This is my Father’s world:
Oh, let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world,
The battle is not done:
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
~ Maltbie D. Babcock, “This Is My Father’s World”
“If you were to die tonight, do you know if you would go to heaven?”
Maybe you’ve been asked this question or maybe you have presented this question to someone else. Most likely it was proposed for the purpose of leading someone through the Christian Gospel message.
But, does that question really get at the heart of the Christian message? Does “going to heaven” one day summarize Jesus’ mission and purpose?
I would argue that a “going-to-heaven” message widely misses the point of Jesus’ work and really the entire movement of the Bible. This is why I have felt so compelled to write a series on the Rapture because at its core, the Rapture is all about leaving this earth for a heavenly home. If you recall, the Rapture is an idea that one day Jesus will snatch his people away from earth and take them to heaven.
In this series we have been exploring the legitimacy of the Rapture doctrine as it relates to Christian history and its biblical interpretation. In the past two posts, we have seen that the Rapture is a doctrine both alien to most of church history and rooted in shallow biblical support. In my final argument for why the Rapture needs to be left behind in our theology, I am going to show how the Rapture heads in the opposite direction of God’s plan.
This is the reason why I bring up the “are you going to heaven after you die” question alongside the Rapture doctrine. They are closely related misunderstandings of the Bible’s grand narrative. If you have been taught the Rapture as the Church’s hope for last days, I would imagine you have been taught that going to heaven is also our blessed assurance. The two go hand-in-hand.
In a Rapture theology, the view-point of the world may go something like this:
“This world is bad, in fact it is not our home, and we are just passing through. Yet, there is a better place where God lives, called heaven, and because of Jesus we can go there one day for all eternity.”
Now, this is a caricature, but the basic idea is that many followers of Christ view our earth as a second-rate place we must escape from. Heaven is the antithesis of earth and the place we must strive to arrive at. The Rapture then fits nicely into this conception since it hopes for a day we leave this world behind.
If that were the story of the Bible then the idea of God eventually snatching his people off Earth would make complete sense.
However, the Bible tells quite a different story.
Scripture opens up with a narrative of God intentionally creating a raw world for humans to live and thrive on. In Genesis 1 and 2, God creates a physical, natural existence and He calls it ‘good’ time and time again. The creation story tell us that this physical existence is both ‘good’ and the original intention of Yahweh. Nothing in the creation account gives the impression that God’s designed world is second fiddle to another place.
Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!
~ Genesis 1:31
In perfect union of heaven and earth, God desires to be with His image bearers on this planet. This lasts only three chapters before mankind sinfully rejects God’s plan to replace it with their own. The Bible then traces God’s redemptive work through Abraham’s family to bless the whole world, to restore all things back to the way it was meant.
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
~ Romans 8:19-24
It is then through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, that God’s cosmic restorative plan takes root. By his life, we see Jesus recover true humanity and show us what it means to be image-bearers on earth. By his death, the powers of sin and evil that corrupted God’s good world have been laid in the grave. And by his resurrection, new creation bursts forth into this world.
The Bible shows that God is always moving towards people, not pulling them up to Him. Read the prophets, the psalms, the narratives of failed kings, over and over again the Bible authors cry out for the day God will come to earth as king and restore all things back to a Genesis 1 world.
“See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
~ Isaiah 65:17
Never do the authors ask God to take them away to “heaven”, they have no category for such idea and yet, so often our Gospel message and eschatology (remember, that means “end-times”) are built as though they do.
In fact, there is not one verse or passage in the entire Bible that explicitly speaks about “going to heaven” when we die or in the end of time.
Think about that. The oh-so-common “going-to-heaven” presentation of the Gospel is built upon nothing found within the Bible! This is not to say that there is nothing about us being with God after death (Luke 23:43, Phil. 1:23-26) but that is small potatoes compared to what the Bible story actually hopes for.
The Bible is collectively unconcerned about people going to heaven. The Bible is, however, harmoniously obsessed with heaven coming to people.
When we recover the Bible’s true narrative of God taking His heavenly presence to earth so that He and man might be in relationship again, our desire to leave earth diminishes.
Why leave the place that God is so actively placing Himself into?
I am picking on the Rapture because I believe holding to such idea can have implications for the way a Christian lives. I say this not theoretically but personally. I used to be enthralled with the Rapture and all the end-time charts. When I allowed the Rapture to be apart of my theology, I had less regard for “earthly” things because I believed my hope was built on getting out of here. It meant that I cared less about the environment, social justice, my own work, and the impacts of decisions on earth, solely because I believed this would all go up in flames as I flew towards heaven. This line of thought may not be true of every Rapture-adherent, but it was for me when I held to such eschatology.
In an escapist theology like that of the Rapture, it is difficult to see what value our works have on this earth beyond getting people aboard the ship out of here. When we align our understanding to the actual narrative of Scripture, we regain the value that our time and efforts have on earth. Our God-reflecting moments on this earth reveal the true image we were meant to have back in Eden. Ditching the Rapture can help us recapture our world’s purpose as well as our own.
This world is valuable to God. For He so loved it that He sent His Son to redeem it. Earth has always been plan “A” for God and through Jesus, God is fixing our broken world. As followers of Christ, our call is to live out God’s vision for this world and participate in His redemption (2 Cor. 5:11-21). What we do here matters. What happens on this earth matters.
I am afraid the Rapture has snatched our imagination for what life here on earth can mean now. It takes away from the true hope of the Gospel message that Jesus came to redeem and soon will come again to fully restore our world. I hope you have enjoyed this series and have felt challenged to reexamine the Rapture as a part of your theology. So, let us strive to continue to be apart of God’s redemptive plan for this earth as we long for the day when He will come and make all things new.
For a great video resource on Heaven and Earth, check out this video by the Bible Project
I also recommend their 4 part podcast series on Heaven and Earth which covers this topic in more depth.
I highly recommend Surprised By Hope, by N.T. Wright. This book was what started a shift in my view on the Rapture.
Finally, another book I recommend is Heaven Is Not My Home by Paul Marshall. He takes the theology of renewed creation and gives practical ways we can live that out now.