Heaven, Earth, and Judgment

Throughout the history of Christianity, we have talked about the subject of eternal punishment.  And, a lot of times, we have used hell as a way to get people to do what we wanted them to do, to control people’s behavior.   We even refer to sermons like that as “hellfire and brimstone”.

            And my guess is, you’ve seen some of this in your own life.  You better not drink, because if you do, you’ll spend an eternity in hell.  You better not smoke, because if you do, you’ll spend an eternity in hell.  And if you don’t attend every worship service, or give enough money or read your Bible every day, or pray a lot, or talk to people about Jesus, you’ll spend an eternity in hell.  So you better straighten up and behave yourself. 

            And the result of that kind of teaching tends to be a group of Christians who do a lot of things for God, but they live in constant fear that they’re not doing enough.

            Somewhere along the line, most of us were introduced to the subject of grace, which is a wonderful thing, a very scriptural topic.  But one of the side effects of learning about grace is that sometimes Christians stop doing as much.  If God’s grace covers all my mistakes, then I don’t need to worry about whether I do enough.  If I don’t give enough money, God’s grace will cover me.  If I don’t attend worship every Sunday, God’s grace will cover me.

            And it runs deeper than just church attendance.  The Barna Group is a group that surveys Christians, and a few years ago, they had a survey where they asked American Christians, “What has following Jesus changed in your life?”  And the answer they got back was — generally speaking — not much.  

            The truth is, there is no significant difference between Christians and non-Christians in much of life.  Christians divorce just as much as non-Christians, church members are just as likely to beat their spouses as non-Christians are, the giving pattern of Christians indicate that they are almost as materialistic as non-Christians, and white Evangelicals are the most likely group to object to a person of color moving into their neighborhood.

            Peter Scazzero (Emotionally Healthy Spirituality) has said, “It is so easy to compartmentalize God to ‘Christian activities’ around church… without thinking of him in our marriages, the disciplining of our children, the spending of our money, our recreation, or even our studying for exams.  According to Gallup polls and sociologists, one of the greatest scandals of our day is that ‘evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general.’”

            All of that only seems to reinforce what many of us have observed – that when the fear of hell is removed from the equation, our faith in Jesus Christ seems to have only a small effect on the way most people live.  So, how did we get to the place where following the most revolutionary man who ever lived doesn’t revolutionize the people who claim to follow him?  How did we get to the point where it’s possible to say that we believe something with all our heart and it have absolutely no implications for our lives?

            I believe that what we need to understand is that the gospel message is not just about the world to come.  It’s about this world in which we live right now.  It’s the story of God’s work in restoring a broken world and broken people.

            Don’t get me wrong.  The gospel is also about heaven.  But, as we saw last week, according to the Scriptures, heaven isn’t some distant reality, it’s not some far off place out there in outer space, but heaven is where everything is as God intends, and there are moments when heaven and earth kind of overlap.  But our ultimate hope as Christians isn’t to fly off as ghosts to some other place.  Revelation 21 tells us that heaven will come down to earth.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we will live in a renewed, restored world.

            But, for some of us, this idea of heaven coming to earth and earthly life taking on the identity of God’s kingdom doesn’t sound very much like good news.  But don’t lose sight of the fact that when heaven unites with earth, it will create a very different existence from the creation we currently inhabit.  It will be a new earth.  

            There are two different Greek words for “new”.  There is a Greek word neos which is translated as “new”, and there is another Greek word kainos which is also translated as new.  But those two words are very different.

            The word neos means “new with respect to time”.  It refers to something that didn’t used to exist, but now it does.  If I go to the store and I buy a new pair of sneakers, I would use the Greek word neos.  They’re new.  They haven’t been in existence very long.  They just rolled off the assembly line in the factory a few weeks ago.

            On the other hand, the Greek word kainos means “new as to form or quality”.  When I hear on the news that there is a jetpack that I can buy to get around town, I say, “Well, that’s something new.”  Something a bit scary, but something new.  And I would use the Greek word kainos to describe it.  It’s new in quality. There’s never been a form of transportation quite like that before.  It’s different.

            In 2 Corinthians 5:7, when Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”, he uses the word kainos.  Paul isn’t saying that when we became Christians, we now have this new body that never existed before.  It’s not like our old body was disintegrated and it was replaced by a brand new body.  No.  Paul says, when we became Christians, we became different, we’re new.  We’re not like we were before.  We’ve changed. 

            And in Revelation 21, where John describes the “new heaven and new earth”, he uses this Greek word kainos.  The place where we live is not going to be new in the sense of “it’s never existed before”, but rather it’s new in quality.  It’s been renewed, it’s been restored.  And so, when heaven comes down to earth, it will create a very different existence from the creation we currently inhabit. 

            Now there are moments on this earth when I think we get a little glimpse of heaven.  Perhaps it’s when you hold your newborn baby, or grandbaby.  Perhaps a time you attended a lectureship and were surrounded by thousands of Christians singing praise to God.  Perhaps that moment when you got married and stood in front your family and friends and made a commitment to love, honor and cherish one another.

            But we all know that those heavenly moments are fleeting.  And as soon as you turn on the television or pick up a newspaper, you are reminded very quickly that this world, as it is right now, isn’t right.  While there are moments when heaven and earth overlap, there are other moments when hell seems like a more appropriate word to describe the world in which we live. 

            And so, we have a hard time picturing what it would look like for heaven to come to earth and for earthly life to take on the identity of God’s kingdom.  And one of the reasons it’s so hard for us to wrap our minds around that is because we’ve never known this world without a curse.  In Genesis 2, God created Adam and Eve and he lived with them in the Garden of Eden, walking with them, talking with them.  That was heaven on earth.  But then, in chapter 3, after Adam and Eve sinned, they were cursed, Satan was cursed, and even the earth was cursed.

            And ever since then, we’ve been living under that curse.  But listen to this description of heaven in Revelation 22:

            “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life – water as clear as crystal – pouring out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, flowing down the middle of the city’s main street.  On each side of the river is the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month of the year.  Its leaves are for the healing of the nations.  And there will no longer be any curse, and the throne of God and the Lamb will be in the city.  His servants will worship him, and they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (Revelation 22:1-4, NET)

            If you were to read the first three chapters of Genesis and then immediately read Revelation 22, it would be very obvious to you that these two books are connected.  Revelation describes the original Garden of Eden, and in one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, we read “There will no longer be any curse.” (22:3)

            The reason it’s so hard for us to wrap our minds around God’s act of redeeming his creation is because none of us have ever seen life that hasn’t been tainted by the curse.  But God doesn’t have any plans to perpetuate the broken world in which we live.  Instead, he will restore his good creation and reverse the curse. 

            And that’s a big part of what the Day of Judgment is all about.  We tend to think only in terms of Judgment Day being the day we stand in front of God and give an account of everything we’ve done in our lives.  But, perhaps the more important thing that happens on Judgment Day is that on that day, God will fix everything, and restore it to the way he meant for it to be. 

            One of the terms that’s used most often in the New Testament to identify the Day of Judgment is “the Day of the Lord”.   But that’s not a new concept.  It’s a phrase that is found over 20 times in the Old Testament prophets.  In ancient times, the people of God never thought of God’s judgment as a bad thing.   Nobody in the Old Testament ever dreaded the Day of the Lord.  It was viewed as the day when God will make everything right, and they looked forward to that day with great anticipation.

            There will be judgment on that day, but I think there’s a sense in which just being in the presence of God is our judgment.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  In Isaiah 6, we read that the heavens were opened up and Isaiah got a glimpse into heaven and, more specifically, a glimpse at the God of heaven, and notice what happened:

            “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim.  Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:  ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

            “And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

            Isaiah got to experience a taste of God’s glory, which sounds like a wonderful thing.  But when Isaiah saw God, he felt exposed.  The experience humbled him, even though God didn’t say a word about what was wrong with him.  But by God’s very presence, Isaiah was aware of his unworthiness.

            We see the same thing in Luke chapter 5.  Jesus was teaching a crowd of people by the Sea of Galilee.  And he had some fishermen let him stand in their boat to preach to the people, kind of a makeshift amphitheater. 

            In verse 4, “And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’  And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! [in other words, Jesus, this is our thing.  We’re fishermen.  We know how this works, and I can tell you the fish aren’t biting right now].   But at your word I will let down the nets.’  And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking.” (Luke 5:4-6)

            But then notice what happens in verse 8 – “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’  For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken.” (Luke 5:8)

            Jesus didn’t say anything to Peter about how sinful Peter was, but by his mere presence, once Peter got a glimpse into who Jesus really was, by Jesus’s mere presence, Peter was convicted.  You see, God’s presence causes us to recognize that something is off inside of us. When God appears, we become intensely aware of how far we fall short.

            And if heaven was to come down to earth tomorrow, none of us would say to God, “Yeah, I’ve done a few things wrong, but you should see how my neighbors live”, because when God actually shows up, it reveals the cracks in our own soul.  God’s mere presence reveals and exposes.  As Paul puts it in Ephesians 5:13, “But all things being exposed by the light are made evident.”

            Jonathan Storment tells a story about when he was a kid being home-schooled by his mother.  She wanted him to learn a foreign language, but she didn’t know any language other than English, so she ordered a tape curriculum which was designed to teach French to a fifth grader.  This was back before the days of Rosetta Stone or Duolingo, and the curriculum wasn’t all that helpful.  If you’ve ever had to learn a foreign language on your own, you know how difficult it can be.

            But it dawned on Jonathan that since he was the only person in his family learning French, he was the only one who could tell if he was learning it.  So, Jonathan would just fast-forward the tape on his French lessons, and his mother had no idea if he had actually done the work of learning the vocabulary or not.  She didn’t really have a way to test him.

            So, Jonathan learned a few French sentences, just to impress her.  For example, he learned to say, “Le poisson est dans le bain” which roughly translated, means “The fish is in the bathtub.”  Le poisson est dans le bain.

            And that worked pretty well for Jonathan until one day, he and his mother were at a yard sale held by a woman who grew up in Paris.  His mother told her how her son had been studying French for the past year, and she was eager to show off what he had learned, so she introduced Jonathan and told him to speak some French.  And suddenly, it was Judgment Day.

            And there was no way for Jonathan to hide, because it really doesn’t matter how many ways you try to conjugate a sentence about a fish in a bathtub, eventually it becomes obvious that you failed to learn what you were supposed to be learning.  And so Jonathan left that sale with a confused French woman and a very angry mother.  He was, as he put it, “Le grounded.”

            In the same way, just being in the presence of God will immediately expose all of our shortcomings, because God is light, and light exposes.

            But light does more than just expose.  Light also heals.  In Genesis, we’re told that we were made in the image of God.  If you believe in human rights or the idea that all people everywhere are equal, that comes from this truth.  The idea of inherent human value is connected to a story about how people are connected to God.  

            And when God reveals himself to us, something inside us comes alive.  Because we are reminded of what we were created to be, even while it exposes the cracks in our soul.  And I think this is, in part, how God judges. When he shows up, his presence exposes what is wrong.  And it also shows what needs to be healed and redeemed.  And if we understand that, it will help us to see that the nature of heaven should shape what our lives here look like on this earth.

            You see, usually, when we talk about heaven, the discussion becomes either abstract or exclusionary.  The conversation turns to streets of gold and gates of pearl, or the talk soon turns to who’s in and who’s out.

            Incidentally, I think God will be much more generous than any of us imagine. That’s pretty much the meaning of grace.  I think we will all be surprised when we run into certain people in heaven.  But, then again, there are likely going to be a few people who will be surprised to see you there!

            But the Day of the Lord is going to be a day when this world is finally going to be set right.  What Jesus accomplished through his death, burial, and resurrection will reverse the curse of the Fall.  And those of us who have learned how to follow Jesus well in this life will be fluent in God’s language.

            Do you suppose it would have changed the way Jonathan studied French if he had known in advance that one day he would want to serve as a missionary in Paris?  I’m pretty sure he would have been more diligent in his study of French back in fifth grade.  Not just to get a good grade, but so that he would be prepared for the world he would be living in one day by putting it into practice at an early age.

            In the same way, do you suppose it would change the way we live our Christian lives if we saw what we do as preparation for the world to come?

  • What if we fought against the injustices of racism, not because we’re afraid of going to hell, but because we want to practice living in a family that will one day be filled with people of all tribes and all nations? 
  • What if we made a commitment to keep all the promises that we make, not because we’re afraid of going to hell if we don’t, but because we want to practice living in a world that will one day be filled with honesty and integrity? 
  • What if we made a determined effort not to get caught up in the materialism of our day, not because we’re afraid of going to hell, but because we want to practice living in a world where the presence of God is what really matters? 
  • What if we decided to truly love one another, not because we’re afraid of going to hell if we don’t, but because we want to practice living in a world where love is the only language spoken?

            You see, someday, this world is going to be set right, renewed and restored to the glory that God intended when he created it.  And when that happens, those of us who study and practice the language of God will be prepared, because we’ll be fluent in that language.

            In view of that, I Corinthians 3 takes on new meaning.  This has always been a bit of a difficult passage for me.  But listen to what Paul writes, beginning in verse 11:

            “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” (I Corinthians 3:11-13)

            Paul says that, as we live out our Christian lives, we are building up the kingdom of God.  Now, there can only be one foundation, and that’s Jesus Christ.  But each of us uses different materials as we build with our lives.

            At first glance, it looks like there are six different kinds of materials here.  But, the truth is, there are really only two kinds of materials – gold, silver and precious stones represent the quality materials, and wood, hay, and straw represent the inferior materials.  And on the Day of the Lord, as we stand in the presence of God, it will be quite evident which of those materials we have used, because they will be revealed by fire. 

            What are some examples of these two different kinds of materials?  I would suggest that

  • A heart of service is like gold, silver, and precious stones, while the attitude of  “let others do it” is like wood, hay, and straw.
  • Generosity with the Lord and with those in need is gold, silver, and precious stones, while self-centeredness and greed are wood, hay, and straw.
  • Coming to church with a heart of worship is the former; coming to impress other people is the latter.
  • Standing up for those who have been mistreated is the former; choosing not to get involved is the latter.

            And so, as we think about the fact that everything we do in life contributes to the building up of the kingdom, we need to give careful consideration to the question — Are we building with materials that will survive and find their way into the world to come?  Which is really just another way of asking — Are we living in such a way that we are bringing heaven here to this earth?

            Jesus wants us to be the kind of people who help to bring heaven to earth.  That means, among other things, that we will pursue justice. It means being aware of the needs of others around us, and seeking to do something about it.  It means checking our list of contacts to see if our circle of friends is too limited.  It means asking some hard questions about how we spend our money, how we spend our time, and how we use our influence to combat injustice and racism, and to serve our neighbors.

            All the stuff that we do that is in line with God’s new creation will last, and those things we do that aren’t will one day be burned up.  But God’s people are called to live and to work in this world in a way that helps to bring God’s kingdom here.  “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

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