Richard Bauckham on Heaven

I recently read a short article on the topic of heaven by New Testament Scholar, Richard Bauckham. He does a good job of identifying three main biblical strands for thinking about the certain future of the Christian. This is one topic I would like to be thinking about far more often than I do. Here is a section of the article.

To think about heaven we need imaginative pictures. We cannot expect to know in literal terms what heaven will be like. Attempts to describe it literally are usually banal, and easily provoke the response: why should I want that? Who wants to spend eternity sitting on a cloud playing a harp? Heaven must be inconceivably different from our experience here and now. So we need pictures that evoke a sense of something that far transcends this life.

The Bible and the Christian tradition offer us three main pictures of what heaven is all about. If we put these three symbols together, we shall get quite a good idea of what the Christian understanding of human destiny is.

The first is the hope of the vision of God. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” said Jesus, “for they shall see God.” God, whom we now know so imperfectly, we shall then experience directly. We shall enjoy him as the ultimate fulfilment of all human desires. We shall worship him with the kind of rapturous attention that a powerful experience of beauty or love can evoke in us in this life. Because God is infinite and we were made to enjoy him, heaven’s joys will never be exhausted. We shall find eternal fulfilment in God.

But heaven will not be just me and God. God made us to find fulfilment in each other as well as in him. So the second picture of heaven is the city of God, a perfect human society, in which all our dreams of really adequate human relationships will be fulfilled.

The book of Revelation, in its great vision of the New Jerusalem, which is the Bible’s fullest account of heaven, combines these two symbols in a picture of the city in which God himself will dwell with humanity. It will be a perfect human society because it will be centred on God.

But God’s purposes reach beyond even a human society finding its true fulfilment in him. They extend to God’s whole creation. Our third picture of heaven, the kingdom of God, is the broadest. It looks for the time when God’s rule over his whole creation will finally be perfected. All evil, suffering and death will be overcome. God’s world will be as he has always intended it to be. And when all the evils and imperfections hat obscure God in the world as it now is have been transcended, then all creation will perfectly reflect God’s glory. As the apostle Paul put it, “God will be all in all.”

So the Christian hope is that the whole of God’s creation will find its eternal destiny in God. Although, up till now, I’ve used the term “heaven” to refer to theChristian hope of life after death, because this is usually done, we can now see that this term can be rather misleading. It might suggest that our destiny is to leave the world behind and join God in some otherworldly, purely spiritual heaven. The Christian hope is much better than that. It is for the union of heaven and earth, for God’s transforming presence throughout his creation.

All this should widen our horizons beyond the narrowly individual terms in which we so often think of heaven. Our hope as individuals is to share in God’s great triumph over all evil and death, to have a place in his cosmic purpose for the whole creation, to find our own fulfilment in God in the context of a world centred on God and transfigured by his glory. But, since this is what heaven is all about, of course we cannot hope to share that destiny unless we place ourselves now, as individuals, within God’s purpose for his world. To enjoy the vision of God then we must begin to centre our lives on God now. To enter the city of God then, we must seek his will for human society now. To enter the kingdom of God then, we must place ourselves under God’s rule now and seek his kingdom in all reality.

Don’t Forget Where You Came From

I can’t say that I think all that much on my origin. When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and thought, “wow, I came from the dust.” I encourage you to take a moment and think, really think about this text.

“Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7).

This is quite staggering. We came from the soil. We were literally fashioned from dirt. Walter Brueggemann wrote a helpful article titled Remember You Are Dust. In the article he does an excellent job articulating the implications of this text.

This formula affirms four matters: first, the human person is fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an “earth-creature,” subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality. Second, because the human person is an “earth-creature,” it belongs with, to, and for the earth, and all other creatures share the same qual- ities of life. Third, this mass of earth (“dust”) is no self-starter. In and of itself, it remains inanimate and lifeless. “Dust from the ground” by itself is no human person. Fourth, the vitality of the human person depends on God’s gift of breath which is freely and graciously given without cause, but which never becomes the property or possession of the human person.

Thus human persons are dependent, vulnerable, and precarious, relying in each moment on the gracious gift of breath which makes human life possible. Moreover, this precarious condition is definitional for human existence, marking the human person from the very first moment of existence. That is, human vulnerability is not late, not chosen, not punishment, not an aberration, not related to sin. It belongs to the healthy, original characterization of human personhood in relation to God. This is what it means to be human.

Just as Adam was a man of the dust, so we are considered to be people of the dust (1 Cor 15:47-49). The Bible states that we will all return to the place of our beginning (Gen 3:19, Job 10:9, 34:15, Ecc 3:20, 12:7, Dan 12:2 ). The Psalmist expresses this truth as he engages the Creator. “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’” (Ps 90:3).

An awareness of our origin will inevitably provoke humility as we engage our Creator. It did for Abraham. When speaking with God he stated, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). We see this same posture in Job. At the end of the book, he lowers himself into the “dust and ashes” and repents (Job 42:6). Job gets down to to the place where he comes from. God always hears a man who remembers his humble beginnings.

Our status as people of the ground issues in the compassion of our Creator. The Psalmist teaches us this. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103:13-14). The ground of his compassion is our frame, our origin. In the same article Brueggemann says this regarding Psalm 103.

God remembers the way we have been formed in the beginning. Perhaps God, in this Psalm, remembers the narrative of Gen. 2-3, recalling the entire tale of our odd and awesome point of origin in the powerful generosity of God. The reality of our “dust” does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity. When God remembers our dusty creatureliness, it evokes in God fidelity and compassion. God’s loyal covenant love is the counterpoint to our dust.

Seeds, Plants, Trees, and the Love of God

Genesis 1:11

“And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.’ And it was so.”

Luther’s Commentary
“This peculiar care of God over us and for us even before we were created, may be contemplated rightly and with great benefit to our souls, but all conjectures, reasonings and arguments upon the great subject of the creation are uncertain and fruitless. The same care for us is manifest in his spiritual gifts. For long before we are converted to faith Christ, our Redeemer, rose and ascended above, and is now in the house of his Father preparing mansions for us; that when we arrive there we may find heaven furnished with everything that can complete our joy. Adam therefore not yet created was much less able to think of his future good than even we are, for he as yet had no existence at all. Whereas we continually hear all these things from the Word of God, as promised to us. Let us look at this first creation of the world therefore as a type and figure of the world to come, and thereby let us learn the exceeding goodness of God, who thus benefits, blesses and enriches us, even before we are capable of thinking for ourselves. This solicitude, care, liberality and beneficence of God, both for our present and future life, are matters more becoming us to contemplate and admire than it is to enter upon speculations and conjectures as to the reason why God began to ornament the earth on the third day. Let these observations suffice concerning the work of the third day in which a house was built and furnished for man.”
Martin Luther. Luther on the Creation: A Critical and Devotional Commentary on Genesis [1-3] (Kindle Locations 1699-1709).