“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”
― L. Frank Baum,
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I was listening to an interview with someone the other day discussing high level achievement in athletic endeavors. She was telling the story of a woman who was trying to swim a channel between the coast and an island offshore. The athlete had attempted this several times without success. On this particular day, the weather was extremely foggy and as she swam she felt herself flagging. She finally gave up and climbed into the boat that was following her. Shortly thereafter, the murkiness lifted somewhat and the swimmer saw that she had given up her crossing with only about a mile left.
Her reaction? “If only I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.”
This story reminds us that people need hope, a hope we can envision, to help us keep going through life.
That same day I participated in a funeral service. Another pastor officiated it, and I must say he did a terrific job bringing personal comfort and encouragement to the family and friends of the one who had died. He was great at telling stories, celebrating the life and character of the person, eliciting both laughter and tears. I was very impressed, and I complimented him and praised him to others for the ministry he provided.
However, there was one nagging problem in the midst of all the good: the theology of hope, of eschatology, of “heaven” that was presented, was hopelessly deficient. Thankfully, it wasn’t the dominant emphasis, but it was sprinkled throughout the service in readings, comments, and songs like discordant notes (to my ears, at least) in a beautiful melody.
And for the first time it became emotionally and personally evident to me, that if this is the Christian hope, I don’t want any part of it.
As presented, it was so vapid, so cartoonish, so discontinuous with any experience we humans have in this life, that I can’t imagine how it could offer real incentive for anyone to follow Jesus or embrace Christian faith. I don’t understand how any thoughtful person could see any of it as “promise” to be welcomed with any sort of eagerness or anticipation. It is no shore I would want to swim toward, even if I could actually see it through the fogginess of the teaching.
First of all, there was no hope given for human beings as we know human beings.
We are embodied creatures, but I kept hearing talk about “spirit” not “body.” The deceased was “spiritually” with God in heaven, and no destiny beyond that “spiritual” state was ever mentioned. The body in front of the audience was essentially ignored. There was no mention of resurrection (except in a quote from scripture), no sense that the life to come has any embodied aspect to it. The pastor referenced 1Corinthians 15, but only to cite the brief passage affirming that death has no sting. The very point of Paul’s teaching — the resurrection of the actual body — was completely absent. I don’t know what anyone else was envisioning about the deceased while sitting in that service, but it was all a fog to me.
I find this confusing dichotomy in a lot of popular Christian teaching about heaven. There is often talk of a “reunion” with loved ones, of being with Jesus, of no more sickness or death, of falling down in worship before God, but no talk of resurrection. And all the while the body of the deceased is lying right in front of us, ready to be carried to the cemetery and lowered into the ground! If “heaven” is our hope, and we will be with God “spiritually,” how then shall we embrace our loved ones, bow our knee or sing praise? This can’t be our hope. If Christ redeemed me — all of me — then my body itself will one day be transformed. The fleshly “shell” (a word I’ve heard used often at time of death) is not something we simply cast off in trade for a “spiritual” existence. The life of the age to come is an embodied life, a life that is congruous with this life we live now. And it won’t come in “heaven” — but more on that in a moment.
We need to make this clear. The mourning and grieving need to envision this. Our deceased loved ones will walk and talk and move and dance in new bodies, new material bodies. Flesh transformed but still material, substantial, human flesh. Help us see it, funeral preachers! Fill not only our hearts but also our bodies with the longing to touch, to embrace, to see, to hear, to smell, to taste physical realities beyond any we have known in this age.
Second, there was no hope given for this world, for creation, or for life in this world with which we as humans are familiar.
This world is not my home
I’m just a-passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up
somewhere beyond the blue.
Beyond. Totally discontinuous from life in this world, from actual living in the here and now. The pastor quoted that song. And in the service, the only activities that were mentioned taking place in “heaven” involved having a “reunion” with loved ones and falling on one’s knees to worship God. Add a few architectural details about gates and golden streets and shining “mansions” and an All-Powerful Ruler who welcomes us and protects us, and what you end up with is an “Oz,” somewhere “over the rainbow,” in a dream, that bears little relation to anything we’ve ever known in daily experience.
But the Bible doesn’t say we’re leaving Kansas to go to some Oz out there where all is colorful and magical. The Bible says Oz is coming to Kansas, and it also says that it is not God’s intention to replace Kansas but to transform it into the best Kansas there could ever be. God will make his home among us, and then we will truly know what it means to be “home.” The end game is for all creation to be reconciled to God, that all things will be “gathered up” in him (Eph. 1:10). God’s plan is not to discard Kansas and replace it with Oz, but to reconcile Oz and Kansas and transform all creation in Christ.
Our Christian hope is terrestrial, material, physical, and fully in line with what we have experienced in this world. There is continuity as well as discontinuity between this age and the age to come.
Christian preachers must be very careful to give us real hope, hope that we can see and grasp after, rather than foggy, cartoonish pictures to which none can relate.
We’re swimming to shore, we’re tired, and we need to see clearly where we’re bound.
“Spiritual” promises are no promises at all.