It’s catchy—I can remember it now, a decade later. It made good sense, too. We receive guidance through the scriptures for our life on this Earth, until the day God takes us home, away from here. And that was definitely the goal, getting away of here, to be with God. We were heaven-bound.
The problem is, my B.I.B.L.E. tells a very different story than the one we were all caught up in, the story about getting by through the trials of life and looking for God to save us from this temporary, material pit stop.
The message of the Bible isn't about escaping Earth to an eternity in heaven. It's actually just the opposite! At the end of the story, we see the holy city descending out of heaven, and we hear that "the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (Rev 21:3). This isn't the story of a rescue from the material universe God made in the beginning, but the restoration of God's good creation so that He might dwell here, amongst His creatures forever.
That's why the hope for salvation in the Old Testament can often take forms that sound so strange to us. For instance, listen to the prophet Isaiah:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping by heard in it, or the cry of distress... They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
Isaiah 65:17-19, 21-22
This starts off the way you'd expect, new heavens and new earth, no more weeping or distress. That's all well and good. But what's this talk about houses and vineyards?
No, seriously... why the houses and vineyards? Why is Isaiah concerned with economic justice in his vision of eternity? Because spending eternity with God is not about running off to heaven--it's about God dwelling with us on a world made new, a world set right. God is not giving up on the Earth, but making a new heavens and a new Earth, cured of the diseases tormenting our world, even the social injustices we see around us. It's a new Earth. That's Isaiah's vision.
And that's the New Testament vision too: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying... 'he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away'" (Rev 21:1, 3, 4). We don't leave Earth for heaven: heaven comes to Earth. Earth is made whole.
And the most exciting part is that this new creation work of God's has already begun!
In Jesus' Resurrection we see God's first act of giving new life, of delivering from the power of Death. In Easter Sunday we see the new beginning, the first day of the week, when God is creating again: a new heavens and a new earth. It all starts with Jesus.
And from Jesus the new-creation fire spreads. "If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor 5:17) The Church is the community of people God is making new in Jesus, the people called to put on the new self (Eph 4:24). And as God's ambassadors on Earth, we get to share the news that a very new day has begun to dawn. More than that, as the Holy Spirit works through us, God's new work touches the world even now--the Church is a little colony of newness. Obviously there's still work to be done; that will always be the case until God thunders: "See, I am making all things new" (Rev 21:5). We can't bring in the Kingdom ourselves, but in Christ our work is not in vain either (1 Cor 15:58).
That's what is so treacherous about the idea I grew up with, the idea that God wants to take us to heaven and wash his hands of everything here below: it whispers that the work is in vain. It distracts Christians from, calls them away from, God's new-creation mission, holding before us an other-worldly hope that's so much less than what our Lord has in mind. All the while, the Triune God wants to transform us and to transform the world through us.
That is what my B.I.B.L.E. says.