The essential mistake in most Christian eschatology, as it is presented and understood, especially in popular, grassroots Christianity, involves a confusion of place and time.
To most Christians, the most vital issue is what happens to us after we die. And the most crucial question about the afterlife is where will we go? Common answers include heaven, hell, and purgatory. These are imagined as real places and a lot of biblical imagery is assigned to them, as well as many centuries of church history and teaching, art and literature.
Exactly how (in what form) we exist in these places is a matter of much discussion and debate. Most posit some kind of immaterial existence — our “soul” or our “spirit” is taken into God’s care. As N.T. Wright puts it, it’s as though the “hardware” goes to the grave, while the “software” goes to God, awaiting the day when the “software” will be reinstalled into brand new “hardware.”
But it is hard for us to grasp what un-embodied life would be like. So, when I attend the deaths of my patients, I commonly hear people talking about their deceased loved ones now dancing with joy and interacting in common ways with other family members who have gone before. They even talk about their loved one having a new body, as though death leads directly to resurrection so that people can literally walk on the streets of gold and play cards again with Uncle Billy.
Indeed, some theologians have posited that we receive some kind of body for the intermediate state that then becomes transformed at the resurrection into the permanent eternal body.
Though not as widely proposed, some take the biblical metaphor of “sleep” literally and say that we have no conscious existence between death and the day of resurrection when our bodies are raised and made new.
Regardless of one’s position on the human state after death, however, all agree that the ultimate goal is for us to go to a new place — to heaven, our “eternal home.”
This, however, misreads the Bible. The essence of the Christian hope is that there is an age to come that will play out in this world, not an alternative place where we are going. We confuse time with geography.
We are not looking to relocate. Where we are right now will do fine, as far as God is concerned. According to Ephesians 1:10, “…this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth” (NLT).
The point is that God will dwell among us — we will not go away somewhere to God’s “house.” Heaven will come to earth, as the metaphorical description in Revelation 21 indicates. Christ will reign here. God will transform this world and raise us up to live in it — we will not leave it to go to a better place somewhere else. The creation God made will become a new creation, the One who created “the heavens and the earth” will make “a new heavens and a new earth.”
That is why this life and this world should mean so much to us now. This is our home. And somehow, in some ways, there will be radical continuity (as well as discontinuity) between our life now and our life to come.
I know why people want to focus on a place, especially when a loved one dies. They want to know their loved one is somewhere safe, where he or she is cared for. I believe this to be the case, even when trying to envision what an intermediate state actually looks like is hard. So I usually just try to reassure people by saying their loved one is now in God’s care.
As for the ultimate hope, I think we lack imagination that a world like ours, with all that humans have done to corrupt it, can ever be fully transformed. However, this is the Christian hope — a new me, a new you in new bodies living a transformed terrestrial existence, a new humanity experiencing shalom in God’s presence in this very world, made new.