It’s pretty clear from Scripture that our final hope as God’s people isn’t for a disembodied existence in ‘heaven’ but for a bodily and a resurrected future in a new creation. We are not Platonists, who value the spiritual over the material. Neither are we escapists, who see that our ultimate destination is an escape from earth to go to heaven. Rather, the Bible is clear that in the end, it is heaven that will come down to earth and renew the entire cosmos as that final home which God has prepared for those who love him (Rev. 21-22).
Now most thoughtful Christians I know believe that. And yet, I still find so many use slippery language when speaking about this future. What do I mean? Well, many of those who believe in a resurrected renewed creation still use the term ‘heaven’ to describe that final state. And when I’ve tried to encourage a more precise use of terminology, I’ve been told things like: “Of course when I use the word ‘heaven’, I don’t mean a disembodied existence in the clouds; I mean the new creation. We mean the same thing, so don’t get too hung up on the terms.”
Well, call it a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, but I think in this instance terminology does matter. I reckon it matters a lot when we use the term ‘heaven’ to mean ‘new creation’, and here are a few reasons why:
1. The Bible doesn’t ever use ‘heaven’ to mean our final hope as believers. Certainly there are different ways in which the term ‘heaven’ is used. It can just mean ‘sky’. It can also be a merismus when used with ‘earth’ (i.e. ‘the heavens and the earth’ – Gen. 1:1) to mean the totality of the created order. It’s also used to mean the spiritual abode of God who reigns in and from heaven (Psalm 2:4). And finally, it’s also used as shorthand for the new world order that God has established (hence ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ – Matt. 3:2). However, when the Scriptures speak of the new creation, ‘heaven’ isn’t the term used, ever.
When we use a Biblical term like ‘heaven’ but add to its meaning (i.e. ‘new creation’ or ‘final salvation’), it invariably affects our exegesis. A clear example is when Jesus speaks about ‘storing up treasures in heaven’ (Matt. 6:20). Because we think that ‘heaven’ here means ‘the place you go when you die’, we think Jesus is speaking about storing up wealth for when we get to the new creation. But I don’t think that’s at all what Jesus meant. I think he meant ‘heaven’ more in terms of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, and since the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s new world order that has already broken into the present by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is actually talking about treasure in the here and now, not the future. Now what I actually think that means I’ll save for another post, but you can see how easy it is to read unbiblical meanings into a Biblical word just by the way we use a Biblical word in unbiblical ways.
2. Who says words don’t matter? Frankly, words and terms matter a lot, especially for those who might hold to a high doctrine of inspiration! I find it a little ironic that some of the very people who value the words of the Bible enough to go and spend three or four years studying Greek and Hebrew are a tad blase about the use of words in this instance!
The truth of the matter is, words and their meanings do matter. When a word is used enough to mean something it doesn’t mean, over time, the meaning of the word changes. Take for instance, the adjective ‘terrific’. Most people today would say it’s a positive term (and I used it in this way in a recent sermon), but its original meaning would be quite the opposite. In fact, ‘terrific’ and ‘terrifying’ were more or less synonyms once upon a time (as were ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’). Word usage matters. Meanings change.
Now of course many a postmodern would delight in such changes. “Ah the slipperiness of language triumphs again,” the closet Derridean extols! Sure, with words like ‘terrific’, ‘cool’, ‘sick’ etc. I’m not really fussed about. But Biblical words? I dunno about you, but I’d like to think that precision matters a lot in cases like this.
3. You can’t use the term ‘heaven’ without carrying the notion of escapism. Even if you mean ‘new creation’ by the term, the very nature of the word ‘heaven’ is that it has a counter-term: ‘earth’. And since we’re on earth and we are looking forward to ‘heaven’, we necessarily speak of ‘going to heaven’. It’s a going… a going away… a getting out of earth. Sure you may not mean that, but you can’t help but imply it.
When, however, you use ‘new creation’, the ball-game changes. It’s a tad unnatural to speak of ‘going to the new creation’. It’s more natural to speak of ‘waiting for the new creation’, or ‘being a part of the new creation’. Where’s the escapism in that?
4. ‘Heaven’ is already a commonly used term in our culture, and it already carries with it many wrong notions that (even in Christian circles) are Platonic and escapist. So when we use a term like ‘heaven’, even though we might mean ‘new creation’, people hear ‘sitting in the clouds playing harps’. We’re not helping anyone by using this term when there’s a perfectly wonderful Biblical alternative like ‘new creation’. That terminology hasn’t been overused and I believe it will implant the correct Biblical notions in people’s minds.
5. Sometimes I find myself using the terminology of ‘going to heaven’ just out of sheer laziness. Quite frankly it’s much easier to speak about salvation in those terms, especially to kids and teenagers. I find myself thinking: “I just want them to understand salvation. I don’t really want to complicate things at this point.” And as a consequence it’s just quicker and easier finding common ground and using the term ‘heaven’ to mean our final salvation.
Probably many of you resonate with this (what I call ‘laziness’ – ‘coz let’s be honest, it is!). However, let’s think about what’s lost as well as what may be gained. What we’ve done is this: right at the beginning of a person’s spiritual understanding we’ve plant a skewed concept of salvation that will invariably affect them down the track. Who says that a Platonic, spiritual over material, escapist eschatology doesn’t matter? Aren’t we, in all sorts of ways, paying the price right now for this sort of laziness by having to go back and explain to people, ‘Ah well, no, salvation isn’t quite what you think it was. It’s not just about your soul, or just about going to heaven, or even just about YOU… it’s about the whole creation…” Wouldn’t it be better for our new Christians, children and youth to understand all this right from the outset?
(It just occurred to me that this may be the same reason why in our gospel presentations we often gloss over the resurrection of Jesus. Mmm… perhaps more food for thought?)
So please, stop using ‘heaven’ when you mean ‘new creation’. Use ‘new creation’ instead. With my kids, I talk about ‘God’s new world’ or ‘when Jesus comes back and makes everything new’. You may have better terms for kids and teenagers. If you do, I’d love to pinch them. But whatever you do, please, don’t mince your words. Don’t talk about heaven.