Thursday, February 12, 2009

Helm on heaven

Last month, Paul Helm did a brief, but provocative post on heaven:

Before I comment on the specifics, I’ll make a few general comments:

i) Any guesswork about the details of the afterlife is bound to be somewhat speculative. However, if it’s all right for Christians to write science fiction, it’s all right for Christians to speculate about the afterlife. In the long-run, reality is more edifying than fiction.

ii) There are degrees of speculation. There’s a difference between speculation that extrapolates from something we know (e.g. Scripture, experience), and speculation which is totally disconnected from all that what we know.

iii) Finally, anything we can imagine, God can imagine—and infinitely more. Many things are realistic for God. The only limits on omnipotence are wisdom and logic. So it’s not as if we can outdo God in our conjectures about the afterlife. There are far more possibilities in a Christian worldview than secularism can furnish.

Moving onto Helm:
I should like to put in a good word for heaven. It’s having a hard time at present, even when it is discussed within the capacious tent that is evangelicalism. First it was hell, now it’s heaven. Whatever is going on? What’s going on is the domestication of heaven, the propounding of the idea of ‘geo-heaven’. One way of Christianising the belief in a global warming contagion, of providing a motive for caring for the environment other than the reason that it’s an intrinsically good thing to do, or that it is in our short-term interests, is to say, ‘The earth is the place to which the Lord Jesus will return, where he will take up his residence with the redeemed, so let’s get busy and make it nice’. Or keep it nice, depending on where you live. The implication seems to be that there is to be a new earth continuous with this earth, with, for example, the same mountain ranges, oceans and deserts, towns and cities, though with their ‘dark Satanic mills’ dismantled, or at least made angelic through having zero carbon emissions. The environmentally-friendly earth is to be the location of the New Jerusalem. Sometimes the parallel with redemption from sin is drawn more tightly, with CO2 emissions taking the place of sin being. Lower the emissions and so make a palace fit for the Great King.
Here, Helm is shadowboxing with anonymous opponents. Perhaps he’s attacking the radical chic environmentalism of some of his trendy colleagues at Regent College:
Paul Williams, an economist and theologian from Vancouver's Regent College, a Christian post-secondary school, warned that our western consumption-oriented society has been living well beyond its means for years. "Has capitalism become a drug dealer in effect -- encouraging our addiction to fossil fuels?" asked Williams."Are the oilsands a 'dirty injection site,' a last, desperate chance for us to feed this addiction?"
This course [INDS 600 UNDERSTANDING CREATION] examines the current concern about human relationship to Creation, in order to come to understand some of the spiritual, philosophical, social and economic forces which have shaped that relationship, to survey and evaluate contemporary ethical and religious responses to environmental issues and to lay the foundations for a biblical ethic of “earthkeeping”: stewardship of creation.
If that is Helm’s target, then I appreciate his backhanded swipe at Green theologians. The church is prey to popular fads.

There is, however, the danger of caricaturing his opponents. Not all theologians who advocate a more down-to-earth conception of the final state are tree-huggers, driven by a global warming agenda. For example, some scholars argue for a more earthly conception based on the OT land-promises. Likewise, Rom 8:20-21 presents a picture of renewal rather than wholesale destruction.

From an eschatological standpoint, the pros and cons of environmentalism are irrelevant, for even if you take a more down-to-earth view of the final state, the condition of the new earth would depend on divine palingenesis rather than Kyoto Protocols.
Sometimes the doctrine of geo-heaven is supported by a critique of what is allegedly the ‘traditional view’, that the redeemed continue as immortal spirits with heaven being the place – if that’s the right word – where such spirits enjoy an unending vision of God. It’s not clear to me whoever held such a view, certainly no mainstream theologian, nor is it the traditional teaching of the Christian church, which affirms the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Well, I think the question at issue is how successfully, or not, the church has integrated its commitment to the resurrection of the body into its view of heaven. As one scholar observes:
“The problem of the interim [i.e. intermediate state] continued to vex the theologians on into the fourteenth century. Either we have a complete beatitude at the moment of death, or we do not have it before the Last Judgment. If we have to wait to the endtime, where and in what form are we waiting? But if we have it right away, do we have it without our bodies? This dispute racked the church of the early fourteenth century, as theologians ransacked the fathers to support one or another position. Most of the earlier fathers had assumed that souls had to wait until the endtime for the beatific vision. But others took the view that the blessed see God right away at death, and this latter view had become dominant in the West during the scholastic period and was asserted again at the Council of Vienne in 1311. The East on the whole continued to accept the earlier view,” J. Burton, A History of Heaven (Princeton 1997), 138-39.
Continuing with Helm:
The implication seems to be that there is to be a new earth continuous with this earth, with, for example, the same mountain ranges, oceans and deserts, towns and cities, though with their ‘dark Satanic mills’ dismantled, or at least made angelic through having zero carbon emissions.
Well, that raises a number of interesting questions:

i) Our terrestrial topography is dynamic rather than static. Landmarks change over time. Same thing with urbanization. London in 1000 AD is very different from London in 2000 AD.

ii) Apropos (i), people who live at different times experience different landscapes and cityscapes. A 10C Londoner had a very different experience that a 20C Londoner. Very different memories.

iii) So this is not merely a question of space, but the intersection of time and space.

iv) So what might the new earth be like? Would it be reset to a particular period in earth history? Would the towns and cities remain standing? Duplicate towns and cities? Or would it be backdated to virgin forest?

Obviously we don’t know the answers. But what are the possibilities?

a) If we confine ourselves to Scripture, consider the phenomenon of visionary revelation. The seer is a virtual time-traveler. Although he doesn’t actually travel into the future, he foresees the future. And that principle can work in reverse. It’s possible to physically occupy a single timeframe (the present), but experience another timeframe (the past or future).

b) Likewise, remember the Devil showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in an instant (Lk 4:5)? It’s possible to experience more than one place at a time even if you physically occupy only one place at a time.

c) Even in this life there are reported cases of retrocognition or timeslips.
As to location, it seems to follows as a matter of logic that if a place is prepared for his people, a place where Jesus is, then space is involved. And if the redeemed are embodied, as Christ teaches, and Paul endorses, then movement, and therefore time, are involved. If there is embodiment then the ‘eternity’ of heaven cannot be the ‘timeless eternity’ of God himself. So, space and time. This line is borne out by the presumably not misleading language of the New Testament that heaven is, or is like, a city. But a transcendent city, the new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride for her husband.
I agree with most of this. However, at the end of Revelation, the New Jerusalem descends to earth. (I’m not attempting to interpret that passage at the moment—just mention a key detail which Helm omits.)
But how are we to think of this? It’s not very easy, and we’d best be cautious. Perhaps the least unsatisfactory way is to think in terms of the analogy of God as a literary author. As an author he has written one book, the book of human prehistory and history. But he’s the author of another book with a timeline that overlaps that first book. As the lives of the characters in the first book come to an end so the characters are transferred into the second book, where Jesus is already present, and where the angels always behold the face of his Father.
i) This reminds me of the scene from The Last Battle, where the good guys exit the old Narnia for the archetypal Narnia.

ii) One problem (among others): it’s as if Helm has a doctrine of the Ascension and the intermediate state, but no doctrine of the Parousia and final state. As if he thinks we go to Christ when we die, but Christ never comes to us. Where does the Second Coming of Christ figure in his eschatology? What about the endtime generation? What about the timing of the general resurrection? Is he a preterist?
What is the metaphysics of the transition from the first book to the second? We can best answer that question by asking another. What does Paul mean by his phrase a ‘spiritual body’? Once we have an answer to this seemingly oxomoronic expression then I suppose we shall be able to fill in the details of the transition.
Unfortunately, Helm doesn’t try to define that phrase. In my opinion, a “spiritual body” is a glorified physical body. It’s similar to our mortal body, but youthful, ageless, and disease-free.
As regards the mode of existence, the New Testament seems to focus on the moral and spiritual transformation that takes place in or at the transition. We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Those with such a hope are motivated to purify themselves here and now.
But that doesn’t select for any particular location. That doesn’t require a setting different from the new earth.
What of continuity and discontinuity? Here also there is room for speculation and debate, though of necessity the debate is rather ill-informed. Are there cultural products of volume one in volume two? If the resurrection of the body, and what we know about the character of the resurrected body as ‘spiritual’ is to be the chief motif of our thinking about the life to come, then this may warrant us in thinking that the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells, will be structured by continuity and discontinuity.
i) I’d conjecture that the new earth will reflect a sanctified version of the cultural products from the fallen world. That would be the starting point.

ii) Keep in mind that this process has been underway for millennia in the sense that Jews and Christians have been going to heaven for millennia. Presumably, they took their memories of life on earth along with them. They’ve had centuries in heaven to develop a new culture. To improve on what they knew. They would be in a position to jump-start the process. They have a very advanced civilization—like SF stories about aliens who bring their technology with them when they colonize a planet.
Just as the resurrection body is a ‘spiritual body’, the transformation of the earthly body, are such cultural products carried over in a suitably refined way, fumigated by the Spirit? Perhaps they are. There’s a similar problem with memory, so essential, it seems, to our own present identity. If my memory is to be refined and renewed, how can it still be my memory? Amnesia destroys the sense of self.
i) I’m not quite sure why he thinks that memory is a problem. Perhaps what he has in mind is the fact that, as sinners, our memories are sinful. We remember sinful things we’ve seen or done.

However, I don’t see how that’s a problem. There’s a difference between sinful memories and memories of sin. It’s not inherently sinful to remember sinful things. Jesus saw many sinful things. He remembers what he saw. But his recollection of evil is not evil in itself.

ii) However, the relation between memory and personal identity raises another issue. Our memories are bound up with a sense of place. Where we saw certain things. Where we did certain things.

To that extent, personal identity is also bound up with a sense of place. Living in the same place or revisiting the same place is a way of refreshing our memories.

So the question is whether we can retain personal identity over time on Helm’s scenario. If we forever leave the earth behind, then we will lose the physical associations which reinforce our memories. Our memories of life on earth will fade. And that, in turn, will precipitate an identity crisis.

Theoretically, there are solutions to this problem. God could miraculously restore and solidify our memories. But that solution is somewhat ad hoc in terms of how Helm has chosen to frame the issue.

It's certainly true that in thinking about heaven we need to echo the New Testament’s caution as regards the details. In at least three respects. In terms of location, continuity and the mode of existence in heaven. We see through the mirror darkly. Nevertheless the trajectory of the biblical teaching, of Christ’s own teaching, is clear. Jesus, presumably not a Platonist, speaks pretty clearly about the transcendence of heaven. ‘I go to prepare a place for you…..’ Can this be spiritualised? It is hard to see how we can do this with a straight face. Peter writes of the heavenly bodies being dissolved. 'Eye has not seen……..' Surely at points such as these, maybe at all points in its teaching, the New Testament stresses not sameness but difference. Jerusalem which is above; here we have no continuing city; we are to inherit an eternal weight of glory. After all this emphasis on the unearthly, on the glory, on the transforming face of Christ, wouldn’t a eco-friendly Basingstoke or Blackpool be rather a let down? ‘As long as the earth remains’ there will be seedtime and harvest, implying, presumably, that there is coming a point when it ceases to remain.
Supporting this trajectory is Christ’s own physical resurrection and ascension. Why has he ascended, but as a foreshadowing of the Church’s own ascension? What does Christ’s own ascension foreshadow but his handing over the kingdom to his Father after having put down every rule and every authority and power? (I Cor. 15.24) So shall we ever be with the Lord. Such words seem to promise more than the transformation of Sheffield or Cincinnati into garden cities.

Here Prof. Helm alludes to a number of prooftexts to support his position. Unfortunately, he doesn’t bother to exegete any of his prooftexts. Let’s look at them:

Gen 8:22

In its postdiluvial context, this verse accentuates the stability of the earth. A divine promise of preservation from further destruction—on a comparable scale, much less on a greater scale (cf. 8:21; 9:11).

Jn 14:2-3

I don’t know where exactly Helm is going with this passage. The wording of the passage is ambiguous. But, as a practical matter, I don’t think it would be very meaningful for Jesus to tell the disciples that hundreds or thousands of years after they died, he will come back for them and take them to be with himself. It’s not as if they’re waiting for him, here on earth, long after they died.

So I assume this has reference to the intermediate state. They have reserved seating (as it were). It’s a case of inaugurated eschatology. A foretaste of things to come. And that, of itself, is neutral on the nature of the final state.

1 Cor 2:9

I’m sure the world to come will surpass our experience of a fallen world. That doesn’t mean the world to come is totally alien to human experience. For example, the Risen Christ was recognizable to his friends. He had a tangible body, with a functioning digestive system.

2 Cor 4:17

I don’t see how that’s supposed to single out Helm’s version of heaven.

1 Thes 4:17

Once again, I don’t know where exactly Helm is going with this passage. It’s a classic prooftext for the Parousia—an endtime event which triggers the resurrection of the just. It’s not about Christians going to be with Christ when the die, but about the return of Christ to glorify his people.

The imagery involves the literary convention of a delegation that goes out of the city to greet a visiting dignitary, and then escorts him back into the city. For detailed exegesis, see Beale and Bruce.

Heb 13:14

How we construe this verse depends on how we construe the author’s eschatology—which is bound up with his typology. There’s a certain amount of platonic imagery in Hebrews. However, the author uses platonic imagery as a metaphor for a more dynamic or historical worldview: space as a metaphor for time, the past as figure of the future. The two worlds (spatial/vertical dualism) symbolize two overlapping epochs (temporal/horizontal dualism). The author is using spatial metaphors to contrast the provisional character of the old covenant with the finality of the new covenant. Cf. A. Lincoln, Hebrews: A Guide (T&T Clark 2006), 92-100.

2 Pet 3:10-11

i) Here Peter uses stock eschatological imagery wherein the day of judgment is depicted as a cosmic conflagration. The question at issue is what this stands for. Fire can denote literal destruction or figurative purification. Logically speaking, the objects of divine judgment would be personal agents, not sticks and stones.

ii) Not only does Scripture use cataclysmic endtime imagery, but it also uses golden-age endtime imagery. It’s arbitrary to take the cataclysmic imagery literally, but the golden-age imagery figuratively. Both types of imagery are figurative.

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