Peace in Our World?

For the last two weeks the images coming out of Afghanistan have been awful. Whatever your political persuasion, the sight of a mother handing her child to US soldiers over a wall for the sake of that child’s safety is heartbreaking. The death of 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghans as the result of a suicide bomber was devastating. Any peace that may have existed in that country on account of the presence of the US and its allies has evaporated. The people of Afghanistan and those who have yet been unable to get out safely need to be in our prayers.

Peace is precious but elusive in our world. Nations can be torn from within and without. This is one of the reasons we pray, as Jesus taught us, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Or as it says in Revelation 22:20: Come, Lord Jesus. Because to whatever extent God’s kingdom and will are becoming a present reality, ultimately they point us to the day Christ will return “to judge the living and the dead.” Only when Jesus comes again will the kingdom of God arrive in its glorious, peace-filled fullness. Only Jesus the Prince of Peace can secure lasting peace.

Living in the meantime always means living in the tension between “the now and the not yet.” We live in between the times, between the first and second coming of our Lord Jesus. While we look forward with hope to a future that will be conflict and violence free, human history will continue to be riddled with gunfire and soaked in blood. There is a Cain for every Abel. No amount of diplomacy, uneasy ceasefires, and political maneuvering will change this.

We need God himself to usher in his peace.

When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, each Mass included the passing of the peace. We would turn to those around us and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The other person would respond by saying “And also with you.” In most Protestant churches we have turned this into a time of shaking hands and greeting one another. But they are not the same thing. To pass the peace is to declare and share the source of genuine peace. Peace comes from outside of us. The passing of the peace is a prayer and a perspective.

In the Bible, Jerusalem is the city of God. It is both historical and symbolic. Psalm 122:6–9 says this: Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure; may there be peace within your walls, security within your fortresses.” Because of my brothers and friends, I will say, “May peace be in you.” Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will pursue your prosperity.

One of the interesting shifts we see from the Old Testament to the New Testament is that all of the language of sacred buildings–say, the Temple or house of the Lord–gets transposed and refers to the actual people of God. For example, in 1 Peter 2:5, the community of faith is being built into a spiritual house. So perhaps we can think of Psalm 122:6–9 in a similar way. If so, then the prayer of the psalmist is that God’s people would be filled to overflowing with peace. Those who gather together as the church are to become outposts of peace in a conflict-filled world. When in the midst of a fellowship of believers, those whose lives have been rent asunder by violence and hate ought to find security. May peace be in you.

On the eve before his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled or fearful. The peace Jesus gives to us now isn’t the empty promise or futile effort of a cynical politician. Nor does it involve the present elimination of all strife, whether between individuals or nations. Instead, it is the peace we can have in knowing that one day his kingdom will come and that the hostility of our world will come to an end. It is the peace the prophet Isaiah spoke about so beautifully. Speaking of the nations, the prophet says:

They will beat their swords into plows
and their spears into pruning knives.
Nation will not take up the sword against nation,
and they will never again train for war.

Isaiah 2:4

Such a vision almost seems impossible to believe or too good to be true. And were we to count on ourselves to bring about such a reality, we’d be right to think of such a state of affairs as beyond our grasp. Thankfully, however, not only is God able to accomplish this, he will indeed do so. That is his promise. That is the trajectory of biblical revelation. In the meantime, we can have peace now by trusting in the one who will eventually–in his timing and power–usher in the fullness of peace we so desperately want our world to know.

No One “Goes” to Heaven

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Now that I have your attention with the title of my post, let me explain.

In Western culture, talk of what happens when someone dies usually has to do with whether or not such and such a person will “go” to heaven. Often what gets the most attention in these conversations is who gets to go to heaven and why. Is so and so good enough? Did they live an admirable enough life? Or to make it more personal still, will my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds?

And, yes, these kinds of mathematical attempts to g the likelihood of our getting into heaven need definite correction. The Bible certainly has a great deal to say on the matter. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to draw attention to other cultural misconceptions, some of which are also shared and perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians. You see, even Christians often have wrong ideas about the afterlife or what the Bible means by heaven and what we can expect to happen to us when we die.

The first point is this: no deceased person is presently in their final eternal resting place. Whatever else we say of heaven, no one is currently in what will be their final state.

A lot of people can sometimes talk as if a deceased loved one is in heaven right now. A popular euphemism is that the deceased individual is in “a better place.” Yet according to Scripture we also know that with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus there will be a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and, only then, will people enter their eternal state.

I would have to say that, though it’s difficult to understand (because Scripture doesn’t unpack all of the details for us), believers who have died are present with the Lord and that until the resurrection on the Last Day, this is not a bodily existence. Consider these words from the apostle Paul:

So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:5-8

Paul here is contrasting our bodily existence in the present with what our experience will be like when we have died and are, as he says, away from the body. He can’t be speaking about our final state, however, because that state involves bodily resurrection. See, for instance, what Paul says in his great chapter on all things resurrection:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?”

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body . . . And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:35, 42-44, 49

When a person places their faith in the person of Jesus, they are joined to him. Theologians call this union with Christ. And part of what this means is that we have both died with Christ and that we will also be raised like him too. So if Christ had a spiritual, resurrection body, so will believers joined to him when they are raised.

So in the passage from 2 Corinthians 5 he must be speaking about an intermediate state–one that is away from the body–that believers experience between death and their ultimate resurrection. I can’t see how else to make sense of what Scripture says.

This means that whatever else is true of people who have died in Christ, they are not currently experiencing what will be their final state: that of having a resurrected embodied existence like Jesus after he left the tomb. And, yet, Paul does say that people who have died in Christ are at home with the Lord. This means that somehow those who have died in Christ are in his presence now awaiting the final resurrection. To be with the Lord is what it means for a believer to be home. Those who are experiencing this intermediate state are experiencing comfort and peace and joy. But there is more to come. In fact, the best is yet to come.

My second point is this: heaven is not about some sort of eternal, incorporeal (non-bodily) existence. Though Paul speaks of being away from the body in 2 Corinthians 5, he is not speaking of what will be the final eternal state of believers.

When some people talk about heaven, they often talk as though our bodies have nothing to do with it. Instead, they conceive of it as some sort of weird, spiritual, ghostlike existence. Either that, or they conclude (altogether unbiblically, I might add) that people who have died, and perhaps were especially virtuous, get turned into angels. I think this in part because if they think someone can be in heaven in some final sense now, it is difficult to square that with the reality of a cremated or buried body. In other words, if when my Mother died in 2011 she went immediately to her final state of eternity, then it certainly can’t include her body which remains buried.

Might someone who has already died be given an altogether new, spiritual body entirely separate and distinct from their earthly and now deceased body? I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because of Jesus’ resurrection. His tomb was empty. His resurrected body bore the scars of crucifixion. There was continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-resurrection body. Resurrection is about transformation, not replacement. What was true of Jesus will also be true of those who are united to him in faith.

In any case, Scripture makes abundantly clear that whatever else we say of the final state of existence for those united to Christ, it will be a bodily existence. We will have arms and legs, fingers and toes, noses and ears. Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of the Genesis pronouncement over creation: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed.

This brings us to the third point: those united to Christ don’t “go” to someplace called heaven; heaven and earth come together in the new creation. Heaven is not located up and away from earth. Heaven is where God’s presence is fully known and experienced. We’re not looking to escape earth; rather, we’re awaiting the renewal, restoration, and indeed, the resurrection not only of the earth but of the entire cosmos. Consider these words given to John on Patmos:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

And the words of the prophet:

For I will create new heavens and a new earth;
the past events will not be remembered or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

And of the apostle Peter:

But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

What we are invited to anticipate as believers is not being able to leave this world behind for a disembodied existence in some other heavenly location but rather a new heavens and new earth, where we will enjoy physical lives free of all that limits and destroys life on this side of eternity. It will be creation as God has always intended it to be, free from the stain of sin and disease and the curse of death.

Put simply, God will resurrect us and the rest of the creation he made. Pastor Tim Keller says this: “The resurrection of Christ assures us that God will redeem not just souls but bodies, and will bring about a new heavens and new earth.” And, dare I say, it will be very, very good.

And so the fourth and last important point (at least for this post): heaven is not simply about living forever but about living forever in the presence of our Creator. And this is not an incidental point. As we saw in Revelation 21, what we can look forward to with hope is that God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.

The point is relationship, indeed, perfect fellowship, between human beings, all of creation, and the very One who gave everything existence in the first place. Shalom. Complete and total flourishing. No hint of trouble or tears. Not a whiff of sin or dysfunction.

The upshot of this is that, unlike what many in our culture would like to believe, only those who confess faith in the risen Lord Jesus will be able to participate in this new heavens and new earth. Consider the following words from famous preacher and pastor John Piper:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?

John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself

In other words, if you think you could enjoy heaven without God, then you will not be there. We cannot separate God and heaven. Where one is, so is the other. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is in being in the presence of God that the experience of heaven primarily consists. Or to put it another way: getting to heaven is not the goal; getting to God is. The apostle Peter expresses it this way:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.

1 Peter 3:18

So why did Jesus suffer, die, and rise? To bring us to heaven? No, to bring us to God, which is, in Christian terms, the precise same thing as heaven.

Now do you see what I mean when I say no one goes to heaven?

What do we do with all this, then?

The first thing is to stop thinking about heaven according to a false cultural narrative–one that affects people both inside and outside the church. Christians are called to be biblically minded, to have their thinking on these matters shaped by what Scripture actually says, not what we assume or wish it says.

Another takeaway is that the physical world–our bodies, the ground we walk on, the food we eat, the beauty we admire–is good. Inherently good. And one day it will be perfected and eternal. The so-called afterlife is not an afterlife after all. It is life as it was always supposed to be. It is not a consolation prize. It is the jackpot. Imagine the very best of this life brought to perfection. Contrary to what some think, we will not find ourselves bored in heaven.

Lastly, there is hope. With all that ravages our world, from the various forms of violence and dehumanization, disease and disaster, most of us long for a world without any of these things. We want to be free of pain. We don’t want to worry anymore. We want to know what real, lasting peace is like. We want our relationships to be healed of anger and regret.

And all of this is what God is going to accomplish by creating a new heavens and new earth, by making all things new. Indeed, this is what he began to do in raising Jesus from the dead. That was but the beginning, the utimate signpost to an available new reality which we can start to experience even now, but we can only fully experience on the other side of our resurrection. And to know that we will participate in this new reality, we need to acknowledge that it was indeed inaugurated through the empty tomb of Jesus. As he says in John 11:25–26, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

How do you answer Jesus’ question?

So, sure, no one “goes” to heaven. But doesn’t all this sound infinitely better?

More Light

Until I locked the door of our van with the keys in the ignition and the engine running I had been feeling quite serene. But my serenity dissipated in those milliseconds between my shutting the driver’s side door and my hearing that tell-tale click of the automatic lock.

Sometimes it only takes seconds to go from feeling like things are alright (if not perfect!) with the world to feeling like a complete idiot. So there I was standing beside my locked and running car, snow falling in thick flurries, feeling like an idiot.

To back up, locking the keys in a running vehicle was not my first mistake of the evening. Already I had left on a light in the van by mistake, draining the battery, and forcing me to call someone to come and give me a boost. We had just gotten the van running when I experienced those fateful aforementioned milliseconds.

After nearly an hour of trying with a coat-hanger to open the car-door, we agreed it wasn’t working. And even though I had parked on the street outside our house, I couldn’t go inside for any reason. All of my keys were together, hanging from my van’s ignition.

This particular adventure took place a couple of days after Christmas, during the aftermath of a snowstorm and an ice-storm. As it happens, while leaving my running vehicle to wait for help elsewhere, the neighbourhood lights came to life, illuminating what had seemed like an impenetrable darkness. At least for us, the power was back on. Lights in my house shone once again.

Made me think. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

What does that have to do with feeling like an idiot because I locked my keys in a running vehicle? Not much, I suppose. I just thought it was a funny story.

Anyway. This Messianic prophecy from Isaiah 9 has given my family the opening words to our Advent devotions for years. It’s sort of a variation of that cliché proverb, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Perhaps a more substantive version of it, one grounded in history, in the centuries-old expectations of a people who had known more than their fair share of darkness. In any event, the “dawn” in this case is the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the one who calls himself, “the light of the world.”

The thing about darkness is that your eyes can adjust. When I put my four year old sons to bed, the room seems completely dark. After a while, though, you can discern shapes. When I was standing outside waiting for help on that snowy night, the power out on my street, all was quiet and black. The absence of light becomes an afterthought. Despite being unable to see properly through the thickness of shadow, we come to prefer darkness. What we’ve never seen, we can’t see our need to see.  

Christian apologist and literary critic C.S. Lewis once said that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen — not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Without light, we don’t see what we’re missing. Beyond affirming that Jesus is the truth of all reality, the epistemological center of the universe, it is in knowing him that we also begin to understand everything else. Put another way, the reality of who Jesus is illuminates the rest of the world, all of creation, and all of our experiences.

That Jesus is the truth, and that, as Scripture says in Colossians 1:16, “All things have been created through him and for him,” is the anchoring reality for my entire life. Particularly when I was younger, in high school then early university, knowing what true was most important. Truth became my light; Jesus became my truth, the way and the truth and the life. 

This Christmas was one of the strangest in recent memory. Freezing rain. Snowstorms. Two weeks of church cancelled. No Christmas Eve service. No phone service. And of course no power. Which meant no light. Darkness everywhere. Except we lit candles, reminding us that even in the deepest darkness there is still the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. Over this holiday season, the one constant is that Jesus was the light, is the light.