Going to Heaven
When I was a child I learnt that if I was a good boy I would go to heaven and be with Jesus when I died. However, in recent 21st century times much has been made of the putative redemption of creation and I have been roundly told that earth not heaven is my real home. According to Tom Wright’s Surprised by Joy, for example, Isaiah 65:17-25 and 66:22f., which lie behind 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1-4, inform us that the new heavens and the new earth are my ultimate destination. (1* See my A Brief Critique of ‘Surprised by Hope’ by Tom Wright.) In light of this it is widely held that the present earth which is said to have ‘fallen’ when Adam ‘fell’ will be redeemed, purged of sin and made fit for habitation by regenerate humanity. (2* Others like Chris Wright, Harris (ch.12) and Stott (ch. 4) hold similar views.)
Heaven and Jesus
An obvious problem with this view is that Jesus is portrayed as having returned to heaven from where he came in the first place (John 3:13; Eph. 4:9f.) and he promises that he will return to fetch his people to be with him for ever (John 14:2f.; 1 Thes. 4:17).
One may wonder why it is necessary to go to heaven if we can gain eternal life while we are on earth. The problem is of course that eternal life is spiritual (cf. John 3:1-8) while the temporal flesh and the earth from which it derives are not. If it countered at this point that man is not fully man without a body and an appropriate realm (kingdom) in which to live, it may be replied that though the body of flesh is headed for destruction a new and spiritual or glorified body ‘made without hands’ is promised us (2 Cor. 5:1, cf. 1 Cor. 15:46-54). So just as Jesus’ body of flesh was dispensed with at his ascension transformation, so will ours be (Phil. 3:21).
The Physical Creation
As has already been implied, creation is a purely temporary phenomenon. It had a definite beginning (Gen. 1) and hence a certain end (Mt. 28:20). The latter is vividly portrayed as occurring in a fiery holocaust resembling Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke 17:28f.; Heb. 12:27-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). Heaven or from our point of view the world to come is eternal. In contrast with the earth which is God’s footstool, it is the also throne of God (Mt. 5:34f.).
Matthew 5:35 highlights something else: Jesus refers here to Jerusalem as the city of the great King. The inference we draw from this is that the earthly Jerusalem is also temporary. As the author of Hebrews intimates, here on earth we have no lasting city (13:14, cf. Mt. 22:7) which in any case compares unfavourably with the city that is to come in the world to come (Heb. 1:6; 2:5; 6:5). It is in fact set in contrast with Sinai in Hebrews 12:22, and Sinai and all it represents is not only terrifying but also obsolescent (Heb. 8:13, cf. 2 Cor. 3:7-11).
The Kingdom of Heaven
According to the general teaching of the NT the kingdom of the earth (or all earthly kingdoms) will finally give way to the Kingdom of heaven. This is expressly stated in Revelation 11:15 (cf. 12:10-12; Luke 1:33). Certainly there is an element of comparison between this perishable world and the eternal next, between earth and the kingdom of heaven (cf. John 3:3,5; 1 Cor. 15:50). For example, in Hebrews earth like much else is seen as a type or shadow of that which is to come. However, Abraham and his fellow believers are said in Hebrews 11 to desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one where a city has been prepared for them (Heb. 11:14-16, cf. John 14:2).
The Two Ages
Jesus himself like his fellow Jews distinguished strongly between this age and the age to come. For instance, in Luke 20:34-36 he pertinently notes fundamental difference. Physical or fleshly mankind, like the animals in general in the present age, marry in order to propagate the species. This is necessary not simply to extend the number of people on the earth but to overcome the ravages of death (cf. Heb. 7:23). And in case his hearers have failed to grasp the point he asserts that those who qualify for the age to come cannot die anymore. However, as the author of Hebrews indicates, while believers die only once (Heb. 9:27), a second death pointing up eternal spiritual death comes to those who have rebelled irretrievably against God and are as his inveterate enemies destroyed. Again, in John 11 Jesus talking to Mary at the time of Lazarus’ death and resurrection emphasizes death in this age and permanence in the next (John 11:25f.). (See further my The Two Ages.)
Natural and Supernatural
What Scripture points to is the temporality and of all that is natural and our goal is the supernatural. Visible created things, though expressing the power and glory of God (Rom. 1:20), are intrinsically impermanent and will eventually be destroyed (Heb. 12:27). It is the invisible supernatural that is permanent and it is our destination. And we can only reach it by ourselves being given eternal life (the life of God) through faith in Christ and subsequent corporeal transformation after death.
On reflection this simply underlines the nature of our eternal God. While he himself is by nature both immortal (1 Tim. 6:16) and incorruptible (1 Tim. 1:17; Rom. 1:23), in contrast we his creatures are by nature both mortal (Rom. 6:12; 2 Cor. 4:11) and corruptible (2 Cor. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52). Real life (cf. 1 Tim. 6:19) is eternal life or divine life. If we would have it, then we must build on the rock which is Christ (Mt. 7:24; 1 Cor. 10:4). It alone is unshakable (Heb. 12:26-28). In light of this the idea that what is natural can be redeemed is lamentably false. As Paul says the perishable by nature cannot be rendered imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50b). It was the Lord Jesus himself who brought to light immortality and incorruption (1 Tim. 1:10). By faith in him we have been given both and the death by which this age is characterized is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:53f.).
M.Harris, From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
J.R.W.Stott, The Contemporary Christian, Leicester, 1992.
C.Wright, The Mission of God, Nottingham, 2006.
N.T.Wright, Surprised by Hope, London, 2007.