Thinking about heaven, hell, and the future
For some reason, eschatology (the doctrine concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind) has not always been well understood. Some ignore it; some major in it but seem to completely misunderstand it; mostly, we seem to ignore it, except occasionally when it trips us up.
As a result we have all kinds of strange ideas and questions. Will we become angels when we die? What’s with floating on clouds and playing harps? Could the pilot of the airplane I’m in really be raptured? Then we have our struggles and questions about issues like hell.
It would be okay if we were not clear on something that doesn’t matter, but as you read Scripture you get the clear sense that what we believe about the future does really make a difference for today. A good example is David Hansen, who writes of what happened when he flirted with universalism:
All I could see and all I could preach was what we should be doing. We should love one another. We should free one another from dysfunctional entanglements. We should be less prejudiced. We should feed the poor. But all I could say was “We should.” I lost the ability to say “You must.” Since in the end it didn’t really make much difference how people lived, it didn’t make much difference what I preached, or if I even preached at all.
My thinking had become frivolous, my theology one of wishful thinking. My words became inconsequential. My religion was reduced to a self-help methodology, a happy way to cope with life. I became a moralist, a counselor, a two-bit pop psychologist. (The Art of Pastoring)
What we believe in this area really does affect how we live.
That’s why I’m glad to see some new resources come out on this subject. One is N.T. Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. I picked up a copy the other day and I’m really looking forward to reading it. What I’ve read so far looks good. You can read an interview with Wright in Time Magazine (ht). Wright challenges our traditional thinking on heaven. I remember the first time Stan Fowler, my theology prof, did this. It was at first disorienting but also very biblical and freeing.
Then there’s Tim Keller’s new book The Reason for God. It’s out in a few days and I can’t wait to read it. Sets ‘n’ Service has a good quote from this book:
When we look at the whole scope of this story line, we see clearly that Christianity is not only about getting one’s individual sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. That is an important means of God’s salvation, but not the final end or purpose of it. The purpose of Jesus’ coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world. God created both body and soul, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both body and soul. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world.
Some similar themes are developed in both materials.
I also listened to the sermon on hell that formed the basis for part of this book, and it’s excellent . If you have struggled with this doctrine (most of us have), Keller’s sermon is an important one. It’s a free download here.
This area of doctrine is incredibly important. It’s good to see it getting some good attention.