I wanted to share something I've been introduced to within the last two years; something that's completely altered my way of thinking about the time when Christ returns. I used to believe, as a lot of people do, that when I died, or when anyone who had accepted Jesus died, that our souls would fly up to heaven. Our bodies decayed down here, but our spirits would endure. Heaven was a place where we would all be gathered around God's throne, singing songs to Him and floating around on clouds and cool things like that.
My thinking was especially confirmed by some old hymns my church used to sing. Mansion over the Hilltop is one of these. Here is one of the verses and the chorus:
Tho' often tempted, tormented and tested
And, like the prophet, my pillow a stone,
And tho' I find here no permanent dwelling,
I know He'll give me a mansion my own.
I've got a mansion just over the hilltop,
In that bright land where we'll never grow old;
And someday yonder we will never more wander,
But walk the streets that are purest gold.
Now, when I was little and just enjoyed singing songs that were easy and fun, I had no problems with this song. A few months ago, however, my brother and I were searching through and old hymnal and finding old favorites, and we ran across this one. Of course, we both immediately broke out into song and had a great time singing it, but the more I thought about it later, the more unsure I became about the idea behind the words. Composer and lyricist, Ira Stanphill, writes "And tho' I find here no permanent dwelling" and "that bright land" alluding to someplace other than here.
Hold that thought for a second.
Another old favorite and one almost everyone knows is "I'll Fly Away." The first verse and chorus of the lyrics say:
Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away
To a land on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away
When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away
Sound familiar? Just a little? The emphasis again is placed on going to someplace other than here when we die. And because we cannot fly (without the help of an airplane or helicopter of course), the assumption is made that we will leave our bodies behind. Just our souls will fly up to heaven. Just like I believed when I was younger.
Now what is wrong with this way of thinking? Nothing, if you are a Gnostic or Platonist. The Gnostics were the early rivals of orthodox Christianity that believed some of the same things that Christians now accept, but differed on a few major points. One of these was the idea that the spirit was good and the body was evil. In fact, the material world was considered evil (Plato also ascribed to this view). In this way of thinking, life was a constant struggle of the good spirit trying to escape the evil body, and eventually, death was the ultimate release from the struggle. The now-free spirit would float up to heaven and forever be free and good.
Irenaeus was an early church father who fought against the Gnostic ideas in the second century, which were eventually discredited, and he helped establish some of the Christian doctrine we adhere to. In his work Against Heresies, he repeatedly emphasizes one point.
God is at work saving the whole creation, not just our souls.
As Christians, we look forward to the renewal of the aches and pains of our bodies, our government systems, our institutions, disastrous weather, hearts, corrupt relationships, in essence, everything that has been tainted by sin. Everything.
When we see Jesus after the resurrection, he had a body. It was a perfect body, but it was still his. He had the wounds still in his hands and feet. He talked to people. He walked around. He ate. This is a beautiful picture of God's renewal that is waiting for us; both spirit and body. Clearly, Jesus, who was fully man, as well as fully God, did not become a spirit that flew up into heaven. He had a physical, perfected body. That's why when we sing songs about leaving this terrible Earth for good, we are not singing the whole story of God's creation and renewal. Yes, the Earth will not be the same tainted, broken planet we live on; it will instead be perfected. But it will still be here after Jesus returns, and so will we.
We were created for this earth. The Lord created and He said, "It is good." Before sin tainted the earth and all people, the world was perfect. God delighted in it, and even walked on it. This is huge! We are not trying to escape the world; as Christians, we are anxiously awaiting the day Jesus returns and renews the world!
Romans 5:12-21 talks about the first Adam bringing sin, judgment, and death into the world. It also talks about how Jesus, the second Adam, brings life, righteousness, and justification back into it. God has already started the process of renewal. "The garden of Gethsemane reverses what happened in the garden of Eden" (Robert Webber).
So what does this mean for us? It means that the world is groaning for renewal and recreation when Jesus finally returns. It means that we as Christians need to look forward to that time with anticipation. It means that we need to take care of what we have because it is good. It means that Christ has begun a work in us of renewal that will one day be complete. That's something to celebrate!