Where are we going? Is there an overall direction to life, a movement towards some ultimate purpose or final destination? How we answer these questions will shape our lives, and our faith, profoundly.
For many followers of Jesus, the ultimate answer to this question – "Where are we going?" - is heaven. To question this may seem strange, even heretical. But what if it is the wrong destination? What if we have been living our lives in the wrong direction?
Heaven has had a grip on the Western imagination for centuries, from Renaissance frescoes depicting chubby angels floating through an ethereal sky with harps in their hands to the contemporary television series that depicts the afterlife as “The Good Place,” a utopia offering unlimited wish fulfillment for those who were morally virtuous in life (although this turns out to be not so heavenly).
Heaven has, of course, held a central place in the Christian imagination. I remember hearing the evangelist Billy Graham invite people to consider the fleeting nature of life by declaring, “You could be in heaven by midnight tonight.” His point was to spur people to “get right with God” so that, whenever their life ended, they would go to heaven. During Graham’s 50-year ministry, millions responded to this invitation from all denominations and walks of life. Who doesn’t want to go to heaven when they die? Well, me, for one.
Why I Don’t Want to "Go" To Heaven
Heaven is, in the most basic sense, not a place but a presence. Heaven is wherever God is. We have assumed that God permanently resides somewhere other than earth, and that God’s goal, with our cooperation, is to get us there. The biblical story, however, tells us that the exact opposite is true – God’s goal is to bring heaven – God’s full divine presence – to earth. This was true in the Garden of Eden, where God walked with Adam and Eve until their disobedience threw creation off balance and created rifts in the relationships between God and humanity, and between humanity and the rest of creation. The result was a distinct separateness within creation rather than a growing unity. God’s work of salvation is about healing these separations so that heaven and earth can be united in a way that brings creation into full relationship with the Creator.
Biblical scholars and theologians who are helping us shift our thinking in this direction talk about salvation as a healed creation, or an ecotopia in which all creation flourishes in a world no longer bound by sin, death, and evil. They point out that the Bible speaks a lot about God coming to earth, and not as much about us going to heaven. Scholar N.T. Wright points out that, yes, we “go to heaven” when we die, meaning that we continue to exist in some way by God’s grace and power. But whatever and wherever that is, it is not our final destination, which Wright refers to as “life after life after death.”
It is a strange phrase, but I think it begins to make sense when we see that Jesus is the ultimate expression of a unified creation, the revealer of what “life after life after death” looks like. His very birth brings heaven and earth together in a human body – what we call the incarnation. His life and teaching clearly revealed that the flow of God’s presence and purpose was towards the earth, not away from it. This is why he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And he revealed the final destination in his death and resurrection. As one scholar puts it,
It is absurd to think that Jesus died and rose again to save our souls – not our bodies and the whole creation. Why should Jesus rise physically to save us only spiritually? Do we really believe in resurrection – resurrection in space, time, and history? If so, how can we not believe in creation healed in space, time, and history?
The Bible ends with images of this resurrection life in a new heaven and a new earth (see Revelation 21 and 22), which is not a replacement of the old creation but the fulfillment and renewal that happens when God’s presence comes to dwell with us permanently. When will this happen and what it will be like? No one knows. But we have been given enough of a glimpse of where we are going to point our lives in that direction. That is why I don’t worry about going to heaven; I'm focused on the ways in which heaven – God's healing presence – is coming to earth.
Why This Matters
If our destination is an earthless heaven, then what happens on this earth and to this earth doesn’t seem to matter as much. Why care about poverty, politics, or pollution when it is all "passing away”? Why spend time improving this world when we can help people secure their place in the world to come?
On the other hand, if our destination is a heavenly earth, we begin to see much more continuity between this world and the one to come, and that how we live now truly matters. We begin to see that, although the final work of healing is God’s, we are called to participate now through lives that cultivate reconciliation and healing with God, ourselves, each other, and the earth. And in this time of ecological crisis – when life on earth doesn’t seem to be moving in a heavenly direction - this vision of discipleship is crucial.
Living In the Glimpses
How can you live in our troubled world with this destination in mind? First, you can remember that God is always present in creation, or in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
“Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Second, you can remember that the new creation has already arrived in Jesus, which means it has arrived in you! Think about the ways you have changed, the peace and healing you have found in Christ. Remember the moments the Spirit has spoken to you, reassured you, or nudged you toward a fuller life. Third, you can see moments of reconciliation and healing – in whatever form they come - as signs of God’s work in the world, and a taste of what is to come. For those with eyes to see, the signs are everywhere. Finally, you can ask God to help you bring divine reconciliation and healing to the world. When this happens, you become a sign for others, a glimpse of a world made new, an answer to that most important question, “Where are we going?”
With you on the Way,
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