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Eschatology: Our hope for a new heaven and new earth

How does your story fit into God's story? The way you answer this question likely influences what you believe about heaven. And your view of heaven makes a big difference in how you live and worship. A feature story exploring Eschatology: our hope for a new heaven and a new earth.

Jerusalem the Golden, with milk and honey blest. Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more. When the hungry gather for the feast, we will rejoice. Lord, I want to be in that number.

I'll sing with a glittering crown on my brow. How lovely is your dwelling place. Here from all nations, all tongues, and all peoples. Rest, eternal, grant them, Lord. Those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see. Finish, then, thy new creation.

Composers have been writing songs about heaven for centuries. Yet, according to pollster George Barna, the more income or education you have, the less likely you are to believe that heaven or hell exists. Even among Christians who say they believe in heaven, there's wide disagreement on what that means. Most Christians, including preachers, stay away from the topic.

And that's a shame, because without a vivid sense of God's future, you're missing out on a great blessing of Christian life-and great opportunities to bless other lives.

Is your gospel big or small?

In his book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: Connecting This Life to the Next, Nathan Bierma discusses the difference between small gospel and big gospel perspectives.

A small gospel limits the good news mainly to saving souls and making a personal commitment to Christ. This view shrinks God's role to missionary coordinator and insurance policy for avoiding hell. Heaven is our reward for confessing Christ.

In a small gospel, eschatology (which combines the Greek words for final or last with the Greek word for word) focuses on debates about the Rapture and the manner of Christ's return.

"But there's a lot more to it," Bierma reminds readers. "The gospel is a mind-altering message that affects every aspect of life. Its story of redemption describes the history of the whole universe-and its future."

A big gospel sees Christ as redeeming not just our own hearts but restoring all creation, including nature, culture, and relationships. As Colossians 1:17 says, "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

In a big gospel view, the hope and promise of heaven "places our lives in a larger context" and "fixes us to a firmer foundation than the thin dreams of today's society," Bierma says.

Our current lives-the earth, our bodies, human culture, and our relationships-hint at what God intends in the restored creation. The contrast between the way things are and shalom, the way they are supposed to be, deepens our desire for the new heaven and new earth. And this eschatological vision of God's future shapes how we live and worship.

Is heaven a real place?

Some of us rarely contemplate heaven. Or we think of it as a vaguely spiritual state.and then feel uncomfortable so we change the subject.

However, God created us with bodies. After his resurrection, Jesus still walked, built campfires, ate, and drank. He told his disciples he was going to prepare a place for them.

"The idea that heaven will, in some way, be a recognizable place has been a great comfort. The new heaven and new earth will be a purified version of the best we experience already on this earth," says Judy Congdon, college organist and organ professor at Houghton College in upstate New York.

Thinking of heaven as a place where nature, human creativity, and work will continue to have meaning helped her get through the deaths of three dear friends. One was a gardener and nature lover. Another was an accomplished musician. The third was a lifelong Anglican worshiper who had planned her own funeral.

"I don't recall what hymns she chose but her utter confidence in God's presence and provision-both in this world and the next-came through in every word of the funeral. It was like a parting gift she gave us," Congdon says.

The hymns "O What Their Joy and Their Glory Must Be" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," and theFauré Requiem strengthen Congdon's hope for heaven.

The phrase "bread of heaven" reminds her that "at the Communion table, we join with all the saints, in all times and in all places, including those in the nearer presence of God. We experience for the moment a bit of what will be ours in all its fullness."

Has eternity already begun?

While writing Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, Nathan Bierma was living in Chicago and attending LaSalle Street Church, which years ago described itself as "the church that takes on trouble."

Senior pastor Laura Truax says that though she doesn't preach often on heaven, she preaches regularly "on the New Jerusalem that God is creating right here. We have consistently disavowed the idea that heavenly hope makes no earthly difference."

Truax preaches about three ways to claim a big-gospel heavenly hope:

  • "Look for the mustard seeds under our noses, at home, school, and work," she urges. "Eternity has already started for each of us. We move from glory to glory, from a life spent before God now on earth to a life spent before God in another unknown state in heaven."
  • Just as heaven offers eternal rest, God calls us to Sabbath rest in our lives now. Truax describes Sabbath rest (and daily mini-Sabbaths) as "an obligation, a rhythm hardwired into us. It's been a step of faith to declare a Sabbath day for myself each week. That I resist is illustrative of my hubris that I'm too important to rest."
  • At every communion service and on All Saints Day, Truax reminds worshipers that they are "surrounded at all times by those who went before and continue to bear witness with us." One All Saints Day, LaSalle displayed pictures of believers now in heaven. For another, worship planners hung mirrors throughout the sanctuary to help worshipers see themselves as saints.

She says it's easy to settle for a small gospel, because you can measure how many souls have been saved or how many are coming to youth group. "But that distract

Profile: Martha Moore-Keish on Communion and Hope for Heaven

Action adventure films like The Rapture and Left Behind get people talking about the end times. But the final scene from the1984 film Places in the Heart offers a more biblically complete picture of what God intends for us in the new heaven and new earth.

Set in rural Texas during the Depression, the film ends with people passing bread cubes and tiny cups of grape juice down the pews. A woman passes the elements to her cheating husband. Ku Klux Klan members share bread and juice with a black man they assaulted. A sheriff, killed at the start of the film, quietly passes the bread and cup to the young black man who shot him, saying, "The peace of Christ."

"In that understated scene, the living and the dead, black and white, young and old, those who have sinned and those who have been sinned against, all sit together in the same dusty whitewashed sanctuary to share the Lord's Supper," says Martha Moore-Keish, assistant professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

Moore-Keish often uses this film clip to explain how the layered meanings of the Eucharist deepen our eschatological understanding of how to live now as citizens of heaven.

Looking for heaven already and not yet

Communion can remind us that, in Christ, God's Kingdom has already arrived. When Christ returns, the promise we now experience partially will be fully realized.

Moore-Keish notes that some congregations observe the Lord's Supper almost like a funeral, remembering only Christ's death and sacrifice for us. Others focus on the present, either on each person's relationship with Jesus or on how Christ is present in the bread and wine.

The New Testament, however, describes the Lord's Supper as having to do with past, present, and future. As 1 Corinthians 11:17 makes clear, when you eat the bread and drink the wine, you proclaim (present) the Lord's death (past) until he comes (future).

Though we often think of time as linear, with eternity behind and ahead of us, Moore-Keish suggests we "envision God's future as something that already exists and breaks in on us." In her excellent chapter on communion in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony, she cites theologians who offer several ways of imagining how, in the Eucharist, God's future breaks in on us.

You might think of yourselves at the communion table as "tomorrow's people".or as being present when part of God's dance floor crashes to earth.or as being lifted up into God's throne room.

Singing and praying hope for heaven

You might wonder how the Eucharist-eschatology connection plays out in Communion. Moore-Keish says it affects how and when we celebrate-plus what we do in life outside the sanctuary.

We can choose Communion songs that pull us into the mystery of the feast's past-present-and-future quality, such as "Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees" or "Remembering with Love and Hope."

Singing songs from other cultures-preferably along with fellow worshipers from other cultures-reminds us that God calls people from east and west, from north and south, to eat together (Luke 13:29). The old hymn "The King of Heaven His Table Spreads" and Roy Hopp's arrangement of "Here from All Nations" make the same point.

"We can use vivid language in our prayers and liturgical texts to evoke God's mighty past deeds so we face the future with hope and confidence," Moore-Keish says.

She explains that Communion prayers from the early church till now have followed a Trinitarian pattern. The first part, sometimes called the anamnesis, or remembrance, praises God for creation and salvation and remembers Christ's life, death, and resurrection. The other part, sometimes called the epiclesis, or appeal, "calls on the Holy Spirit to make this meal and gathered community into the body of Christ for the world until he comes again."

Because of the Eucharist's resurrection witness, Moore-Keish suggests celebrating it at funerals and memorial services. There's comfort in looking forward to when we will feast with all the saints.

Embodying our faith

The words of songs and prayers as well as the feel, taste, and smell of bread and wine remind us that our faith is embodied. That's why Moore-Keish advises looking for ways to move our bodies during Communion. This might involve a liturgical dance offered before Communion, asking everyone to make the sign of the cross, or having people come forward to receive the elements.

Paul warns against eating and drinking "in an unworthy manner" (1 Corinthians 11:26). Moore-Keish says being aware of this element of judgment in the Eucharist pushes us to embody our faith and live it out in the world.

At the very least, this means connecting the feeding of the faithful with feeding of the hungry-staffing soup kitchens and food pantries, growing an extra garden row, or contacting legislators.

Sometimes living out the Eucharist involves danger. In 1970s Chile, when Pinochet's regime began kidnapping and torturing people, the Roman Catholic Church at first saw itself as responsible only for people's souls.

Leaders came to realize, Moore-Keish says, "that to be the body of Christ meant to care for the bodies of the broken.and that true participation in the Eucharist requires Christians to go out and witness to God's vision of life, forgiveness, and health for all the world." Church protests helped lead to Pinochet's downfall.

Communion songs with a justice theme include many versions of the African American spiritual "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table" and John Bell's "Heaven Shall Not Wait."

Start a Discussion

Talk about including our hope for heaven in worship services.

  • Pastorally, one of the most important things church gives is a vivid sense of God's future. On a small-gospel-to-big-gospel spectrum, where is your congregation?
  • Which themes about heaven appear most often in your sermons, prayers, liturgies, songs, and communion services? Is there any theme you'd like to focus on more specifically?
  • What tense or tenses (past, present, future) most characterize your communion services? What message does this choice give to worshipers?
  • In what ways do your services help worshipers see that heavenly hope makes an earthly difference?
  • How would you describe a healthy understanding of Sabbath rest? How do you convey this understanding through worship?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to talk about heavenly hope in worship?

  • Did you find a resource-visual, online, printed, multimedia, or seminar-that helped your church productively explore our hope for heaven or Eucharist-eschatology connections?
  • If your preachers and worship planners have been reluctant to include much content about heaven in your services, how and why did you bring about a change?
  • Has your council or worship committee come up with any methods of celebrating the Lord's Supper that helped worshipers move from partaking of Christ's body to caring for the bodies of the broken?