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A better future than heaven!

Much of evangelical Christianity has lost its way regarding eschatology. In particular, the ‘going to heaven when you die’ assumed by most Christians is a notion with zero biblical support. This book aims to portray the real thing: a new heaven and new earth after Christ’s return in which, far from floating, disembodied, through a never-ending worship-service, we shall have new, resurrection bodies and rule over God’s renewed creation. This is ‘holistic eschatology’.

The book is A New Heaven And A New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology by J. Richard Middleton (Baker Academic, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-4412-4138-2). We can only latch onto a correct eschatology, it claims, if we understand God’s original purpose for humanity, see where it went wrong, and grasp how he intends to put things right so that the original purpose is achieved. The main body of the book spells out in great detail the consistent biblical basis for such an approach. It is a solid case, closely argued and exegetically robust.

Examining different sections of Scripture in turn, Middleton shows how the hope in them all is for a decisively ‘this-worldly’, practical, embodied flourishing. This can be experienced to a degree here and now but of course awaits the consummation to be enjoyed in its fulness. Having shown how Scripture consistently presents this holistic picture of life in the age to come, he looks in detail at the few Bible passages commonly quoted to argue for the dissolution of the earth in favour of an other-worldly future and shows how, with sound exegesis, they fit the this-worldly pattern perfectly well.

In parallel, the author questions a second popular notion: that human beings are made primarily to worship God. He shows how Scripture contains little support for such a goal. Instead, Scripture shows consistently that, as creatures in God’s image, we are made to exercise dominion on God’s behalf over the created order. Worship will always be important, but only within this broad context.

He also shows how our eschatology will inevitably govern our ethics. If we envisage the future as solidly centred on this earth, then we will ensure that the way we live today is geared towards bringing about as far as possible now the state of affairs that will obtain after Christ’s return.

The book closes with a survey of church history showing how the truth of holistic eschatology has waxed and waned in different periods. In particular it reveals the harmful effects of ‘rapture’ teaching in the last 100 years or so, with its emphasis on believers being snatched away from a collapsing earth to the refuge of an other-worldly existence in heaven.

Many Christians in our generation will have already come to similar conclusions—myself included. This book provides a solid reassurance that those conclusions are correct. And for those still wedded to ‘heavenly’ expectations it will, hopefully, open their eyes to something better.

…the biblical teaching of the redemption of creation, including both the physical cosmos and human culture and society.  (p11)

… it became increasingly clear [to me] that the God who created the world “very good” (Gen. 1: 31), and who became incarnate in Jesus Christ as a real human being, had affirmed by these very acts the value of the material universe and the validity of ordinary, earthly life.  (p12)

Contrary to the popular notion that we are made to worship God, the Bible suggests a more mundane purpose for humans made in God’s image, involving the development of culture and care for our earthly environment.  (p17)

What we desire and anticipate as the culmination of salvation is what truly affects how we attempt to live in the present. Ethics is lived eschatology.  (p23)

When we turn to the Epistles, we find God’s intent to reconcile “all things” to himself through Christ articulated in Colossians 1:20, while Ephesians 1:10 speaks of God’s desire to unify or bring together “all things” in Christ. In these two Pauline texts the phrase “all things” (ta panta) is immediately specified as things in heaven and things on earth. Since “the heavens and the earth” is precisely how Genesis 1:1 describes the world that God created, this New Testament language designates a vision of cosmic redemption. Such cosmic vision underlies the phrase “a new heaven/s and a new earth” found in both Revelation 21:1 and 2 Peter 3:13.  (p24)

This holistic vision of God’s intent to renew or redeem creation is perhaps the Bible’s best-kept secret, typically unknown to most church members and even to many clergy, no matter what their theological stripe.  (p24)

From the classic Charles Wesley hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which anticipates being “Changed from glory into glory, / Till in heaven we take our place,” to “Away in a Manger,” which prays, “And fit us for Heaven, to live with Thee there,” congregations are exposed to, and assimilate, an otherworldly eschatology.  (p27)

The idea of a transcendent nonearthly realm as the goal of salvation can be traced back to the innovative teaching of Plato in the late fifth and early fourth centuries (428– 348) BC.  (p30)

The fundamental human task is conceived in rather mundane terms as the responsible exercise of power on God’s behalf over our earthly environment. In popular Christian lore, however, it is almost axiomatic that humans were created to worship God.  (p39)

The royal task of exercising power to transform the earthly environment into a complex sociocultural world that glorifies the creator (the so-called cultural mandate) is…a holy task, a sacred calling, in which the human race as God’s image on earth manifests something of the creator’s own lordship over the cosmos.  (p43)

That humanity is created with an earthly calling or cultural vocation suggests that although the world is “very good” when God has completed the creative process, it is not “perfect” in the sense that it cannot be made better. That is precisely the human task.  (p45)

God does not micromanage the world, but instead fully expects human beings, made in the divine image, to contribute to the developing beauty and complexity of earthly life. Evidence of this sharing of power is seen in God’s somewhat limited involvement in naming in Genesis 1. The creator names day and night, as well as sky, land, and seas, on the first three days of creation (vv. 5, 8, 10), but he refrains from naming anything on days four through six, leaving this royal privilege for humans, made in the divine image, to take up.  (p51)

Close attention to the unfolding biblical story reveals that there is simply no role for heaven as the final destiny of the righteous.  (p58)

In the context of the overall biblical story, the Great Commission is best understood as a rearticulation of the Abrahamic calling, the vocation of the people of God to mediate blessing to all the nations of the world.  (p68)

Not only is “heaven” never used in Scripture for the eternal destiny of the redeemed, but continued use of “heaven” to name the Christian hope may well divert our attention from the legitimate biblical expectation for the transformation of our earthly life so that it conforms to God’s purposes—a transformation that has already begun in Christ and that the church is called to live out in the present world.  (p76)

One of the paradoxes of the exodus account is the interplay of divine and creaturely freedom in bringing salvation. Moses tells the people that they are to stand by and watch the salvation that God will work at the sea (Exod. 14:13). Yet God tells Moses to actively participate in the deliverance by stretching out his hand with the staff, thus dividing the waters (Exod. 14:16).  (p84)

The list of covenantal blessings and curses clearly demonstrates the link between the moral and cosmic orders, so that when the human community is in harmony with God’s design, their earthly life (including the nonhuman world) flourishes, but when they go against God’s intent for flourishing, this affects also the earthly environment, to the extent that the land will vomit out its inhabitants (Lev. 18:24-28; 20:22). Babylonian exile is the ultimate consequence for unfaithfulness to YHWH.  (p97)

Since the resurrected one who exercises judgment is the representative of righteous humanity (Jesus perfectly manifests the imago Dei), his resurrection and rule become the pattern for those whom he represents.  (p148)

I used to be uncomfortable with language about Christ filling all things or of God being all in all because it sounded pantheistic to me. My fears were laid to rest when I came to understand that this is temple imagery describing God’s glorious presence permeating the cosmic sanctuary.  (p168)

Some Israelites may have thought that YHWH was domiciled in the Jerusalem temple, but Isaiah has a vision of “the Lord sitting [yāšab] on a throne, high and lofty; and [only] the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1). The scale of the vision is staggering; YHWH simply cannot be contained in the Jerusalem temple (as Solomon recognizes in 1 Kings 8:27).  (p170)

What are redeemed people to do in the new creation? Just as we have to get rid of the unbiblical idea of “going to heaven” as our final destiny, so we need to drop pious ideas of a perpetual worship service as our ultimate purpose in the eschaton.  (p174)

The image of judgment by fire in 2 Peter 3 is not purely destructive, but instead may be understood as a smelting process by which the dross of human sinfulness is burned off, so that “found” means something like “standing the test” or “showing one’s mettle” (where “mettle” in that phrase was originally “metal”). The fire of judgment might then be compared to a “foundry,” where metals are melted down and reshaped into useful products.  (p194)

While much is still mysterious about final judgment, perhaps we can find a clue in Jesus’s teaching that the meek will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). Could this mean that final judgment is akin to cosmic disinheritance, permanent exile from God’s good creation? This might mean that final judgment should be construed as annihilation of the person rather than the classical notion of eternal torment.  (p207)

I would like to think that universal salvation might be true—and surely God’s mercy is beyond our understanding—but a biblical understanding of holistic salvation suggests that this is wishful thinking.  (p208)

A particularly helpful approach to understanding texts that seem to hold out a heavenly ideal (in contradistinction to life on earth) is to clarify an important pattern that frames New Testament eschatology. This is the apocalyptic pattern of preparation in heaven, followed by revelation or unveiling on earth.  (p212)

This heavenly city (Heb. 11:16) is being “prepared” for us (or in this case, for “them,” the Old Testament saints), and this “prepared” is the same verb (hetoimazō) as in 1 Corinthians 2:9; Matthew 25:34; and John 14:3. The implication, if we follow the apocalyptic pattern, is that we are not going “up” to the heavenly city; rather, the heavenly city is coming here, and it will be unveiled at the last day.  (p219)

Against the backdrop of the wider biblical worldview, John 14:1-3 could simply mean that Jesus is preparing (in heaven) the final redemption of the cosmos as a fitting place for God to dwell, in which there will be plenty of room for all his disciples.  (p229)

A plain reading of 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 in the context of 5:1-2 and 4:14 thus suggests that being at home with the Lord is nothing other than Paul’s expectation that the Lord will dwell with redeemed humanity in a new creation. Thus it is not at all clear that 2 Corinthians 5 actually teaches an interim (disembodied) state as any part of the Christian hope.  (p231)

While interpreters often take Paul as expressing a preference for death (“my desire is to depart and be with Christ”), since it would usher him into the immediate presence of Christ, the text does not actually say that it would be immediate. Yes, he wants to be “with Christ,” but he does not elaborate on where or exactly when this will be. Once again, the rest of Scripture would lead us to expect that Paul is thinking of the eschaton. There is no clear teaching here of any interim state in heaven.  (p231)

Jesus’s assurance that they [he and the repentant thief] would both be in paradise immediately at death (which is what “today” seems to mean) confuses matters considerably. It is difficult to harmonize with the New Testament’s own reckoning that Jesus was not raised until the third day and did not ascend to heaven for some time after that (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-11; see also Mark 16:19). Given this complication, Luke 23:42 might actually be used to support the notion of “soul sleep,” the idea that there is no consciousness of the intermediate state, but that one moves subjectively from death to resurrection.  (p235)

Not only is the term “heaven” never used in Scripture for the eternal destiny of the redeemed, but also continued use of “heaven” to name the Christian eschatological hope may well divert our attention from the legitimate expectation for the present transformation of our earthly life to conform to God’s purposes. Indeed, to focus our expectation on an otherworldly salvation has the potential to dissipate our resistance to societal evil and the dedication needed to work for the redemptive transformation of this world. Therefore, for reasons exegetical, theological, and ethical, I have come to repent of using the term “heaven” to describe the future God has in store for the faithful. It is my hope that readers of this book would, after thoughtful consideration, join me in this repentance.  (p240)

We cannot with impunity “spiritualize” Jesus’s message to make it only internal, about people’s inner attitudes or states of being. Rather, Jesus is addressing the entire complex situation of his hearers, which includes both their inner bondage (which is why he called people to repent) and their oppressive external situation.  (p260)

Many Christians…have not expected enough. And what we have expected, we have often delayed until “heaven” and the return of Christ. We have not really believed that God cares about this world of real people in their actual historical situations, which often are characterized by oppression and suffering. Our understanding of salvation has been characterized by an unbiblical otherworldliness. So our expectations of the future have often not reflected the full-orbed good news that Jesus proclaimed at Nazareth.  (p271)

The overall thrust of the biblical canon (from creation to eschaton) unveils for us— if we have eyes to see—a vision of the kingdom of God that is both applicable to every dimension of earthly life and open to the entire human family. Let us not reduce the gospel of the kingdom to anything less.  (p282)

This lack of concern for our earthly future in the early part of the twentieth century was clearly tied to an otherworldly heavenly-mindedness, but as the century progressed, it has resulted in the free reign of consumerism and greed among North American evangelicals, since there is little theological ground in a rapture-oriented eschatology for ecological or social responsibility.  (p303)

The time is ripe for contemporary Christians to engage in serious reflection on the shape of our eschatology. This eschatology must be grounded firmly in the entire biblical story, beginning with God’s original intent for earthly flourishing and culminating in God’s redemptive purpose of restoring earthly life to what it was meant to be—a purpose accomplished through Christ. We especially need to grapple with the robust ethical implications of this biblical eschatology, exploring how a holistic vision of the future can motivate and ground compassionate yet bold redemptive living in God’s world.  (p312)

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