Heaven is not the end of the world.

I had been searching for a line between the Kingdom of God and the book of Revelation for the longest in my life. I remember the phases I went through, for a time I just saw the end of times study, eschatology, as the near future and then I would go to the advancing of the Kingdom. Then I came accross Global Awakening and Randy Clark and I started to completely ignore the texts about the end of the world. That is, because I truly began to see the manifestation of God’s kingship on earth and I didn’t know what to do about it, I couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing with what I had learned about the end of the world.

Along the years, I started to learn from leaders that I had for the most part misunderstood the texts concerning the end and I had been severely misled by inaccurate exposition of these hard texts. One of the great authors on the topic that gave me a broader understanding of Jesus becoming King was N.T. Wright. He along with Jonathan Welton were the first ones to present it to me, and make into words the gap I couldn’t connect between the readings and experience of the Gospel I have been living today.

Here is a short podcast episode on the matter by Dr Wright that has been transcribed by my friend Kate Peterson (Q&A Episode title Heaven is not the end of the world, available on iTunes here).

Q: The last time we spoke, you were Bishop of Durham and as you’ve just mentioned, you’re now based at the Universities in Andrews. How have you found that transition?

A: It’s been wonderful. There are lots and lots things I miss about Durham itself, particularly the people to be honest. It was a wonderful privilege to spend 7 years working with the people in the northeast of England and I’ve got lots of very good memories. But apart from Easter which I found very difficult this year, my father had just died and normally at Easter I would be doing all the big stuff in the cathedral and instead I was in someone else’s church just being an ordinary bloke in the congregation, that was very odd, but apart from that, I have found really a wonderful confirmation of this kind of new move of vocation that I haven’t thought, “Oh my goodness, I must’ve done the wrong thing,” I’ve had a strong sense of “Right, I have to get on with these different tasks.”

Q: Is there anything, if you’re honest, that you’re glad to see the back of about being based in a church setting?

A: There was always a huge amount of administration and somebody’s got to do that and I would always much rather somebody do the administration whose heart was in the job as it were, rather than just a professional administrator so fine, you do it but I’m very glad not to be doing it. I don’t chair any committees, I hardly sit on any committees now and that’s fantastic. Yes, there are some current disputes in the church like when you’re bishops and so on that I have made my contribution to, I’ve made speeches, I’ve written stuff and I’m quite happy now to park that and not to have to go on round and round and round those tracks.

Q: The New Testament writings were clearly born out of sort of the cut and thrust of community life and mission. Do you think that theology needs to be rooted in a pastoral and missional reality, now you’re kind of based in academia, how do you still capture a sense of that?

A: I believe very strongly in the body of Christ> That is to say, God giving by the spirit, different people different gifts, but they all have to work together and I am not your typical academic because I’m an extravert and I like being out and meeting people and a typical academic likes being in the library all the time, probably introverted etc., etc. . But actually it takes all sorts. It takes all sorts to make a church, it takes all sorts to understand the New Testament so the danger is that we individualize these things and then we say that every individual theologian must him or herself be somebody rooted in the church and vice versa. That’s impossible. You’ll never get that. What we desperately need is bridges being built the whole time. Lines of communication to be opened. The danger is that a lot of people in pastoral ministry are far too busy and their congregations need to relieve them of some of that so they can still be reading or attending the odd seminar or whatever, many theologians are far too busy doing the things that they do in the academic world and often they’ll drop into church on a Sunday but that’s about it. Somehow we have to keep those connections alive and I have tried to model how to do that, with limited success, but I think that’s a constant challenge for us today.

Q: Over the coming months on the show, we’re going to start to look at some environmental issues, so we wanted to explore the theology of that with you if we can. Certainly, on sort of a surface reading, the gospels certainly seem to show that Jesus is primarily concerned with individuals and leading them to repentance and faith and we have stories of Nicodemus and the woman at the well, Ezekias and the early church seemed to carry that on. Do you think that God is genuinely concerned about the earth and is that tied up within the gospel message?

A: The thing that the gospels are all about is the kingdom of God. Of course that impacts on persons one by one but persons are not isolated packages. Persons are part of communities and persons and communities are rooted in the soil, I mean, “Unto dust you are and unto dust you shall return,” but it’s more than that. It’s one of the heresies of the modern western world, and by western I guess I include Australia and New Zealand, as well, that we’ve actually forgotten that there is an intimate link between communities and places and a theology of place is only something we’re just now beginning to recover and modernism, characteristically enlightenment modernism, it treats place and earth and territory as just commodity. Something you can stake out, you can buy, you can sell it, you can build a house on it, you can turn it into a junk heap and that’s all it is but again and again read the Psalms; the Earth is the lord’s and the Earth and the fields and the sheep and the trees will rejoice when Yahweh comes to judge the Earth so the whole notion of the kingdom of God is not about God being king over this individual or that individual whatever, it’s about God becoming King in a fresh way, over the whole creation. Jesus says all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples and teach them to do as I did etc. and that is a mandate about God’s renewal of the whole creation and then when you take through to Romans and Revelation, two of the great books, I would say, ever written, Romans 8, the central climax of Romans, Revelation 21, 22 the Creation is renewed from top to bottom but in Romans particularly I think we can see how that actually acts retrospectively, just as we are told we will be raised from the dead and therefore we have to behave as resurrection people now, in the same way we are told that the Creation will be renewed in the future, therefore, I have argued and will continue to argue we have to be people through whom creational renewal happens already, ahead of the day when God is finally going to do it all. That’s the biblical framework.

Q: So is that saying that we’re part of that process or that it’s all prophetically pointed to what God’s going to do in the future?

A: Both. This is all based in Genesis 1 and 2. When God made the world, he made humans to reflect his image into the world. I am 110% convinced that this is the meaning of the image of God in Genesis is that it’s an angled mirror with God’s wise stewardship and ordering reflected through humans into the world. Now, when humans mess up and sin and rebel, what this means is that they are reflecting into the world all kinds of things that are coming from the world, which is ultimately deadly. But the renewal of humans doesn’t mean they’re rescued from the world or just for themselves. Humans are rescued so that through them God can reestablish his order in the world and that plays out in political theology as well as in ecological theology.

Q: So what Paul is saying in Romans 8 is that the new Earth is this Earth set free?

A: Is this Earth set free, well, set free…he uses this very violent image of creation being like a woman about to give birth, so there is something radically new but it’s in a deep and rich continuity with the old he uses that image, Revelation uses the image of the marriage, Ephesians 1:10 Paul says that God’s plan is to bring all things in Heaven and on Earth together in Christ. He doesn’t there talk about the renewal and the transformation but it’s clear that when you put these passages together they all need each other, so it is about a new creation, not a new creation made out of nothing but a new creation made out of the old one, just as Jesus resurrection body is a body made out of the old one, leaving an empty tomb behind it that’s the model we always go back to.

Q: Yeah, because I guess that’s the only example of resurrection that we have so we can use what happened to Jesus as a model for what we would expect to happen to the earth.

A: Exactly. Well, when I say exactly, what I mean is that Jesus was the human, the image of God, Colossians 1, whereas the Earth is always subordinate to humans but this is the point of Romans 8, Paul says, the creation has actually been longing for this to happen but it can’t happen because in God’s good purpose it can only happen when humans are restored. God has not changed his mind about reflecting his image into the world through humans. This is what Revelation’s all about. The blood of the lamb has rescued people for God to make them a royal priesthood and so much Christian thinking has said, “Oh he’s rescued us and we will be sitting there in heaven being a royal priesthood.” Well excuse me, the point about being a royal priesthood is to reign on the earth and to sum up the praises of creation before God so that that intermediate role of humans is something God hasn’t given up on and the whole of redemption is in order to redeem us so that we can be that.

Q: So there’s clearly some continuity but can we speculate as to what level of continuity. Are we just talking about the same lump of rock here? Or does God glorify a piece of music or art or an allotment?

A: We are not told how that works. The image that I’ve used as you may know in my book Surprised by Hope is an image which is dear to me from my time in Durham, and that is of the stone masons in the yard who are carving the bits of stone that will be used in the great west front of the cathedral, the great south window or whatever it is and all the stone mason is given is that the master mason comes in and says, “Ok here’s your piece of stone, I want you to spend the next 3 weeks chiseling this particular little bit of pattern on it and just get it like this and like that,” and the chap in question in the analogy is not told how this will fit with everything else, you’re just told, you’ve got to get on with this task and it’s up to the master mason what he then does with it and so there’s a sense that one day the cathedral will be complete and we will look at something which we thought was perhaps rather trivial that we found ourselves called to do one day and there it will be, as part of a much larger pattern that we had never even imagined and this is a way of saying, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:58, at the end of that great chapter on resurrection he doesn’t say, “Wow, resurrection , what a fantastic future,” he says, “Therefore, get on with your work in the present, because in the Lord it is not in vain.” Resurrection means, what you do in the present in Christ and in the spirit is not wasted. It may seem as though it’s wasted, but in fact, it won’t be.

Q: So how do we make sense of those few passages in the New Testament that talk about this transformation in quite destructive terms? So 2 Peter 3 talks about the heavens and the Earth being reserved for fire, the elements will be destroyed by fire, the earth will be laid bare. Revelation talks about this Earth passing away. I know it’s symbolic, but it’s quite destructive.

A: Yes, and I’m not a revelation specialist, I did just finished writing Revelation for Everyone, it’s coming out next month, but I’ve leant very heavily on people who are and they are absolutely clear that the whole theology of Revelation is about renewal, not destruction and replacement, so when it says the first heavens and the first earth passed away and the sea was no more, we’re talking about the first earth, this corruptible state of affairs at the moment. We find it very difficult, because we’re all basically Platonists at heart, to think of a non-corruptible physicality, but the corruptibleness is being done away in order that the new incorrupt world, to which this world is a true signpost, will emerge from it. It is very difficult to see. The 2 Peter 3 stuff, I have a long passage on this in my book Resurrection and the Son of God and I would refer any listeners to that if they want to check it out, but it’s actually one of the few places in the new testament where there’s a serious textual problem, where the manuscripts say very different things and the key verse I think in the correct manuscript reading says, “The world and all that is in it,” not, “Will be done away with” but, “Will be disclosed.” The fire is there like in Paul’s image in 1 Corinthians 3 in order to burn away the chaff in order to reveal the reality which is underneath. It is a refining process as in Malachi 3 as well of course, so I think people have read 2 Peter 3 wrongly if they think that, “Ok this world is just going to be thrown to trash can, we’re all going to end up on a cloud doing something different.” No. It’s a difficult passage, I’m not minimizing the difficulties but I think once you get that particular line, that particular word right, and this is a matter of different Greek texts and so on, that it does actually start to come out.

Q: Do you make a distinction between Jesus’ return on this present earth which some people refer to as the millennial reign, Revelation 20, and our subsequent eternal existence on a new earth, Revelation 21?

A: No, I think these are…let’s face it, all our language about God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a fog, they may be true sign posts but they can’t actually give you a photographic reproduction of what it’s going to be like when we get there. So that the many things that the New Testament says, about this new state of affairs include yes the return or reemergence, if you like, of Jesus, Paul speaks in Colossians and John speaks in 1 John 3 of when he appears, which implies that Jesus is always present though hidden and that one day, the thin veil that hides him from our sight will be removed and we will see him as he is. That is about this present reality, but of course when Jesus appears, that appearance will be transformative, it will transform us, Philippians 3, he will change our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body and that’s what we’re talking about here, Jesus will come from Heaven to Earth, not to take us from Earth to Heaven, but to bring Earth and Heaven together so somehow we have to think about a new reality which is somehow 100% percent earthly and 100% heavenly and those two joined fully and forever and Revelation does that with this image of the marriage, the bride of the lamb.

Q: Are there any clues in the bible about what life might be like?

A: Well, the clues would lie in the nature of God, the vocation of humans and the extraordinary prodigal goodness of God in creation. I mean think of the Psalms going through the great list of all the creatures of the world and these all wait on you and you give them their food in due season and so on. There’s this delight in the overflowing generosity of God’s creation and I sometimes think when I just look around at a glorious piece of countryside or indeed a wonderful cityscape, “This is just amazing.” Are we actually to believe that the God who made all this and enabled humans to make and nurture all this will at the last say, “Oh, well that was a nice trivial little game now we’re just going to be pure spirits and we’re not going to have any of that stuff.” It seems to me far more likely he will do something a hundred times, a million times more rich, more dense, more full of joy and power and excitement.

Q: So everything you’ve just said, what does that mean for local Christian communities?

A: What it means for local Christian communities is that we are all called to be, in our very different ways, signs and agents of hope. We are to be people who plant flags of hope, who plant signposts to hope, and that takes a thousand different forms. I mean music is hugely important as the church has always known from the beginning and you can make out a very strong case, I’ve seen it done, for the Christian gospel being the prime thing that has driven some of the greatest music the world’s ever known. Post classical music is still post western classical music, which was itself often inspired by the Christian tradition and music speaks about those many dimensions. It’s one of the funny things about music, it gets to the part of the human character and the corporate character which other things can’t and so when a congregation is singing and when a good choir is doing its stuff, that shouldn’t just be a performance, it shouldn’t just be a release of tension or whatever, it ought to be a conscious inhabiting of heaven and earth coming together, but that should then energize us to be people who say, “Actually we have a serious problem of homelessness in this town.” “Actually the government has taken to dumping asylum seekers on this particular street corner. They have no idea who they are where they are, what’s going on. Somebody needs to go and be with them.” By the way I get into trouble for saying that, every time I mention asylum seekers I get right wing rants thrust back at me, “How can you possibly know? These are all wicked scroungers, etc. fouling up our security systems,” and ok there are always some scroungers, we have them in the church too but, or likewise, in my former job, one of the things that we tried to focus on was the plight of the farmers who were ignored by the government but when they had foot in mouth and these other diseases but often it was only the church that they trusted to go and be with them and figure out what was going on and how they could be helpful and this isn’t just band aid, this isn’t just pursuing a few trendy lefty causes, these are signs of hope because without those, there is real despair in today’s world and suicide, especially among young people has become horribly endemic, which is what you’d expect when the world drifts back to paganism. And so, it’s through community formation, it’s through music, it’s through the risky advocacy of dangerous but important causes, whether it’s remitting third world debt, we had the debate in the House of Lords two years ago/three years ago after the credit crunch, out of 35 or 40 speakers, I was the only one who talked about third world debt and everyone else was, “How can we get business back on its track?” excuse me there are real issues here and if we’re bailing out the big bankers, we ought to bail out these countries who we have made to be enslaved and in debt to us. And in all these ways we are to be cheerful signs of hope. And this is not something other than conversion. It’s not something other than prayer, because you can’t do this unless you’re praying, you can’t do it unless you are claiming the power of the risen Christ who had defeated the powers of this world on the cross. If you think you can do it in your own strength, you’ll just fall on your nose. It can only be done through the cross through the spirit, through prayer, and through the Eucharist as well. So this is very much a holistic spirituality, to plant signs of hope in a world that is desperate for them.

A: Just to finish, you’ve already mentioned one book you’ve got coming out this month, you’ve got another one coming out next month, Simply Jesus: Who He Was, What He Did, Why it Matters. Two questions: firstly, how do you find the time to write so many books and secondly, you’ve already written a tremendous amount about Jesus, what new vision are you bringing in this book?

Q: Thanks for that. The time is a funny thing. I write fast. I always have. I speak fast too I guess. I was a teacher for many years before I started to write and the teaching system I was in was a tutorial system where you have one or two pupils coming every hour on the hour and they are reading an essay to you but you are discussing with them and you just get used to saying, “Ok, how are we going to explain this? Let’s try it like this,” and I think 20 years of that gave me a sort of a sense of how to jump in and start helping people understand things. But I like writing; it’s just one of those funny things. It’s like how some people find they can just hit a tennis ball, for some reason I can form sentences and paragraphs it appears, more easily than some other people can and I don’t know why that should be, but in a sense, a funny but trivial question.

On Jesus, I thought, when I started, well the publisher said, you haven’t written a book on Jesus for a long time. Do this little book called Simply Jesus, that’ll be fun. Fine, ok. I thought I would be able to do it quite quickly and easily. In fact, it was much harder than I thought, because, to put it crudely, Jesus is just so huge, that even if you think you can say A and B and C and that’s got it, in fact, when you start explaining them, this stuff is alive. The material in the gospels…I think the church often forgets, we take a reading and we have the prodigal son or the parable of the sewer or Jesus healing a blind man, yeah we know that bit, but actually the whole picture of the kingdom of God is so enormous so really, it’s a book about Jesus launching God’s kingdom, on Earth as in heaven and in particular what I did, what I wanted to do, was to help people to see. I use the image of a perfect storm, you know the movie the perfect storm, it was a northern wind from off the Maritimes coming down towards the sea off Boston , there was a western storm coming from mainland USA, and then there was a hurricane coming in from the Atlantic and the three together, so I use that image that on the one hand, you have the aspirations of the Jewish people and they are getting to screaming pitch, they are determined, the time has come, God’s got to do something, then you’ve got the agenda of the Roman empire, which has to keep the middle east, very firmly established because of national security and food supply and all the rest of it and then you’ve got the prophetic strand of the old testament which Jesus is coming in from which says, “Actually we’re not going with the pagan desires and we’re not going with the way the present Jews think they’re going to do it either,” and Jesus is in the middle of that storm so I had great fun describing these three powerful winds and then locating Jesus in the middle of it, and doing that in relation to other messianic movements on either side, particularly the Maccabean movement 200 years before Jesus and the Bar Kokhba revolt a hundred years after Jesus, in each case, a three year kingdom of God movement aiming at cleansing the temple and establishing God’s kingdom. Judas Maccabees sort of did it, but at the time everyone knew, “Yeah, but that’s not really it.” Bar Kokhba thought he was going to do it, but the Romans came in and caught him and killed him and that was the end of that. When we use those and then come into the middle and say, “Now what’s different about Jesus?” then all sorts of questions come up in a new way, but the key thing is, he’s acting as if he thinks he’s in charge. And this is about kingdom, this is about “Hey, God is in charge now, only, Jesus is in charge now. What does that mean? How does that work?” So I found myself exploring issues of space time and matter, of where are we, what time is it, what’s God doing and I found that very exciting; actually, very demanding. I thought it was going to be an easy book to write, it actually turned out to be quite difficult. I’m rather nervous about seeing it when it appears; I hope I will still like it when it comes out.

Q: What are you hoping that local Christian communities will take from that?

A: Oh I’ve got a final chapter in which I talk about ways in which anyone who takes this seriously could then go the next step and say, “What does it mean for this community if Jesus is actually on charge on earth as in heaven?” Because, you see, people are frightened of theocracy. In our world, the word theocracy means sort of mad men telling everyone what to do and you’ve got to grow a beard this long and women must sit down, shut up and all the rest of it. That’s not theocracy. At least, that is theocracy but with the wrong God. The theocracy of the New Testament is that when you look hard at Jesus, then you discover who the true God is and then you jolly well wish he could be in charge. And Jesus says, “Actually, because of my death and resurrection, all authority is given to me now you get on and go and make it happen,” and that just reshapes the theocratic agenda and gives all sorts of new energy to the mission of the church.