The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote during my undergrad program. It may challenge some presuppositions that you bring with your Christian background, or affirm some things you have wrestled with…
Christianity’s common stereotype in the United States, as well as abroad, tends to look at hope through one lens. This view is that salvation is about accepting Christ as one’s Savior so that the individual can go to a place called heaven after death. Heaven then becomes the ultimate goal for a practicing evangelical Christian. If this is the case, then the world that humanity currently inhabits does not have hope. Things will continue to get worse, and the only way to overcome the pains of this planet is to eventually escape from it. Unfortunately, many people have been misled into believing in such a way that is more similar to Gnosticism than biblical teaching. The Bible does not teach escapism, but rather it teaches resurrection of the body and the renewal of the cosmos.
Some modern examples of this understanding about the Christian afterlife can be clearly demonstrated in many of the great hymns of the church. For instance, the song “How Great Thou Art,” in the forth verse states:
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, my God how great Thou art!
The above hymn is one example of how many view the hope of Christianity. Christ will come to rescue redeemed humanity from the evils of this world and take them to some far off place; implicitly heaven. Such a view lacks hope for this world and assumes that the final hope of the Christian life is to be ‘raptured’ as a way of escape from the evil of the cosmos. Christianity in modern day has often adopted a view of the cosmos that is dualistic, meaning that there exists a large gulf between present reality and a future disembodied eternity in place called heaven. This assumes that the world is evil rather than created as “very good” as stated in Genesis. Such a cosmological dualism finds much of its core beliefs derived from Platonism and Gnosticism.
Plato taught that life in the cosmos, as we now see and experience it, can be explained as living in a cave of bondage. Humanity is held captive by chains that force us to gaze at a wall of shadows. Behind the cave-dwellers is a small opening into the knowledge of a higher reality. All that those who are captive in the cave can see is the shadows of reality produced by a fire that burns behind the backs of the bound. As they gaze upon the shadows of the wall, they are ignorant of the higher reality that comes when the mind gains the necessary knowledge. Suppose that one of these cave-dwellers was to be set free from their chains and be taken outside of the cave. This newly liberated person’s eyes would have to adjust to the light of the sun, but eventually would see a world that is beyond what had been experienced by gazing at the blurred images produced by the shadows. Flowers would have beauty that the shadows could never have replicated. This person would have now escaped the world as we know and experience it, to a world that contains reality in its perfect form. This reality is what Plato called “the Forms.”
Forms are non-material and exist apart from the things that we can see in this realm of reality. It was only before our souls existed with our bodies that that we have experienced the Forms directly. The non-material soul is therefore the connection point for humanity and the non-material world of Forms. If this current world is merely a shadow or copy of the world of Forms, then what we now see and experience all points to a world beyond that we are to contemplate and long for. The beauty that we see directs us to a completely separate and better world. A world that is disembodied and blissfully complete. This view, as will be demonstrated, cannot be held as consistent with historical Christian faith. The world of time, space, and matter from the vantage point of a Judeo-Christian faith heritage must be understood as the good creation of a good God; in spite of the evidence that seems to demonstrate the contrary. John Piper states the following in regards to this matter:
Christianity is not a platonic religion that regards material things as mere shadows of reality, which will be sloughed off as soon as possible. Not the mere immortality of the soul, but rather the resurrection of the body and the renewal of all creation is the hope of the Christian faith.
The same kind of issues rise to the surface when one considers Gnosticism. It seems that Platonic thought and Gnosticism are closely related and have had an influence in Christian thought. At the heart of Gnosticism is the belief that there exists a cosmological dualism. All things that pertain to matter are inherently evil and not the highest form of reality. Therefore, the only form of good is that which is composed of spirit outside of the physical. The world and all things within space and time are to be perceived as evil and dark, and the handiwork of an inferior and malevolent deity. Escape through secret knowledge (gnosis) is the only way in which to discover a route of escape from this universe to a disembodied Plutonic version of heaven. Such an understanding of the world leaves no room for God to renew this fallen universe, by making right sinful man through the sinless man, Jesus the Christ.
Salvation through Christ does not enable a man or woman to merely ‘go to heaven when you die.’ This is often the way in which people tend to talk about faith in Jesus. Going to heaven is the intermediate state of a process, with resurrection of the body and renewal of the universe as the final goal. Theologian N.T. Wright states, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” This author can see how Christianity can be perceived as learning the secret knowledge about Jesus and thus, gaining entrance to a world of souls called heaven. In other words, it is not heaven that a Christian should look forward to, but to a new world that is restored to what God intended for original creation project. This is the theme that the story of Scripture seems to have at its core. Hope is wrapped up in the “Creator God’s plan to rescue the world and put it back to rights.”
I am sure that this section of a paper I wrote during my undergrad work will raise several questions. I realize that I fail (in this section) to address issues of
What happens to a Christian when they die?
What is the nature of resurrection?
What does it mean for creation to be renewed or restored or ‘put to rights?’
Do I believe in some kind of ‘soul sleep’? [short answer: NO]
Why does it matter what happens in the end if we have no control over God’s plans anyways?…
Hoekema, Anthony A., The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1979), 274-275.
N.T. Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope, Grove Biblical Series (Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1999), 14.
Carl Gustav Boberg, “How Great Thou Art”, trans. Stuart Hine (n.p.: Public Domain, n.d.), Verse 4 [emphasis mine].
 I recognized the theological implications of the fourth verse of the hymn while singing it at a worship gathering. Many other hymns and worship choruses could be analyzed in this way as well.
N.T. Wright, “William Belden Noble Lecture, Session 1,” October, 2006, Memorial Church of Harvard University, http://www.memorialchurch.harvard.edu/publications/archive.shtml (accessed January, 2007). For more on cosmological dualism listen to this lecture available in MP3 format.
Samuel E. Stumpf, and James Fieser, “Plato,” in Socrates to Sartre and Beyond:, 7th ed. (New York: Hill Higher Education, McGraw, 2003), 49-51, 56-57.
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: Collins Publishers, Harper, 2006), 44-45.
Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), 114.
Tsamis, William J., “Philosophy: A Glossary of Terms,” Apologetics.org, http://www.apologetics.org/glossary.html (accessed March 8, 2007).
Wright, William Belden Noble Lecture, Session 1,” http://www.memorialchurch.harvard.edu/publications/archive.shtml.
N.T. Wright, For All the Saints: Remembering the Christian Departed (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2003), 20-21.
N.T. Wright, “The Road to New Creation,” September 23, 2006, N.T. Wright Page, http://www.ntwrightpage.com (accessed March, 2007).
I have seen how Christianity can become about my knowledge of Jesus and how that knowledge is what gives me access to a place beyond this world. My sinful body stays on the sinful earth, but my soul is purified to be ready for heaven.
Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, 10.