And Now…It’s Time’s Turn: April 16 (2012) Cover Story about Heaven
It seems the major weekly news magazines are competing for readers by having more frequent covers stories about religion. A few days ago I blogged about Newsweek’s cover story about embracing Jesus and abandoning the church. The current issue of Time has a cover story entitled (on the cover) “Rethinking Heaven.” The actual title of the story (inside) is “Heaven Can’t Wait: Why Rethinking the Hereafter Could Make the World a Better Place” by Jon Meacham.
Two recent books seem to provide the catalyst for the story: the best-selling Heaven Is for Real (the story of Colton Burpo’s trip to or vision of “heaven”) and N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. Other books about heaven are mentioned as well.
The point of the story seems to be that some Christians, especially scholars like Wright and “activist” young Christians, are “rethinking” heaven as what happens here and now when we lead good lives helping others and the future renovation of earth after Christ returns. The article seems to say, or at least imply, that belief in a disembodied, purely spiritual existence after death is the traditional view of heaven.
The article talks about two “two camps in the heaven debate” as if they are equal in terms of basic biblical Christianity. The one camp that emphasizes an immediate and permanent disembodied bliss in a purely spiritual heaven is labeled the “Burpo-Graham view.” The other that emphasizes resurrection, both of the body and of the earth, as heaven is treated as the Wright (not necessarily “right”) view also held by theologians such as Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary.
According to Meacham, the second view better lends itself to activism in the here and now to make this world a better place. He acknowledges, however, that at least some in the first camp, holding the first view (purely spiritual heaven) also believe in working to make this world a better place.
What I wonder is why these are treated as separate and incompatible “views” of heaven with two camps of believers who supposedly disagree about heaven? I am sure that Billy Graham believes in the future bodily resurrection and eventual renewal of earth with the joining of heaven and earth that Wright talks about. (I won’t dare to speak for Colton Burpo or his parents, but there’s nothing in that view—yes, I read the book—that rules out a future resurrection.) And I’m confident, or at least hopeful, that Wright believes in Paradise as the disembodied existence of the dead in Christ awaiting the resurrection.
Toward the end of the article the author seems to acknowledge the “two step” view of life after death in Christian theology with the first step being a disembodied waiting for resurrection in a heaven-like paradise and the second step being the new heaven and earth joined together with resurrected bodies. This is, of course, the traditional view of life after death (for believers) held by most Christians throughout two millennia. Catholics would throw in purgatory as part of that “intermediate state.”
The thrust of the article seems to be that some Christians believe in an intermediate state and others don’t and that some Christians believe in a future resurrection and renewed earth that is heaven (for believers) and some don’t. Only occasionally does the author acknowledge that the two views can be combined. What is missing is any hint that the combination is the traditional Christian view!
I admit that books like Heaven Is for Real worry me. They may tend to reinforce folk religion that thinks of heaven in purely spiritual terms without any idea of a future resurrection and new heaven and new earth. But nothing in the book necessarily denies that. Similarly, I worry that some theologians’ strong emphasis on the resurrection and new heaven and earth as the primary referent of “heaven” may mislead people to deny the intermediate state.
What I do is talk equally about two future realities for believers: “paradise” and “heaven.” I think it is appropriate to reserve the word “heaven” for God’s place now and our future home when this world and our bodies are freed from bondage to decay and God is all in all or everything to everyone. But I think we need to talk also about “paradise” as that place many people, in their folk religion, call “heaven”—the abode of the dead in Christ about which we know little. But the apostle Paul wrote the Corinthians about it and even suggested that he (or a man he knew) went there in some kind of “near death” experience.
A holistic account of life after death takes both equally seriously even though it emphasizes the resurrection of both our bodies and creation as the “blessed hope.”