Should We Rethink Heaven?

Early morning on Easter Sunday I sat down to my morning oatmeal and coffee and was surprised by the cover story of TIME magazine.  The headline implied that Christians need to rethink their understanding of heaven. I suppose the religious feature was in honor of Easter and I was curious to read it. The author relied heavily on N.T. Wright’s new book, “Surprised by Hope: rethinking heaven, the resurrection and the mission of the church.” N.T. Wright stresses that the Christian hope is not to be a disembodied soul floating about the clouds with harp in hand, but rather to receive a resurrected and glorified body to inhabit God’s renewed and glorified creation. Our hope is not to escape this world, but rather to await the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21).

I may take issue with N.T. Wright’s theology here and there, but he is perfectly right about this. Should we then “rethink heaven”? Not at all! This physical “new creation” model of heaven is in fact the old, boring, and traditional view confessed by Protestants and Catholics alike. In the Nicene Creed we confess that, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states that:

“At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever” (32.2)

“The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by His Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to His own glorious body” (33.3).

The fact that the TIME article can be written is evidence that modern pastors and Bible teachers are ineffectively communicating our Christian hope. Such confusion is not surprising since so many preachers have given up preaching Christian doctrine for pop-psychology.

 

At the time of Christ the Jews were divided on this matter of the resurrection. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection or even an afterlife. They accepted only the five books of Moses. The Pharisees accepted the Law, Psalms and Prophets and affirmed the doctrine of the resurrection at the end of the age.

Jesus and the Apostles sided with the Pharisees on the resurrection. Jesus challenged the Sadducees on their belief that the books of Moses did not teach an afterlife (Matt 22:23-33, Ex 3:6). We can agree, however, that Moses did not teach it as clearly as the later Psalms and prophets (e.g. Ps 16:9-10; 49:16; 73:24-25; Prov 23:14; Job 19:25-27; Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:1-14; Dan 12:2). On one occasion the Sadducees and Pharisees were united together in their persecution of the Apostle Paul. Paul exploited the situation by taking sides with the Pharisees by declaring, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” (Acts 23:6-7).

The first topic we should address is the nature of the resurrection. It is, in the first place, a physical and bodily resurrection. Some in the early Church taught that the resurrection was purely spiritual. The Apostles regarded such teachers as heretics (2 Tim 2:18). Jesus Christ is called the “firstfruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20, 23) and “the firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18). Therefore the resurrection of believers is patterned after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus may have passed through walls in his resurrected body, but even before his resurrection he walked on water. It is clear that his resurrected body was still solid. He could be touched. He ate meals with his disciples. He bore the wounds of his resurrection.

Moreover, Rom 8:11 tells us explicitly that God will raise up our mortal bodies, and make them immortal. This idea is also prominent in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul argues that our mortal body is like a seed that in death is buried in the ground. The resulting tree that springs from the substance of that buried seed is like our glorified bodies. Here we see emphasized both the continuity with our present physical bodies, and also the difference between our present mortality and our future immortality. There is a dramatic change or metamorphosis. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly and the tadpole, a frog. But it is one and the same body that changes.

We note also that it is a bodily resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. This is clear from the following passages. Dan 12:2, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” John 5:28-29, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Acts 24:15, “having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” Rev 20:13, 15, “And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done…. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

The second topic to address is the time of the resurrection. Premillennial teaching states that the resurrection of the saints will be separated by a thousand years from that of the wicked. Dispensational Premillennialism further separates the first and second coming of Christ into two stages, which then requires a third resurrection. There are those that undergo their transformation at the rapture, a second group of believers that are transformed seven years later at the end of the Great Tribulation, and the resurrection of the righteous and wicked at the end of the millennium.

A common theme in my understanding of the end times is that popular teachers have created a scheme that is way more complicated than what the New Testament actually teaches.

What does the Bible actually teach about the time of the resurrection? The best way to examine this is by listing the complex of events that coincide with the resurrection. According to the Bible the time of the resurrection coincides with the coming of Christ, with the revelation or the day of the Lord, with the end of the world/this present evil age, and with the final judgment. Furthermore, the resurrection of the righteous coincides with the resurrection of the wicked.

That there is but one resurrection of the justified and the wicked is clear from four passages I quoted from a moment ago. Those four passages all speak of the resurrection as a single event. More than that, if we go back to John 5 and examine the context beginning with verse 21 we will note how Jesus combines the thought of the resurrection, including the resurrection of the righteous, with the thought of judgment, including the judgment of the wicked. We also note that Jesus repeatedly says that these two judgments take place in the same “hour.”

Furthermore, the resurrection of believers is directly connected with the second coming of Jesus. 1 Cor 15:23, “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Phil 2:20-21, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” 1 Thess 4:16-17, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

This resurrection coincides not only with the second coming of Christ, but also with the end of the world and the “last day.” John 6:39 (40, 44, 54), “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” That means that the last day is also the day of the second coming of Jesus Christ. Certainly, the end-times scheme taught in the Bible is much simpler than what is popularly taught today!

The Premillennial argument for double and even triple resurrections is based primarily on the scheme of events leading up to the end as the Premillennialists interpret it. I would argue that this scheme is falsely construed and is based on misunderstandings of what the Bible teaches. By far the most important text Premillennialists will appeal to for the double resurrection scheme is Revelation 20:6, which contrasts the “first resurrection” with “the second death.” But this interpretation rests on very shaky ground. Revelation 20 pictures a scene where the souls of the righteous reign with Christ in heaven while awaiting his second coming in judgment. It seems rather that the “first resurrection” refers to the intermediate state of believers, while “second death” refers to the final punishment of the wicked. In other words, this “first resurrection” does not have a bodily resurrection in view at all, but speaks rather of the souls of the righteous that have gone to be with Christ, who are blessed with the sight of God, and who await the redemption of their bodies.

What to Expect When You Visit

Perhaps you are one of the many people who have been introduced to Reformed Theology through the internet, radio or books. Your understanding of the Bible is increasingly Calvinistic. Yet you do not know what to expect when you visit a Reformed Church such as Redeemer OPC in Santa Maria.

We believe that the Word of God determines the shape of Christian Worship. Specifically we believe that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men… or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (WCF 21.1; cf. Deut 12:30-32). The Apostle Paul condemned creative worship as “self-made religion” (Col 2:23, lit. “will-worship”) and the author to the Hebrews commands us to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). There is, therefore, an acceptable pattern of worship which is guided above all by Biblical simplicity.

We find the basic outline for Christian worship early in the Book of Acts. The disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

To be devoted to the apostles teaching is to be devoted to the exposition of the Scriptures. Paul tells Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching… Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them” (1 Tim 4:13, 15). Our worship is centered on the proclamation of the Word of God. Our preaching is expository. In every sermon I seek to make clear the meaning and the application of a portion of Scripture. Yet expository preaching is not enough. The Pharisees were students of the Word and yet failed to see salvation through the Messiah as the central focus (John 5:39). Therefore “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2), the one in whom all the promises of God are fulfilled (2 Cor 1:20). We do not proclaim ourselves, but rather we exalt “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4-5).

Another aspect of the ministry of the Word is the reading of the Law (such as Ex 20 or Matt 5-7), which expresses God’s will for our life. We usually accompany this with a confession of sin and assurance of pardon (Ne 8:1-12; 1 John 1:9). We also frequently confess our Holy Christian faith, once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), using the words of the Apostles or Nicene Creed, which state the basics of the faith believed by all Christians throughout the world (1 Tim 6:12).

Singing is an important part of Christian worship (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; 1 Cor 14:26; James 5:13). “Singing of psalms with grace in the heart” partially belongs to the ministry of the Word and partially to the ministry of prayer. Our songs are instructive and express a rich theology, for by them we sing the doctrine into our heart. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another, with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). Our songs are also devotional and offered as prayers to God (James 5:13). Many of our songs are the Biblical Psalms set to meter.

We believe that church music should be primarily congregational. It is not a live music performance or a spiritual talent show performed for the entertainment of the audience. It consists of God’s people uniting together in song as one part of divine worship.

Another aspect of worship mentioned in Acts 2:42 is “the fellowship.” This actually doesn’t refer to having good conversation over coffee (we have great coffee BTW). It is a reference to the giving of Christian alms for the support of the church ministry and for those with special needs. If you are visiting our church, you are our guest. We preach the Gospel free of charge. Nor do we ever cease to preach the Gospel free of charge. All giving is strictly voluntary. At no point do we “twist arms” and pressure members to make financial pledges, for God desires that we give freely and cheerfully (2 Cor 9:7).

“The breaking of the bread” is short-hand for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Redeemer celebrates the Lord’s Supper once a month. Some Reformed churches celebrate it more frequently – even once a week. The table is open for visitors from other churches, but talk to the elders if you have any questions regarding who may participate (1 Cor 11:17-29). In addition to the Lord’s Supper we also celebrate Christian Baptism as often as we have opportunity.

Finally, in our Sunday worship service we devote time to prayer. We believe that this means more than having short prayers sprinkled throughout the service. Therefore, it is our practice to have a prayer that is fairly comprehensive (1 Tim 2:1-2). We believe that every Sunday is a “national day of prayer,” or rather a global day of prayer. We pray for the needs of our nation, our missionaries, our churches, our community and our local church members.

Our worship service ends with a benediction. In ancient Israel, God instructed the priests of to raise their hands and pronounce a benediction on the people. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (Num 6:22-27). When Jesus ascended into heaven he raised his hands and pronounced this blessing on his disciples (Luke 24:50). We have examples of Christian benedictions throughout the New Testament (2 Cor 13:14; Heb 13:20-21; Jude 24-25).

If you are considering a visit to Redeemer you may like to know that we dress casual (mostly). We have a Sunday school hour with separate classes for adults and children, but families come together for the worship service. We believe that it is beneficial for families to worship together as the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Tragedy of Rob Bell: Why it’s worse than you think

It is not news when some minister somewhere affirms that all people, even those who reject Jesus Christ as savior, go to heaven. It is not news even if such a pastor attracts a large following. But it is news when Mars Hill Pastor Rob Bell teaches Universalism. Why? The reason that Bell’s story made the cover of TIME this week is because he is categorized as an Evangelical. Evangelical leaders are reacting in shock and horror at what they perceive to be a “mutiny from within” the walls of the Evangelical city.

But why was Bell widely recognized as an Evangelical in the first place? Where are his Evangelical credentials? His teaching is well documented in his Nooma videos beginning in 1999. His theological system is evident in his first book, Velvet Elvis (Zondervan, 2005). I grant that his cards were not laid out on the table as they are now in Love Wins, but it is there. There is no evidence of any momentous reversal.

Pastor Bell regularly exhorts his people to “live the gospel.” For him, God’s kingdom is not something we receive, but something that we bring about through social action. Everything is spiritual. The law is the gospel. People are basically good and Jesus is our example to emulate. God isn’t angry; God’s love trumps all of his other attributes. Bell’s gospel message is reduced to “do more; try harder” – not in order to avoid condemnation by a righteous and just God, but for your sake and the sake of those around you. It is what Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has identified as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” For an overview and critique of Rob Bell’s theology, start here.

The success of Mars Hill Church made Mr. Bell a celebrity among Evangelical ministers. Yet very few recognized the true nature of his teaching until now. The reason why his heresy was not detected until he was shouting it through a megaphone is because his week-to-week teaching resembles the week-to-week diet of most Evangelical Christians today. This is why the scandal of Rob Bell is worse than you think.

Michael Horton identified this problem in his book, Christless Christianity, and it’s sequel, The Gospel-Driven Life. Horton draws from the research of Christian Smith and argues that much of what passes for Christianity today is actually moralistic, therapeutic deism. What complicates things is that this takes place in churches that have a fairly conventional Statement of Faith that the leaders of the church stand behind. The problem is that teaching “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is confined to evangelistic meetings and new membership classes. But from there they move on to more “relevant” things like how to get out from under your credit card debt. The church leaders assume that the church members understand Christianity, while they may have not had much Christian instruction since their new member class back in 93. Yet the consistent “gospel” message they receive on Sunday morning and in their Wednesday prayer group is “do more; try harder.”

Horton’s thesis is not without critics, even from within our own Reformed-Presbyterian circles. Most notably criticism has come from his former colleague John Frame. Frame argues that Horton’s thesis is way overstated. Things are not really as bad as Horton pretends. But the fact that Rob Bell was ever recognized as an evangelical should challenge Frame’s optimism.

There is a sobering parallel to all this in recent church history: the “Modernist-Fundamentalist” controversies of the early 20th century in America. From the mid 19th century and through the first decade of the 20th, an anti-supernatural philosophy quietly infiltrated all Protestant denominations. This new philosophy thrived on ambiguity. In the pulpit Modernists were difficult to distinguish from Christian preachers. They did not launch a frontal assault on the Christian faith. They merely emphasized practical morality. But this moral philosophy had no real need for Christ. The tragedy is that their preaching was not readily distinguishable from the Christian preachers. “Do more; try harder” was the steady diet for most Christians. By 1910 very few understood that the foxes were in the henhouse. As Christians gradually awoke to this crisis they looked to their denominations and seminaries for support, but found them already divided. The actual number full-fledged Modernists were still quite small, but the majority of ministers were part of the “mushy middle” that were too stupid to understand the problem. “So they deny the physical resurrection of Jesus. I disagree with them, but who cares? They are excellent preachers of morality. Isn’t this what really matters?”

Truth that is assumed in one generation is denied in the next.