October 21, 2020

Too Much Heaven? Part 2: Heaven and Earth

UPDATE: Here’s a post that has a perfect feel for the idea of heaven that I grew up around- and that still surrounds me here in the mountains. (PHC= Pentecostal Holiness Church.)

The message of many evangelistically focused conservative Christians is about heaven: How to get there. What will heaven be like. Why heaven is our ultimate destiny. “Salvation,” in this version of Christianity, is about going to heaven. Purely and simply.

If you died tonight, would God let you into his heaven? Is your name in the book? When the rapture occurs, will you be taken or left?

At another level, however, this message has a more ambiguous, even dark, side: the rejection of the value of earthly life in favor of life in heaven. The longing for heaven can sound like a near suicidal longing to escape this world, something that would set must psychiatrists reaching for the phone.

Many Christians are unclear of the relation of heaven and earth. Heaven is spoken of as up there, out there, away from here. Earth is to be left behind. It is the domain of the devil. A recent speaker at my ministry said that the “third heaven” is a realm beyond the stars and stated it as the undoubtable location.

At the same time, Christians are familiar with the Bible’s message that God will create “new heaven and a new earth.” Believers in an earthly millennium believe that Jesus will reign over an earthly kingdom from his throne in Jerusalem. Yet, some of those same literalists will go into detailed descriptions of the “New Jerusalem” as a gigantic cubed city that will exist……somewhere, perhaps like a Borg spaceship in space.

Christians are told that if they are truly “saved,” their attitude toward the relationship of heaven and earth will be the attitude of Paul in Philippians.

My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

From this, some Christians build an entire attitude towards life on earth that contains a kind of competitive spirituality (“Who wants to go to heaven more?”) and a devaluing of life on earth (“This world is not my home.”)

This becomes a problem immediately, and at several levels.

First, there is the issue of creation and the considerable Biblical teaching on creation as a conveyance of God’s glory. Creation is the arena where we serve and worship God. We are part of this creation, and were made to be part of it.

Secondly, there is the incarnation, which is an affirmation of creation and God’s commitment to redeeming that creation. Jesus is the union of heaven and earth.

Thirdly, there are the repeated commands for God’s people to glorify God in various earthly relationships, vocations and activities.

Finally, there is the eschatological promise that God’s purpose will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

Listen carefully to Paul’s actual words in Philippians in their larger context. Do they really say what they are so often quoted to say?

Philippians 1:18b Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

What is “far better?” While heaven is always far better than this fallen world, and rest is ideally better than labor, Paul certainly has in mind his imprisonment and prosecution by the Romans as well as what is going on in the Christian communities that Paul cannot respond to as a prisoner.

Paul is not endorsing a general despising of created life and earthly existence or a focus on heaven that devalues the gift of life glorifying God in the present.

I am well aware from my own ministry that there are moments of suffering where it should be clear to any Christian that “to depart and be with Christ is far better.” A visit to any hospital, nursing home or blighted community will underline this truth.

But this does not negate the gifts of God that are to be appreciated and sacramentally encountered in this life. The Older Testament continually sees the life of the righteous as an earthly life that longs to know God more and serve him in this earthly realm. The “heavenly hope” is absent in the Older Testament, and only begins to shine through later passages.

It is an imbalanced view of scripture to give more attention to Enoch or Elijah than to the perspective of the vast majority of the Older Testament that looks for God to keep his promises in this life as well as in the life beyond. When the New Testament hope of heaven appears in the teachings of Jesus, it is in the context of a developed Jewish understanding that develops from the Older Testament roots. Those roots should not be radically reinterpreted or ignored in favor of a distorted apocalypticism.

This was humorously underlined for me several years ago when someone brought a movie to our ministry produced by fundamentalist Baptist evangelist Estus Perkle (sp?) Much of this film, entitled Heaven, is available on YouTube, as is its sequel The Burning Hell.

Though well-motivated, the film amounts to a study of the perception of heaven by mid-twentieth century Baptist fundamentalists. Crass literalism and cultural prejudice abounds in such a way that heaven appears to be a place most of us would only want to live only if the choices were extremely limited and unpleasant.

Is it possible that the evangelical version of heaven suffers from two major problems:

It is simply not centered enough in God himself, but emphasizes details that are quite probably metaphorical and meant to be secondary to the central truth that heaven is where God reigns most directly. In other words, heaven is the God-present dimension of all reality, not a place somewhere “elsewhere.”

It does not properly emphasize the relationship of heaven and earth, which is not an “either/or” relationship, but a relationship where one is completed by the other. The Paradise is Genesis 1 and Revelation 22 appears to be the “marriage” of heaven and earth in the presence of God himself. Sin has ruptured that harmony, and Jesus Christ, the one mediator between heaven and earth, will once again restore that union.

If this is true, then there is a heavenly aspect to every human activity and the church bears witness to this in Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and its own worship and proclamation. Christians bear witness to this heavenly dimension by sanctifying everything they do with the person of Christ and the centrality of the God revealed in the Gospel.

Listen to the perspective of one of the most “heavenly” passages in the New Testament, Hebrews 12.

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly* of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Heb. 12:25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

This is not a future event. It is a present event. We are “there” now. We are receiving this permanent “heavenly” kingdom. The permanent triumph of God’s Kingdom is not the removal of God’s people to some distance city beyond space, but the appearance of the New Jerusalem in this world.

This is, for more, a much more helpful perspective on heaven, and one that preserves the holiness and sacredness of glorifying God in this world.


  1. Not much to add, but this post reminded me of a verse in a Tori Amos song…as is so often the case, the poets/songwriters can capture so much in so few words:

    excerpt from “Devils and Gods” (the liiiive version)

    “…Devils can hide inside an idea
    Placed there by Gods for you to think like this
    If I were dead would He love me then?
    That then begins a secret death wish
    That then begins your secret death wish
    You’ll gain His love
    But too cold to kiss…”

  2. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. ~ Ephesians 1:7-10

    I love Ephesians 1:9-10. It gives us the right perspective for viewing both the Earth and heaven – it is the will of God to bring all things in heaven and on earth together. Neither one is better or more desirable than the other. If we die before His return, we go to heaven. But we’ll be coming back to Earth with Him in the clouds. The city that isn’t made by human hands is coming down as well.

    God’s perfect will is that heaven and earth would be eternally joined together. He will dwell with men and His glory will cover the whole earth. It’s going to great…

  3. In line with what iM’s saying here, here’s a quote from N.T. Wright on the subject from “Surprised by Hope”:

    “The classic Christian doctrine, therefore, is actually far more powerful and revolutionary than the Platonized one. It was people who believed robustly in the resurrection, not people who compromised and went in for a more spiritualized survival, who stood up against Caesar in the first centuries of the Christian era. A piety which sees death as the moment of ‘going home at last,’ a time when we are ‘called to God’s eternal peace,’ has no quarrel with those who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends. Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice, and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise, not to a meek acquiescence in injustice in the world, but to a robust determination to oppose it. It is telling that English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilberforce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) at the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead.”

    I got 12 more great snippets from the book here, for whomever might be interested.

    And remember: Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.

    Grace and Peace,
    Parables of a Prodigal World

  4. In the way that I read Genesis, I see the big, fat metaphysical line of demarcation coming down, not between the seen vs the unseen . . . but precisely between all that is and absolute nothing.

    Everything on this side of absolute nothing is God’s wonderful, created domain–magnificent but tainted. So there should be a seamless continuum between the seen and the unseen (or heavenly) without having to give up privilege or rank. So if Aunt Betty’s cancer is cured by a smart surgeon (even a godless, smart surgeon) and chemotherapy . . . it is no less of a “God-thing” than if done outside the laws of biochemistry and physiology by the hands of a Christian faith-healer.

    If Christians really believed this they wouldn’t have to call everything a “miracle” in order for it to have value.

    My “heavenly” dream is living eternally in the new (fixed) cosmos and flying beside my dog, farther up and deeper in . . . swooping up the face of a waterfalls, swimming in lakes of methane on one of Saturn’s moons . . . with a iced mocha, my family, friends and God’s presence saturating the air around us. As implied in N.T. Wright’s qoute above . . . I can be part of that process of fixing (redeemption) starting tonight.

  5. I live close enough to Kentucky to get the King of Kings radio network. 90% of their songs are about “crossing Jordan” or some such metaphor for when this life is over. But that’s just an aside…

    I’ve been considering that an example of this “too much heaven” kind of thinking is in how we comfort those who’ve are going through some kind of trial. We say “Just wait, we’ll understand it all later. Just wait until this life is over. It will all make sense when we get to Heaven. You just gotta have faith.”

    But what about faith in Jesus now? Saint Rich says :

    I know there’s bound to come some trouble to your life
    Reach out to Jesus, hold on tight
    He’s been there before and He knows what it’s like
    You’ll find He’s there

    I think we’ve seriously overlooked the importance of an incarnate Jesus to the physicalness of our faith. Thanks Michael for bringing up this important topic.

  6. This post (and the one before it) really echoes something I’ve been wrestling with since I picked up a lecture series on CD by N. T. Wright.

    Like many young adult evangelicals, my time in the youth group was marked by participation in productions like Judgment House and Heaven’s Gates & Hell’s Flames. It was only after I attended a similar production at another church (this time it was Tribulation Trail) that I started to question not only the scare tactics of such a form of evangelism, but the theology behind it.

    I know that scare tactic evangelism isn’t the focus here, but I think it was bred out of skipping down to the end of the page in a Heaven/escapism type theology. The cross, community, and new creation are largely ignored as the 3 focal images of the New Testament (I lifted that thought from Richard B. Hays’ book on NT ethics) in favor of an escape hell (and by default go to heaven).

    We wonder why so many have left the church a few months after “asking Jesus into their hearts,” and we therefore call for discipleship. What good is discipleship when the only point is dying and going to heaven?

    I’m still chewing on all of this; I really appreciate the discussion going on here.

  7. Michael,

    I’ve been really thinking about this post and part one of this post (particularly after your gentle rebuke :-)). I think what you are articulating here will have a greater transformative impact on those of us who have Christ as our Savior. It seems you captured this when you said “If this is true, there is a heavenly aspect to every human activity…” Wow! This thought alone has the ability to transform how we think about and do life.

    Thanks for provoking Christ honoring thoughts in me.

  8. I think we need to see that all that has happened in the history of the universe so far – particularly because of the fall – is merely preparation for the great moment when the ‘rest’ that God knew on the 7th day in Genesis becomes the hallmark of the entire created order. Then, the initial mandates given in Eden are (at least initially) fulfilled (an earth populated by the children of Adam and Eve, made anew in Christ). I certainly do not believe in some ‘cube-like’ collective, but Star Trek surely resonates with one truth – the human adventure is just beginning, and no doubt part of what is to come will involve our proper relationship to all of creation as stewards of the life of the Son.

  9. IMonk, this is one of the reasons I like to hang out with practicing Jews.

    Judaism is very “earthy”, and the respect for learning and wisdom (as well as the often-accompanying sense of humor) sure doesn’t hurt.

    Judaism’s Earthiness makes a great counter to Too Much Heaven.

  10. IMonk, the curious intellectual in me wants to know just how Fluffy Cloud Heaven came to displace Resurrection of the Body as the Christian afterlife concept. I have to constantly remind a lot of Christians that Resurrection was the original Christian afterlife, and the New Heavens and New Earth the ultimate expression of Tikkun Olam, perfecting of an imperfect cosmos.

    I suspect the Victorian mania for bowdlerized sentimental romanticism had a lot to do with it.

  11. Crass literalism and cultural prejudice abounds in such a way that heaven appears to be a place most of us would only want to live only if the choices were extremely limited and unpleasant.

    As I used to put it, “Heaven’s supposed to be better than Hell, but not by much.”

    Now saying THAT around Christians can get you turned into a pile of rocks real easy.

    The permanent triumph of God’s Kingdom is not the removal of God’s people to some distance city beyond space, but the appearance of the New Jerusalem in this world.

    Somebody needs to tell that to all those Christians up on the roof in their white Rapture robes and marked-up copies of Left Behind, jumping up and down to get in practice.

  12. Ken wrote: “the curious intellectual in me wants to know just how ‘Fluffy Cloud Heaven’ came to displace Resurrection of the Body as the Christian afterlife concept”.

    Ken – Phillip Sampson, in his book ‘Six Modern Myths’ (IVP) has an excellent chapter on this issue.
    Entitled ‘The Human Body – a Story of Repression’, it traces through from the Apostolic era to the present the various concepts and ideas which have essentially stole the cardinal truth concerning Creational (bodily) redemption from its key place in Christianity. It’s certainly time this was regained.

  13. Michael, I think you really hit it in saying:

    “I am well aware from my own ministry that there are moments of suffering where it should be clear to any Christian that “to depart and be with Christ is far better.” A visit to any hospital, nursing home or blighted community will underline this truth.”

    To take it a bit further, as someone else said on the Too Much Heaven 1 thread, we in 21st-century America may well have a very unusual, even unprecedented, environment in which to consider heaven.

    As few as 100 years ago, life was terribly difficult for most ordinary people, even in the U.S. Children worked in factories 14 hours a day; women routinely died in childbirth; even my relatively wealthy and educated grandmother was lucky, by the standards of her day, to have been able to raise five healthy children out of the eight she bore. Nowadays, for many of us, such suffering is seen only in the “hospital, nursing home or blighted community”

    For people who are now living in the poor parts of the world, which are vastly more populated than our rich world, such sufferings are daily facts. Three out of five children in Africa, for instance, still die before their fifth birthday — and Africa is where Christianity is spreading very rapidly.

    Even in the U.S., the Appalachian mountain living conditions were, until recently, lagging far behind the rest of the country. Those mountain region cultures, like the culture of American slaves before the Civil War, are the communities from which the most fervent “hope of heaven” teaching comes. Here in southern Ohio, the Appalachian foothills only 100 miles east, I have a friend whose aunt was a rural nurse some 40 or 50 years ago. My friend has recounted her aunt’s stories of going to isolated homes, helping the wife with childbirth, and learning that the newborn was going to be taken into the woods and “knocked on the head” to kill it, because the family was simply unable to afford another child. This is within the last hundred years, in this country, the richest nation in the world.

    So for the world’s people who are living on the knife-edge of existence, suffering daily, with no hope for improvement in the future, an other-worldly Heaven may be a vital belief. Whether it is theologically sound is something I’m not qualified to debate. But you (Michael) do work in an area which was until recently an isolated and poor one, and the prevalence of the “Heaven’s my destination” message may in some ways reflect that simple economic fact.

  14. anonXian says

    Michael, I have a question for you based on your post (which is excellent).

    In mainstream Christianity I have heard that when Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions; I go to prepare a place for you,” He was of course referring to heaven. Many take this literally, as a physical dwelling place where we will live forever, and some take it more metaphorically, but still in the context of a future heaven we will go to.

    But one interpretation I have heard more recently is that the verse reads, in Greek, “In my Father’s house are many abodes.” And this could mean that He is referring to the church in the here and now as the Father’s house. The “abodes” are the believers, us, who are each individually a dwelling place of God. I.e. our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Corporately, together, we as the church are the Father’s house. Jesus Christ, when He went to be with the Father (in resurrection), was preparing a place for us not in heaven but on earth. Now, as believers, we are already in the Father’s house. We are the many abodes. He lives in us, and we live in Him.

    This to me is much better than a heavenly mansion. But I’m curious if you agree with this interpretation?

  15. First, “Mansion” is not the proper translation. No modern translation uses it. The word is “dwellings.”

    I agree with NTW that the passage refers to the immediate rest with Christ after death and not to the resurrected state in the new creation. Jesus is telling his disciples not to fear death; he is close by and they will be with him in his Father’s house if they die.

  16. We might all agree that for the believer the life after earthly death will be real good. 🙂