Rethinking (or Restoring) Heaven

I have some friends that are worried about me.  It's very well meaning worry, and I am grateful for it.  But, it is misplaced.  You see, I have some friends that read this blog, and they think I am having a crisis of faith.  The fear, I suspect, is that I am going to be lost to the great darkness (as they see it) of non-belief of the broader culture.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is true that I am having some grave doubts about Catholicism, and my place in Catholicism.  But if you pull back one level, but faith in Christianity is as strong as it has ever been.  In some ways, it is better--my prayer life, for example, is the best it has ever been.  There are certain things that I understand far more clearly now that I did before.  My views may be changing, but they are changing in the direction of a greater sense of comfort with Christian doctrine, and a greater appreciation with its teachings.

Take, for example, a very basic question of Christianity--what happens when we die?

Here's the basic outline of the "Last Things," as I understood them as a Catholic.  You die, and then your soul gets judged.  If you are really, really good, you go directly to heaven to be with God for eternity.  That's the good outcome.  If you are mostly good, but still have some problems, you spend time in Purgatory, which is not awesome, but eventually you will be cleansed of your sins and get to heaven, so that's still a good outcome in a macro sense.  Finally, if you consciously reject God, you go to Hell, which is the obviously the bad outcome.  In essence, while undoubtedly Dante took some literary license in The Divine Comedy, the book is basically right in how it portrays all of this stuff.  Protestants would cut out Purgatory, but they basically subscribe to the same model.

That made sense to me, mostly.  Something always bothered me, though.  The Nicene Creed ends with "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."  What does that mean?  The earlier Apostles Creed says "I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting."  To the extent I looked into this (which, truthfully, was not much), I found that the "resurrection of the dead/body" is said to refer to Jesus's Second Coming.  OK, but what does that have to do with "the life of the world to come/life everlasting," which I assumed to be heaven?  And, who is getting raised?  Plus, there is a temporal problem here.  Heaven, by definition, must be beyond time--no past or future, just an eternal present.  So, it can't be the case that you get to heaven and then something happens, because there is no then anymore.  How do you square an event that happens in time, like the Second Coming, with being out-of-time in heaven?  These problems made by head hurt, and so I didn't concern myself with them too much.

Into the mix comes the book Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright.  Bishop Wright makes a very convincing case that Dante's conception is not at all what the early Christians believed.  According to Wright, the early Christians believed that the saved would be physically resurrected and reborn into eternal life at the Second Coming.  But not somewhere "up" in the clouds, but on an Earth that has also been resurrected into a new, purified form.  Before the Second Coming, the saved go to heaven or paradise, which is not a permanent state but a kind of an a-temporal waiting room, where you can hang out with Jesus before the really good stuff comes.

As a Scripture scholar, Bishop Wright does an excellent job tying in various passages of the New Testament to support his view.  In particular, he makes sense of the last two chapters of the always problematic Book of Revelation, which speak of a "A New Heaven and a New Earth" where God will dwell directly.  Wright also shows that this view was a continuation of the beliefs held by a segment of 1st Century Judaism.  For me, he makes a convincing case.  And his vision of eternal life--embodied, and yet free of aging or death, living among your loved ones and enjoying the fruits of creation--is an extremely appealing one.

But the real power of the book comes from what these ideas mean for us right now.  If you hold to the "traditional" view (i.e., the Western view of the last 700 or so years, or you might say the "Dante" view), the whole game with salvation is getting to heaven so you can be free of this world.  There is an implicit gnosticism in the Dante model, as the material world is something that doesn't really matter in the end.  In its extreme forms, you get the view of some Evangelicals of the Left Behind-books school that it doesn't matter if we do bad things to the environment because God is going to blow it all up anyway.  You also get the view that "getting to heaven" is far more important than worrying about problems here on Earth--you may be suffering from hunger or disease or oppression, but who cares about that if you are going to heaven?

Wright's model blows this anti-materialism out of the water.  The physical world is indeed good, and God is going to make it better, and you are going to be a part of it.  While the Second Coming and the transformation of the world will ultimately be God's doing and not the work of man, the obvious conclusion is that dumping tons of toxic crap into the water, for example, is not helping the cause and would likely be frowned upon by God.  Similarly, the work of feeding the hungry and fighting against injustice is, in a small way, contributing to the project of renewing the world.  We are put here to play our part, however small, in God's project, and when the time comes for that project to be finally fulfilled, we hope that we will be there to meet Him when he comes.

I found this book in the library about nine months ago, and I finished it during the course of two long plane rides.  Surprised by Hope completely changed my perspective on what Christian is, and can be, about.  It was like a set of pieces fell into place, but they were pieces that I never realized were out of alignment.  It just felt right.  Surprised by Hope solved a problem I never realized I had.  The vision, which I believe to be the original Christian vision, portrayed in the book is more inspiring, more consoling, more motivating that the old Dante idea.

Surprised by Hope has really invigorated my faith.  It's different, and requires a bit of a perspective shift, but it has been very good for me.  Sometimes you need to get your world-view shaken up.  Sometimes you need a bit of a change to create the space to grow.



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