Thursday, February 14, 2008

More on Heaven

If you found Time Magazine's interview with N. T. Wright about heaven (to which I linked last Saturday) intriguing, you should make a point of reading this essay by J. Richard Middleton titled "A New Heaven and a New Earth: The Case for a Holistic Reading of the Biblical Story of Redemption." (HT: Paul Norridge via Steve Bishop)

Middleton convincingly argues that the Bible's plotline militates against the popularly held notion of "heaven" (i.e., an otherworldly, ethereal state devoid of cultural activity) as the goal of redemption. To the contrary, the zenith of Christ's redeeming work will be a complete restoration and renewal of creation where creation is not restricted to what is commonly referred to as "nature" but includes "the entire human socio-cultural order." Middleton states that his intention is "to explore the exegetical case for a consistent understanding of redemption as the restoration of God's creational intent, such that the appropriate hope of the redeemed is life in a renewed intra-mundane, earthly creation."

Middleton divides the essay into the following sections:

The Logic of Creation and Redemption
The Plot of the Biblical Story of Redemption
The Comprehensive Scope of Redemption in the New Testament
Problem Texts for a Holistic Eschatology
What Role Then for Heaven?

Here are some of the lines I found worthy of underlining:

With these two distinctions (concerning creation and redemption) in mind, it becomes easier to see that the traditional picture of "heaven" (found in many classic hymns and contemporary praise songs) as perpetual fellowship with, and worship of, God cannot constitute full redemption in biblical terms. This is because the traditional picture typically omits (and thus implies the negation or abrogation of) large areas of human life that God created good. "Heaven," therefore, as an eschatological state does not constitute genuine redemption of the multifaceted world God intended from the beginning. The logic of biblical redemption, when combined with a biblical understanding of creation, requires the restoration and renewal of the full complexity of human life in our earthly environment, yet without sin.

It is sometimes shocking for readers of the Bible to realize that the initial purpose and raison d'etre of humanity is never explicitly portrayed in Scripture as the worship of God (or anything that would conform to our notion of the "spiritual," with its dualistic categories). Instead, Scripture portrays the human purpose in rather mundane terms of exercising power over our earthly environment as God's representatives...To put it another way, while various psalms (like 148 and 96) indeed call upon all creatures (humans included) to worship or serve God in the cosmic temple of creation (heaven and earth), the distinctive way humans worship or render service to the Creator is by the development of culture through interaction with our earthly environment (in a manner that glorifies God).
In addition to fueling the kind of anticipation and eager expectation that the Bible describes as characteristic of the Christian life (but which, if we're honest, is frequently lacking from ours), this fuller-orbed view of redemption infuses many of the daily activities we're prone to think of as obstacles to our "spiritual" lives with profound significance.


Bill C said...

Thanks for bring attention to the Middleton article. I came across it last NOV when I mentioned Wright's view that heaven wasn't the goal to my Invitation to the NT class and was asked to provide something that people could review and study. Right now I am exegeting the NT texts that M cites...for a class discussion in mid-Mar. Hope to have Wright's book read in the next two weeks...this is such an interesting [but potentially flak-drawing] topic...

JMS said...

Right on, man! This is a great issue to encourage Christians to mull over. So much of our theology comes from Hymns and songs that it's just taken for granted that "Heaven" is the goal and that all we'll do there is sing praises to God. But as you note, this is quite absent from Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22.


Dreadwalk said...

Here's a link to a great excerpt from Wright's book, Surprised by Hope, at Christianity Today.
What's great about the excerpt is that Wright draws out the implications of this view of redemption for living now.

Michelle said...

Not only is Dr. Middleton a well-learned scholar, but he is also a caring person and professor. He seeks to create an environment in which his students may develop their personal worldviews and theological understandings. He truly lives out the implications of holistic eschatology.