to work towards making this world my home.

    • Jesus doesn’t say WHERE that place is to be (ultimately). His ‘father’s house’ does not necessarily mean an eternal disembodied existence in a spiritual realm (as Wright points out, a pagan idea borrowed from neo-platonists as Greek philosophy impacted the church in the second and third centuries). As you imply, we are so used to reading the Bible in the ‘traditional way’ that we just assume that way is correct. The question to ask is what would those original disciples, who were raised with the hope of resurrection and eternal life on a renewed earth, have understood Jesus to be saying? I’m guessing they wouldn’t have thought of eternity in heaven or escaping from the earth. Unfortunately, Christian escapism, which owes much to dispensationalism, has kept the church from being very effective in carrying out Jesus’ kingdom mandates (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount), or being faithful stewards of creation, the primary mandate given to Adam.

      • It does say a new heaven and a new earth in Revelation. The how and what it will be like are unknown to us. I will trust in the Lord to make it happen and hope that I am a part of it.

  8. I don’t concern myself with this topic in terms of the where’s and the hows. My eternal destiny certainly concerns me but as long as I am in Christ I’m ok with whatever that means. I will say that I am generally informed by the “traditional” teaching of Evangelicalism. I have just assumed that without giving it much thought. Your post, along with some others you have done and some Richard Rohr, causes me to reconsider.

  9. Rick Ro. says

    What’s it going to be like? Well, if it’s not somehow better than the natural world we live in today (as beautiful as it sometimes is, there’s also storms and droughts galore), in bodies that are better than we muddle through with while in the here and now…

    Then I’m not sure what my hope is in, or who my hope is with…