What Your Heaven Looks Like and Why It Matters

Quick, what’s heaven look like in your mind?  Your first impression likely speaks volumes about your theology, so to speak, of God’s coming kingdom.

Admittedly, though, I’ve already prejudiced your answer with the way I’ve asked the question.  While it’s true that most Christians think reflexively of “heaven” as the place where God will spend eternity with his people, “the new heavens and the new earth” is more biblically accurate.  As it turns out, the stock scene of fluffy white clouds, golden haloes, and chubby little angels has almost nothing to do with the reality of what will be.  No, the Bible allows us glimpses of a renewed physical world that we inhabit, not as ethereal ghosts, but as gloriously embodied creatures (see, e.g., Rev. 21-22, 1 Cor. 15, Rom. 8:18-25). That is the Christian’s destiny. 

Fortunately, according to Eric O. Jacobsen, more and more evangelicals are coming to understand this point, and that has some important ramifications:

This eschatological* paradigm shift helps to combat some of the Gnostic tendencies inherent in evangelical theology. Evangelicals have been tempted to believe that to be spiritual is to deny or ignore the parts of our lives that have to do with our physical existence. But when we think of eternity in the context of a real physical place, we tend to take the physicality of our lives more seriously in the here and now.

*“Eschatology” refers to the theology or study of “last things,” i.e., Christ’s return, the consummation of his kingdom, the eternal state of believers and unbelievers, etc.

This is a tremendous gain.  Forgetting that it was God himself who fashioned man with a physical body and called it “very good,” the church has often failed to reflect properly on any number of good and necessary ramifications of our bodily existence.  For example, things like art and sex, inherently good gifts when used properly, have sometimes been neglected or misunderstood.  Likewise, there lurks a continuing danger to view vocations with obvious links to the physical world as somehow inferior to others, which in turn fosters dissatisfaction and/or guilt in those pursuing them.

But even if we’ve made progress in this regard, Jacobsen says we’re still liable to make a further error:

Evangelicals have also been tempted to think of their eternal reward as a return to the simplicity of Eden, more than a journey to the New Jerusalem. We have longed for pristine naturalistic settings of fields and forests and the simplicity of the organic nuclear family as the context of our eternal existence.

We have pictured heaven in these terms, rather than making room in our imagination for good (read: God-honoring) cultural developments and the beautiful complexities (read: shalom) of life in the society of others as the context of our future existence.

He continues a bit later:

I call this tendency an “over-ruralized eschatology,” because it ignores the urban images of the eschaton that we find in the Bible (Revelation 21:10 and Zechariah 8:4, for instance) in favor of the rural and domestic images that many find more comforting. While I don’t want to deny the possibility of rural beauty and even domestic bliss in the eschaton, the problem I have with ignoring the urban in our eschatology is simply that it isn’t very biblical. No matter our aesthetic tastes, the story of our salvation goes from a garden to a city, not from a garden to a backyard.

As Jacobsen suggests, at least one possible result of holding to an “over-ruralized eschatology” (there’s your five dollar theological phrase for the day) is a prejudice, even if subtle, against that which is man-made.  This includes what we normally think of as technology and its fruits, everything from computers and the buildings we use them in to cars and the roads we drive them on. 

In answer to this, Jacobsen is right to point to the trajectory of the biblical story.  What begins in a garden (apparently uncultivated to some degree) does indeed end with a city, into which we will bring “the glory and honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:26).  But we should note something further.  The end is the natural and appropriate result of God’s activity at the beginning.  God, supremely creative himself, created mankind in his own image.  Not only so, but he commanded is to both fill and “subdue” the earth.  The sense of this latter point is one of discovering and rightly cultivating the potential God has placed within the world.  In short, we were made (designed) to discover, invent, create, construct, and the like. 

So while we at times rightly seek to preserve aspects of our natural world that reflect the glory and goodness of our creator, we may also ultimately reflect this same glory and goodness by not leaving the world the way we found it.  In this way, both apples and architecture carry divine fingerprints.  We shouldn’t be surprised if we enjoy both in eternity.

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