“For our citizenship is in heaven; from which also we look for
the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our humble body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working by which he is able even to subdue
all things unto himself.”
Philippians 3:20, 21
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the dwelling of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”
I want to explore a bit more why it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t go to Heaven. I want to begin by saying that our fascination with going to Heaven has more to do with Plato than it does with Jesus, who unmistakably taught us to pray for God’s reign to come upon this earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus also taught his disciples that the earth, this land, not Heaven, was the proper inheritance of his disciples who happened to stick out rather counter-culturally because they conducted their lives with gentleness. God’s offspring have no need for more power than they already possess by right of their inheritance. But Plato has always loomed as large as Jesus for some theologians of yesterday, and for that matter for some theologians today. One very influential teaching in antiquity (and probably a misunderstanding) has to do with Plato’s doctrine of forms or ideas. Simply put, he taught that this material world we experience through our senses is a world of constant change and it is mesmerizing with all it bling and splash and variations. Plato says that the problem is this world of matter seduces us into believing it is real when it is not real. This material world is only a shadow. If you were to stand next to a great cathedral as the sun rises in the east, you would see its long shadow falling across busy streets and tall buildings. But any child knows the shadow is not the cathedral. This world in which we live is to be compared to the shadow of the cathedral. Heaven, the dwelling place of God, would be like the cathedral itself that produces and gives meaning to the shadow. You must turn your back to the shadow to enter into the cathedral, and once in the cathedral, the external world is filtered through all the stain glass and given meaning. There is no meaning in the shadow. So you have to turn your back on this world of matter and change to enter into Heaven, where God dwells unchanging, in the uncreated light of the really real.
But that is not what Jesus says, is it? By teaching his disciples the prayer we call The Lord’s Prayer and by stating that his followers would inherit this earth, he placed a great premium upon this material world. The way the translators render the Greek of the Sermon on the Mount has it that the meek and gentle will inherit the “earth,” but in texts other than the Sermon it is usually translated with words far more concrete, and if we were to use those words, then you get a different picture. So, for example, Jesus’ meek and gentle disciples will inherit not merely this earth, but this land. I suppose the word “earth” sounded more poetic than the word “land,” which admittedly has a prosaic thud to it, but it is the best translation. In just about every other case in the New Testament the word “gen” is translated as land or even ground – for example, “they came into the land of Israel,” or “not one of them (sparrows) will fall to the ground apart from your Father,” or again, “the good seed fell on good soil.” You get the point. As I have said, I suppose the translators wanted a more poetic ring for the Sermon on the Mount, and certainly the potentially ambiguous word “earth” doesn’t drag us down to the ground as fast as say the word “dirt,” which is another perfectly good and to my way of thinking a better word. Gram Parsons said a lot when he wrote:
There’s nothing new that can be said about dirt,
And there’s nothing left inside your heart but the same old hurt.
We will come back to that in a minute. So what am I saying? If this world of matter doesn’t really matter because it is only a shadow compared to Heaven, then why should we care about it at all? And that goes for our bodies and what do with our bodies as well. If Heaven is real and lasting while this world that we all know as home, with its clumsy, crude, and ultimately rotting matter, is a prison we escape from at death, then nothing we do with regard to matter matters at all. Some people have even gone so far as to interpret the resurrection to mean death, and thus our escape from this corruptible world of matter, and most pointedly that means escaping from our frail bodies of flesh.
And yet we know that Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the rule of God to come upon this earth, this land, because it would one day be the inheritance of his meek and gentle disciples. Now let’s look at St. Paul:
“For our citizenship is in heaven; from which also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our humble body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working by which he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
St. Paul certainly understood what Jesus meant because he wrote to the Philippians that though Christ was presently in the abode of the Blessed Trinity, he would one day return from that abode, from Heaven, and bring that heavenly commonwealth to this earth. Furthermore, what God did to the dead, tortured body of Jesus, he intends to do to the earth – in other words, all of creation is heading for a resurrection.
By saying that our citizenship, our commonwealth, is in heaven, Paul is simply acknowledging the obvious. Since the Ascension, forty days after the Resurrection, Christ who is our King and thus our Commonwealth, has dwelt in the abode of the Blessed Trinity that we call Heaven. But St. Paul quickly qualifies that by saying that we are thus in a state of waiting, as state of tension, a state of expectation looking for the coming of our Savior Christ who will not only “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” but at the same time he will “subject all things to himself.” This is where St. John’s Revelation, appropriately the last book in the New Testament, begins to pull it all together:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, the dwelling of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”
St. John’s vision begins to put the finishing touches to Paul’s thought concerning just how Christ will “subject all things to himself.” This subjection by Christ will not be accomplished by merely wrestling creation into submission. That entirely misses the point. Jesus’ action will not be an exercise of crude power and domination, it will rather be an act of love – what else would one expect from Jesus? So the new, transformed earth and the New Jerusalem will changed, restored, and regenerated by the hand of God! The final vision begins emerge: Creation will be eucharized, resurrected, transformed, and arrayed like a bride dressed up for her groom! The bells will ring and angels will sing at the wedding of heaven and earth. But remember what happens at a wedding – the two, the bride and the groom are made one flesh. Flesh. Matter. The material world will be born again and burst into blossom as the God’s reign comes to earth as it is now in Heaven and as Jesus’ siblings inherit the land and soil of their God’s good earth. So I suppose there is something new that can be said about dirt, when God loosens our tongue to sing of his love for all creation. And next we see the final touch to the grand vision; the extent of God’s love, indeed of God’s longing for a future in space and time is spelled out:
“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the dwelling of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”
OK, it is one thing to believe and accept that our future life will be bodily and in this material world, albeit transformed, but here re-enters the doctrine of the Incarnation. Not only will we live forever in our flesh on this earth we call home, where waters splash, oil oozes, and spices are sweet, but our God of flesh will make his home among us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory,” and furthermore he will dwell among us again, in his own body of flesh. The Man of Heaven came down to earth and became one of us. He loved his Father and he loved us perfectly and when he offered up his life for the life of the world, he went back to Heaven, as it were our great high priest, to place his sacrifice before the Heavenly Altar and there to intercede for us to the very end. And part of that intercession has to do with the work of God in transforming his creation and making our home his home:
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
So by now you see what I mean when I say that it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t go to Heaven. We ought not to understand what John calls the new earth and new Heaven to mean that God will cast the old heaven and the old earth on some trash heap in eternity, but rather God is working even now from within his creation to bring our waiting to an end and to shut down, to eliminate the disgusting and destructive effects of human sin, because one day sin will die. We will come to our senses, the dead in Christ and the living will awaken to a world where Jesus wipes away every tear and death itself has simply died and blown away like the nothingness it is.