The chorus of an old gospel favorite (Allison Krauss does it best) goes like this, “I’ll fly away to glory, I’ll fly away. To a home on God’s celestial shore. I’ll fly away.” Sorry, now it will be stuck in your head all day, but bear with me. That’s all well and good. Of course the souls of Christians go to be with God when we die. But then what.
The second verse of “I’ll Fly Away” brings out the rub more clearly. It goes like this, “When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away, Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away.” Here is the issue. Most of us Christians believe this life is only shadows. We believe nothing matters but the soul. The earth is merely a sweaty holding tank we toil through for a few years until we check out and start the real fun. All we have to do is hang in there a little longer, then poof, we’re bugging out to worship God in the sky for eternity in a distant, ethereal, faintly city-like locale with golden public works. But is this the picture of the Bible paints?
Let’s start it off with the prophets. If anyone has reason to yearn for a disembodied direct flight out of here it’s these guys.
Here’s Isaiah, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. (Isaiah 25:6-8)” Mountains. Feasts. Nations. Tears. Earth. Interesting.
But there’s more. The prophet gets even richer and more detailed in Isaiah 65:17-25 talking about the new earth after God sets things right. Here we see Jerusalem, infants, youth, old men, houses, vineyards, plants, work, animals, just about everything.
That’s not all. Nearly every prophetic book paints a similar picture. Try Micah 4-5, Ezekiel 37:18-28, Job 19:25, Zephaniah 1:14-18 and 3, Zechariah 8 and 9:9-17, Joel 3:17-21, Amos 9:11-15, and Daniel 12 just to name a few.
Everytime God intervenes here on earth to set things right.
Is it symbolic? Metaphorical? Perhaps to some degree. However, there can be no question these ancient saints had a profound hope in God’s plans for the world, that he would eventually settle things for the good, in the here and now. And his people would be able to love him fully again, not as distant souls but as he designed them, with two feet on the ground.
But that’s the Old Testament. Right? Surely the New Testament waxes poetic about Christians being rocketed away to a far off heaven just in the nick of time, like some ecclesiastical Hans Solo escaping an exploding Death Star. Not so fast. Actually nothing of eternal destiny’s image in the New Testament contradicts anything I have said about the Old Testament’s.
Not convinced? Take a look at the godfather of all apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation. How is history going to end? Read Revelation 21-22 carefully. What we see is heaven coming to earth, not souls floating from earth to heaven. We see re-creation. We see purification. We see judgment. We see redemption. Referring back to our song at the beginning, the only person we see flying away in Revelation is the warrior king Jesus coming back to claim his rightful prize. The earth is our home. God made it so and it will always be so.
But why does it matter? Can’t we just trust God and let the chips fall where they may? What is the harm in believing in a transcendent, airy eternity as opposed to an earthy one with farm labor to be done?
I think it matters a great deal.
Believing the earth only has a few more years before it vanishes into a fiery abyss leaves us without the need or motivation to deal with deeply ingrained, systemic injustices. We are tempted, in the face of massive, wholesale suffering, to just worry about saving souls. We think if we can just do that then the rest will take care of itself.
Sure we will be generous, kind people and pitch in as we can. However, I think deep down we think there is really little that can be done in the face of societal and global level problems. There is just too much sin entrenched in humanity. But it’s ok, we think, because it will all end soon and we will be in heaven. So let’s just worry about reaching as many people as we can with the Word before then. At least that’s how I used to think.
But if the earth is eternal, if all things are going to be made new, what if our efforts for the kingdom persevere the fires of judgement? What if the systems we build, the beauty we create, the instilled hope, the imprints of character from kind words and just actions all last along with us? What if Jesus’ return to earth will consummate and perfect not destroy the work already done by his people on his behalf?
For instance, my mom spearheaded a local effort to have a playground constructed for handicapped and otherwise disabled children called Gabriel’s Garden. Does that not constitute the implementation of Jesus’ mandate? If God is glorified by the joy and hope of those children and workers I believe the ramifications of this effort will be present on the new earth as well. There may very well be a new, eternal Gabriel’s Garden.
So let us as a constituted people with a mission seek to expand and deepen the kingdom’s impact in and on all walks of life. Let us not settle for a disembodied, harp melody filled afterlife. Let us instead seek to build a kingdom that will last for eternity starting right now.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying preaching the Gospel is not important. It is crucial. What I’m saying is the preaching of the Gospel should have visible ramifications. That is to say the world should be a better place as the kingdom spreads in the preacher’s wake. But all too often we just worry about the first step and leave the rest for heaven.
This is hope. The hope of Easter. It is an eruption of new life of which the risen Jesus is the first fruit (1 Cor. 15). Will we join in, or dare I say be . . . left behind?
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
For more see The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright.