"Many Christians think that this world is not their home, this life is not what really matters, and only spiritual things last forever," Michael Wittmer says. And those Christians are what believers in past generations would call heretics.
Wittmer, associate professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has just published his first book, Heaven Is a Place on Earth (Zondervan, $16.99). In it, he's challenging many evangelicals' attitudes toward life on earth, future in heaven, and how to live each day as a child of God.
"Many Christians have unwittingly adopted a dualistic, Gnostic view of the world," Wittmer says,. "Consequently, Christians think they only please God when they are witnessing, reading the Bible, praying, or attending church."
According to Wittmer, this dualism between spirit and body, heaven and earth, has thoroughly permeated evangelicalism, as evidenced by statements in Rick Warren's wildly popular book, The Purpose Driven Life.
While appreciative of much of what he writes, Wittmer takes issue with Warren's view that: "Your earthly body is just a temporary residence for your spirit" (p. 37), "Life on earth is a temporary assignment" (p. 47), and those Christians who think earth is their home "have betrayed their King" (p. 49).
"Warren commits a common evangelical mistake when he interprets the term 'world' (1 John 2:15), 'aliens and strangers' (1 Pet. 2:11), and 'earthly things' (Col. 3:2) in an ontological (literal) rather than moral sense," Wittmer says. "So whereas Scripture warns us to flee from sin in the world, Warren concludes that we must also avoid feeling at home in the physical world. Such thinking does not arise from the Christian gospel, but from the Greek philosophy of Plato and Gnosticism."
Wittmer in Heaven Is a Place on Earth seeks to replace this overly spiritualized form of Christianity with a celebration of the Christian worldview, with a retelling of the Christian narrative of creation, fall, and redemption.
A deeply biblical book, Heaven shows how the story of Scripture answers the big questions of life: What is this place? Why are we here? What is wrong with me and my world? What is God's plan for this world? These questions form the structure of the book, and Wittmer responds to each with sound exegesis, clear writing, and good humor. His main goal is to encourage evangelicals to rethink traditional thought that has kept them from appreciating and really living in the world God made.
"We must begin with creation," Wittmer says, "and understand that creation is good and that planet Earth is where we're supposed to be. It's good to be human and it's good to be here. Jesus Christ — who is fully God and fully human — did not come to Earth to turn us into angels who would live forever in heaven; instead he calls us to thrive down here in our human lives. Sadly, in their well-intentioned pursuit of piety, many evangelicals have forgotten how to be human.
"Pious evangelicals will ask you how many souls you've lead to Christ, how much time have you spent in prayer today," he says. "We should ask how believers are living out their calling today."
That calling can be anything from being an electrician to a part-time secretary, from being a father to a homeowner. It's all part of who God calls us to be, and each of those callings is part of our witness for Christ. The callings of missionaries and pastors are no more spiritual than those of teachers or waitresses or filing clerks.
"Evangelicals hold up the spiritual life and make that the basis for whether you're living right. But God cares as much about that as he does about debt, parenting, or whether you're a good neighbor," Wittmer says. "Everyone has the opportunity to please God, the plumber as much as the preacher, the stay-at-home mom as much as the missionary."
Wittmer concedes that this may be new to some people, so he devotes his final chapter to the most common objections, such as: "Doesn't this talk about the goodness of creation provide spiritual cover for materialism?" and "Doesn't it distract from more urgent tasks, such as evangelism?" Wittmer argues that, far from leading someone into worldliness, this Christian worldview actually raises the bar of the Christian life.
"The Lordship of Jesus Christ, who is both Creator and Redeemer, has implications for all of life. We are no longer free to compartmentalize our lives, thinking that we only please God when we are doing spiritual things like reading our Bibles, praying, and witnessing. Of course we should do these things, and more of them, but we must also recognize that we must live for Christ in everything we do. The movies we watch, how we treat other people, how we act at home — it all matters now."
Readers will find Heaven Is a Place on Earth both liberating and challenging. Liberating because God allows each of us to be ourselves, not a super-spiritual giant, able to focus on our callings. It's challenging because that calling matters to God.
"Because my calling matters, I had better be the best me I can be," Wittmer says. "The message of this book, indeed of Scripture, is to be yourself, but to be that person with excellence."
Heaven Is a Place on Earth includes discussion questions, case studies, and a study and leaders guide. Wittmer is currently working on a second book, tentatively titled Dual Citizenship, which continues some of the themes struck in Heaven.
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Heaven Is a Place on Earth is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Zondervan has more information about the book, including an excerpt and PDFs of the first 33 pages.
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