And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. Revelation 21:1 NASB
Passed – Things aren’t always what they seem. If we’ve learned anything from the last decade of New Testament scholarship, we’ve learned that the previous theological paradigm based on Greek metaphysics initiated by Augustine’s love affair with Platonism has seriously misled the Church. We’ve learned that New Testament followers were the continuation of a thoroughly Jewish understanding of the world, of heaven and of God. We’ve learned that we have to rethink some very basic religious ideas, bringing them back into alignment with their Hebraic origins. This isn’t easy. It is seriously disturbing to discover that we might have misunderstood major components like law, grace, baptism, sin, redemption, heaven and hell. But re-evaluate we must. The truth will not let us be free to continue to believe whatever Church ecclesiastics taught. We must know for ourselves.
N. T. Wright, a world renowned scholar, recently published Surprised by Hope. In it he questions the usual Christian idea of heaven, particularly the idea that heaven is a place free from bodily restraints, completely unlike the corrupt earth and immediately experienced upon the death of the believer. Wright questions the entire theological focus on “going to heaven.” Wright’s contribution to our understanding of this very famous verse in John’s apocalyptic vision is his remark about the reunification of heaven and earth. “At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, ‘Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.’ It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.”
Of course, knowing that John writes from an Hebraic perspective already tells us that John views this act as restoration and renewal, not an absolutely new beginning. This stands in utter contrast to the Augustinian-Platonic idea that this world is essentially worthless since the Fall and destined to be replaced, not renewed. Based on the thought of passing away, the Church since Augustine has taken the Platonic idea of the ethereal, transcendental abode of pure Forms and used that to describe the other-worldly place called heaven. But that doesn’t square with Yeshua’s remarks nor any of the Hebraic teaching about Sheol or heaven. Furthermore, as Wright points out, there is no justification for the idea that we are instantly transported to heaven upon death. That thinking stems from Plato, not YHWH.
I know that this is hard to swallow. We have been part of the “go to heaven” crowd for so long that it’s agonizing to realize we were duped. So many of our “sacred” myths seem to be dismantled when we read the Bible within its own culture. But it can’t be avoided unless you just want to put your head in the theologically-correct sand. Even the verb should have warned us that the Platonic concept was suspect. “Passes away” is the combination of apo and erchomai, literally “to come or go near or away.” It could be translated, “to flow past,” or “to come to an end,” but it also means “to disregard, to remain unnoticed, to depart.” Read the verse again and ask yourself why John connects “going away” with the absence of the sea? Does that mean there aren’t any beaches in heaven or is John using imagery that expresses the removal of borders, precisely the role ascribed to the land and the sea in Genesis? Is John poetically suggesting that this current arrangement of boundaries will be replaced with a conjoining of heaven and earth into one cosmic Kingdom? Since Jewish thought was never preoccupied with getting out of this world, why do we think Yeshua endorsed an escape route? If God created the world good, and blessed it, why would He abandon it?
Maybe this is one more thing we need to rethink.
Topical Index: heaven, new, passing away, aperchomai, Revelation 21:1, N. T. Wright