The Physicality of the Future

I have been talking with a shepherd at a local church about the “physicality of our future with God” and all that this entails. We’ve only just begun our conversations, but so far it’s been very helpful. Contemporary-popular theology holds that God will destroy the world and our souls (devoid of physicality) will flit off to eternity on the clouds. Bottom-line… that’s gnosticism – and John hated it. Jesus did too, you could argue. But we see in Jesus something else. Heaven and earth interlocking, “colluding,” coming together, in the person of Jesus. And when he is resurrected, he ushers in new Creation. One of the best lessons I have ever heard on this is N.T. Wright’s lecture at Seattle Pacific University some years back in a talk titled “The Christian Challenge in a Postmodern World.” Here is an excerpt. Enjoy! (By the way, it is good to be back to the World Wide Web! I fasted from you during Lent!)

Where does all this get us? Well, the death and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament are the climax and center of world history in the sovereign purposes of the Creator God. The New Testament says in different ways on every other page that this is the ultimate exodus, this is real return from exile, this is the moment when God defeats the powers of evil, not least the imperial powers of evil. This is the moment when God launches his project of new creation. There’s so much in Paul which is about the way in which God is bringing the world into one in Jesus, and that is directly in your face to the claims of the Roman Empire, to bring world unity under allegiance to Caesar. And Paul saw that Rome couldn’t achieve that, and he believed that Jesus could, and indeed already had. Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. No, barbarian, Scythian, bond, free — you are all one in Christ. And Paul’s job was to plant little cells of people loyal to Jesus as Lord, right there within the heart of Caesar’s empire, as a sign that there was a different king. In Acts, chapter 17, Paul is assailed on a charge of saying that there is another king, namely, Jesus. Wouldn’t it be great to have Christians in the Western world hauled up on that same charge today?

The large story, then, which is the basis of the Christian message to the world, engagement with the world, challenge to the postmodern world, is that the world is basically God’s world, and it’s a good world, but it’s gone wrong, and evil has infected it in all sorts of ways which modernism really didn’t want to take account of and which postmodernity has partly seen but then has wallowed in because it’s got no answer. Because the answer is that God the Creator has rescued the world from evil and is rescuing it from evil. That’s why we need the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center of every Christian retelling, and every Christian challenge. God’s condemnation of evil — God takes evil exceedingly seriously — but then God’s launch of new creation at Easter, when Jesus comes out of the tomb, not only to announce new creation but to embody it in himself.

And within that, the place of Israel in the Old Testament, and the place of social powers and authorities to this day, remains ambiguous. The people who as I said to you are supposed to be the bearers of the solution turn out to be part of the problem. And that is echoed by the ambiguity of human authority. God wants order in his world. If you don’t have appropriate authorities in the world, the bullies and the bad guys always win. Oh, it’s a thorough nuisance when the police stop us for speeding when we’re driving down the highway, but if somebody steals your car or even something out of it, you want the police to be on the case and to sort it out. We do not actually want to live in a world of anarchy and chaos. We know that the bullies and the bad guys will always win. And I believe that we ought to be saying that globally right now as well. But those to whom authority is entrusted are always tempted to abuse it. Which is why in early Christianity and in the long Jewish tradition of critique of civic authorities, people aren’t nearly so much worried about how people get to be in authority — how did they get there, by democratic means, by overthrowing a previous government, whatever — they don’t seem to worry about that; they care very much indeed about what people do once they’re in power.

It’s interesting, we’ve done it exactly the other way, certainly in my country. We care passionately about our democratic process, which once every four or five years we go through this rather odd business with our constituencies and our voting, and we finally choose a government, and then the government claims that it has a mandate even though our present, our new government, only got, what, 39 percent of the vote, something like that, but they claim they’ve got a mandate to do whatever they choose to do for the next four or five years.

It is the church’s job, I believe, to hold such authorities as we’ve got — nationally and internationally and locally — to account before the God who will put the world to rights and who has announced in Jesus the way of doing it. The point of this all comes together, of course, in John 18 and 19 again, and Mark 10. The point of it all is that God will heal the world and that Jesus has achieved the victory in his cross and resurrection by which God will do that. And he is now calling the church, his loyal followers, to be the people through whom that critique can come about.

So my third and final and much shorter section as I come towards close: glimpsing and grasping new creation and thereby embodying the Christian challenge to the postmodern world. What does it look like when we come back from that modernist view and that postmodernist view and say, “What would a Christian worldview look like in here?” For a start, we’ve got to tell the truth about God — that God is not the same as the world, as in Pantheism, nor is God a million miles away from the world, as in many dualistic schemes, but that heaven and earth have overlapped and interlocked once and for all and forever in Jesus, and that ultimately they will overlap and interlock entirely. Romans 8, Revelation 21.

I was talking with a small group this morning about Isaiah 11, the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Never go near any theology which cannot play out into Isaiah 11, because if you do you’ll be colluding with dualism, sure as anything. “The earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” Wait a minute, how do the waters cover the sea? The waters are the sea. God wants to flood creation with himself. God made a world that is other than himself in order to embrace it with love and flood it with his own being so that it will in the end be both something other than himself and full completely full to overflowing with his own glory. And in the light of that, our knowledge of truth, the real answer to Pilate, and our understanding and appreciation of beauty, are grounded in the goodness of the original creation and the promise of the new creation.

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