Fly Away To Glory? A Plea For A More Grounded (Literally) Hereafter

Clouds
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Indeed.

For more see The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright.

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16 thoughts on “Fly Away To Glory? A Plea For A More Grounded (Literally) Hereafter

  1. Woot! Woot! Preach it, Mr. Ben!
    “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living.” Psalm 27:13
    God is good!

  2. When I first became a Christian I had great difficulty believing in the resurrection of the body. The priest said I must. I asked if intellectual assent was good enough. He said yes. Now, 34 years later, the resurrection of the body is one of the most comforting teachings for me. I realise how impossible it would be to be me without my body. And my body needs a world. We are truly incarnate creatures.

  3. there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve unto the example and *shadow* of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: Hebrews 8:4b,5a

    (what is in Heaven has truer substance)

    For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. I Corinthians 15:53
    For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. II Corinthians 5:1-4

    (we are waiting for our temporary, flimsy bodies to be replaced with a permanent dwelling physical body)

    the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up. Revelation 8:7b
    And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea. Revelation 16:3
    And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: Revelation 16:19

    But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, II Peter 3:10,11a

    (that which exists now will be burned up and knocked down, even your mom’s playground 😦 )

    For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. Isaiah 65:17,18

    (Your basic premise is sound and bears pointing out. We sure won’t be sitting on clouds and strumming harps for eternity!!!)

  4. We can trade individual verses all day if we don’t agree on the primary arc of the biblical narrative. Nonetheless, I’ll take the bait.

    Hebrews 8:4-5 The Jewish temple is a picture of God’s throne, doesn’t prove or disprove my point. I don’t disagree heaven is “more real.” I just believe this heaven will eventually be on earth.

    Both Corinthians verses serve my point just as well as yours. We will have new, better bodies . . . awesome.

    As for Revelation, read the end. We see earth recreated as it was meant to be. Also, I’m an amillenialist so . . .yea anyway

    Your snarky comment aside, 2 Peter 3:10-11 is the strongest passage indicating perhaps this present world will be wiped out and never seen again. But on closer inspection it falls in line nicely behind my point. I think it is talking about a fire of judgement, a final reckoning if you will. It’s not just a big explosion, it’s a deliberate action. It is a sudden summoning to stand before God. Every action and person will here be ultimately exposed and judged. Peter proves this by saying in 11-12 we should live righteous lives because of this coming moment, and if we do we will have a home in the new earth where only righteousness will exist. It doesn’t say there will be no continuity between the old and new. It doesn’t say we are going anywhere. That’s exactly the point I am trying to make in this post. Our righteous actions and character will survive into the next world and there is a lot more to living a righteous life than just trying to save as many souls as possible. In fact, I’m pretty sure Jesus has some strong words about how he identifies the righteous.

  5. I wasn’t trying to disagree with you, sorry it came across that way. The only thing that I don’t believe the Bible backs up is anything tangible surviving from the present into the eternal Kingdom. Although somehow the nations will bring their glory and honor into it, whatever that is refering to.

    I’ve done and seen some accomplishments that I am very sorry to know won’t make it into the next world. The last thing I wanted to do is be “snarky.”

    I’ve not run into amillenialists before, have you done a post on how an eternal state with only the righteous surviving fits into your views?

  6. Fair enough. Sometimes tone is difficult to discern online ha.

    I guess it depends what you mean by “tangible.” Yes, everything will be different in the new world. As you said it will be more real. but it will still be the earth, only remade perfectly with the church prepared and presented to Christ the King. All of our stories and actions are now being woven together to be presented to him at that time. So the good things we do now will still be done in the next world. We’re not going to forget about them. They will still exist. They will still be part of our character. Jesus told us to start building his kingdom now. Why would he come and destroy it? Our actions will be judged and the good will stand the evil will be no more, forgotten.

    Amillenialism just means we need to be very careful in interpreting Revelation. We know Jesus is going to win in the end and the intervening time is going to be difficult. However, it is healthy for us to try to pinpoint every word with a literal, current event (I’m not saying your doing this. I’m just saying this is what amillenialist believe). For example, those who try to say this or that person is the beast and the end is near have always been wrong. Amillenialist believe much of the symbolism either applied to the first century church or is a picture of what the church is always facing until Christ returns.

    Thanks for your comments.

    1. I’m very relieved to hear your understanding, thank you.
      I can see your point about those who want to say this particular person is the Beast, etc. LOL, we can easily make fools of ourselves doing things like that (let alone those who disobey Jesus and predict a date for the Catching up!!!). The funny thing is, that Jesus knew it was going to be a really long time before He came back, but He seems to know that we badly need something to look forward to in order to stand firm to the end. How it all will work out is a great mystery. 🙂
      Before, I had thought that amillenialists didn’t believe in an eternal state. I’m glad to hear that you do.

  7. “All of our stories and actions are now being woven together to be presented to him at that time.”
    I felt a rush of excitement when I read that! What a beautiful thought!

    I don’t strongly focus on eschatology. I know that our eschatological view helps form our Christian world view, and also forms our doctrine and actions – or that’s what they say anyway. All I know that is I have been a Christian for decades, but just over a year ago, I began a journey of revelation concerning the finished work of the cross of Christ. It has revolutionized me. I believe that it is very important how we live on this earth. I don’t know how anyone can conclude from New Testament Scripture that this life is anything but a testing ground, a walking out of redemption in many ways, with the central goal of having Christ formed in us – being conformed to His image. This includes not just inner change, but how that manifests in what we do.

    I know that in eternity, judgment rests upon what we did in this life about the reality of Christ and his death and resurrection, but after that position is established, I believe that God looks at what we did with Christ living in us, in union with us….how much His life was allowed to manifest in and through us. And the result of that assessment and the state in which we enter eternity determines our position in eternity….in whatever heaven looks like, or where it is~!

    I don’t believe for one minute that activity and maturing ends for us when this life ends. I believe we go on learning and changing. I don’t believe our eternal reward is a harp and a fluffy cloud! I believe “All of our stories and actions are now being woven together to be presented to him at that time.”….and that the the stored and actions will continue.

    1. Absolutely! This is the hope that keeps us going: hearing Jesus say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” 😀

  8. Thanks for stopping by my blog! I came to check out what you’re writing about, and this post definitely caught my eye. I just recently finished reading Love Wins by Rob Bell (wanted to know what the fuss was about). He talks about this in his book, but I was disappointed that it seems to have been buried under other things I believe he got very wrong. Your post very clearly sets out my own beliefs about it as well.

    It’s been a sort of revolution in my way of thinking about eternity. I always loved C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I truly came to love The Last Battle. And every time I reread it as an adult, the depiction he gives of heaven strikes me even more poignantly.

    My mom is a conservationist, so I was raised in a household where we already practice good stewardship of natural resources, and have probably planted enough trees in our life to offset a small town’s worth of carbon footprint. 🙂 But this is definitely something that more Christians need to be thinking about. Sustaining and preserving the world God gave us, so He will be pleased when we present it to Him to be remade.

    Of course it isn’t just on a conservation level where we should apply this sort of thinking–that’s just an issue close to my own heart. Your examples have got me thinking differently now too.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. It sounds like we have had some similar experiences. Also, I agree about Bell’s book. The heaven chapter is great, but the rest relies on some shaky exegesis.

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