Friday, March 03, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: An Undersized Eternity

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Earlier this week I poked around the subject of Christian hope a little. My sister had kindly linked me to Todd Billings’ recent post at Christianity Today entitled “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small” in which Billings talks about Michigan deer hunters who expect to continue enjoying their favorite pastime in heaven.

I’d rather not spend more time debunking other Christians’ cherished heavenly speculations, so I’ll trust that my own post didn’t completely fail to make the case that a New Testament view of our hope in Christ is rich, multifaceted and real.

A Shift in Emphasis

What I’d like to do if you’re game, IC, is talk a bit about another interesting point made in the CT article, which is a relatively recent shift in emphasis within evangelical scholarship from what Billings calls a “wispy, ethereal view of heaven” toward reigning with Christ in his new creation. Is that a trend you’ve observed?

Immanuel Can: I can’t say that I have. I think that the eternal future is still not a popular subject these days, so far as I can tell. But I don’t hear everything.

Tom: I see a little bit online. Not so much the idea of “kingdom work” that Billings refers to, but really an absence of any sort of solid concept of what we have to look forward to. Well, let me set the table a bit then.

Billings says there’s a movement afoot to emphasize “kingdom work” over heavenly bliss and eternal occupation with God. He quotes Richard Middleton (“we need to drop pious ideas of a perpetual worship service as our ultimate purpose in the eschaton”), John Eldredge (“everybody I talk to still has these anemic, wispy views of heaven, as a place up there somewhere, where we go to attend the eternal-worship-service-in-the-sky”) and even N.T. Wright, who says that Christian identity in the age to come is framed in terms of what we as humans do. We start working here, and will continue working there; that’s the gist of it.

Clouds and Harps

IC: I can’t disagree with the idea that the future doesn’t just stop at the Second Coming. It seems pretty clear to me that after that point, the Lord doesn’t just run out of ideas about what to do; and I don’t think there would be much point in saving a people for himself just to sit around on clouds, playing harps.

Tom: Agreed. “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” I’m not sure when that’ll be, but I’m pretty confident I’ll either be dead or raptured at that point.

IC: Right. But besides debunking those sorts of conventional, silly assumptions (which I think we can safely do) what can we know about the future plans for us, Tom?

Tom: So glad you asked! I was trying to find some sort of schema everyone from the various prophetic schools might be able to agree on (or at least work with), and I think it’s hard to fight with Revelation 20 through 22. It’s (a) unarguably consecutive, and (b) all in one place, so you don’t have debates about where this or that Old Testament or Gospel scripture fits in; debates that might serve to divide the various schools. Best of all, the whole timing of the “rapture” issue doesn’t even come up.

Revelation 20-22, Short Version

So here goes. Skipping the fine details for the purposes of overall clarity, we have:

  • Satan thrown into the bottomless pit (20 v3)
  • the “first resurrection” of the tribulation martyrs who will reign with Christ for 1,000 years (20 v4)
  • the millennium (20 v4)
  • Satan’s release; the nations deceived (20 v7,8)
  • fire consumes them; the devil thrown into the lake of fire (20 v10)
  • the Great White Throne judgment (the “second death”) (20 v11)
  • the new heaven and new earth (21 v1)
  • the New Jerusalem comes out of heaven from God (21 v2)

The remainder of these final three chapters of our Bibles is concerned with a description of the New Jerusalem, where those who love Jesus Christ will spend eternity, a description almost as notable for what isn’t present as for what is.

Beyond that, IC, I think we’re speculating wildly. And I think it’s quite possible that some of the folks who are talking about “kingdom work” are conflating the millennium with the eternal state (not to mention that they may also have confused Israel with the Church).

Does that help sum up the potential areas of difficulty with this new view at all?

A Consistent Pattern of Interpretation

IC: That’s pretty good. One area that is (needlessly) controversial is the millennium itself, of course. Some people (oddly enough) think it’s already happened, some (even more oddly) think there will be none, and (the oddest of all) think we’re in it right now. In any case, one thing is clear: it’s certainly not a synonym for the eternal state.

Tom: You’d have to read these chapters in Revelation in a very non-straightforward way to merge the two, which is why I’d use them as a framework.

IC: Sorting out what it really is, it seems to me, requires not just a choosing of one or another of those alternatives, but the reconciling of that alternative into a consistent pattern of interpretation that fits all of scripture and makes nonsense of none. Now, that’s a big topic: but the need for consistency explains why some people are bound and determined not to allow the scripture to speak of a real Israel, or for God having plans for Israel in the future; for once you allow that national Israel forms a part of God’s future plans, all of those odd alternatives simply become impossible interpretations.

Fitting the Church into the Millennium

Tom: Right. Now, for the purposes of our discussion here, I’m not overly concerned about which eschatological tack people choose to take, but what does seem evident to me is that there is some very fuzzy thinking out there about “heaven”. Some folks take passages that I think are unambiguously millennial and assume that state of affairs continues for all eternity, taking little note of the fact that the millennium is primarily earthly and Hebrew in its character, and that it has a time limitation built into it.

IC: Okay: so what people are going to ask is, “What would be the point of having a period of time like the millennium? Why wouldn’t the Lord just roll the present right into the eternal state?”

Tom: One of the primary reasons is in order to fulfill the promises made in the Old Testament to national Israel. So I’m not sure to what extent the Church will be involved in that, if at all, since I’m confident there will be plenty of godly Jews able to carry out the necessary administrative functions.

As far as the Church is concerned, we are told we will be “always with the Lord”; that if we endure, “we will reign with him”; that “his servants will serve” (that could also be “his servants will worship”); and then finally we are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb, which seems to occur prior to the beginning of the millennial kingdom … assuming, of course, that we take these chapters of Revelation literally (or at least less figuratively than the postmillennialists).

Special Linguistic and Mental Gymnastics

IC: Oh, right; good point. What you believe about all that is closely tied to hermeneutical literalism. You can only sustain one of the other views by claiming that the scriptures are speaking only metaphorically in many particular instances in which literalism is the most normal and obvious way to read. In other words, it takes special linguistic and mental gymnastics, and, I might add, a somewhat loose grasp on logic.

Tom: Absolutely. Beyond that, I’m not sure there are sufficient details given us in scripture to equip us to talk knowledgeably about what “kingdom work” might actually entail, other than perhaps the judgment of angels I referred to earlier.

Can you think of anything else, IC?

IC: Reigning.

Tom: Right. That’s an element of the eternal state too, isn’t it.

IC: We don’t know exactly what that means, or how it plays out, but it would seem there are jobs involving presiding over areas and responsibilities … managing, stewarding, or dispensing authority in some way. What’s quite clear from that is that there are ongoing activities and responsibilities: history does not just end, and we are not parked on clouds, plucking harps.

Things It Is, Things It Isn’t

Tom: Yes, and in that respect the “kingdom work” emphasis is hitting on something useful. The problem is, as you point out, that we simply do not have the details on that aspect of eternity anywhere in scripture. In fact, many of the things said about the New Jerusalem are negations of our current, earthly experience: no sea, no night, no temple, no sun, no moon, nothing unclean, detestable or false, and so on. The details that are provided — the tree of life, river, the walls, the jeweled foundations, the Lamb — are more about our future surroundings and our relationship with God than about the specific roles or responsibilities we will have there.

What I will say is this: when details are not provided us in scripture, it’s because we don’t need them. I have to conclude, then, that my personal status in the eternal kingdom and the specifics of what I may do there are not major factors in my hope in Christ, or in what it is that I am to look forward to when I anticipate eternity with him.

Disembodied, Purposeless Hanging About

IC: Right, yes. But because of that, we must also resist the assumption — so sadly promoted in popular culture and skeptical depictions — that the Christian ideal and hope for the future is a lot of sitting around with nothing to do … a sort of dull, unrelenting, undifferentiated, disembodied, white-clad, purposeless hanging about on clouds, but with nary a coffee break to relieve the eternal monotony. But that sort of nonsense-picture is all too powerful in the common imagination, I think.

Tom: It’s definitely something to be avoided, not least because it trivializes what God has in store for those of us who love him.

Let’s continue this next week, IC, and we can explore that thought a little more.

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