Finally, we consider the relationship between heaven and earth. It seems to me that dualistic thinking sets heaven and earth on a trajectory that must result in a catastrophic collision of some sort. We will address the shape this collision has taken in the popular imagination shortly. First, a longer quote from N.T. Wright’s Apocalypse Now? will help to clarify our thinking on this relationship. (It helps to imagine this being read in the Bishop’s British accent. It sounds smarter and will make me seem right.)
Talk of “heaven” and “earth”, though, comes to us mostly from the Bible; and in the Bible these are not two places, separated from each other by many miles, but two different dimensions of the total reality of the world. This is what I mean by a “duality”, as opposed to “dualism”. Just as animals, and many plants, are irreducibly male and female, with the two being complementary, and both being good and necessary for the flourishing of the species, so “heaven” and “earth” are the two dimensions of created reality. These two God-given dimensions interlock and interact in a variety of ways, sometimes confusingly, often surprisingly. And it’s particularly important to notice that heaven and earth were both created good. It isn’t the case that the physical world is somehow shabby or second-rate, and the non-physical somehow morally superior. That is to move into dualism, setting the two worlds against each other. Indeed, in the biblical story evil infected both spheres: creatures in heaven as well as creatures on earth, we are told, rebelled against God. But in that same story all things, in both spheres, are reconciled through Jesus the Messiah, though only after the principalities and powers, the spiritual powers that attempted to usurp God’s place, had been defeated through Jesus’ crucifixion (Colossians 1.15-20; 2.14-15). (Apocalypse Now?)
In the world of the Bible heaven and earth are connected, not separate. Jesus tells the disciples in a discourse launched by a question about the “kingdom of heaven”, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed on earth. Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:18-19). The point here is that there is an explicit connection between heaven and earth. If the Father does what is asked in heaven and it has no impact on earth, then what good is it? The implication is that the reality of heaven has a direct impact on earth.
The collision course for heaven and earth is referred to as the End Times (or End of Days, Apocalypse, Armageddon, Tribulation… did I miss any?) when there will be a cataclysmic battle between good and evil that will result in the end of the world as we know it (and yes… I do feel fine). There are many different versions of this general idea. Dispensationalism alone (an invention of the 20th century) has pre-millenialists, post-millenialists and every variation imaginable. One aspect of this thinking saturated the popular imagination with the Left Behind series, the rapture. There is very little ink spilled in the Bible on this topic (certainly compared with the poor, the kingdom or love for example). The primary text used to justify it is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
I like to include verse 18 as a reminder, since these words are not always used to encourage. Numerous scholars have reached the same conclusion that N.T. Wright does about this passage (including J.D. Crossan who might not agree with the good Bishop on a lot of other things).
Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world. (Farewell to the Rapture)
So, the idea in the main passage used to justify the idea of a “rapture” is actually that when Jesus returns we will go out to meet him in the air to escort him to earth where “we will be with the Lord forever”. This is in fact the exact opposite of the kind of escapism that keeps me awake at night. This means that heaven and earth are in fact two sides of the same coin. There is certainly a need for transformation, as I hope I’ve made clear. I do believe that there is a brokenness that pervades our relationships with each other, the earth and the powers and authorities. We are desparately in need of redemption and reconciliation. We wait eagerly for the new heaven and new earth where things are “put to rights”. The catch here is that this will not be some other realm or dimension (much less a physical location in the sky), but it seems to me will be located in the same place we’re living now. Praise God it won’t look the way it does now.
There are also other passages that have been used to bolster this “rapture” idea. N.T. Wright has this to say about them,
It is Paul who should be credited with creating this scenario. Jesus himself, as I have argued in various books, never predicted such an event. The gospel passages about “the Son of Man coming on the clouds” (Mark 13:26, 14:62, for example) are about Jesus’ vindication, his “coming” to heaven from earth. The parables about a returning king or master (for example, Luke 19:11-27) were originally about God returning to Jerusalem, not about Jesus returning to earth. This, Jesus seemed to believe, was an event within space-time history, not one that would end it forever. (Apocalypse Now?)
The last sentence about it occurring within “space-time history” is important. It is not that this can be somehow proven, but that this is what the Jesus and the Bible seem to say. Strangely this is a radical shift in our popular imagination about what heaven, and particularly the Second Coming, might mean. N.T. Wright gives a pretty good summary of what he thinks it might mean.
The New Testament, building on ancient biblical prophecy, envisages that the creator God will remake heaven and earth entirely, affirming the goodness of the old Creation but overcoming its mortality and corruptibility (e.g., Romans 8:18-27; Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17, 66:22). When that happens, Jesus will appear within the resulting new world (e.g., Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:2). (Farewell to the Rapture)
Still there is so much left unsaid. We don’t know precisely what shape this will take, but it clearly challenges predominant ways of thinking about the Second Coming and the nature of heaven. After considering what the Bible has to say about the earth, heaven and their relationship, I would like to draw some conclusions (if you haven’t made yours already) in a final post.