Therefore, the nature of the end of things seems to me to be something like this:
* God has made/will make a New Earth and New Heaven. However, these will not be made of the same stuff as this universe. Just so, our new bodies will be bodies of some sort or other, but they’ll be radically different.
After all, Jesus’ resurrection body could be touched but could also pass through walls (John 20:19)! And it could float up into the clouds. It was made out of a different material from the natural universe.
* When we leave the natural universe, we also leave natural time. Earthly time loses all meaning. As a result, it’s no problem for the thief on the cross to be transported to the End and be in Paradise the same “day” that he dies. The End occurs for a moment in our time but also occurs in heaven (they overlap at this point)–and heaven is timeless.
Remember Wright’s favorite metaphor. The story of the Bible is all about earth and heaven touching, and where heaven and earth touch (such as the Second Coming) time is meaningless.
This is why, for example, our sins could have been forgiven on the cross (before we committed them), when we were saved (still before we committed them), and as we commit them. Forgiveness is something God does, and he does it in heaven, and his time just doesn’t correspond to ours.
* Just so, when we die, we are transported to the End. We all go straight to the Judgment. There is no “great waiting room in the sky.” It would hardly make sense to spend millennia awaiting a Judgment already knowing the outcome!
* We will receive new bodies, and those who are alive at the End will find their bodies transformed. But those who died long before will get new bodies even if their old bodies are irretrievably lost. Those who’ve been vaporized or who’ve otherwise find their bodies destroyed won’t have to find their old molecules to be reconstituted.
* And this means that, in a very real sense, we do have an eternal existence separate from our bodies, which is, of course, Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 5. There he speaks of our leaving our earthly “tents,” which will be destroyed (5:1) to obtain eternal “dwellings” in heaven. We can hardly leave our bodies and also take them with us!
Just so, the image of jars of clay in 2 Corinthians 4:7 suggests that the conscious part of us lives in a body, and the body is a temporary thing.
* Now, when we eliminate the idea of a heavenly holding room, we find that the New Heaven and New Earth fill the role of “heaven” in our informal vocabulary (not that informal. It’s what Paul calls the afterlife in 2 Corinthians 5). In fact, we’ve all been to countless funerals where we’ve heard Revelation 21 or 22 or 1 Corinthians 15 read as though it were speaking of heaven. And it is! It’s just a New Heaven in which we will be restored to Eden with a New Earth–but it will be very much like the same heaven we’ve always imagined.
In fact, there’s nothing at all un-Biblical about referring to the New Heaven and New Earth as “Paradise” or as “heaven,” as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 5. It’s just that it’ll be a new heaven.
Therefore, I don’t see Wright’s teaching as replacing traditional teaching about heaven so much as enriching it. It allows us to bring in details and images from the Old Testament and see the continuity with the New Testament. We see the flow of God’s revelation from Genesis to Isaiah to Habakkuk to the Gospels to Paul to Peter to the Revelation. And it all tells the same story.
At times, the story is told from different perspectives or in different images, but it’s all the same. And I find that I like the story very much.
Moreover, countless verses make better sense when read in this light. Having studied this, I know what Jesus meant in Luke when he promised us, “in the age to come, eternal life.” Why wait until the “age to come” to have eternal life? Why not as soon as I’m dead? Well, because it will be as soon as I’m dead–and in the age to come.
I find it helpful to think of the age to come as something other than a linear continuation of the present. Rather, at the End, we take a 90 degree turn into God’s realm and out of these temporary dwellings.
* The theology is powerful and important. God begins by creating the heavens and the earth. Man sins and the creation is cursed and corrupted. Jesus comes and establishes God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom begins the process of bringing things back to right and prepares people for the restoration of the heavens and the earth. Finally, the restoration comes, and God’s people again live in a New Eden, a New Jerusalem, a New Heaven, and New Earth with God.
* But no precise understanding is possible. Our brains are made of the same stuff as this universe. We cannot even imagine or speculate as to what it will be like. What would it be like to be outside time? What would it be like to made of stuff other than electrons and protons? What would it be like to dwell in the light of God’s presence?
I don’t know. I just know that it will be good. God said of the pre-Fall creation, “It is good.” This will be much, much better.