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058  Heaven and the World to Come

I've been talking about how the Jewish concept of "the world to come" (in Hebrew, "olam ha-bah") has been replaced in the Church with a notion of a disembodied, spiritual heaven. I actually think that all the places in the gospels where Jesus speaks of "eternal life" originally may have been references to olam ha-bah, an actual, physical world that YHWH is going to create (or perhaps is already creating) to fix the existing, broken world ("olam ha-zeh"), and that the Gentile Church, accepting the re-interpretation produced by non-Jewish interpreters, has gotten some wrong ideas about heaven.

Of course, there are valid, biblical reasons to think of the place where the righteous will end up as being other-worldly. To reconcile what I'm saying with what all of us have grown up believing, let's look at a couple of those. 

One of the obvious reasons to consider heaven spiritual is a comment that Jesus made to Pontius Pilate on the day that He was crucified: "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). That's pretty clear, right?

Well, not really. Take a look at Jesus' explanation in the same verse: "If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting..." What Jesus appears to be saying is not that the kingdom is located somewhere else, but rather that the kingdom is not the sort of kingdom that can be won by fighting.

That's a possible reading of Jesus' statement. The Greek is "ouk estin ek tou kosmou", translated "not of this world" in the ESV and the NASB. We think of "of" (Greek "ek" meaning "from" or "out of") as denoting location, but it can also be about its origin or essential nature.

Jesus' kingdom, in fact, was not the sort that could be established by fighting. His kingdom was to be established by His dying on the cross, then being raised from the dead and releasing the Holy Spirit into His Church. Pilate ironically declared that establishment by posting "The King of the Jews" over Jesus' head as He hung on the cross.

So a better way to say what Jesus meant in John 18:36 would be "My kingdom is not the sort that this world produces by wars." It's a different sort, the sort that can be achieved when its founder and Lord does not resist the one who does evil (Matthew 5:39) but willingly dies for the sins of others.*

This is the wisdom of God. "None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." (I Corinthians 2:8)

So we know that John 18:36 does not have to mean that Jesus' kingdom is located in some spiritual world and not our own. Quite the contrary, actually; Jesus declared after His resurrection that all authority "in heaven and on earth" had been given to Him (Matthew 28:18), so we know that His kingdom is located on our world as well as in heaven. It's both.

But then, Paul spent a fair amount of ink in I Corinthians 15 explaining that when believers die they get sown as an earthly body but are given in its place a heavenly body. "What is sown is perishable. What is raised is imperishable... It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." (I Corin 15:42-43)

He actually goes so far as to say, "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (I Corin 15:50), and goes on to make it clear that he's talking about something that will occur at the end of all things, when death is finally conquered.

Jesus actually said something similar to Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, in John 3: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'" (John 3:6-7)

Of course, we don't want to forget context. Paul apparently was addressing some folks who did not believe at all in olam ha-bah. They seemed to be saying that nothing exists beyond our own, physical realm (see I Corin 15:12-19). Paul was reassuring them that they were making a mistake by thinking of our own, physical realm as everything, so he was emphasizing that another realm exists.

But we can't really take that to mean that "heaven" does not have a physical side, or that there will be no physical world to come, can we? What Jesus called being "born again" (literally, "born from above") was something that He said of Himself while walking around on our planet (see John 8:23, for example: "I am from above...") We who believe are included in the kingdom of heaven before we die (see John 17:16, for example: "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.") And while Paul does talk in I Corin 15 of a day when death, Jesus' and our last enemy, is finally vanquished, he also talks of the kingdom of God as something present and growing (for instance, Romans 14:17, "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit," speaking to the Romans of their existing churches.)

So again, we have to think of the kingdom of heaven as both physical and non-physical, and both present and future.

It can all seem very confusing until we grasp that for some reason, the boundary between heaven and earth is being obliterated, that heaven and earth are being reconciled. This would have to be the case in order for God to restore what we lost in Eden, man and God walking together. This is one way to see the many prophecies declaring that the Lord will be the light for His people in His city (see, for instance, Isaiah 60:19-20), and that God and man will be reconciled (see, for instance, Jeremiah 31:33-34, Ezekiel 37:27, and lots of other places).

We actually know something about heavenly bodies from the gospels, in fact. We know that they're physical but also somehow beyond the limits of our physical world. After Jesus rose from the dead, He went out of His way to demonstrate to His disciples that He was real and physical. He even ate something so they could see how physical He still was (Luke 24:41-43). But there are three instances where Jesus appeared after His resurrection when the disciples did not recognize Him, and several instances where He appeared and disappeared suddenly, "poof!", so we know that there was something about Him that superseded ordinary physics. His body was different, but still somehow physical; and it appears that His body was fitted for "heaven" (whatever that turns out to be) as well as for earth.

I was answering questions about what heaven would be like for a Sunday School class not long ago, and I pointed out to the class that "we will see God face to face" must be a metaphor since God did not really have a face, exactly. During the following week the Holy Spirit chided me so that I had to apologize to the class and change what I said the next Sunday. He reminded me that whatever else may be true of heaven, God does, in fact, have a face. Whatever we take "seated at the right hand of God" to mean, there's a literal, physical man sitting there. His name is Jesus, He has a face, and we will see it.

And John reminds us that "...what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is." (I John 3:2b)

So we all have some mysterious things ahead as God creates new heavens and a new earth and prepares us to inherit them along with His Son, Jesus. But don't be too shocked if the earth that we inherit is physical like the current one, only better. It might just turn out that way. God seems to like "physical."

Welcome to 2019, and may you enjoy God in your journey this year.


Phil Weingart

* To give credit where credit is due, I began to look at the crucifixion this way after reading NT Wright's excellent book, "How God Became King." It's an eye-opening exposition on all the ways that Jesus in the gospels fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the Kingdom of God on earth. No matter how well you think you understand those things, I'll predict that Wright will open your eyes to some new things that you hadn't considered. Give it a look.


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