LIFE, GLORY, AND HEAVEN
Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Most of the major world religions have some belief concerning the afterlife, so Christianity is not alone when it affirms hope in a blessed future. One of the challenges we face as Christians, however, comes because we have chosen to read what Revelation 21 says about the new heaven and new earth without accepting that it is really about more than our personal futures.
For many Christians, life after death is summed up in notions of glory in a place called heaven. The idea is that those who are true to Christ will continue life in a celestial place free from the cares and burdens of this world. We sing about heaven and glory. We talk about heaven and glory. We live to go to heaven and "be in glory."
Now there is nothing fundamentally wrong about believing that there is a celestial realm. There is nothing fundamentally wrong about believing that God desires for us to live in glorious fellowship with Him and all the rest of the saints. There is nothing fundamentally wrong about believing that God has a better place for us where there is no death, sickness, worry, confusion, war, hatred, injustice, cruelty, treachery, or evil of any other kind. The Bible tells us in many ways that God has something better for us, something more wonderful than humans have ever seen or imagined.
And the Bible tells us that this blessed experience is reserved for those who love God, who honor God, and who are received into that experience by God's grace. In Jesus Christ, God has made that blessed experience more than possible for us. It is promised to those who live in the power of God's grace through faith.
The problem, if you will allow me to use that word, is that our notion of the life everlasting in heaven does not square with what the Bible is all about. You recall that the Bible begins with God creating "the heavens and the earth" and blessing the earth to be the place for blissful life for nature and humanity. The Garden that we read about in Genesis where there was no war, worry, sickness, injustice, or other evil is never described as being any place other than on the earth. On the earth, God created humanity. On the earth, God dealt with the first humans. On the earth, the first humans related to God in peace and fellowship. And it was on the earth that the fellowship was broken, sin was introduced, humanity rebelled against God, and all the consequences of sin that we know so painfully well were so prominently acted out.
The Bible ends with the passage we read from Revelation 21, where we envision a time without death, mourning, crying, and pain, "for the first things have passed away," (Revelation 21:4). And at Revelation 21:5-6, we read these words, And the one who was seated on the throne said,"See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."
We often hear these words during the services for those who have died in Christ, and they are comforting. However, it is important to recognize the connection between Genesis and Revelation. Genesis and Revelation are not placed in the Bible to merely serve as literary bookends. What God reveals to John in Revelation 21 is clear, but we often miss it. Before we get to verses 5-6, we read these words at Revelation 21:2-4:
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
What we have too often failed to recognize is that this promised blessed experience with God is to be experienced on earth! It is not something promised for us in some celestial realm. No, the rule of God, peace of God, glory of God, and blessed fellowship with God mentioned at the end of the Bible is clearly promised to be consummated where God has always intended us to dwell in peace, glory, and blessed fellowship with Him—on earth.
This is why we read in the Hebrew prophets about the promise of a time of peace where nations will no longer war against nations, where the lamb and lion will dwell in peace, and each person will live in peace. That is not a vision of heaven. It is a vision of the new earth. This is why Jesus taught us to pray Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. God has promised to restore the creation to its pre-sinful state, and has guaranteed that this will be the case in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the agent of divine grace and truth to our sinful experience.
When we understand that God has promised to restore what sin contaminated, and that God has already signaled that this will happen in the resurrection of Jesus, we must re-think some things.
We must re-think our notion of salvation. We are accustomed to thinking that salvation is a personal transaction whereby God sent Jesus Christ so that each of us could be saved from the penalty, power, and eventually the presence of sin. We are accustomed to thinking that salvation ultimately means that we will be evacuated from the presence of this sinful world to live forever in the presence of God in celestial glory. We are accustomed to thinking that salvation is personal.
Well, that means we have only appreciated a small part of God's plan. We are not saved to merely escape eternal separation from God. We are saved as part of God's cosmic plan to redeem the creation. We are saved as part of God's plan to restore order to the world, peace to the world, love to the world, and fellowship to the world. We are saved by the same grace that intends for the lion and the lamb to live in peace. That means that the love of God that saves us cares about the animals we exploit, the air we contaminate, the soil we pollute, the resources we selfishly squander, and the people we tend to consider unworthy of our concern, if not deserving of our contempt.
A notion of salvation that allows me to believe that I have eternal fellowship with God while presently demonstrating contempt or lack of concern for the things that God is working to undo is not just incomplete, it is a lie. God is not a capitalist. The private enterprise notion of salvation whereby I get mine and then take off to live in a kind of celestial country club state is not Biblical. It is not Christian. It is not godly. It is a lie. Until we re-think this notion of salvation, we will continue to preach a "where will you spend eternity [personal salvation]" gospel rather than preach the gospel that calls people to turn from sinful defiance and independence from God, others, and the rest of creation.
In Jesus Christ, God has shown us that salvation operates to make us loving toward God, others, and the rest of creation. In Christ, we have received the new commandment to love. Divine love on earth, not celestial luxury in heaven, is the Christian ideal of glorious life. This is the preview of glorious life that we read about at Revelation 21. Here is what salvation ultimately produces.
In Jesus Christ, we are called by God to live now for this ultimate life. In Christ, we are called to live in faithful loyalty to the rule of God now. In Christ, we are called to live in loving fellowship with each other now. In Christ, we are called to live as faithful and loving stewards of the creation now. And if we will not live this way now, we will never live this way anyplace else, for this is the kind of living that God has promised to restore here, forever.
This is our promise from God. Our challenge is to live as if it is worth having. Our challenge is to live as if this promise is better than a private celestial country club. Our challenge is to live as if God's promise of loving connectedness is better than our capitalist notion of private gain. Our challenge is to live as if the new heaven and new earth that God has promised is what we really want. Unless and until this is the life we want to live for and with God, others, and the rest of creation here and now, we will never want to live it with God here at any other time.
How are you living? [i]
©Wendell Griffen, 2010
[i] The following endnote is an addendum to the sermon that was preached. It is offered because many Christians, as well as persons who have been exposed to Christianity and Christians in various ways, operate from a religious perspective that focuses on what is commonly known as "personal salvation." According to this perspective (which is somewhat widely shared among those who term themselves or may be perceived as "evangelical Christians"), the redemptive purpose of God operates to deliver humans from the penalty of eternal separation/condemnation from divine fellowship and into a life of peace and joy with God that begins with "conversion," continues more wonderfully "in heaven" after death or rapture (according to those who hold the pre-millennial view of dispensationalist Christianity), and is ultimately defined by the triumphant reign of Jesus Christ in the world where those who follow Christ will reign with Him.
An unfortunate effect of such a notion of "personal salvation" (along with the idea of "personal evangelism," "personal witness," and "personal testimony"), has been a shift away from a message running throughout the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. The Bible never suggests that "salvation" is God's effort to merely rescue individuals. Instead, the Bible clearly affirms in countless ways and messages that God created what we know as "the heavens and the earth" in order to be glorified through divine fellowship with all of creation. Salvation is not merely a private transaction between a believing heart and a redeeming Creator whereby the believer gets assured a private reservation to a celestial country club.
Rather, the Bible presents the redemptive purpose of God working on and through persons, nations, and communities to restore fellowship and create authentic community under the sovereign rule of divine grace and truth. The vision of life that we read about in the first two chapters of Genesis, before the creation was contaminated by human sin and sinfulness, is the vision of life that we read about in Revelation 21. That is not a vision about life in some celestial realm. It is not a vision about life "over in the Glory Land," above—but a vision of life in a world without sin. It is a vision of life without death, war, disease, suffering, grief, injustice, and all the other consequences of sin. It is a vision of life on earth as God has always intended humanity and the rest of creation to experience it, in loving and obedient fellowship with Him. And it is a vision of life made possible because of the loving grace of God that has been deliberately and extravagantly made available In Jesus Christ, who is divine grace and truth personalized and made palpable within the creation.
According to the Bible, salvation encompasses the whole creation. So the vision of ultimate salvation described at Revelation 21 is a vision of newness for heavens and the earth. It is a vision of new community, not new privatism. This inclusive vision is affirmed at Psalm 148 where all of creation is described as praising God. It is affirmed at Acts 10 and 11 where Simon Peter comes to understand that his cultural ethnic notions of salvation (based on Hebrew kinship and religious orthodoxy about what is acceptable and unacceptable to God was incomplete and inaccurate). And it is affirmed by Jesus at John 13:31-35 where Jesus commands his followers to live according to the law of love.
Love that is self-centered (focused on personal welfare, "salvation," and contentment) is never affirmed in the Bible as being godly. Indeed, the entire Biblical witness is that divine love is always unconditionally concerned for others. The idea that salvation is "personal' may appeal to our narcissism. That we would embrace it rather than the plain Biblical witness that God is restoring "the world"—as we read about in John 3:16 which speaks of God's love for the world—shows how much we tend to resemble Peter's notion of salvation demonstrated by his vision at Acts 10.
God's grace and truth has been revealed and consummated in Jesus Christ to bring us and all the rest of creation into new fellowship. God is saving the creation. In the resurrection of Jesus, God has demonstrated that none of the forces and factors of sin—whether they are human systems of government, religion, or spiritual forces—will prevent that divine intent to create a new order from coming to past.
This inclusive sense about salvation is Biblical, even if it does not square with popular notions about evangelism. It is not only true to the entire theme of Scripture in the Hebrew and Christian (New) Testaments, it is plainly how John was inspired to understand what salvation ultimately will produce and has always divinely intended. It is a vision of salvation that does not exploit people, nature, or anything else. It is a vision of salvation that does not discriminate based on ethnicity, gender, nationality, religious orthodoxy, or any of the other factors that have all too often dominated notions of Christianity. According to this vision of salvation, the entire world is being saved. None of us has a superior stake in God's redemptive vision. We are all part of God's wonderful redemptive purpose because we are, together, part of God's creation.
The glorious vision of life that we have with God in Revelation is a vision guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is inclusive—not private—salvation that God sent Jesus Christ into the world to guarantee. If you and I want to privatize it, tribalize it, racialize it, nationalize it, or otherwise appropriate it for private ends we do so contrary to Scripture and the entire witness of God's redemptive purpose. We are saved for everlasting life with God and the rest of creation where God originally created us—on the earth. Unless we are willing to live here and now in obedience to God's redemptive purpose, we have no reason to believe we have a stake in life with God anywhere else.
John saw a "new earth." The issue is not whether God can bring it to pass—that much is already made clear in the resurrection of Jesus. The issue is whether we are willing to live here and now as if we want to experience life here and forever by the power of God who is making all things new. Paul wrote that if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation, that old things are passing away, and that all things are becoming new. God has granted us the Holy Spirit so that we may comprehend and choose to accept that wondrous, inclusive, and redemptive life by divine grace. Our challenge is to live it here, now, and forever in obedience to Jesus Christ.