“Heaven and hell are important, but they’re not the end of the world.”
So says Bishop N.T. Wright, partially tongue-in-cheek, in several lectures I’ve listened to.
Wright is addressing the misplaced emphasis many Christians (and consequently most non-Christians) place on “going to heaven / avoiding hell” as the central point to the concept of salvation.
The truth is a proper understanding of Christian salvation takes our focus away from heaven and hell as realms that are “out there somewhere” and recenters it on ushering in heaven here and now in the midst of our hells.
I’m not supporting some utopian enterprise, as if to suggest that humanity could create a version of heaven on earth. I’m advocating picking up Jesus’ vocation of proclaiming the Kingdom of God’s arrival.
Jesus’ ministry and message was not that God’s Kingdom was coming but that it had actually arrived. It’s here. Now. Jesus heralded its presence because He ushered it in.
Paul explains in his Epistle to the Romans that God’s plan – and the picture of God’s completed work illustrated in the Book of Revelation – is to redeem Creation. It’s not to extract human souls from an earth that is destined for destruction – it’s to bring about the complete redemption of all Creation through fully-human humanity, both body and soul.
Gnosticism was one of the earliest heresies within Christianity, and it has unfortunately found insidious ways of influencing many Christians up to the present. Gnosticism began through claims that particular Christians had “special revelations” from God (or, at the very beginning of Christianity, special and secret teachings from Jesus or the Apostles) that altered the nature of Christian belief. Chief among gnostic belief was an acceptance that everything that is material – from our human bodies to all forms of physical matter – was evil and corrupted, and it is only the spiritual realm that is holy.
This is not Biblical Christian theology. Starting at the very beginning in Genesis where God calls everything He created “good,” leading through the epistles of Paul where the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the physical bodies of those who are with God is delineated with a Christian emphasis on Christ being the first physically resurrected of many brothers and sisters to come, and ending with the picture in Revelation in the final days when God restores all of Creation to Himself and unites heaven and earth into one entity with the establishment of His city (the New Jerusalem), Christian theology is clear: Creation is good and is going to be restored.
The restoration / redemption of Creation to right relationship with God, which includes humanity, is Christian salvation. Humanity is the central act of Creation, thus it is the central focus of redemption. It was through humanity that Creation was removed from right relation with God, and it is through humanity – via the work of Christ as fully human – that Creation will be restored.
The Kingdom of God that is at hand that Christ preached is this restoration movement. It is God coming down in Christ to initiate the process. It began 2,000 years ago, has been on-going through fits and starts ever since, and will continue until Christ’s return. At that point, the full redemption of Creation will be made complete. Until then, it is the Christian’s vocation to take up Christ’s vocation and advance the restoration through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We bring God’s Kingdom to earth in a more manifest manner by being the good stewards of Creation we were originally meant to be and by making known however we can through actions and words – in love – that this is God’s heart: to bring all into a relationship with Him. And the entry point for that relationship is through God Himself in the form of His Son, to enter the communion of the Trinity through a Person of the Trinity, by devoting one’s heart and life to Christ and accepting His propitiation for our rebellion against God.
The Christian concept of heaven won’t mean anything to anyone short of the renewal of his or her relationship with God. There are few Biblical allusions to what existence in heaven / post-Second Coming earth will look like minus the fact that it will be consumed with the presence of God. There will be no more hurt, no more pain and no more tears. There will be joy, pure and unadulterated. And there will be continuous and unending worship by all of Creation to God in His manifest Presence. One is inclined to conclude that this state of existence comes as a result of the full Presence of God; that He in Himself is the true source of everything that is good so that nothing else is needed.
Christian salvation is meaningless minus this reality. I’m not sure that “being saved” actually has any meaning if one is not in some way actively engaged with God in relationship right now. Because that’s the point of Jesus’ ministry and the intended end result of everything that exists: to unite in relationship with God.
Christian salvation minus a relationship with God is an oxymoron. I don’t know what impact that has on Christians who espouse a view of salvation as roughly equivalent to “getting a ticket to heaven stamped,” but my hunch is that ticket won’t be enticing to anyone who isn’t interested now in growing more intimate with the God who completely and utterly loves them and extends pure grace and mercy.