To this point, we’ve seen that the dead in Christ are most commonly described as being asleep until the Second Coming–the End–when the old earth and old heaven will be destroyed, the living and dead will the judged, and God will transform the earth and heaven into a New Earth and New Heaven–and he’ll transform our bodies into new, incorruptible, imperishable bodies.
And yet, as mentioned in the previous post, this leaves us with some apparent inconsistencies. How can the dead be asleep when so many will have no bodies at all? Consider those who died in Hiroshima. Their bodies were vaporized, not buried, and their atoms are scattered, quite literally, all over the earth!
And how could Jesus promise the thief on the cross Paradise “today” when Paradise won’t be prepared and ready for the saints until the End thousands of years later?
The Medieval Church believed in a bodily resurrection (Wright is far from being the first!), and so some heretics had their bodies cut into bits and scattered in an effort to assure that they couldn’t arise on the Last Day. Burning was likely also an effort to prevent a bodily resurrection. In fact, some heretics were burned after they died by other means! Wikepedia says, “For example, the body of John Wycliff was exhumed years after his death and cremated, with the ashes thrown in a river, explicitly as a posthumous punishment for his denial of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.”
I worry about this kind of stuff. I mean, I’m perfectly happy to say it’s all symbolic, imponderable, and irrelevant. We go to a better place, and that’s all that matters! But, then, God seems to have said quite a lot on the subject, so it really must matter. And while we’ll surely never fully understand it, it’s worth discovering what God says on the subject as best we can. After all, God said it!
So here’s my theory. Let’s call it “Modern Physics and the Second Coming.” (I bet you weren’t expecting that!)
According to the Hawking-Penrose Theorem, derived from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, time began when the universe was created. Indeed, time is a part of the universe and is simply undefined outside our finite (in both time and space) universe.
The New Testament beat the scientists to this conclusion millennia earlier–
(1 Cor. 2:7) No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.
The word often translated “eternal” is aion, which means “unbounded by time” and in many contexts properly refers to a spiritual existence separate from earthly time.
(Luke 18:29-30) “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Thus, in the age to come–in the New Heaven and New Earth–we’ll have eternal life, that is, life unbounded by time.
In other words, there is no correspondence between time as we experience it and time as God experiences it — if God is bound by any kind of time at all. As the Bible says, a thousand years is like a day to God. It doesn’t mean that he’d old! It means his time is radically unlike ours.
Hence, as heaven is outside the created universe, it’s not bound by and doesn’t even touch time as we know it.
Therefore, it’s entirely possible for me to arrive at the gates of heaven simultaneously with my great-grandparents and great-grandchildren. I really like this thought. And I think this is what we’re promised.
We all die. We all leave this universe and its time. And we all enter God’s realm where earthly time has no meaning. Thus, there’s one Judgment, and it all happens at once–just as the scriptures picture it.
This explains quite a lot, actually. From an earthly perspective, the dead appear to sleep, but not from their perspective. From a heavenly perspective, the dead find themselves immediately at the End, that is, at the entrance to the New Earth. They receive their new bodies in God’s realm, which has no correspondence to earthly time.
Augustine reached the same conclusion in Book XI of his Confessions—
15. But if the roving thought of any one should wander through the images of bygone time, and wonder that Thou, the God Almighty, and All-creating, and All-sustaining, the Architect of heaven and earth, didst for innumerable ages refrain from so great a work before Thou wouldst make it, let him awake and consider that he wonders at false things. For whence could innumerable ages pass by which Thou didst not make, since Thou art the Author and Creator of all ages? Or what times should those be which were not made by Thee? Or how should they pass by if they had not been? Since, therefore, Thou art the Creator of all times, if any time was before Thou madest heaven and earth, why is it said that Thou didst refrain from working? For that very time Thou madest, nor could times pass by before Thou madest times. But if before heaven and earth there was no time, why is it asked, What didst Thou then? For there was no “then” when time was not.
We have to add a little more modern physics to the mix. We now accept as elementary that we are all made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. The protons and neutrons are made of quarks. And these seem to have finite lives. As some some point, protons are likely to decay into more elementary particles. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_decay. This hasn’t been proven, but is the outcome of current theories.
Moreover, under the Second Law of Thermodynamics, we know that the universe is subject to entropy. The energy in the universe will eventually so dissipate that there will be no usable energy and, hence, no life. The stars will burn out, chemical and atomic energy will be exhausted, and life will end. This universe is irrevocably destined to die. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_death_of_the_universe. (It’ll be a very long time from now, but the universe can’t last forever.)
Hence, if God is to give us new incorruptible, imperishable bodies and a New Earth that will be eternal, he’ll have to make them out of different stuff and put us in a different place. Fermions and bosons, electrons and protons, just won’t last long enough. The universe won’t last long enough. (And everything ever made out the same stuff as this universe wears out, dies, or breaks.)
On the other hand, God is entirely capable of changing the rules. He may, by act of will, rewrite the laws of nature. But when he does, things will unquestionably be different, but they’ll be very different.
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 tradition 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.
Now, for your contemplation, several images from artists who’ve tried to see the unseeable–