We will put aside our march through Matthew for a moment in order to ensure understanding of certain common Christian terms related to our study in Matthew and also to their relevance in practical application with events of today. The words Heaven, Hell, Kingdom, Hope, and Gospel are quite familiar with all Christians. Yet even though the terms are familiar, the particular conception that comes to mind with each term may, in fact, be a little different from what is understood by fellow Christians.
Let’s look at Heaven and Hell. We all understand Heaven to be a good place and Hell a bad place. Heaven is where the Christian goes when he or she dies. Hell receives those who die without Christ. But is Heaven the everlasting resting place for redeemed? Will the damned forever be tormented in Hell? Some Christian songs have directed our thoughts, maybe subconsciously, toward these conclusions. We sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” And, in the same song, “If Heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” Revelation 21, however, tells us that there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. In fact, the Bible seems to imply that our everlasting home will be on this new Earth. So, the Heaven that currently exists is not that home to which we look forward in hope. Neither is Hell everlasting. Revelation 20 tells us that death and Hell will be cast into the Lake of Fire. We will discuss this a little more later, but it is important for us to understand that we do not look forward to disembodied spirit existence in a spirit-place called Heaven. Our future is a physical future of resurrected bodies and a resurrected (renewed) Earth.
But it almost seems somehow sacrilegious to talk about the end of Heaven. Is Heaven not the dwelling place of God? Has not Heaven existed as God’s dwelling place from eternity past? Well, no. God is the only eternal being. Nothing is eternal besides God. Heaven was created by God probably at the same time the earth was created. But that prompts us to wonder where then exactly is Heaven?
One answer, which I believe to provide us with the best understanding, is that we should think of Heaven as another dimension—what some may call a parallel universe—to our own dimension of space, time, matter. When Christ left Earth to ascend to Heaven, he probably moved from this dimension to the dimension of Heaven. We may also think of Hell as a third dimension. Structuring our understanding in this way, although speculative, provides a way to understand much of what is discussed concerning Heaven and Hell in the Bible. Luke 16 speaks of the rich man and Lazarus who, when they died, went separately (and respectively) to Hell and to Heaven. The rich man could see over into the dimension of Heaven, but couldn’t get there. Abraham, speaking to the rich man, indicated that it was also possible to see from Heaven to the dimension of Hell. But he also made it clear that those in Heaven could not travel across the dimension to Hell.
Additionally, Revelation 4 speaks of a crystal sea in Heaven before the throne of God. The discussion in Revelation implies that this crystal sea is a window (or in the language of dimensions and parallel universes—a portal) to the earth. Back in Exodus 24 we see a similar image of this crystal sea, albeit from the perspective of the earth as Moses and the 70 elders gaze up to Heaven and to God. That same expanse (portal) appears to Ezekiel in Ezekiel chapter 1 through which he sees the throne of God. Even John’s vision in Revelation begins with a vantage point from this earth; but at the beginning of chapter 4, John sees a door (portal) in Heaven and is called to come up through it into Heaven, thus crossing from Earth’s dimension to Heaven’s.
Again, although this is speculative since we clearly have no solid biblical support proving Heaven and Hell are two alternate dimensions, I believe it helps us understand the relationship between these places now and also in the age to come, which we will talk about a little later.
The word Kingdom is the translation of the Greek word basileia. That word appears in the NT about 162 times—71 of which in the expression Kingdom of God 32 times as Kingdom of Heaven (those 32 are all in the book of Matthew). The vast majority of the use of this term relates to God’s Kingdom, yet Christians are in some disagreement over what exactly the word (or phrases) mean. What is the Kingdom of God? What is the Kingdom of Heaven? What is that Kingdom which Christ said he was building?
Dispensationalists are noted for developing the idea that the New Testament’s reference to the Kingdom relates exclusively to Christ’s return to Earth at which time he will set up a Kingdom on Earth and rule 1000 years as the successor to David. In other words, they envision a political kingdom similar to those today (and in previous years) with the clear difference that Christ’s will be a worldwide kingdom over which his righteous power will keep all evil and rebellion at bay. This 1000 year kingdom requires God’s plan to be, at best, disjointed as Christ juggles two groups of “his people”—the Church (or his body) and National Israel. It also makes it more difficult to conclude what Jesus meant when he told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36).
In contrast, the Covenantal understanding of God’s Kingdom is that it began at the resurrection of Jesus and is defined by resurrection. In the resurrection of Christ, we find the first reclamation by God through his justifying power of his creation. The Kingdom will be made up of all God’s creation that is and will be freed of sin. It begins with Jesus as firstfruits of resurrection. It is built with each of us who participate in Christ’s first resurrection through the transforming redemption of life we receive from Christ. And the building of the Kingdom will end (in other words, the Kingdom will be complete) when Christ, the resurrected King, (1) returns, judging and putting away evil forever, (2) resurrects all those who have been redeemed, and (3) resurrects the rest of creation (the promised new earth). Here again we see the advantage of understanding Heaven as another dimension. Revelation implies that the new heaven and new earth will somehow be merged. Somehow the boundary between these two dimensions will be erased so that, as the Bible indicates, God will dwell among us. The new heaven and new earth will be merged into one. The resurrection of our bodies to live with God on the resurrected earth is the completion of the Kingdom; this is the Christian hope.
Our hope is not that we will go to Heaven when we die. Our hope is for the completion of God’s resurrecting plan when we are forever united with him in his resurrected creation.
Romans 8:18-24a: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”
Therefore, we now have specific identification and definition for the terms Kingdom and the Christian Hope. The Kingdom is the resurrection in purity of God’s creation. The Christian Hope is the completion of the Kingdom, marking everlasting life in relationship with God. But what of the gospel? The gospel is the means of entrance to the Kingdom. We may say that the gospel is the good news that the God-man Jesus Christ, through his sinless life and sacrificial death, accomplished our redemption from sin and death so that through faith in who he is and what he did, we may, by his application of atonement, obtain that hope of everlasting resurrected life.
The NT underscores at numerous times the importance of keeping this gospel message pure, unadulterated by false doctrine bombarding all around. Thus, the Christian, who has through this gospel entered into Kingdom living with hope of resurrected glory, must meet the world in absolute conformity with this gospel.
Here now is a point for consideration. The view of the world that does not know Christ operates with a set of values based in self-interest (both individual and societal). Because of this, certain values of the Christian will always be attacked either overtly or covertly. Three such values that are under attack in our world today are the sanctity of life (especially as disregarded in abortion), the sanctity of marriage (especially as disregarded in homosexuality), and religious liberty. Recently (November 2009) a group of Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans have signed a document called the Manhattan Declaration which declares a commitment to the three values mentioned and a pledge to disregard law or societal influence that would persuade them to act in violation of these values.
Protestants and Catholics have had differences concerning fundamental doctrines involved in the gospel since the Reformation. But the question in mind in approaching such a document as the Manhattan Declaration is whether Evangelicals can, in good conscience and without compromise of their doctrinal commitment to the gospel, sign a joint statement with those who believe differently about the gospel.
The following questions provide a progression of thought that may help us come to a conclusion.
1. Can we join with a person of a false faith to say that we oppose evil on the basis of religious belief?
2. Can we join with a person of a false faith to say that we oppose evil on the basis of our common religious beliefs?
3. Can we join with a person of a false faith who calls himself “Christian” to say that we oppose evil on the basis of our common religious beliefs?
4. Can we join with a person of a false faith, calling ourselves Christians, to say that we oppose evil on the basis of our common religious beliefs?
The answer to question 1 should be yes. I act in accordance with question 1 as I vote as a citizen of this country. Question 2, however, presents an additional qualification. In this question we must decide whether I can join with someone in calling something evil by stating that we share common religious beliefs that consider action x to be evil. Again, I think we may answer yes to this question. We do not compromise the gospel by saying that a proponent of a false belief shares the understanding based on his/her false belief that action x is evil. Question 3 brings an additional, more distinctive qualification. I understand a Christian to be one who shares my understanding of the gospel. Yet even here we cannot ignore that the word or label Christian is a historic label signifying all religions which hold, at least in theory, to the teaching of Christ. And truly from the world’s perspective, this is exactly how they would construe the label. Therefore, historically speaking, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans would all be given the label Christian since they all regard the teachings of Christ as paramount. In understanding the term in that way, I believe I could answer yes to question 3 and even question 4. However, I believe I would make it a specific point to plainly declare both to the other signers and to the public at large my understanding of the gospel in its absolute nature and narrow definition.
Concerning the Manhattan Declaration (MD) many well-known, conservative evangelicals have signed and many equally well-known and conservative evangelicals have not signed. There reasons for signing and for not signing are interesting and touch on all the points we have discussed. Most of the disagreement revolves around the use of the term “Christian” in the document. The document does say, “We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered…” and “We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences….” John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul understand these statements to exhibit a blur of gospel Christianity. Al Mohler and Ligon Duncan (both signers) do not. As I’ve indicated above, these statements would not necessarily be obstacles to me (with the caveat mentioned concerning ensuring that those who knew I signed knew my position on the gospel). And indeed, Al Mohler made it quite clear in his blog that his differences with Roman Catholics especially on the doctrine of justification were insurmountable as to allowing fellowship with them as gospel Christians.
But the MD also includes this statement: “It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.” To me, this statement goes beyond the constraints of my four questions above. By this statement, it would seem, we are no longer discussing mere outworkings of our religious beliefs. This is a statement of basis. It highlights the fundamental doctrine by which we view as values the sanctity of life, marriage, and religious freedom. And that fundamental doctrine is even named here in the document as the gospel. To my mind, this statement is the obstacle that prohibits me from signing. I could not, in my pursuit of Christ and his Kingdom, sign with those of a false gospel a document which states as a common goal the proclamation of the gospel. That, I believe, blurs the gospel message.
Now then, how do we respond to other Christians who differ from our viewpoint concerning whether to sign or not sign? We will discuss that in more depth next time.