Editors note: Josh began this discussion last week with “Part 1.” That entry can be found HERE if you’d like to start with him at the beginning of this discourse. Thanks. ~
I want to make the disclaimer that I do not think I have cornered the market on the Truth with a capital T. I get nervous around people who talk a lot about the Truth, and I certainly don’t want to make you nervous as well. There is a strong possibility that after I die, I could discover that I was completely off from the get go. My guess is that some truth may lie somewhere between in the dialectical tension between where I am theologically and where I came from. Who knows? So please test, probe, critique, agree, disagree, heck, even deconstruct my deconstructed ideas. What I’m looking for is simply a constructive dialogue. Conversion to my side of thinking is not the goal. Conversation is. So come join me and lets tell our stories and ask questions and dive into the divine conundrum together.
I was six years old the first time I got saved. While helping my mother iron clothes, I accidentally burned my hand on the glowing red metal. As my mom wrapped a towel of ice cubes around my throbbing hand, she matter-of-fact said, “You know, Josh, this is what hell will feel like.” Looking down at my blistering fingers, I immediately retorted in breathy panic, “Well, I don’t want to go to hell then!” Moments later, as ice cubes melted across my throbbing fingers, I prayed to ask Jesus into my heart. That night I slept soundly. The thought of heaven was like a medicinal balm that soothed and cooled my burning soul. And what I carried around inside of me for many years afterward was the notion that the Jesus story was about saving people from something bad after death and for something good after death.
How many other Christians, I wonder, carry around inside a similar version of the Jesus story?
Tim Keller notes in his book The Reason for God that in Greek philosophy there was a belief that history was an endless cycle. Every so often the universe would wind down and burn up in a great conflagration called a palengenesia, after which history, having been purified, started over. But in Matthew 19:28 Jesus spoke of his return to earth as the palingesis. “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things (Greek palingensis), the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne.” The purpose then of the Jesus story, as Keller concludes, is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. In other words, the Jesus story is about saving people for something good before death and for something almost too good to be true for life after life after death.
It’s interesting to note that in almost every other major religion, salvation is seen as escape from the shackles of the material world. The Buddhist concept of Nirvana, for example, represents that moment of one’s ecstatic release into a state of pure consciousness. In Greek philosophy, which under girds so much of Western culture, we find this same idea. I remember reading Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in junior high and learning that the cave represented the illusory world of time-space-matter. The real world of “eternal Forms”, however, existed beyond the shadowy recesses of the cave. It is this world that we were created for and not the world we occupy now. Theologically, we could translate this to mean that heaven is the reality beyond for which we were made.
Not long after I came to Christ, I was handed a yellowing copy of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It was my dad’s copy. I remember noticing how tattered the book was, along with how many pages had been dog-eared. Reading the story of Christian’s journey – which involved scenes of enduring persecution in the city of Vanity Fair and overcoming the Giant named Despair — only reinforced this idea that the goal of the Christian faith was to get to the Celestial City. It never once crossed my mind, like it does now, how Pilgrim’s Progress might be rewritten to embody Jesus’ prayer for heaven to come to earth (Matt. 6:10). What if in the re-imagined allegory, Christian has a dream that allows him to glimpse what humanity and culture looks like from within the Celestial City, and then upon waking from that dream, attempts to live among the citizens of Vanity Fair and go to the victims of the Giant Despair in order to bring that dazzling vision of urban life beyond the River of Death into the present world to transform it from how it is to how it will be.
Another book I was handed early in my Christian formation was C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. It was in this book that I was introduced to modern apologetics. It was a serious business being a Christian, I quickly learned, and the mark of one’s Christian maturity was whether or not he or she was ready to defend their faith.
In Mere Christianity I was profoundly inspired by many of Lewis’s arguments for not only the existence of God, but also the reasonableness of the Christian narrative. None of the arguments, though, were more compelling than Lewis’s argument for desire. Perhaps you are familiar with this argument, but in a nutshell, the thread of logic goes something like this: there is that within us that is not and cannot be satisfied by the natural world alone. Our desires and yearnings transcend the physical confines of our world and of our bodies, leaving us restless in a way that a hippo or chimpanzee never has been or ever could be. According to Lewis, the reason for this strange restlessness is that we all possess an inbuilt sense of sehnsucht (German word for longing). Lewis concludes famously, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” What I failed to see then that I do now is that Lewis’s cosmological and soteriological views were co-opted by Neo-Platonism and Romanticism. Certainly I agree with Lewis that we have desires for eternal things burning within all of us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we were created for another world. It just means we have desires within us for this world to be ordered another way.
It wasn’t until my early 30’s before I really discovered the prophets in the Scriptures and came to understand the part they played in God’s story of restoration. No where in any of the prophetic books do we get a science fiction-like vision of a future that looks more like Pandora moon in Avatar than the one we inhabit now. Instead we get a vision of world that looks like the one we live in now, but with an audacious harmony and wholeness that reflects out the way things once were in their Original Form.
Here are just a few of my favorites prophetic passages that invoke in me a sense of sensucht:
The wolf will romp with the lamb,
the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the
And a little child will tend them.
Neither animal nor human
Will hurt or kill
On my holy mountain
The whole earth will be brimming
With knowing God-Alive,
A living knowledge of God ocean
Deep, ocean-wide (Isaiah 11, The Message)
He’ll establish justice in the rabble of nations
And settle disputes in faraway places.
They’ll trade in their swords for shovels,
Their spears for rakes and hoes.
Nations will quit fighting each other
Quit learning how to kill one another.
Each man will sit under his own shade tree,
Each woman in safety will tend their own garden.
(Micah 4, The Message)
There is no doubt that there is within the prophet’s words a provocative ambiguity in terms of the who and the when and the how of the anticipated arrival of the holam habah, the Hebrew concept of age beyond exile to come. But as a Christ follower, I confidently believing that Jesus is the who, that his death and resurrection is mysteriously the how, and that the when is paradoxically both now and not yet. Where I think my theological teachers got it wrong was in assuming that the biblical story climaxes in a massive departure from one world to another. I would argue that what we find instead involves a massive re-arrival. Turn to the last pages of the biblical story and what we discover is a vision of the City of God coming down from heaven to the earth (Rev. 21:1-2). Moreover, Jesus exclaims soon after, “Behold, I make all things new”, which clearly suggests that He has no desire to make all new things like Ewoks and Centaurs. No, instead, God imaginatively and paradoxically creates a new world order by absorbing the old created order without annihilating it.
It wouldn’t be until years later before the cracks in my paradigm began to show. I remember a conversation I had with a close friend after seeing the film The Matrix. You may remember how pumped Christians were about this film, pastors and youth pastors both using clips as sermon illustrations to reinforce a Gospel truth. My friend though led me through an exercise in deconstruction. “The Matrix, “ he said, “is not the Gospel. In fact, it is the anti-Gospel. It is a film that reinforces the popular Christian mythology of heaven.” When I asked him to unpack that statement, he went on to point out that Neo’s mission was to get as many people out of the matrix as possible. This of course analogous to the way many Christians believe (and I was taught to believe) that we live in a “matrix” of badness, and that Jesus makes it possible through his death and resurrection to get us out of it. Of course what this ultimately endorses is an eschatology of disappearance. We see this end-time thinking popularized in the best-selling Left Behind books. What’s dangerous, I think, about this kind of storyline is how it tends to reduce our existence on earth to valuing personal pietism and evangelism. The former implies that we focus inwardly on protecting our souls from corruption (R-rated movies, 4 letter words, public school curriculums that endorse secular humanism, evolution, and religious pluralism, Abercrombie and Fitch, gays, lesbians, Muslims, liberals, Obama, Oprah, etc.). The latter implies that we focus outwardly on pulling others out of the matrix (conversion). What happens then is that Christians like me fail to understand the importance of fighting injustice, caring for the poor, and working to dignify and empower the marginalized. And if I am completely honest, the only incentive I’ve felt in the past to participate in “good deeds” projects is to either to expiate guilt or accumulate reward in the afterlife.
The Jesus story though that I am discovering now is one in which the mission of this 1st century Jewish rabbi/king involves establishing a kingdom on earth that restores the elemental goodness underneath all creation. The Jesus story I’m hoping to participate in is the story of making everything magically and dazzlingly reappear. If this is really true, then the work that I do here on earth now has eternal significance. It means that this world is not the Titanic, doomed to sink. Salvation then is not analogous to jumping onto an inflatable raft before the steam liner goes down. Instead salvation is a total cosmic makeover in which everything in culture and every cultural good gets restored. Which means this, I think? That we are called to be what my dear friend and colleague, Scott Martin, calls “architects of repair”. I love this metaphor to describe heaven-t0-earth minded Christians, who don’t want to hide out in Christianized ghetto, but seek to move out into the places that are messy and get our hands dirty. It means that we believe that there is no place on earth where God isn’t at work. Which also means that there is no place on earth where the Church shouldn’t be at work. Finally it means that this world is worth fighting for. For HIV/AIDS care. And for cancer research. For clean water. And for clean air. For adoption. And for foster care. For the end of sex trafficking. And for the empowering of all marginalized people groups. We fight for these things and for these people because we believe that when we do, we embody what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls “the prophetic imagination”. We point to another way of being human and being a society that citizens of our American empire could never dream of. We become the “will be” people among the “as is” people. We say the impossible is possible through the help of the Spirit. And we proclaim in word and deed that there is coming a day in which everything will shimmer again with the shalom of God, a day when the earth will be shot through with the glories of heaven.