Sunrise in the Mediterranean By Marcello Newall

By Marcello Newall
‘In the last analysis, it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us.’
Dag Hammarskjold

  1. Where’s Heaven?

One of the strangest things I’ve ever come across among Christians is the profound ignorance in regard to our final destination, namely heaven. Ask any number of believers or non-believers where heaven is and the great majority will answer that it’s in the sky, in the clouds or something similar: heaven is seen as basically ethereal and non earthly. Many believe that this conception is biblical and spiritual but under further scrutiny it becomes apparent that this worldview is not actually Scriptural at all but has been imported from a pagan understanding of the world. What we see in authentic biblical revelation is that instead of being in the sky heaven is brought down to earth and God himself comes down to dwell with his people.[1]
In this perspective a lot of confusion surrounds the word «world», in ancient Greek kosmos κόσμος. One has to be particularly careful as this word is used with different meanings in the New Testament. At times kosmos refers simply to humanity as a whole as found in ‘God so loved the world’ in John 3:16, sometimes it means instead the physical world, whereas in its negative spiritual sense it expresses the present world system that is dominated by sin and Satan. John in his First Epistle gives us a specific definition of the word ‘world’: ‘For everything in the world–the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life–comes not from the Father but from the world’.[2] James, likewise, in his letter tells us that one cannot love the world and God at the same time.[3] Finally Jesus witnessed to having overcome the world: ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’[4]
In its negative meaning, therefore, the ‘world’ never once refers to the physical world di per se but always to the evil spiritual system that currently pervades this Age and its values that corrupt mankind. Sadly many seem to have conflated the various meanings of “world” into a smorgasbord of confusion: in the end the physical world, directly or indirectly, ends up becoming a reality from which we must escape. In this view ‘heaven’ is essentially deliverance from the material world and creation and the animal kingdom become dispensable appendixes in a throwaway universe:
‘In the degree to which Christianity cut itself off from its Hebrew roots and acquired Hellenistic and Roman form, it lost its eschatological hope and surrendered its apocalyptic alternative to “this world” of violence and death. It merged into late antiquity’s gnostic religion of redemption. From Justin onwards, most of the Fathers revered Plato as a “Christian before Christ” and extolled his feeling for the divine transcendence and for the values of the spiritual world. God’s eternity now took the place of God’s future, heaven replaced the coming kingdom, the spirit that redeems the soul from the body supplanted the Spirit as the “well of life”, the immortality of the soul displaced the resurrection, and the yearning for another world became a substitute for changing this one.’[5]
2. A Disincarnated concept of Time
Another concept that is affected by the worldview we have been discussing is our idea of time. Sadly the New Testament is often translated using the words ‘eternity’ or ‘eternal’, in Greek Aionios αἰώνιος,[6] in reality these two words tend to be coloured by a Platonic vision of the world in which there exists a timeless “eternity” without beginning or end. In Scripture we see the conception of a future Age, that will last forever but that is the continuation of this present one albeit cleansed of sin and death. We as human beings live and move within a framework of time and the notion of an endless eternity without end actually tends to create a sense of fear and disorientation within us: it is totally alien to us. Instead of being a source of wonder and expectation heaven gives an impression of uprootedness, it becomes distant and becomes tinged with a sense of eerie mystery. Instead in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God meets us in the story of this life, with its moments and events, troubles and worries, victories and failures and redeems it.

  1. Disincarnated Ethics

One of the greatest choices in theology of which many are totally unaware is that between Realism and Nominalism. Whereas Nominalism believes that God’s view of good and evil is totally different from ours Realism affirms that human beings, however distorted by sin and the Fall, have a general understanding of right and wrong that is in harmony with God’s. One of the main problems with Nominalism is it can be used to justify almost any behaviour by appealing to the idea that ‘God’s ways are above our ways’. A contemporary theologian helps us understand the difference between Realism and Nominalism:
‘The controversy among realists and nominalists and various via media had to do with the ontological status of universals – their existence and being. Are universals such as “redness” and “beauty” and “goodness” real in some sense apart from the individual things in which they inhere? Realists of all stripes said universals were real and insisted that no other view could possibly support a rational and ordered view of the universe […] Nominalism is often understood to be a radical denial of the reality of universals such that they are reduced to mere sounds invented by human beings.’ [7]
In reality God’s law is rooted in his very nature or essence which is in harmony with our own conscience so there is actually no real conflict: our moral and ethical bearings were created and ordained by God and are in fact in line with his nature. For this reason Scripture gives an enormous importance to the concept of ‘conscience’, our inner moral intuitions, and affirms that when individuals sear or damage their consciences they are without any moral anchor and are in a very dangerous position.[8]
Nominalism drives a wedge between the human being and God in that one is never sure if God’s concept of ‘goodness’ corresponds to anything we would consider “good”. Words lose their meaning and ethical categories are emptied as semantics become hollow. Realism instead teaches that human beings with a healthy conscience, however imperfectly, have an inner understanding of categories like ‘goodness’, ‘love’ and “compassion”. For example in Scripture we are told by the Apostle Peter to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’[9], these words would seem totally meaningless unless there were some harmony between God’s view of goodness and our own.
Regrettably much Christian theology has followed the path of Nominalism in portraying a God who in his treatment of animals and creation does not seem to correspond to any of our conceptions of compassion and mercy: ethically God would seem totally uprooted from our inner moral intuitions to the point of contradicting them entirely.
4. Disincarnated Emotions
How many times have we all heard the old adage ‘real men don’t cry’? This mindset, which has its roots in an ancient Greek view of the world, is very present in much of contemporary Christianity. Even though Greek thought is generally imbued with this teaching, Stoicism[10] in particular taught that emotions had to be totally controlled and were practically sinful. The true philosopher therefore was totally detached from his emotions in a state called ataraxia or apatheia. In dramatic contrast with this we find that the shortest verse in the entire Bible declares emphatically: ‘Jesus wept’. In fact Jesus experienced the entire spectrum of human emotions, from righteous anger, to joy to loneliness and the deepest grief. Far from Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, Christ was filled with compassion and ultimately died of a broken heart caused by the sin of man.[11] Many Christians seem to believe that a sense of smug indifference to the sufferings of the animal kingdom makes them “tough” or spiritually mature, that they have somehow mastered their emotions when in reality they have been shortchanged of their genuine humanity made in God’s image, sympathetic with other beings and their pain.  
Christ does not negate our human existence or our God given creaturely characteristics but he redeems them in order that we may be authentically human: ‘A person cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human. To become human, is what this individual person, has been created for.’ [12]
 5. A Disincarnated Christ
Some of the harshest words in the New Testament are found against what many would consider a very spiritual outlook. A group of teachers and philosophers affirmed that Christ was not really a human being but was a sort of phantom or spirit. This teaching was consistent with classical Greek thought that considered matter inferior and couldn’t conceive of a deity that would enter into this earthly existence. We see in several New Testament letters a stern condemnation of this teaching which is seen as profoundly anti-Christian: ‘this is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God’.[13] And yet in many ways this disincarnated Christ lives on in many Christian circles. We see this in a blatant disregard for creation and the animal kingdom but also in a conception of Christ that reduces him to a sort of ‘idea’. When the rubber hits the road for many it seems that Jesus is more of a distant doctrine than a personal Saviour. Jesus in some ways is reduced to a symbol, perhaps the greatest ideal ever conceived but nevertheless an essentially theoretical concept. In contrast in the Gospels we see Christ entering this physical world and the lives of human beings in the concreteness of a personal encounter with the living God and in the power of the words ‘Follow me’.[14]
6. Heaven is a Place on Earth
When Christ majestically enunciated the teaching of the kingdom of heaven to his followers he went up to the mountainside off the Sea of Galilee, sat down and looking into the future he proclaimed: ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth’.[15]
[1] Revelation 21:3.
[2] 1 John 2:16.
[3] James 4:4.
[4] John 16:33.
[5] Moltmann Juergen, The Spirit of Life, SCM Press 19992, London, p. 89.
[6] The literal meaning is simply “age”.
[7] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Intervarsity Press, Illinois 1999, p.327, pp. 351-353.
[8] 1 Timothy 1:19.
[9] Psalm 34:8.
[10] A Greek philosphical movement founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century.
[11] John 19:34.
[12] Martin Buber.
[13] 1 John 4:2.
[14] Matthew 4:19.
[15] Matthew 5:5.

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