Singing Lies in Church

In a previous post entitled “The Bible’s Best Kept Secret” I summarized the logic of redemption in the Scriptures—that God loves this world and intends to redeem it. Grounded in the holistic worldview of the Old Testament, the New Testament envisions God’s renewal of creation at Christ’s return, rather than God taking us out of this world to “heaven,” conceived of as an immaterial realm. Indeed, contrary to much popular eschatology, nowhere does the Bible ever say that “heaven” is the eternal destiny of the righteous.

The Eschatology of Classic Christian Hymns

So why do so many in the church assume a heavenly afterlife? The answer lies in Christian hymnody. It is primarily from what they sing that those in the pew (or auditorium) typically learn their theology, especially their eschatology. And the trouble is that a holistic vision of the future is found only rarely in popular Christian piety or in the liturgy of the church. Indeed, it is blatantly contradicted by many traditional hymns (and contemporary praise songs) sung in the context of communal worship.

Preparing for Heaven

From the classic Charles Wesley hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which anticipates being “changed from glory into glory/ till in heaven we take our place,” to “Away in a Manger,” which prays, “And fit us for Heaven, to live with Thee there,” congregations are exposed to—and assimilate—an otherworldly eschatology.

Some hymns, like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” inconsistently combine the idea of resurrection with the hope of heaven: “On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,/ And the glory of His resurrection share;/ When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,/ And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Some hymns even interpret resurrection without reference to the body at all, such as “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” which in one stanza regards death as liberation (“Till death shall set me free”) and in another asserts: “O resurrection day!/ When Christ the Lord from Heav’n comes down/ And bears my soul away.”

A hymn like “When We All Get to Heaven” may be too obvious, but notice that “The Old Rugged Cross” ends with the words, “Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away/ Where his glory forever I’ll share.”

And “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” climaxes with the lines: “When my feeble life is o’er,/ Time for me will be no more;/ Guide me gently, safely o’er/ To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.

A Perpetual Worship Service

This notion of a perpetual worship service in an otherworldly afterlife is a central motif in many hymns, like “My Jesus I Love Thee,” which affirms that “In mansions of glory and endless delight,/ I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.”

Likewise, “Come Christians, Join to Sing” affirms that “On heaven’s blissful shore,/ His goodness we’ll adore,/ Singing forevermore,/ ‘Alleluia! Amen!’”

In a similar vein, “As with Gladness Men of Old” asks in one stanza that “when earthly things are past,/ Bring our ransomed souls at last/ Where they need no star to guide” and in another stanza expresses the desire that “In the heavenly country bright/ . . . There forever may we sing/ Alleluias to our King!”

From Hymns to Contemporary Praise Songs

Thankfully, most hymnals no longer have the sixth verse of “Amazing Grace,” which predicts: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,/ The sun forbear to shine;/ But God, who called me here below,/ Will be forever mine.

Yet Chris Tomlin’s contemporary revision of this classic hymn, known as “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone),” reintroduces this very verse as the song’s new climax, ready to shape the otherworldly mindset of a fresh generation of young worshipers unacquainted with hymnals.

And this just begins to scratch the surface of worship lyrics that portray the final destiny of the righteous as transferal from an earthly, historical existence to a transcendent, immaterial realm.

As the popular theologian and preacher A. W. Tozer is reputed to have said: “Christians don’t tell lies; they just go to church and sing them.”

Perhaps that is too harsh; nevertheless, I can testify to the steady diet of such songs that I was exposed to, growing up in the church in Kingston, Jamaica, which certainly reinforced the idea of heaven as otherworldly final destiny.

An Alternative Vision of the Future

I am, however, perpetually grateful that along with such exposure I came to know, through sheer proximity, the this-worldly theology of Rastafarianism, especially as mediated through the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. While I am a committed Christian and thus cannot affirm everything found in Rasta theology, I nevertheless discern a deeply rooted biblical consciousness in the lyrics of many Wailers’ songs.

For example, the song “We an’ Dem” (on the Uprising album) claims that “in the beginning Jah created everything/ and he gave man dominion over all things” and “Pass It On” (on the Burnin’ album) asserts that “In the kingdom of Jah/ Man shall reign.” These lyrics express (in androcentric language, admittedly) the biblical vision of this-worldly dignity granted humans at creation, a dignity which will be restored in the kingdom of God.

And Peter Tosh’s version of “Get Up, Stand Up” (a song he co-wrote with Marley), understands well the implications of eschatology for ethics, when it contrasts the doctrine of the rapture with a desire for justice on earth:

“You know, most people think,/ A great God will come from the skies,/ And take away every little thing/ And lef’ everybody dry./ But if you know what life is worth,/ You would look for yours/ Right here on earth/ And now we see the light,/ We gonna stand up for our rights.” (From the Equal Rights album.)

The song goes on to critique the “preacher man” for taking the focus off earthly life and affirms that the singer is “Sick and tired of this game of theology,/ die and go to heaven in Jesus name.”

This is the very theology that leads Marley, in the song “Talkin’ Blues” (from the Natty Dread album), to admit, “I feel like bombing a church,/ now that you know that the preacher is lying.”

But if Tozer is right, it isn’t just the preacher who is lying, but also the worshipers who blithely sing hymns of escape to an ethereal heaven—when the Bible teaches no such thing.

What the Bible does teach is the theme of my new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014).

The Bible’s Best Kept Secret

I remember once, on a climbing trip to Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point on the island of Jamaica, watching a breathtaking sunrise at seven and a half thousand feet above sea level. After some minutes of silence, my friend Junior commented wistfully, “This is so beautiful; it’s such a shame that it will all be destroyed some day.” I still remember the dawning awareness: I don’t think it will be. It did not make sense to me that the beauty and wonder of earthly life, which I was coming to embrace joyfully as part of my growing Christian faith, could be disconnected from God’s ultimate purposes of salvation.

Tracking a Worldview Shift

This basic intuition or theological insight was confirmed by my study of Scripture during my undergraduate studies at Jamaica Theological Seminary.

Most contemporary Christians tend to live with an unresolved tension between a belief in the resurrection of the body and an immaterial heaven as final destiny. Many also have in the back of their minds the idea of the new heaven and new earth (from the book of Revelation), though they aren’t quite sure what to do with it.

I myself started my theological studies with this very confusion. But as I took courses in both Old and New Testaments, and tried to understand the nature of God’s salvation as portrayed in the various biblical writings, it became increasingly clear that the God who created the world “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and who became incarnate in Jesus Christ as a real human being, had affirmed by these very acts the value of the material universe and the validity of ordinary, earthly life.

More than that, I came to realize that the Scriptures explicitly teach that God is committed to reclaiming creation (human and non-human) in order to bring it to its authentic and glorious destiny, a destiny that human sin had blocked.

It was especially the writings of New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd who most helpfully clarified for me the interconnectedness of what the Bible taught on the redemption of creation, and he explicitly contrasted this teaching with the unbiblical idea of being taken out of this world to heaven. Ladd’s work on biblical theology prompted me to do my own investigation of the theme of the kingdom of God in the Bible in relation to what we euphemistically call the “afterlife,” to see what role there was for heaven and/or earth in God’s ultimate purposes.

As a result of this investigation, while still an undergraduate student, I came to the startling realization that the Bible nowhere claims that “heaven” is the final home of the redeemed. While there are many New Testament texts that Christians often read as if they teach a heavenly destiny, the texts do not actually say this. Rather, the Bible consistently anticipates the redemption of the entire created order, a motif that fits very well with the Christian hope of the resurrection—which Paul calls “the redemption of the body” (Romans 8:23).

It was after this startling realization that I first challenged an adult Sunday School class I was teaching at Grace Missionary Church (my home church in Jamaica) to find even one passage in the New Testament that clearly said that Christians would live in heaven forever or that heaven was the final home of the righteous. I even offered a monetary reward if anyone could find such a text. I have been making this offer now for my entire adult life to church and campus ministry study groups and in many of the courses I have taught (in Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica); I am happy to report that I still have all my money. No one has ever produced such a text, because there simply aren’t any in the Bible.

 The Bible’s Vision of Cosmic Redemption

Central to the way the New Testament conceives the final destiny of the world is Jesus’ prediction (in Matthew 19:28) of a “regeneration” (KJV, NIV) that is coming; Matthew here uses the Greek word palingenesia, which both TNIV and NRSV translate as “the renewal of all things,” correctly getting at the sense of cosmic expectation in Jesus’ prediction.

Likewise, we have Peter’s explicit proclamation of the “restoration [apokatástasis] of all things” (in Acts 3:21), which does in fact contain the Greek for “all things.”

When we turn to the epistles, we find God’s intent to reconcile “all things” to himself through Christ articulated in Colossians 1:20, while Ephesians 1:20 speaks of God’s desire to unify or bring together “all things” in Christ. In these two Pauline texts, the phrase “all things” (tà pánta) is immediately specified as things in heaven and things on earth. Since “heaven and earth” is precisely how Genesis 1:1 describes the world God created, this New Testament language designates a vision of cosmic redemption.

This cosmic vision underlies the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” found in both Revelation 21:1 and 2 Peter 3:13. The specific origin of the phrase, however, is the prophetic oracle of Isaiah 65:17 (and 66:22), which envisions a healed world with a redeemed community in rebuilt Jerusalem, where life is restored to flourishing and shalom after the devastation of the Babylonian exile. The this-worldly prophetic expectation in Isaiah is universalized to the entire cosmos and human society generally in late Second Temple Judaism and in the New Testament.

This holistic vision of God’s intent to renew or redeem creation is perhaps the Bible’s best-kept secret, typically unknown to most church members and even to many clergy, no matter what their theological stripe.

The Logic of Redemption in the Bible

While this is not the place for a full exposition of the biblical teaching about the redemption of the cosmos, some clarification may be in order. It is particularly helpful to trace the roots of the New Testament vision in the Old Testament, in order to understand the inner logic of the idea.

A good starting point is that the Old Testament does not place any substantial hope in the afterlife; the dead do not have access to God in the grave or Sheol. Rather, God’s purposes for blessing and shalom are expected for the faithful in this life, in the midst of history. This perspective is grounded, theologically, in the biblical teaching about the goodness of creation, including earthly existence. God pronounced all creation (including materiality) good—indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31)—and gave humanity the task to rule and develop this world as stewards made in the divine image (Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 2:15; Psalm 8:5-8).

The affirmation of earthly life is further articulated in the central and paradigmatic act of God’s salvation in the Old Testament, the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Not only does Israel’s memory of this event testify to a God who intervenes in history in response to injustice and suffering, but the exodus is manifestly a case of sociopolitical deliverance, whose fulfillment is attained when the redeemed are settled in a bountiful land and are restored to wholeness and flourishing as a community living according to God’s Torah.

Indeed, the entire Old Testament reveals an interest in mundane matters such as the development of languages and cultures, the fertility of land and crops, the birth of children and stable family life, justice among neighbors, and peace in international relations. The Old Testament does not spiritualize salvation but understands it as God’s deliverance of people and land from all that destroys life and the consequent restoration of people and land to flourishing. And while God’s salvific purpose narrows for a while to one elect nation in their own land, this “initially exclusive move” is, as Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim puts it, in the service of “a maximally inclusive end,” the redemption of all nations and ultimately the entire created order.

Although the Old Testament initially did not envision any sort of positive afterlife, things begin to shift in some late texts. Thus in Ezekiel’s famous vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) the restoration of Israel is portrayed using the metaphor of resurrection, after the “death” they suffered in Babylonian exile. But this is arguably still a metaphor, not an expectation of what we would call resurrection.

Then, a proto-apocalyptic text like Isaiah 25:6-8 envisions the literal conquest of death itself at the messianic banquet on Mt. Zion (where God will serve the redeemed the best meat and the most aged wines); this text anticipates the day when YHWH will “swallow up death forever” (cited in 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54) and “wipe away all tears” (echoed in Revelation 21:4).

But the most explicit Old Testament text on the topic of resurrection is the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 12:2-3, which promises that faithful martyrs will awaken from the dust of the earth (to which we all return at death, according to Genesis 3:19) to attain “eternal life.”

It is important to note that this developing vision of the afterlife has nothing to do with “heaven hereafter”; the expectation is manifestly this-worldly, meant to guarantee for the faithful the earthly promises of shalom that death had cut short.

The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 3 is particularly helpful here. This text (which is in the Septuagint, though not in the Protestant canon) specifically associates “immortality” with reigning on earth (Wisdom 3:1-9, esp. 7-8); that is, resurrection is a reversal of the earthly situation of oppression (the domination of the righteous martyrs by the wicked, which led to their death) and thus is the fulfillment of the original human dignity and status in Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8:4-8, where humans are granted rule of the earth.

These ancient Jewish expectations provide a coherent theological background for Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which he construed as “good news” for the poor and release for captives (Luke 4), and which he embodied in healings, exorcisms, and the forgiveness of sins (all ways in which the distortion of life was being reversed).

These expectations also make sense of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that the meek would “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) and later in Matthew that “at the renewal of all things” the disciples would reign and judge with him on thrones (Matthew 19:27-30).

Paul’s description of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead as the “firstfruits” of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20) signifies that the harvest of new creation has begun, the expected reversal of sin and death is inaugurated. This reversal would be consummated when Christ returns in glory climactically to defeat evil and all that opposes God’s intent for life and shalom on earth (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). Then, in the words of Revelation 11, “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Revelation 11:15). At that time, explains Paul, creation itself, which has been groaning in its bondage to decay, will be liberated from this bondage into the same glory God’s children will experience (Romans 8:19-22).

The inner logic of this vision of holistic salvation is that the creator has not given up on creation, but is working to salvage and restore the world (human and non-human) to the fullness of shalom and flourishing intended from the beginning. And redeemed human beings, renewed in God’s image, are to work towards and embody this vision in their daily lives.

In a follow-up post (“Singing Lies in Church”) I examine how the hymns of the church have contributed to an other-worldly hope.

A Farewell to the Rapture in Matthew 24? Problem Texts for Holistic Eschatology, Part 3

In a previous post I addressed 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as one of the “problem texts” that seems to contradict the idea of the renewal of creation in New Testament eschatology. Although this text is usually typically taken to teach the “rapture” of believers to heaven when Christ returns, I tried to show that it teaches no such thing.

In this post I will address the other standard proof text for the rapture in popular eschatology, namely Matthew 24:37-41 (along with its parallel in Luke 17:35-37). I hope to show that this text too has been seriously misinterpreted.

Although Brian Walsh and I addressed this misreading in The Transforming Vision (pp. 103-104), we presented only a brief analysis; there is much more that needs to be said. Indeed, it turns out that many dispensationalists agree that Matthew 24 // Luke 17 doesn’t teach the rapture. And some even doubt that it is taught anywhere in the Bible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Understanding of Matthew 24:37-41 in Popular Eschatology

In Matthew 24 (as part of the so-called Olivet discourse) Jesus explains what will happen when the Son of Man returns. According to Matthew 24:40-41: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Luke 17:34-35 is similar: “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.”

The common assumption of much Christian eschatology is that the one “taken” in Matthew 24 // Luke 17 is the believer, going to heaven to be with the Lord. And this is identified with the “rapture” of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

The Importance of Reading Texts Carefully

The problem is that we do not typically read the Bible very carefully. So let us pay close attention to the comparison Jesus makes in Matthew 24.

Jesus begins by describing what life was like in the time of Noah, when people did not expect the flood. His point in verse 39 is that the people of Noah’s time “knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Note who is taken away, according to Jesus. The phrase “swept them all away” clearly describes judgment on the wicked; it was Noah and his family who were “left behind” (if we might put it so); they remained on the earth after the flood.

Thus, when Jesus introduces the eschatological equivalent to the days of Noah (in vv. 40-41), it is evident from the analogy he draws between the two events that the ones taken are the unrighteous; they are taken to judgment.

The two Greek verbs Jesus uses in Matthew 24:39-41 (airō for the time of Noah and paralambanō for the coming of the Son of Man), are translated as “swept away” and “taken” in the NRSV. They are rendered as “taken away” and “taken” in the KJV, and also in the NIV. The similarity of these verbs in the KJV and NIV should have made Jesus’ point even more obvious for those reading these translations.

The fact that so many have misread who is taken and who is left, despite such clear verbal clues (not to mention Jesus’ analogy between the flood and the eschaton), is a powerful example of how our assumptions about what a text says can predetermine what we see in the text.

Luke 17 Clarifies Where They Are “Taken”

If we doubt this interpretation of Matthew 24, we need only turn to Luke’s version of this text, for he follows the narrative of one taken and one left (in 17:34-35) with a question from the disciples in verse 37. The ask, “Where, Lord?” That is, where are they taken?

Jesus replies, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” This is clearly a reference to judgment; the image is certainly not of “heaven.”

The image Jesus alludes to is the valley of Ben-Hinnom (gai ben-hinnom or Gehenna), southwest of Jerusalem, which legend says was the city dump in the Second Temple period, used for incinerating garbage, dead animals, and executed criminals. In the Old Testament the valley of Ben-Hinnom is associated with idolatry and child sacrifice (by burning) to Baal or Molech.

We should not be surprised that those taken from the earth are being judged. After all, the same Jesus who taught about the last days in Matthew 24 proclaimed in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5).

Most Dispensationalists No Longer Think Matthew 24 Teaches the Rapture

Although Matthew 24:37-41 is often used to support the rapture in popular eschatology, it is significant that these words of Jesus are not typically appealed to by dispensationalist theologians and Bible scholars (even though the rapture is a distinctively dispensationalist doctrine).

Even Hal Lindsay’s bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, which resolutely emphasizes the rapture, never appeals to this text about being “taken” in Matthew 24 or Luke 17.

These verses are also notably absent from the discussion in both the first and second editions of Three Views of the Rapture (1984; reprint. 1996; and 2010) published by Zondervan in their Counterpoints series; indeed, when the introduction to the second edition (2010) lists texts that either explicitly or implicitly teach the rapture, Matthew 24:36-42 is not on the list.

Although early dispensationalists such as John Nelson Darby and William E. Blackstone cited this text in arguing for the rapture, as early as 1925 dispensationalists had begun to back off using it as part of their argument. And by the mid-twentieth century the majority of dispensationalists had come to the conclusion that Matthew 24:36ff. did not address the rapture at all, conceding instead that it referred to events after the tribulation.

Thus dispensationalist John F. Walvoord critiques those who use this text to support the rapture, emphatically noting: “Those taken away were taken away in judgment” (Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation: A Historical and Biblical Study of Posttribulationalism [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976], 89).

Why Do Evangelicals Think Matthew 24 is a Rapture Text?

For the popularity of the contemporary rapture interpretation of Matthew 24 // Luke 17 we need to turn to Larry Norman’s famous 1969 song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which was released on what is usually regarded as the first Christian rock album (On this Rock, Capitol Records, 1969). After evoking the Great Tribulation in verse 1, the second verse of the song is a poetic restatement of Luke 17:34 and Matthew 24:40:

A man and wife asleep in bed,/ She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone;/ I wish we’d all been ready.

Two men walking up a hill,/ One disappears and one’s left standing still;/ I wish we’d all been ready.

The song clearly understands the person who is “gone” (or who “disappears”) as having been taken to heaven. Perhaps it is significant that according to Norman, the song “talked about something I had never heard preached from a pulpit as I grew up” (Larry Norman comment from 1969).

Because of Larry Norman, many of us have since heard this preached from the pulpit—and beyond the pulpit. Indeed, the chorus (“There’s no time to change your mind,/ The Son has come and you’ve been left behind”) arguably generated the title of the Left Behind series of books and movies.

Rapture Agnosticism and the New Creation among Some Dispensationalists

Beyond even John Walvoord’s assertion that Matthew 24 // Luke 17 does not teach the rapture, it is significant that some dispensationalists no longer affirm the rapture as a doctrine at all. One such is R. Todd Mangum, who has impeccable dispensationalist credentials (a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary and recipient of the John F. Walvoord Award for outstanding work in eschatology).

Yet Magnum admits that “little good has come of dispensationalists’ emphasis on a pre-tribulational rapture up to now; there is promise for even less good to come of such emphasis in the future.” He even suggests that dispensationalists adopt a posture of “rapture agnosticism,” both because of the doctrine’s negative ethical effects (it detracts from legitimate Christian concern for the earth) and because it is not clearly taught in Scripture (Mangum, “High Hopes for 21st-Century Dispensationalism: A Response to ‘Hope and Dispensationalism: An Historical Overview and Assessment’ by Gary L. Nebeker” [paper presented to the Dispensational Study Group of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nashville, Tennessee, November 2000]).

Magnum proposes instead an “inaugurated kingdom ethic”(the kingdom of God has already begun on earth, to be consummated at Christ’s return), which is more in line with the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament

New Testament scholar Darrell Bock also emphasizes the this-worldly nature of the kingdom. In an extended study, Bock examines the biblical basis for the inaugurated kingdom of God in the midst of history, while also affirming the kingdom’s culmination not in heaven, but in “the cosmos as a whole” (Bock, “The Kingdom of God in New Testament Theology,” in Looking into the Future: Evangelical Studies in Eschatology, ed. David W. Baker [Evangelical Theological Society Studies; Baker Academic, 2001], 48).

Both Magnum and Bock fit the category of what dispensationalist theologian Craig Blaising calls “progressive dispensationalism,” a term that does not refer to “progressive” in opposition to “conservative,” but rather to an understanding of how the dispensations unfold. According to Blaising, there are three stages in the development of dispensationalism—which he names classical, revised, and progressive (Blaising, “The Extent and Varieties of Dispensationalism,” in Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism [Wheaton, Ill: Bridgepoint, 1993], 9-56).

As a representative of progressive dispensationalism, Blaising himself has articulated a clear distinction between what he calls a “spiritual vision model” of eschatological escape to heaven and the biblical “new creation model,” which “expects the earth and the cosmic order to be renewed and made everlasting through the same creating power that grants immortal and resurrection life to the saints” (Blaising, “Premellennialism,” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell L. Bock [Counterpoints: Exploring Theology; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999], 163).

A Farewell to the Rapture?

What’s the world coming to when dispensationalists are agnostic about the rapture? Or when they affirm the renewal of the cosmos as the goal of eschatology?

This is an important and historic shift. But more important for our purposes is that neither Matthew 24 nor 1 Thessalonians 4 teaches the future escape of believers from the earth to heaven.

And if the two most cited proof-texts for the rapture don’t support this idea, we have no good reason to think that it is any part of biblical eschatology.

Special thanks to Steven L. James (whose PhD in theology is from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) for introducing me to the literature on progressive dispensationalism.