February 12, 2016
Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, speaker, author and blogger. He is currently teaching at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Sometimes, it seems like two sides cheering in a gym. One group yells out, “More heaven!” and fans of that team repeat the cheer. The other group yells, “More life now!” and like-minded fans declare the same.
Gary Scott Smith, in his book Heaven in the American Imagination, sides more with the first group. He wrote, “If an afterlife exists, worldliness is escapism.” I heard a preference for escapism in my childhood Christianity whenever we sang Jim Reeves’ famous song, “This world is not my home / I’m just a-passing through.”
The other side has its own notable list of fans, including the well-known theologian-pastor of Manhattan’s Riverside Church, Harry Emerson Fosdick. He once said, “Our mission is not to get men to heaven” but “to bring heaven to earth.”
Charles Reynolds Brown, former Dean at Yale Divinity School, dressed up Fosdick’s statement with concrete realities: “The true mark of a saved man is not that he wants to go to heaven” but instead “that he is willing to go to China, or to the battlefield of France, or to the slums of a great city so he can participate in building the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Some on the second side make the rather audacious claim that those who spend their time thinking about a far-off heaven will fail to engage culture and the world already near to them. But those who make this claim know nothing of the facts. C.S. Lewis once said, “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
Those with enough sense to watch what is happening in the noisy, cheer-filled gym need to ask for a moment of silence. Because too much focus on the future heaven or on life in the here-and-now misses the teachings of the Bible. Really, there is no reason why we can’t live for now in light of the afterlife.
We don't need to be heroes. Heaven people live ordinary lives in ordinary places with ordinary families. They work at ordinary vocations.
People who are living in view of heaven ought to be the most zealous about care for creation, love of others, peacemaking and social justice. “Heaven people,” as I call them, have tasted the grandeur of heaven, and therefore, they long for it to begin now on earth. And these same people can also be those who long for the fullness of God’s presence and the perfection of God’s people in the new heavens and the new earth.
So how then should we live now?
Let’s get one thing clear first: to be heaven people, we don’t need to be heroes. Heaven people live ordinary lives in ordinary places with ordinary families. They work at ordinary vocations.
Yes, it is true: Some people are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. But the opposite is just as often—or even far more often—the case.
Certainly, the reality of eternity has a massive impact for life today. And I think there are four main ways heaven affects how we live today.
Heaven Means We Trust
God promised heaven, and He made that promise alive and real in the resurrection of Jesus. But we are called to trust this promising God in our daily lives. We do this in how we live and how we die. Some days, we walk in a vibrant faith, and other days (like Peter) we begin to sink into waters of doubt.
Like the father who longed for his son to be healed, we may need to cry out in the presence of God: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” We are not promised that in trusting God, we will experience constant, victorious, abounding faith. What is promised—and please don’t forget this—is that God will be faithful to His heaven promise.
Trusting looks different for each of us. For some, trusting will mean being faithful under pressure; for some, it will mean disciplining rough edges; for others, it will mean waiting, sometimes in pain and sometimes alone. But trusting is a genuine mark of heaven people.
Heaven Means We Imagine
Once we catch a glimpse of what God plans for the Kingdom, we can begin to implement that vision in the here-and-now—beginning in our churches and in our homes and in our worship.
Let’s agree that imagination is a God-given power that we can unleash to bring heaven to earth in the here-and-now. This is where our sketch of the big ideas about heaven can both contain and excite our imagination. What will the new heavens and new earth be like? God will be all in all, Jesus will be in the center, and we will enter into an eternal utopia of joy, happiness and pleasure. Life will blow away the dust of death, and we will discover an eternal global fellowship in God’s beloved community.
We imagine those sorts of things in advance of their happening by worship: making God central to life, giving Jesus the lordship and honor He deserves, pursuing happiness as God designs, facing death standing in the empty tomb and working to resolve the breakdowns of all racial, ethnic, social, cultural and sexual divisions.
Heaven people focus on a society marked by love, justice, peace and wisdom.
What will that look like? We know that all earthly power, no matter how good or how evil, is time-stamped for the day God will reign for forever and beyond. The day is coming when powers will surrender once and forever to the throne of God.
If we’re going to be people who live in light of heaven, we will live and worship in the now in the hope of the Lamb’s victory over sin and evil. So we imagine life with God on the throne.
Heaven Means We Plant and Build
Heaven people do not dreamily escape from this world. Instead, to each of us is given a task, a calling, a vocation—whatever it might be—and each of us is to do that task.
Even as we live in hope of eternity, we have an earthly life to which we are committed, to the glory of God. Why? In the first chapter of the Bible, God interprets His own work by calling it “good.”
The light was good, the land was good, the sun and the moon are good, all creatures on the land are good. And then God made a male and female in His own image. God’s own interpretation of His creation is that it is very good.
In the goodness of God’s creation, we begin to see how heaven people live. Heaven people dwell in God’s good creation and are summoned by God to a task to govern this world under God for His glory.
Our calling is to do well what we have been called to do, and that calling is an earthly calling (for now). Do what you are called to do, do it well, and do it with an eye on exercising your gifts forever and ever in the new heavens and new earth.
Heaven Means We Make Things Right
The core of the promise of heaven is that in the new earth, God will make all things right. Each word matters: “God” will do this; “will make” is the promise; “all things” means all things—all people, all actions, all systems; and “right” means God promises that the earth in its new-creation form will run as God designed it to run.
Heaven people begin to make things right, now, on earth.
In heaven, God will make all things right. The God who promises us that kind of heaven is at work in us now to infect the world with making things right everywhere we go.
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