October 19, 2017

Mondays with Michael Spencer: April 18, 2016

White clouds 1

Note from CM: For the next several weeks, we will hear some of what Michael Spencer had to say on the subject of eschatology — the last things. We begin with a post from a series in 2008 called, “Too Much Heaven?”

• • •

I grew up and was formed in a version of the Christian tradition that practiced a remarkably simple form of Christianity.

It was about going to heaven.

This life was preparation for heaven. God was preparing a place called heaven with lots of mansions. People who accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior by praying a prayer to ask him into their heart had their names written in a book reserving a place in heaven. One day, they would die (or Jesus would return) and go to heaven. Later, they would get their new bodies and live in a city described- literally- in the book of Revelation as a super-sized cube with streets of gold. In that city they would be with all their friends, relatives and Bible characters forever, where they would worship Jesus for all of eternity without illness, pain or death.

If you accepted Jesus- ever, even once- you were going to heaven because once saved, always saved. If you didn’t accept Jesus you were going to hell. Any day at any time, Jesus would return and take his people to heaven in the rapture, leaving the lost people to be ruled over by the anti-Christ until Jesus returned to judge the world and end everything.

The people who were going to heaven went to churches where this is what you talked about all the time. You sang about it. You read about it in the Bible. Preachers preached about it. Nothing was more important. The reason you were on this earth was to “witness” to other people, which meant present them with the plan of how to get to heaven. If they prayed to go to heaven, then you were a “soul winner,” which was the best thing you could ever be in life.

Christians were happier than other people because they were going to heaven. They said “No” to everything the devil wanted them to do, because they were going to heaven, so they didn’t sin as much. They enjoyed church more than anything else, and they went to church as much as possible.

Life on this earth was worthwhile only because of heaven later. If you were a real Christian, like Paul, you wanted to leave this world and go to heaven as soon as possible. In fact, when Paul was caught up to the third heaven, he no longer wanted to be on earth, but to be in heaven. People who were in car wrecks and came back from death always had stories about heaven that included how much they wanted to go there and not go back to earth. But if God made you go back, you’d do it for a little while.

White clouds 2This was the Christianity that shaped and formed me. I heard it preached again this week, plainly and forcefully. It made me realize that I am not the same person I used to be. This is not the center and heart of my faith any more.

I don’t think about heaven as the primary reason for my faith. My faith is centered around Jesus and what it means to know God through Jesus now. I am a person to whom Jesus said “The Kingdom of God is upon you,” and I believe it. Jesus is king, now and forever. I believe in heaven and hell, and I always tell those who hear me preach and teach that God will take his people to a new creation, while those who refuse God’s love and forgiveness will go to hell.

Heaven is where God is. It is as close as a heartbeat. It is the center of reality, not a place “up there,” but the reality I cannot see with my senses but which nonetheless surrounds me. I believe Jesus and his kingdom will “appear” and we’ll realize how close heaven was to earth all along.

When I think of death, I think of going to be with God, to rest in him; to be safe in him and his love. I look forward to the new creation and to resurrection, but it is so far outside of my ability to conceive of it all that I never try to understand much about it. Big books on heaven bore me. Near death experience books actually offend me. They make me feel manipulated.

When someone implies that real Christians want to go to heaven now, I have absolutely no resonance with that sentiment at all. I am a person of this world, and the goodness of God that I know has come to me in the land of the living. I believed in God’s promises for a new creation, but I don’t want to go there now. I want to see my dad and mom again, yes. But I want to be with my beautiful wife and wonderful children, go to work, read a good book, enjoy a ball game and walk my dog.

When it comes to this subject, give me Judaism any day.

All the beauty I know of heaven, I know through the beauty of this world. I can’t reject this world and understand anything of a new creation. All I know of love, I know through the love I have experienced in this world. My body, my mind, my emotions—all are at home in this world. If I was made for another world, that world is not found in rejecting this world, but in the longings for things this world cannot give or satisfy.

Is there too much heaven in some versions of Christianity? Was Jesus as much about heaven as my faith tradition told me? Is rejecting this world and longing for heaven the normal Christian life? Is there something wrong with those of us who are rooted in this world and find our joy in God here now?

Do churches that concentrate on “winning souls for heaven” really represent the Gospel of Jesus?

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    That ‘once saved, always saved’ thing partially explains how you can get a lot of fundamentalists happily voting for a political party that loves to kick marginalized people to the curb. I don’t get the thinking. What strange ‘gospel’ are they following?

    • Well, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? If “this world’s just a’gonna burn” anyways, why bother protecting the environment? If all that matters is peoples’ souls, who cares if their bodies are overworked, underpaid, and unfed? If culture is evil, or at the very least tainted, why bother to learn how to play, to sing, or dance? If knowledge and faith are diametrically opposed, why bother to study anything other than the Bible? Inside that bubble, it’s all clear and logical. Thing is, it’s a pretty durn small bubble…

      • Yes but you don’t see how small the bubble is when you grow up inside it. It’s only when your bubble bursts for whatever reason that you look back and see how little room there was and how little oxygen there was to breathe. And it’s well nigh impossible to communicate that to anyone still in the bubble without sounding arrogant or dismissive. Sometimes growing pains are the worst pains of all.

        • Danielle says:

          Or you know full well how small the bubble is, but if you pop it, you fear you will lose everything.

          After all, there are warnings about every 5 minutes reminding everyone not to touch the bubble edges.

          • Rick Ro. says:

            Good point. No matter how small our bubble, none of us want to see it burst.

          • Christiane says:

            I take it that ‘the bubble’ is a metaphor for ‘security’ (being ‘saved’ no matter how much hate and contempt or ill will one harbors for ‘the others’). (?)

          • That’s part of it, but it’s more the entire system and way of life.

          • Read this today. Been stuck at home for five days, needed a reminder I’m just stuck in a moment and I’m going to forcibly burst the bubble soon.

            http://lifehacker.com/how-to-find-your-life-purpose-escape-your-bubble-1620407083

          • Danielle says:

            Eeyore, yes, exactly – its a ‘a way of being’. That is one reason its hard to leave.

            Christiane, sorry to be unclear – the bubble is the subculture and the patterns of doing and thinking one learns there, and the community surrounding it all. However, the entire sense of what it means to be ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is hotwired to questions of spiritual security.

            The eschatology Michael is talking about is a big ingredient on the soup, at least in sections of evangelicalism. What is out there, ‘in the world’? Mostly things that are bad or ultimately do not matter; in the lingo, being “worldly” is the exact opposite of being Jesus-minded. It means you are open and ‘the world’ has gotten in. What you want to be is focused on heavily things – and heaven is somewhere else.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            As an example of the bubble, look at the behavior of an in-the-bubble celebrity, CHRISTIAN(TM) actor Kirk Cameron.

            Slacktivist speculated that Cameron (an adult convert out of Hollywood) was catechized in a Holiness tradition that defined Holiness entirely in negative terms, i.e. Thou Shalt Nots. What resulted is a guy who “will only drink milk if it comes from a CHRISTIAN cow” to the point when he heard there were Heathens(TM) on the set of Left Behind hid out in his trailer to avoid their contamination.

        • “…how little oxygen there was to breathe.”

          Soooo true! Stepping outside that bubble took years, finally escaped, and the air is so fresh and clear.

          – I agree with your statement about communicating without sounding arrogant/dismissive…and not sure how to combat that. But, I still try with as much grace and truth as I can; but, honestly, most of those in the bubble want to stay there. They don’t care that there’s no more air to inhale. Protect the bubble at all costs?

          For me, I live as if today could be my last day here–hey, if my time is done, then I won’t hang on…but, as long as I’m here, I live in God’s presence here and now–and that is freedom!

    • I’m late to the game Christine, so I don’t know if you will see this post or not. I assume you are asking why Christian people would happily vote republican. To some extent I can understand as anymore I can’t really happily vote for either party. But there is a great deal of judging in your question. You are judging these people as uncaring about the marginalized. I don’t know who all you intend to include in the category so I will just focus on the poor. For many Christians who vote republican, it is not that they don’t care about the poor, it is that they don’t think the democrats strategy of handing out money and expanded government is the answer. Rather they believe that a robust economy would do more than anything to help the poor, and that government can’t be trusted to use money wisely. (Can you imagine not trusting an entity that is seventeen trillion dollars in debt with your money?) Now you might argue that they are mistaken, that the republicans have stacked the deck so that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. And they might respond that democrats haven’t done anything to actually help the poor, but have managed to guarantee themselves an indentured voting bloc. Either way, your tendency to judge those who vote republican is no different than those who cast judgment on democrat voters.

  2. Many versions of Christianity treat this world as merely Heaven or Hell’s waiting room, rather than what it is; a Tabernacle, the place where God’s presence and glory is pleased to dwell. Early Christianity emphasized Apokatastasis, not escape. For this reason, I don’t feel that I have to pit my creaturely, earthly desires against my desire for Heaven, because ultimately the two sets of desires have the same origin and the same destination, so to speak.

  3. Burro [Mule] says:

    That description of the Afterlife is basically Nestorian, if you believe that Nestorius actually taught that the Incarnation was merely a moral union of the Divine and the human natures of Christ. I know it’s St. Cyril but not St. Nestorius, so he must have gotten something wrong.

    It makes sense. “Heaven” is closer to the Elysian Fields, matter doesn’t matter [but be careful to keep all the Rules- the Rules do matter], the Most Holy Mother of God could have been just any old womb, icons are paint and wood and most likely idols, and the bodily resurrection is an afterthought.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Fluffy Cloud Heaven makes Death permanent.
      Thanatos and Hades Win.

      When one of the appeals of Christianity in the Hellenistic culture of the early Roman Empire WAS Resurrection instead of remaining a fading shade in Hades, Olam-ha-ba instead of the Underworld. “And Thanatos and Hades were cast into the Lake of Fire” — Thanatos who always came for everyone and could not be stopped or dissuaded; Hades who once he had you in his Land of the Dead would NEVER let go; you’d NEVER be alive again, only a shade fading like a radioactive half-life.

      I would like to find out just how Fluffy Cloud Heaven replaced Resurrection of the Body/Olam-ha-ba as the Christian afterlife. I suspect it had a lot to do with Medieval Mysticism followed by Victorian Romantic Sentimentality.

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        Has this ever been a problem in the Roman Catholic church? I suspect it is probably a Protestant thing, although Protestantism changed dramatically due to the Second Great Awakening. Doubtless Miguel R will be along shortly to excuse confessional Lutherans from the general Nestorian cast of modern cultural Protestantism, and he may be right.

        I don’t have enough information to make an accurate judgment, although that’s never stopped me before.

        • Surprised to see the Jesus Wars raging here and it takes a lot to surprise me when we are talking Christian. Buncha nitpickers, then and now, claiming that the fate of the Universe hangs on the correct philosophical interpretation of microscopic minutia, and God stands ready to smite us all if we get it wrong.

          I don’t follow that Protestantism picked up the mantle of Nestorius, but then I have a hard time following the play by play of so called Nestorianism anyway, even with a program in hand. One thing that appears certain is that Nestorius didn’t have much in common with Nestorianism other than finding Cyril to be an insufferable jerk. Even some Nestorians didn’t much follow Nestorius.

          Nestorians were the first Protestants in that they gave the Pope and Emperor the finger, picked up their marbles and moved to Iran, from whence they established churches in China, Mongolia, and India amongst other places. Not bad. I suspect that what the whole brouhaha was at bottom about was dissing the Great Mother, perhaps the only thing the so called Nestorians actually had in common with the so called Protestants. Apparently opinions vary, and have for 1700 years and counting. Make that 1800. Maybe more.

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          “Doubtless Miguel R will be along shortly to excuse confessional Lutherans from the general Nestorian cast of modern cultural Protestantism, and he may be right.”

          I am not Miguel, and I doubt that he would classify my Lutheranism as “confessional,” but FWIW, this stuff doesn’t resonate with my church background. It is familiar as part of general American culture, but it isn’t what I grew up hearing in church. And as I study American Protestantism I realize just how different Lutheranism is. It isn’t merely an outlier, but a different tradition. This distinctiveness can sometimes get buried under borrowed influenced, but it is still down there.

          • Richard – yes, along with many iterations of Anglicanism. Both are a kind of “middle way.” I think we Lutherans have far more in common with the RCC than anyone will admit.

          • Also, if German-speakers and Scandinavians had been predominant during the Colonial period, we’d mostly be dome variation or other of Lutheran. Food for thought.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Because both Lutheranism and Anglicanism were “first-generation Protestants”, liturgical churches with only those differences from their Catholic roots as was necessary.

            Then you got second- and later-generation Protestants where “Year Zero Syndrome” set in. Kind of prefiguring the “tear everything down and build Utopia from scratch” of the French & Russian Revolutions.

        • Robert F says:

          The medieval Catholic Dante did a pretty good job of imagining Heaven apart from any reference to the general resurrection, and quite apart from Protestantism. It seems ideas of disembodied Heaven where rife in the medieval period, since he no doubt drew on these for his poetic creation in the Divine Comedy.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            The medieval period saw a lot of “too heavenly-minded” devotions and cloistering. Including widespread Clericalism, when in order to be a REAL Christian you had to become a monk, nun, or priest. Especially a sealed-away Contemplative. Holiness became Otherworldly, to the point of neglecting Tikkun Olam in a lot of cases.

      • It’s not like Christianity hasn’t radically changed form and function multiple times before, though. Good look getting back to original authentic first century true Christianity, we have no way of discovering it or interpreting it now.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          And we have the Wahabi (with the Islamic version of getting back to original authentic as-it-was-in-the-days-of-the-Prophet Islam) as a type example of how that whole idea can go sour.

  4. “All the beauty I know of heaven, I know through the beauty of this world. I can’t reject this world and understand anything of a new creation. All I know of love, I know through the love I have experienced in this world. My body, my mind, my emotions—all are at home in this world. If I was made for another world, that world is not found in rejecting this world, but in the longings for things this world cannot give or satisfy.”

    Amen! How well and truly Michael put it, for me at least.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    As a veteran (and survivor) of The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay, I can attest that bad eschatology can really mess you up. And the Evangelical Bubble is brimful of BAD Eschatology, delivered with lip-smacking glee.

    Eschatology — the word means thoughts about “The Four Last Things”: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Now it’s Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist and It’s All Gonna Burn. Result: You want to stay out of Hell, but Heaven doesn’t look much better than Hell.

  6. A random slightly off-topic thought about heaven:
    The notion, both scriptural and, as it turns out, childish that heaven is “up” there should technically have been lost the moment we realized that the sun was not rotating around the earth. It is an innocent and childlike notion to look up and think “up”. There really is no up though from a celestial point of view. Out and over are more appropriate concepts. So now where is heaven? It’s not up there, it’s over there or out there. Actually it’s in there or in here. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop me now and then from looking up at the sky when talking to the Lord. There are still times when He is just “up.” Up is as good as out, over or in. After all, where can He not be found?

  7. Rick Ro. says:

    Good re-post!

    I find it increasingly curious how much the “heaven and hell” thing played into my becoming a Christian, but how little I dwell on that now. I think Michael nailed it with this:

    “I don’t think about heaven as the primary reason for my faith. My faith is centered around Jesus and what it means to know God through Jesus now. I am a person to whom Jesus said “The Kingdom of God is upon you,” and I believe it. ”

    …and this…

    “Heaven is where God is. It is as close as a heartbeat. It is the center of reality, not a place “up there,” but the reality I cannot see with my senses but which nonetheless surrounds me. I believe Jesus and his kingdom will “appear” and we’ll realize how close heaven was to earth all along.”

  8. Dana Ames says:

    A big marker on my journey was finding out from D. Willard that the term “heaven and earth” as used in the NT was an indicator of the 2 aspects of the One Reality – that which we cannot see (“heaven”) and that which we can see (“earth”). The term is a shortcut that means All Of Reality. An alternate translation of the word “heaven” could be “atmosphere” – that which is all around us. If you are standing on the surface of the earth, it’s entirely appropriate to look “up” into “the heavens/atmosphere”. That doesn’t mean that God’s locale is “up there” far away – it is more like everything is in God.

    This understanding of “heaven” was confirmed when I got to reading N.T. Wright, who is very clear that the Jews in no way posited places called “heaven” where the righteous go after death, and “hell” where the unrighteous go. Except for the Sadducees, the Jews believed that everyone went to the abode of the dead, sheol, awaiting the bodily resurrection; there were different ideas among them about just who would take part in the resurrection. Nowhere in the Christianity of the first 600 years do you find what is now known as the “traditional view” of Heaven and Hell.

    Our ideas about “heaven” and “hell” as places God supposedly created, and what we supposedly find there (fluffy clouds vs fiery torment), comes from the Germanic/Frankish tribes who infiltrated Rome politically and theologically. Most were late converts to Christianity (700s – 800s AD), and they brought their ideas about the afterlife from German mythology with them as they wiggled their way into the politics, armies and church administration of Rome. This is one of the big reasons behind the the theological and cultural differences that eventually resulted in the Schism of 1054.

    Dana

    • Very interesting.
      I’ve become one of those people who now questions the whole idea of hell. As a (rather obnoxious) former evangelical, it’s hard to believe just where I’ve come to on this journey. I know, “Jesus spoke more about hell than he did about heaven. Just open your Bible!”
      But still…

      ~Lise

      • Of course he spoke more about it than anyone, because he made the concept up, ie, he was referring to a literal place not far from where he walked and spoke.

        Once i realized that, it was like…duh. Duh. There is no hell. And no duh Jesus spoke of it more than anyone.

        I wonder if David spoke more about sheep than anyone else in the Bible? Or Paul tent-making? Or Solomon on proper temple building?

        One of those instances where Jesus just being Jesus gets himself a pass on true authority. And when you go that route, he’s no longer God and man, but more God than man. And that’s a heresy, allegedly.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Gehenna.
          Hinnom Valley, the Jerusalem City Dump.
          In retrospect, the image was of a Cosmic Discard Pile.

          P.S. The heresy that Jesus was all God and no man is called “Docetism”, from a word meaning “appearance”. In Docetism, Jesus was all God and only appeared to be man.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      A big marker on my journey was finding out from D. Willard that the term “heaven and earth” as used in the NT was an indicator of the 2 aspects of the One Reality – that which we cannot see (“heaven”) and that which we can see (“earth”).

      “…of all things Seen and Unseen.”
      — The Creed recited at every Mass (at least until its recent rephrasing to “Visible & Invisible”)

      And remember; at The End of Days, we don’t get beamed up to Heaven; Heaven (in the image of New Jerusalem) comes down to dwell on Earth.

  9. I appreciate Michael’s thoughts.

    I can’t overstate how important I think eschatological imagination is. Not escape to fluffy cloud heaven or future afterlife speculation, but a hopeful vision of the eschatological destiny of creation in Christ. I think it informs the way we conceive of our present. It shapes the sort of reality that we can even imagine.

    • I would say to the detriment of our present and reality. Rarely does it seem to yield positive results unless you hold to that certain idealized version of things. But I speak from fundamentalist experience.

      • I don’t disagree. Lines up with my story too.

        Frankly, few things create nihilism more thoroughly and effectively than an impoverished dualistic eschatology. Irrelevancy – that eschatology has nothing at all to do with the present moment – is about the best case.

        I don’t think it needs to be that way though.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Frankly, few things create nihilism more thoroughly and effectively than an impoverished dualistic eschatology.

          As in “It’s All Gonna Burn, so Why Bother”?
          That sounds more like simple Despair/Futility/Hopelessness than actual Nihilism. (I remember the Chesterton definition of Atheism vs Nihilism — Not worshipping anything vs worship of Nothing.)

          • Depends on how you define nihilism I guess. I reference it in terms of “meaninglessness”. Whether full blown or not, eschatology has a tendency to invite nihilism to pull up a chair.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Predestination doctrines also have that side effect of “meaninglessness”.

            I remember being told that this one big-name Christian Celebrity type (John “Flutterhands” Piper?) was both a Hyper-Calvinist and a Pre-Trib Dispensationalist. I couldn’t help thinking that was one of the worst possible combinations.

  10. Robert F says:

    I really like this song, and somehow it seems apropos to the topic at hand:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bKW7JkHKm8