Chapter 11: The Concern with the Earth and the End of Heaven

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 11: The Concern with the Earth and the End of Heaven

Israel’s concern with human history caused her to fasten her attention more and more on the tangible world, the earth, and less and less on the unseen world called heaven. The abolition of the gods was destined to entail the abolition of the unseen world in which ancient man supposed them to live. The myths of ancient man were predominantly concerned with descriptive narratives of what went on in that divine world hidden from human sight. The Old Testament almost completely lacks this mythological interest, one of the few examples being the prologue of the book of Job, and this is very likely an ancient myth which a post-exilic writer adapted to provide the setting for his magnificent poem on the riddle of human destiny.

When the Old Testament begins its main theme, which is the story of Israel, we find that God’s promise is expressed in quite worldly or materialistic terms. God promised to Abraham a numerous posterity, and the possession of the land of Canaan. "I will make of you a great nation . . . To your descendants I will give this land". This theme continues through the stories of the patriarchs and forms the prologue for the much more important and rather more historically based tradition, of the deliverance from Egyptian slavery and the entry into the land of promise.

As the story of Israel proceeds thereafter the material becomes more and more historical. But though this story of Israel is set in the real world of human history, and becomes what we today would call both political and secular, it is for Israel the very ground of her theology. The story of how Israelite tribes established firm possession of Canaan, drove out enemy raiders, and met the very severe crisis of the Philistine invasion by the institution of kingship, is narrated in the context of Israel’s encounter with YHWH. Political leadership, military defense, the establishment of dynastic rule, become the chief concerns of Israel’s traditions, and are expressed as the chief concern of YHWH her God.

At the point where Israel recognized that YHWH must also be the creator of the tangible world, the Old Testament expressed this in a positive, world-affirming attitude. "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." The psalmists proclaim that in the night-sky one can behold the very handiwork of God, and it makes manifest His glory. It is He, who has provided the mountains with strength, and who can still the roaring of the sea. It is He, who provides for the watering of the earth, that it may bring forth grain and food for the creatures He has placed upon it. The earth in fact, along with all that it contains, is YHWH’s magnum opus, and it is His chief delight to be concerned with what goes on in it. What a contrast this is with the comparative lack of interest which the gods of ancient man were believed to show in the tangible world.

Israel’s concern to affirm the essential goodness of the human world that God had made, did not prevent her from seeing the wickedness, evil, crime and tragedy that it also contained. On the contrary it led her to be caught up in the process of rooting out those evils, for it became clear to her that YHWH was not abandoning the world He had made, but was determined to achieve its renewal. Israel pioneered the movement for social reform and the renewal of human culture. Wherever the people of God in subsequent centuries have neglected this, they have deviated from the biblical tradition which Israel founded, in obedience to Him who has the earth as His chief concern. The prophets of Israel, if transported to the twentieth century, might have found themselves more at home in a political meeting than in an ecclesiastical council.

The prophets of Israel were the forerunners of the political reformers in the new world. They saw that their world was under judgment, not because people had neglected their tithes, their sacrifices and their temple worship, but because they had trampled on the poor, traded dishonestly, and showed neither mercy nor justice to the weaker members of society. One of their chief concerns therefore was with the widow, the orphan and the resident alien, the very individuals who had been deprived of their natural protectors.

The prophets never for one moment suggested any attempt to escape from the wicked world. They did not proclaim any comforting message that all would be well in the sweet by-and-by in a spiritual heaven beyond death. But they did hold out the promise that the earth itself would be renewed, and they looked forward to the time when a transformed human society would live in harmony. Among their poetic prophecies we read:

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;

but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,

and none shall make them afraid.

Israel testifies to us in the Old Testament that the promises she heard from YHIWH were earth-centered, and the blessings received from YHWH were to be found in the length and quality of human life. Since the study of the Bible was revived at the Reformation, the sheer earthliness of the Israelite hope has often been a puzzle to the Christian reader. Modern Christians have been inclined to dismiss the Old Testament as primitive, limited and unsatisfying. This is because we have inherited from the Middle Ages a Christianity that was world-denying and which insisted on directing men’s attention away from this temporal world to an eternal home in a supernatural heaven above. But this medieval Christian emphasis constituted a resurgence of the very same mythological unseen world which Israel had earlier abandoned.

Christians have often searched the Old Testament for evidence of the orthodox other-worldly Christian hope. They usually conclude that the Old Testament contains no clear doctrine of a life after death, but they interpret this as meaning that Israel in her earthly-centered life had only reached the stage of beginning to feel after that eternal world above, the door of which Jesus is said to have opened to all believers. But this is to ignore the fact that in at least some of the ancient mythologies, the human search for immortality in the unseen world of the gods was one of the favorite themes. It was not because ancient man had never entertained any such hopes of immortality that Israel focussed her attention upon the earth, but because Israel deliberately turned her back on such hopes, as she cast off the mythological outlook to which they properly belong. This might be how ancient man saw his eternal destiny, but this was not how YHWH had spoken His Word to Israel.

The story of the Garden of Eden illustrates this emancipation from the immortality theme in a rather interesting way. Close study of this material suggests that the prototype of this story was originally a myth derived from Israel’s ancestors. Indeed it appears to have been a story of how to obtain immortality by eating from the tree of life which enabled one to live for ever. But in Genesis 3 this tree of life is referred to only in two verses (22 and 24) which can be shown to be an intrusion into the present text, partly because they break the continuity, and partly because one of these verses breaks off in the middle of a sentence. If, as seems likely, these two verses have found their way back into the story from an earlier version that had been discarded, it illustrates how man, even when emancipated from the mythological, is always being tempted to restore it.

Now let us see what the Israelite thinker has done with this myth. He has deliberately turned round the story to be firstly a magnificent study of disobedience and guilt in the human scene, and secondly, though more subtly, to warn his readers against the search for immortality. He removed all mention of the tree of life, and made the tree of knowing good and evil the forbidden tree. The idea that it is within man’s grasp to become like the gods (and so attain immortality) is now set in the mouth of the wily serpent as the very temptation most likely to lead the woman astray. The fruit that can do this is too good to be missed and the woman and her husband succumb. One of the several morals conveyed in this version of the story is that man is not intended to share the immortality of the gods, and the attempt by man to grasp it for himself lies at the root of his fallen nature.

In contrast with many others of the ancient world, Israel recognized the full implications of man’s mortal nature. Man is made from the dust of the earth, and to the dust his body returns. Israel understood the destiny of man as something to be expressed within the context of the tangible world of earth, and within the limits which mortal existence places upon it. YHWH was the One who spoke to her within the historical context, who sustained Israel as a people from generation to generation, and who walked with the individual Israelite from the cradle to the grave. Such a faith led the psalmist to say:

YHWH, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations . . .

Thou turnest man back to the dust, and sayest, "Turn back, O children of men!". . .

Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream, like grass which is renewed in the morning:

the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. . . .

So teach us to number our days

that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

There were many times when the Israelite was deeply conscious of the moral problems, the frustrations, and the anguish in which his human mortal lot involved him. But for the most part he learned, in obedience to the Word of YHWH, to accept himself as a creature, who was earthly and earth-bound, and yet the recipient of more blessings from God than he deserved. So out of the context of his mortal historical existence he could pour out his praises to God with joy and gladness.

Israel’s almost exclusive concern with the earth meant that, for her, the mythological heaven of ancient man was all but eliminated. There are many places in the Old Testament where ‘heaven is used to describe the dwelling-place of God e.g. "Hear thou from heaven thy dwelling place; and when thou hearest forgive". This is an understandable survival of the earlier mythology in which the sky above, with its fascinating heavenly bodies, to some extent visible yet always beyond the reach of man, was regarded as the domain of the gods. Yet though Israel accepted the usage of speaking of heaven as the dwelling-place of God, she could not tolerate the idea of confining God to such an area. The very prayer we have just quoted, also says, "Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built".

But that was the limit of Israel’s interest with heaven. The idea that it is a realm where the faithful departed live in immortal bliss is quite foreign to the Old Testament. The only two humans of whom the Old Testament speaks as being in heaven are Enoch and Elijah, and according to the tradition neither of these men had ever died. Enoch is a mythical character from Israel’s prehistoric traditions, and of him the Old Testament simply says, "Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him."

Elijah, on the other hand, was an historical character, but the stories of him preserved in the Old Testament are strongly legendary. He was so full of vitality, and seems to have been so much of a mystery man, who appeared on the scene like lightning and disappeared again as quickly, that it was hard to think of such a man as ever succumbing to death. So we are told that he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire, drawn by horses of fire. Israel retained her interest in Elijah, not because he had attained immortality on the other side of death, but because she believed him, having never died, to be living in heaven with God for an indefinite period, whence at any time he might return.

It was in the post-exilic period, after most of the Old Testament was written, that we see the rise of certain themes and hopes which were destined to come to the fore in the New Testament. The Jewish remnant of Israel had achieved only a partial restoration of their former community life in the Holy Land. They were still scattered round the Eastern Mediterranean in what is called the Diaspora, and the holy city of Jerusalem was subjected to one foreign conqueror after another. This brought them under the influence of the mythological interests which had continued among other ancient peoples. And the increasing imperial oppression they experienced led them to a certain degree of despair concerning this world.

Yet this despair was directed not against the tangible world as such, but against the present age of the tangible world that they were then passing through. They began to set their hopes on the coming of a new age, and here they turned to the words of the earlier prophets who had looked forward to a renewed society. Out of the traditions associated with the earlier office of the kingship in Jerusalem, and stemming from the covenant establishing the dynasty of David, there began to emerge various messianic hopes that the new age would be ushered in by someone especially anointed for the purpose by YHWH the Lord of history.

It is important to note that their hopes did not involve the abandonment of the tangible world, but the abandonment of the present age, and its projected replacement by a new age or era, just as the antedeluvian era was thought to have been succeeded by the era after the Flood. The new age was described in more extravagant terms than those the earlier prophets had used, partly because the evil of the present generation, it was thought, could be rooted out only by a more cataclysmic change, and partly because of the influence of mythological terms drawn from the other cultures. By the time of the birth of Jesus, there was in Judaism a general air of expectancy. They looked forward to the new age. A messiah of some kind was awaited.

The early church believed that Jesus Christ had inaugurated the new age, and that it would very shortly be consummated in its fullness. They preserved the same terms as had been current in Judaism, namely, ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’. We have earlier seen that the same Greek word can be translated as either ‘age’ or ‘world’, and that is why this very term appears in the Nicene Creed as ‘the life of the world to come’. The later Christian interpretation of this as an unseen supernatural world existing contemporaneously with the tangible world is quite a distortion of the New Testament hope, where ‘the world to come’ is definitely that which comes when the present age of the world has passed away. (Compare Matt. 12:32 in both A.V. and RSV.).

All this needs to be made clear, for the word ‘heaven’ appears a good deal more in the New Testament than in the Old Testament, and there is a strong tendency for readers to assume that it means there what later Christian orthodoxy meant by the term, namely, an eternal spiritual sphere above this world where the faithful departed live with God. It may come as a surprise to learn that in not one of the approximately 275 instances of the use of the words ‘heaven’ or ‘heavenly’ in the New Testament, does it mean the eternal home of the faithful departed. Often it just means the ‘sky’, sometimes it is a synonym for God, and in all the other cases it is used in one way or another to describe the dwelling-place of God, just as in the Old Testament. As such, it is the present storehouse for such future blessings as God may later bestow upon the faithful, and that is why we often hear of a reward or inheritance preserved in heaven until the time when it is to be granted.

The Ascension of the risen Jesus to heaven is a story parallel to that of the ascension of Elijah. The story was meant to explain why Jesus no longer appeared to the believers. Like Elijah of old, He has ascended to heaven for an indefinite period, but before long, so the early Christians believed, He would descend from heaven in the same manner as the apostles had seen Him go. Then there would be ushered in in its fullness that new age of which only a foretaste had been experienced to date.

The Revelation of John is quite unique in the New Testament in the emphasis given to the unseen heaven above, yet even here, what John was invited to see through the open door of heaven was a preview of the future events which were yet to take place on the earth. ("Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this.") John tells that he saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven (dwelling-place of God) and the first earth (the present dwelling-place of man) had passed away and the sea was no more. Then he saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It would replace the old Jerusalem recently sacked by the Romans. Thus, in spite of the visionary nature of these descriptions, it is still the tangible world that is being talked about, but renewed and transformed by the power of God. We must not miss the final and dramatic point. It is not a case of the faithful being saved from a lost world to spend eternity with God in a heaven above. It is a case of a lost world being transformed by God to such a degree that He himself abandons His heaven and comes to dwell among men.

It was only when the expected imminent end of the present age did not eventuate that the first century Christian hope found in the New Testament entered on the long path of transformation which was to reach its peak in the other-worldly unseen heaven of traditional Christian thought. There were many factors in this transformation, one of them being the influence of Persian religion to which we earlier referred. It had already influenced Judaism, and it further influenced Christianity with its clear-cut doctrine of the survival of man beyond death, to face a divine judgment which led directly to either heaven or hell. Once Christianity became permanently divorced from its Semitic origins in Judaism, and was proclaiming its Gospel in a pagan context where the ancient mythology was still very much of a reality, it was natural that the idea of the unseen divine world above should steadily become more dominant in Christian thought.

The emergence of the new world has brought about the dissolution of the mythological framework in which Christian faith had come traditionally to be expressed. Christians need have no alarm about this, for the other-worldly concern with a supernatural unseen heaven, which has dominated traditional Christianity, is really foreign to the witness of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The way in which the new world has focussed man’s attention on the tangible historical world of here and now is, in fact, a return to the very road on which our spiritual forebears of ancient Israel took the pioneering steps. It is He who was the YHWH of Israel and the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who has opened up this new world to men. It is He, who calls men to abandon the traditional concept of heaven and to concern themselves with the tangible historical world as the sphere of human destiny.