(Editor’s Note: The following inspiring essay resides on the popular UK blog, eChurch Blog and is written by the site’s webmaster, Stuart James. It is reprinted below with his permission.)
Many of us dream of a world filled with justice, peace, equality, harmony, beauty, tranquility, security, permanence, plenty and sometimes we may glimpse for a moment, a world at one, put to rights, where societies function healthily and where we know what to do and do it.
This is an echo in our hearts, minds, imaginations and subconscious. This is an echo of a voice whispering what might be.
The perception that we humans are far more than what we see about us, has led to a growth and rediscovery of ‘sprituality’ in the West, which may be viewed as an attempt to reconnect with that echo.
Relationships and love is another major human preoccupation and we all intuitively know that we belong in relationship with other humans. We are to find ‘meaning’ in and through our relationships and these relationships may form another echo of that voice.
The Old Testament speaks of human beings as made, irreducibly, for relationship: for relationship with one another, with the rest of created order and above all, with the creator. And yet, within the story of creation, all things within the present world are transient. They are not designed to be permanent.
The impermanence which we see all around us in the form of death and decay resonates within us a dark note of tragedy. It is bound up with human rebellion against the creator, with a rejection of that deepest of relationships and a consequential souring of all relationships. We shouldn’t be surprised that, when we think of human relationships, we find ourselves hearing the echo of a voice once more.
Human beings are glorious creatures in so many ways and the biblical Creation story offers a powerful and pregnant picture: humans are made in God’s image. So whose glory is it?
The Christian tradition has said that the glory belongs to God the creator. It is his voice we hear echoing off the crags, murmuring in the sunset. It is his power we feel in the crashing of the waves and the roar of a lion. It is his beauty we see reflected in a thousand faces and forms.
The most complex and fascinating thing in all creation is the human brain, including the mind, imagination, will, personality and the thousand other things which we think of as separate faculties but which all interlock, as functions of that brain and its relation to the rest of our lives, our complex personal identity. We should expect the world and our relation to it to be at least as complex as we are. If there is a God, we should expect such a being to be at least as complex again. The more we learn, the more we discover that we humans are fantastically complicated creatures.
This complexity is the world to which the Christian story is addressed, the world of which it claims to make sense.
Over the last generation in western culture, truth has been like the rope in a tug-of-war contest. On the one hand, some want to reduce all truth to ‘facts’, things which can be proved in the way you can prove oil is lighter than water. On the other hand, some believe that all ‘truth’ is relative, and that all claims to truth are coded claims to power.
To ‘know’ the deeper kinds of ‘truth’, Christianity relates this as akin to ‘knowing’ a person, something which takes a long time, a lot of trust, and a good deal of trial and error. It will be a kind of ‘knowing’ in which the subject and the object are intertwined, so that you could never say that it was either ‘purely subjective’ or purely objective’. This type of deeper and richer kind of ‘knowing’ is ‘love’…..who is God.
Where is God? Ancient biblical writers did not imagine that if they had the ability to travel through space, they would sooner or later come to the place where God lived. They understood ‘heaven’ as simply meaning ‘where God dwells’, that is referring to a differentsort of location, God’s space as opposed to our space, not God’s location within our spacetime universe. So the question is whether God’s space and our space intersect.
God’s space and ours (Heaven and earth) are two interwoven and interconnected dimensions. The Scriptures are replete with examples of this overlap, whereby God makes his presence known within our sphere. The Israelite’s had the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ and later the Temple, which were two places of overlap between heaven and earth.
God made a world that was other than himself, because that is what love delights to do. And having made such a world, he has remained in a close, dynamic and intimate relationship with it. To speak of God’s action in the world – of heaven’s action on earth – is to speak of a loving creator acting within the creation which has never lacked signs of his presence. It is to speak, in fact, of such actions as might be expected to leave echoes. Echoes of his voice.
There is an echo which seems to tell us that this creation has become corrupt and unwell, with humans choosing their own path – to be their own god – and suffering dreadfully as a consequence. God appears to take this very seriously and within the Jewish and Christian narrative has himself mounted the rescue operation.
This Jewish God gave himself the name YHWH (Yahweh) which seems to have meant ‘I am who I am’. This God cannot be defined in terms of anything or anyone else. He is his own category. This is why we cannot expect to mount a ladder of arguments from our world to his, or mount a ladder of moral achievement and end up making ourselves good enough to stand in his presence.
The Biblical story in Genesis goes from bad to worse: from rebellion in the garden (chapter 3) to the first murder (chapter 4) to widespread violence (chapter 6) and on to the crazy idea of building a tower to reach into heaven. Those who were supposed to be reflecting God’s image in the world – that is, humans – are instead looking into mirrors of their own reflection; and they both like and are frightened by what they see. Arrogant and insecure, they have become self-important.
Put simply and with utmost brevity, the key theme, which flows from the Old Testament, to the astonished delight of the New Testament, is the renewal of the entire cosmos, of heaven and earth together, and the promise that in this new world all shall be well.
The theme of a new Eden picks up one of the main subtexts of the whole biblical story. Ultimately, the real exile, was the expulsion of humankind from the garden. One of the main themes echoing around the ancient prophecy as it echoes around the human heart, is the beauty of the new creation, of an entire creation put back to rights.
The kingdom of God is at hand.’ This announcement was the centre of Jesus’ public proclamation. He was addressing our corrupt world and the gospels tell the story in such a way as to hold together the ancient prophecies. God would usher in a new reign of justice and peace. God would vindicate his people to set everything straight. The world was to be turned the right way up at last. To speak of the Kingdom arriving now is to declare the future breaking in to the present and the arrival of Heaven on earth.
How do you communicate a message as radical as this?
Healings were especially dramatic as a sign of the message itself. God, the world’s creator was at work through Jesus, to do what he had promised, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to rescue people, to turn everything the right way up. Jesus’ parables were not, as has often been supposed, ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings’. The whole point of Jesus’ work was to bring heaven to earth and join them together for ever, to bring God’s future into the present.
The ‘religious right’ were scandalised by Jesus’ message and by him celebrating God’s kingdom with all the wrong people, the poor, the tax collectors, the sinners, the outcasts, the sick, with anyone in fact who wanted to join in. It was in response to his critics that Jesus told some of the most poignant and powerful parables, which fueled their anger.
So what did Jesus intend by it all?
Nobody in this period would have supposed that the Messiah would have to suffer, let alone die. Indeed, that was the very opposite of normal expectations. The Messiah was supposed to be leading the triumphant fight against Israel’s enemies, not dying at their hands. This is why, having come to the view that Jesus was indeed God’s anointed, the disciples could not imagine that he meant it literally when he spoke of his coming death and resurrection. Resurrection was something which, in Jewish belief, would happen to all God’s people at the end of time, not to one person in the middle of history.
The early Christian belief in hope beyond death belongs demonstrably on the Jewish, not Pagan, map. To begin with, the early Christians did not simply believe in ‘life after death’; they virtually never speak simply of ‘going to heaven when they died’, and when they do speak of heaven as a post-mortem destination they seem to regard this ‘heavenly’ life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body. When Jesus tells the criminal that he will join him in paradise that very day, ‘paradise’ clearly cannot be their final destination, as Luke makes clear. ‘Paradise’ is, rather, the blissful garden where God’s people rest prior to the resurrection. When Jesus declares that that there are many dwelling-places in his father’s house, the word for ‘dwelling-place’, denotes a temporary lodging. When Paul says that his desire is to ‘depart and be with Christ, which is far better’, he is indeed thinking of a blissful life with his Lord immediately after death, but this is only a prelude to the resurrection itself. The early Christians held firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly made world.
Despite what many folk think, within the Christian family and outside it, the point of it all is NOT ‘to go to heaven when you die’.
The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that God intends in the end, to put the whole creation to rights. Earth and heaven are made to overlap with one another, not fitfully, mysteriously and partially as they do at the moment, but completely gloriously and utterly. ‘The earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.’ That is the promise which resonates throughout the Bible. The great drama will not end with ‘saved souls’ being snatched up into heaven away from this wicked earth and away from the mortal bodies which have dragged them down to sin, but the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth, so that ‘the dwelling of God is with humans. (Revelation 21.3).
Death is the great enemy, but it has been conquered and will at the last itself suffer death. Death is a beaten enemy. Death shall be no more, is central to the New Testament belief: that at the last, death will not simply be redefined, but defeated. God’s intention is not to let death have its way with us. If the promised future is simply that immortal souls will have left behind their mortal bodies, then death still rules.
Let me be clear on this, if we reject the Biblical belief of resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, then death is not conquered, but re-described, no longer an enemy, it is simply the means by which we shuffle off this mortal coil.
God’s plan to rescue the world from evil would be put into effect by evil doing its worst to the Servant King, to Jesus himself, and thereby exhausting its power.
Jesus spoke of the passover bread as his own body that would be given on behalf of his friends, as he went out to take on himself the weight of evil so that they would not have to. He spoke of the passover cup as his own blood. Like the sacrificial blood in the temple, it would be poured out to establish the covenant. The time had now come when, at last, God would rescue his people, and the whole world, not from mere political enemies, but from evil itself, from the bondage of sin and death which had enslaved them.
I believe that Jesus did indeed suffer and die. I believe that his tomb was found empty. I believe that the disciples really did encounter the risen Jesus. I believe that the disciples were emphatically not expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead. And this all best explains the rise of Christianity in our world. Put simply, Jesus is the prototype, a firstborn of the new creation. The one who redeems and rescues us.
The resurrection of Jesus Is principally the defining event of the new creation, the world which is being born with Jesus. If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing, a knowing which involves us in new ways, an epistemology which draws out from us not just the cool appraisal of detached quasi-scientific research, but that whole person engagement and involvement for which the best shorthand is ‘love’, in the full Johannine sense of Agape.
The earliest Christian evaluation of Jesus as the place where heaven and earth met, the replacement for the Temple, the embodiment of the living God, was about as socially provocative, as well as theologically innovative, as it could possibly be.
How can we make sense of this?
Easter demonstrates that heaven and earth are neither the same thing nor a long way removed from one another, but they overlap and interlock mysteriously in a number of ways; and that the God who made both heaven and earth is at work from within the world as well as from without, sharing the pain of the world, indeed taking its full weight upon his own shoulders. From this point of view the Orthodox churches have always emphasised, when Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from a tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibilities. Indeed, precisely because part of the possibility is for human beings themselves to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus does not leave us passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world.
At the moment the world appears as a place of suffering and sorrow as well as of beauty and power. But God is reclaiming it. That is what Jesus’ death was all about. And we are called to be part of that reclaiming. One day all creation will be rescued from slavery, from corruption, decay and death which deface its beauty, destroy its relationships, removes the sense of God’s presence from it, and make it a place of injustice, violence and brutality. This is the message of rescue and of ‘salvation’.
The earliest Christians believed, in fact, that resurrection was what every human really needed – not just in the end, in the new world that God will eventually make, but in the present life as well. God intends in the end, to give us new life, in comparison with which the present one is a mere thing of shadows. He intends to give us new life within his ultimate new creation. But the new creation has already begun with the resurrection of Jesus, and God want us to wake up now, in the present time, to the new reality. We are to come through death and out the other side into a new sort of life; to become daytime people, even though the rest of the world is not yet awake. We are to live in the present darkness by the light of Christ, so that when the sun comes up at last we will be ready for it. Or, to change the image, we are already to be pencilling the sketches for the masterpiece that God will one day call us to help him paint. That is what it means to respond to the call of the Christian gospel.
What the early Christians meant by the word ‘belief’ included believing that God had done certain things and believing in the God who had done them. This is not ‘belief that God exists’, though clearly that is involved too, but loving grateful trust.
When things ‘make sense’ in that way, you are left knowing that it isn’t a matter of you figuring it all out and deciding to take a step or a stand. It’s a matter of Someone calling you, calling with a voice that you dimly recognise, calling with a message that is simultaneously and invitation of love and a summons to obedience. The call to faith is both of these. It is the call to believe that the true God, the world’s creator, has loved the whole world so much, you and me included, that he has himself come in the person of his Son and has died and risen again to exhaust the power of evil and create a new world in which everything will be put to rights and joy will replace sorrow.
The more conscious we are of our own inability to get it right, perhaps even our flagrant disloyalty to the call to live as genuine human beings, the more we will hear this call as what it most deeply is. It is the offer of forgiveness. It is the summons to receive God’s gift of a slate wiped clean, a totally new start. Even to glimpse that is to catch your breath with awe and gratitude, and to find an answering, thankful love welling up inside.
When we start to glimpse that, we discover that the echoes we have always heard, have indeed turned into a voice, It is, of course the voice of Jesus, calling us to follow him into God’s new world, the world in which the hints, signposts and echoes of the present world turn into the reality of the next one.
The ultimate goal is not a disembodied heaven, nor simply the rearrangement of life on the present earth, but the redemption of the whole creation, our calling to live in our bodies now in a way that anticipates the life we shall live then.
When you see the dawn breaking, you think back to the darkness in a new way. ‘Sin’ is not simply the breaking of a law. It is the missing of an opportunity. Having heard the echoes of a voice, we are called to come to the Speaker. We are invited to be transformed by the voice itself, the word of the gospel, the word which declares that evil has been judged, that the world has been put to rights, that earth and heaven are joined forever, and that new creation has begun. This is the opportunity that stands before us, as a gift of possibility. Christian holiness is not (as people often imagine) a matter of denying something good. It is a matter of growing up and grasping something even better.
When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, love and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God’s future has arrived in the present. Instead of mere echoes, we hear the voice itself: a voice which speaks of rescue from evil and death, and hence of a new creation.
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”