Heaven isn’t what it used to be.
A friend of mine’s favorite Sunday school song growing up was “Dwell in Me, O Blessed Spirit,” the first verse of which goes, “Dwell in me, O Blessed Spirit, Gracious Teacher, Friend Divine. For the home of bliss that waits me, O prepare this heart of mine.” But my friend, Laura Smit, who is now a theology professor at Calvin College, notes that this song is now revised in the hymnal to read “For the kingdom work that calls me, O prepare this heart of mine.” Apparently, those revising the song worried that speaking of the “home of bliss that waits me” leads to otherworldly passivity. Rather than prepare our hearts for the “home of bliss” in the age to come, we should focus on “the kingdom work that calls me.”
This revision reflects the broader trend of evangelical scholars and pastors countering a wispy, ethereal view of heaven, separated from our present life. Rather than use “rapture” movies to scare non-Christians into faith so they are delivered from the burning earth, these evangelicals insist that Christian hope is not for the annihilation of the earth, but the restoration of all creation to service of the Lord. Our heavenly hope is that the Lord sets things right, and heaven comes to earth. Our kingdom work now anticipates the new creation to come, in which we reign with King Jesus in the renewed creation.
I embrace the main features of this counter-narrative to the rapture account. Redemption restores God’s good creation. Heavenly hope involves a material, embodied restoration. Heaven and earth will come together as Christ’s kingship is recognized by all creation. Moreover, we should embrace “the kingdom work” that calls us, as the revised song states. Yet, I also sense that we impoverish our hope for heaven when we turn it into an expression of our current activist emphasis upon “kingdom work.”
Resurrection Hope in the Present Age
New Testament scholar Richard Middleton speaks for many in this “kingdom work” movement in insisting that “we need to drop pious ideas of a perpetual worship service as our ultimate purpose in the eschaton.” Instead, we need to focus on what we will do in the new creation. Likewise, in his popular recent book, All Things New: Heaven, Earth, and the Restoration of Everything You Love, pastor John Eldredge laments that “everybody I talk to still has these anemic, wispy views of heaven, as a place up there somewhere, where we go to attend the eternal-worship-service-in-the-sky.” Instead, “the renewal of all things simply means that the earth you love—all your special places and treasured memories—is restored and renewed and given back to you.”
A watershed book for the recent discussion of these issues was N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Wright presents a forceful counter to a “rapture-based” view of heaven where the earth is left behind. As he does so, he presents a wide-ranging vision of how the church is to “bring real and effective signs of God’s new creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.”
A key verse for Wright is Paul’s admonition at the end of his great exposition of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 to “give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (15:58). While many interpreters understand this “labor” as preaching the resurrected Christ (referenced by Paul several times earlier in the chapter), Wright claims that all faithful actions in the Christian life will “last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.”
These actions give signs of what is to come: “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.” Christian identity in the present age and the age to come is framed in terms of what we as humans do. For only will our own actions, as “real and effective signs,” last into God’s future; in the coming age God will undertake “fresh projects” through us as actors “in his new world.”
Hopeful or Harmful?
While I celebrate Wright’s holistic vision in Surprised by Hope, his account here creates more problems than it solves. What does it mean for our actions to “last” into the new creation? Wright unpacks his idea by saying, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.” Our present actions—whether in composing a cantata or a poem or sewing or caring for the needy—are signs of the coming new creation. But is this really a healthy way to cultivate resurrection hope?
A friend of mine is facing death; he spent his life as an auto mechanic. Will his repaired cars make their way to the new creation? If not, why does Bach’s contribution have kingdom value, while my friend’s does not? Likewise, a pastor in my home state of Michigan mentioned to me that many members of his congregation assume that there will be plenty of woods and deer in heaven. So naturally, they fantasize about shooting a 39-point buck in the heavenly woods. Can deer hunting be a clue, a “real and effective sign,” of the coming new creation? Why include the human labors of Bach but exclude those of Michigan hunters?
Middleton, Wright, and others have sought to counter a “boring” view of heaven. But is the solution to focus on our own desires and actions as “effective signs” and project them into the future? I fear that such an approach does not generate a cosmic view of God’s work in restoring the whole creation (as they desire), but small, individualized versions of paradise.
Instead of this approach, we should rediscover the wisdom in the historic Protestant notion that God provides “means of grace” to the church—real and effective signs, through the Spirit, through which the Father gives his people concrete foretastes of Christ’s coming kingdom.
Preaching the gospel of Christ, as in 1 Corinthians 15, is the Spirit’s instrument for transformation. In addition, many Protestants add the sign-actions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These Protestant traditions assume that not all “spiritual experiences” are equal—instead, we need to gather corporately to hear Scripture proclaimed and to look to Christ himself as the one who will give us a taste of heaven. For he is the one who has gone to heaven before us, and through the Spirit, we are united to him. Rather than discuss whether we will be pulling out rifles to shoot deer in heaven, we need to hear, wash, eat, and drink the Word together in these acts of worship, receiving real and effective signs of the age to come.
Concrete New Creation Hope
How can the celebration of a sacrament, such as the Lord’s Supper, lead us to properly cultivate new creation hope? When we come to the Table, we enter into a corporate experience of worship where the biblical images for the coming age are at the center. Consider just two.
Temple: We come to Christ, the Temple, the dwelling place of God, as people whose true identity is to be temples of the Holy Spirit. Personally and corporately, we receive atoning forgiveness and new life from Christ, the High Priest. We also feed upon Christ as the manna in the wilderness—manna that provided a foretaste of the promised land of milk and honey and was placed in the Temple’s Holy of Holies.
Marital Fellowship: We celebrate together at the Table in joyful yet aching anticipation of the wedding feast to come. In the Old and New Testaments, the Lord speaks of his people as his spouse, and Revelation speaks of the coming “wedding feast of the Lamb.” This is not just an abstraction, either now or in the age to come. As we celebrate the Supper now, we celebrate a foretaste of a great feast that includes table fellowship with peoples of all nations and cultures and ethnicities. We’re brought together as a people who praise and delight in our life-giving spouse and lover, Jesus Christ.
These concrete “instruments” of the Spirit do not give us a to-do list of tasks—for now or for the age to come. To the contrary, through the Word and Sacraments, the Spirit does something greater than disclosing a list of tasks: the Spirit reveals our true and future identity in Christ, which even death itself cannot sever.
Thus, I’m left with a conclusion that is unfashionable at the moment, against the grain of the cottage industry of recent evangelical books: that it’s basically right to see worship as central to the “purpose” of the eschaton. By this, I don’t mean that hitting a high C in singing or mastering our footwork in the worship-dance will be central. Rather, corporate worship is an appropriate image for our final end because the Triune God and his glory will be the central actors in the age to come. Our lives will be lived only in him, always pointing beyond themselves to the Lord of life; we won’t be defined by what we do.
The central question is not what we will do in heaven, but what drama will we be incorporated into? If this is our question, we find our acting instructions in receiving God’s Word in worship exalting Christ our Lord, not in setting our eyes our own good deeds of “kingdom work” now.
If we have a problem with imagining heaven as a gathering of worship of the risen King, the real issue may be with our expectations of worship. All too often, we would rather sing of our own deeds now than to worship in anticipation of the delights of communion with God and one another in the coming age. “Let earth and heaven combine/Angels and men agree/To praise in songs divine/The incarnate Deity” (Charles Wesley).
I recall a pastor of a church focusing on ministry to millennials who shyly mentioned to me that in five years of ministry, he had never even spoken of the coming culmination of the kingdom. “We just focus on how we can participate in the kingdom in our practices here and now,” he said. But as he said it, he realized that there was something hollow about this. Is our action, our own work, at the center of the cosmos? Does this really reflect Paul’s lofty hope that the Lord is “achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” with our present order? (2 Cor. 4:17)
Paul, for one, values our all of our work as Christians as labor that brings glory to God. Yet he declares, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Fruitful work now is “necessary,” he says. But it pales in comparison to Christian hope. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil. 1:21, 23). We can and should offer our lives as service to God in the world, whatever our vocation and whatever our calling.
For both Bach and the auto mechanic down the street, heavenly hope is not to keep doing what we have been doing or what we wish we could have done in this earthly life. Life in the coming age will be better because of who we will be: adopted children of the Father who will be fully and completely united to the Son, Jesus Christ. For “to live is Christ,” and we will never need to move beyond delight-filled communion with our spouse and Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.
J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary. His latest book, released today, is Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table (Eerdmans).