This will be our final post on Eugene H. Peterson’s Reversed Thunder. Fittingly, we will end with his “The Last Word on Heaven.” I admit it: I am a fan of Eugene Peterson. Not because he’s a rock star, like Bono; not because he’s a megachurch phenomenon like some in the USAmerican evangelical church. Peterson is a thoroughly down-to-earth, thoughtful, serious, winsome, biblically-informed, theologically astute pastor/author. It is his down-to-earthiness that shines through in his chapter about heaven. I’m tempted to bullet point snippets of his writing about heaven because he compresses so much reality into flimsy symbols (words) on the written page. Consider these Peterson teachings:
Heaven is a metaphor. Bracketing his thoughts with the heavens opening at Jesus’s baptism in Matthew 3:16-17 and the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven in Revelation 21:2, Peterson writes, “Heaven, in the gospels and the Apocalypse (and throughout scripture) is the metaphor that tells us that there is far more here than meets the eye. … Calling the word heaven a metaphor does not make it less real; it simply recognizes that it is a reality inaccessible at this point to our five senses” (168-169). Peterson notes that both the Hebrew and Greek use the same word for heaven and for sky. The biblical words do “double duty” for the visible and the invisible.
Heaven is not an ending, but a beginning. We have in Scripture logically a Genesis beginning and in Revelation, “not quite logically,” a new beginning. “The sin-ruined creation of Genesis is restored with the sacrifice-renewed creation of Revelation” (169).
Considering heaven, “[w]e are immersed in materiality from start to finish. … The gospel is the enemy of all forms of gnosticism. The gospel does not begin with matter and then gradually get refined into spirit. … Heaven and earth, which is to say, materiality, are the inclusive context in which we exist. … Creation, heaven and earth, is God’s workplace. … Our unregenerate nature has a way of slipping the leash of the physical and running away like a disobedient dog into all kinds of lush spiritualities. But dematerialized spiritualities are vacant lots” (170-171).Heaven is immediate, not remote in either time or space. “Heaven is not what we wait for until the rapture or where we go when we die, but what is, barely out of range of our senses, but brought to our senses by St. John’s visions. … The vision of heaven is not a promise of anything other than what we have already received by faith; it does, though, promise more, namely, its completion” (172). Heaven is not a fantasy. It is not an escape from what is. If we don’t like what is, we may not like heaven. Heaven is the cosmos brought to completion.
Heaven is a city. “The surprise in St. John’s rendition of heaven is that it comes to us in the form of a city…” (173). Heaven is not a Garden of Eden re-do. Heaven is the city of Jerusalem re-do.
Peterson notes that cities in the Bible don’t often get good press. Nod founded by the first murderer. Arrogant Babel. Even Jerusalem had its dark, evil days. Heaven is not leaving the city for the vast countryside, serene lakes, and massive mountain ranges. “There is not so much as a hint of escapism in St. John’s heaven” 174). God renews the city. “Now, descending out of heaven we see the city as a community in adoration, ready to receive God’s love in faithfulness, a bride adorned for her her husband! … [T]he city and the bride are us” (175).
Check out Peterson’s discussion of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles. Thoughtful, compelling lessons. “Heaven is an intricate system of completions” (177).
I hope you will acquire and read Reversed Thunder. I believe you’ll find yourself returning to it often for vision, encouragement, and a humbled appreciation for the real purpose of the Book of Revelation.