They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
“Come my Lord, no longer tarry, take my ransomed soul away; Send Thine angels now to carry, me to realms of endless days…” These words come from the ever-popular hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Is this serene image one that truly reflects the ultimate Christian hope? For the Christian, the belief of the gospel and life hereafter has often gone something like this: my sins are too great, but by trusting in Jesus who has died for my sins, I am promised eternal life with God in heaven after I die.
Though I love the hymn, it among many others paints a picture of the ultimate Christian hope that is rather unlike what is found in Scripture. An outsider might rightly conclude that this looks an awful lot more like Greek Platonism or Ancient Gnosticism. The problem with this image we have just sketched, is that it is a truncated gospel and a distorted vision of the biblical future hope. In the minds of many laypeople (especially Christian laypeople) the gospel has become something like this: I live on earth, one day I will die and will go to heaven. Because of my sin I deserve punishment and therefore destined to hell, but if I believe in Jesus, I will receive eternal life and go to heaven. There are at least several problems with this. Firstly, it is centered around me. Secondly, it has reduced the gospel to having your sins forgiven. Thirdly, the narrative frame is built around heaven and hell, instead of the biblical story of the reconciliation of heaven and earth. Fourth, it regards creation as inferior. Fifth, following the truncation of the gospel, it sidelines the resurrection into a mere footnote and renders it almost meaningless.
It is my goal, to re-frame these images according meta-narrative of inspired and sacred Scripture. We may sum it up like this: Jesus the resurrected and enthroned King, is reconciling heaven and earth, and promises resurrected embodied hope into a new creation for all who are “in Him.” This will be discussed in three points, 1) Jesus the resurrected and enthroned King, 2) The reconciliation of heaven and earth, 3) the future hope of bodily resurrection into new creation.
Jesus: The Resurrected and Enthroned King
The declaration that God had raised the crucified Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, is central to early Christian thought and gospel which they proclaimed1. We see this clearly in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:1 “Now I want to make it clear to you brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you…” He continues by highlighting the key aspects this good news, “that Christ died for our sins,” “that he was buried,” and “that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:4-6).” Notice what follows is his stress on the bodily appearance of Jesus to his disciples. It makes up over half of the creedal statement!2 The resurrection of Jesus is a big deal to Paul, and this succinctly highlighted when he says, “if Christ is not raised then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.” The significance of resurrection for Paul are monumental and the Christian hope hinges upon it.
Following this, the resurrection is front and center for Peter in his message on Pentecost, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” The language emphasizes the reversal of death itself, and the verdict that was placed on Jesus. God has declared creation to be good by entering into it in the Incarnation. Through the death and resurrection of the Incarnate Son of God, the power of death is crushed, and its effects reversed (Heb 2:14-15).
The story does not stop there. There is more to it. Jesus is not only resurrected to immortality, but enthroned as king of heaven and earth. Often, we think of the ascension as Jesus floating into heaven, but it is first and foremost his ascension to the throne as King. Peter in his Pentecost sermon goes on to say “know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).” Notice Jesus’ own words “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Matt 28:18).” Wait, you might say, wasn’t Jesus always lord and king? Think of David, he was anointed king but was not enthroned as king until after tragic suicide of his predecessor king Saul. Or to borrow from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it is much like Aragorn, who is the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor. Yet it is only after the final confrontation, the battle of the black gate, that he is enthroned as Gondor’s true king. Much like these two figures, the resurrected Jesus -the Incarnate Son of God- is enthroned not only as the King of Israel but as Lord of the cosmos, the Ruler of heaven and earth. The gospel then is the declaration that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was resurrected and enthroned as Lord. It is the story of Jesus becoming king. He reclaims his creation from exile by his own blood. This has cosmic implications for the present and the future. As we look back to our introduction, we see clearly what the gospel is: Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate and Crucified Son of God has been resurrected from dead, and has been enthroned as Lord of heaven and earth. The right response to this gospel is by turning giving allegiance to the self sacrificial King and finding forgiveness of sins in Him.
The Reconciliation of Heaven and Earth
You might at this point be asking, well what about heaven and hell? Does Jesus being Lord mean I will have eternal life in heaven when I die? It would do the reader well, to do a word search on Bible Gateway of the following “heaven” and “hell.” The results will return as follows: “Sorry, we didn’t find any results for your search.” These questions are informed unfortunately, by our contemporary Christian beliefs rather than by Scripture. Now try this, do a word search for “heaven” and “earth.” Earth is the counterpart of heaven, not hell. Our common beliefs about heaven, hell and the afterlife look a lot more like Greek Platonism or ancient Gnosticism. It is time to re-adjust our lenses, for it is only when we re-frame the story of heaven and earth, that sub plot of hell can make sense (though for the purposes of this essay, it will be covered in a subsequent post). As for most stories, it is best to return to the beginning.
The story of scripture opens with God, creating the heavens and the earth. For the author this is a way of saying: everything you can see, all that’s up there and all that’s down here3. He uses the language of experience to describe the whole of creation. The heavens (or skies) also represent the place where God and his heavenly council lived. Not only are we told that God creates this beautiful world, but he declares it good, in fact, very good. Following the sweeping account in Genesis 1, Genesis 2 tells us that God comes to dwell and commune with humanity (Adam and Eve). The tragedy of course, is that they chose to seize wisdom for themselves, rather than seek wisdom of God. Adam and Eve are exiled, and heaven and earth are ripped apart. The harmony of creation is undone by the rebellion of those who were called to represent God’s rule over it. Throughout the Old Testament narrative, we see glimpses of the hope of restoration, this especially peaks in Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 65 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth…” What follows is a vision of restoration, of peace, and of reconciliation brought to a world (although immediately to Judah) that has been torn apart by war, by famine, by sin, and by death. The hope of God returning to his people and dwelling among his creation is fully realized in a completely unexpected way in the Incarnation. The mission of Jesus was to announce the kingdom returning at last as it was always intended. We see this in the words of Jesus when he teaches his disciples to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10).” Paul sums it in his beautiful poem in Colossians 1:15-20: “For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Paul likewise speaks in Romans 8 of creation waiting “in eager expectation” and as “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” in it’s hope of liberation (Rom 8:18-23).
Heaven and earth were destined for reconciliation. Sin had ripped apart our communion with God, death had crawled in and devoured its prey. Yet God did abandon his creation, but through the crucifixion of the Incarnate Son of God (in whom meets the very realities of heaven and earth) heaven and earth are reconciled. In his resurrection and ascension to the throne, he becomes creation’s King once again. Joshua Ryan Butler puts it well, “In Christ, God’s purpose is to reunite which sin has torn asunder, to thread the ripped fabric of creation back together again.4”
We are brought then to the final pages of Scripture and the vision of future hope.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-2).”
The movement is not those on the earth flying or being transported up to heaven, as if that was really what it was all about, rather it is heaven (God’s perfect rule and presence) coming down to earth and being merged into perfect unity. God will reconcile heaven and earth at last, and dwell among his people in his new creation. We see then story of Scripture is not about leaving earth one day, for heaven or hell, but it is rather that heaven and earth as God’s creation are reconciled through his Son into perfect union.
The Hope of the Resurrection
We have now developed two closely interlocking themes. The first is that Jesus has been resurrected and enthroned as king of heaven and earth. Second, that heaven and earth are destined for reconciliation through God in Christ, by his shameful execution, his resurrection and enthronement as it’s true Lord. We will now focus on the sweeping implications, the bodily resurrection of the dead.
For the Jewish people, there had been the hope that when God set things to right at the end of the age. He would not abandon his creatures but he would resurrect the dead5. In the resurrection of Jesus, God had done in the middle of history what he promised to do for all at the end of the age. God’s intention was not to abandon his creation that had been corrupted by sin, but rather to rescue it, restore it and transform it. We return then to Paul’s discussion about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he says “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised (1 Cor 15:13).” Paul’s point here is that if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ’s resurrection is not simply annulled, but it has not happened. Or notice Paul’s words to Festus “that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles (Acts 26:23).” Similarly, N.T. Wright highlights an often-neglected passage which speaks strongly of the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for believers, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you (Rom 8:9-11).6” These are only a handful passages, for they are too numerous to cover here. Our hope is not then ultimately, to go to heaven when we die, because this creation is inferior. Rather our hope is that though our mortal bodies will die, Christ will resurrect our bodies into new creation, precisely because his creation is good. This is then, the consequence (in a good sense) because he has been resurrected and is rescuing his creation by reconciling heaven and earth. We are resurrected into new creation and transformed into his image, to rule in his redeemed creation as we were meant to be from the beginning.
The resurrection means, that death in fact is not the end. Through his death the Incarnate Son of God has been resurrected and enthroned, breaking its power. And it is by this his power that heaven and earth will be reconciled and transformed. It is by his resurrection from the dead that we will have embodied immortal life in his renewed and good earth (new creation!). The resurrection brings immense meaning into our present lives as we participate in what God is doing. As Michael Bird puts it well “Our labor in the Lord in this life plants a seed that will sprout forth in the future world, so that what work we do in this age will flower in the coming age of new creation.7”
To quote Wright, instead of thinking of life after death, the Christian hope is rather “Life After Life After Death.” Our goal is not, going off to heaven when die, but rather our hope is in the future resurrection of the dead through the power our resurrected and enthroned Lord, who is reconciling heaven and earth.
I hope that my writing has clearly demonstrated, what the Christian hope and the meta-narrative of Scripture is not about, and what it is about. I have demonstrated 1) Jesus the resurrected and enthroned King, 2) The reconciliation of heaven and earth, 3) the future hope of bodily resurrection into new creation. It is not about dying and going to heaven because this creation is inferior but rather that God in Christ, who he has resurrected and enthroned as Lord, has rescued his creation and will raise our mortal bodies to embodied immortal life. This is not to deny that there is something to be said about what happens to the believer upon death; that they are with the Lord until the resurrection of the dead and the complete inauguration of new creation. But the focus remains: He does not abandon; he is the Creator who rescues his creation. The application for our lives and what it means for Christians today is immense. We have work to do. We are to be agents of reconciliation, announcing the good news that Christ has been resurrected and enthroned as Lord, and is reclaiming his creation. What do we today, truly matters. We have been invited into the mission of God in his reclamation and renewal of his world. We are called then to be participants God’s new creation that has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus. It is in this objective truth that one will receive forgiveness of sins, when one turns and gives allegiance to the true King of heaven and earth.
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
- See Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper One,2008) 3. Early Christian Hope in It’s Setting, 4. The Strange Story of Easter
- Many New Testament Scholars agree this statement by Paul as pre-Pauline tradition that came into existence within years of Jesus’ crucifixion. See https://beliefmap.org/bible/1-corinthians/15-creed/date
- For an accessible but excellent short summary on this see Creation Through the Lens of Ancient Cosmology https://bibleproject.com/blog/creation-through-the-lens-of-ancient-cosmology/
- Butler, Joshua Ryan. The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War (Thomas Nelson 2014) 14
- Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, 10. The Redemption of Our Bodies (Harper One 2008)
- See Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper One, 2008) 158
- Bird, Michael. What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles Creed (Zondervan, 2016) 158