For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
The Shawshank Redemption is a wonderful movie, which serves as a beautiful parable about hope, a hope that comes from freedom and a view of the future as being different and better than the present. I think such stories resonate strongly in the human heart because we were made to live with hope. Our capacity to live in the present with joy is somehow tied to our ability to view the future with the expectation of good. Things will eventually turn out all right. Justice will prevail. The good guys will win. We are born with an acute awareness that all is not right with the world, but it should be.
If we listen, we can hear all of creation groaning with expectation. There is a palpable brokenness to things. There is a sense of urgent expectation and longing for things to be set right. It is as if we intuitively know corruption, decay and death to be wrong. They are enemies to be defeated. Aware of the victory accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we long for the full and final implementation of what he has won.
My Christian experience has clearly defined our hope as a hope for Heaven. Some glad morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away. In Heaven, there will be no tears. In Heaven, there will be no lack, no injustice, and no evil. Things will be right in Heaven. As a matter of fact, things are currently right in Heaven. The problem is one of location. I am here now, so I have problems. When I die, I will be there, and that will fix things.
I have recently been gripped with the hopelessness of this line of thinking, not that I deny any of the above. It just doesn’t solve the dilemma at hand. Our sense of the brokenness of creation has to do with the sin, corruption, decay and death which dominate this planet and which mar the beauty of what God originally designed. It occurs to me that things being ok in Heaven is a great answer, but not to the question our hearts are asking.
As I have dug into the Bible regarding such issues, I have been amazed by the almost complete absence of our hope being in any way tied to the promise of disembodied bliss in the great by and by. It seems the Bible takes a much more definite and concrete approach to hope. Biblically, our longing and expectation for good to prevail, which very much finds its source in our awareness of the brokenness of the present order of things, finds its aim, not in the hope for a clouds, wings, and harps kind of pie in the sky, or even in the eternal praise band concert imagery common in contemporary discussions of the afterlife, but rather in the expectation that God is eventually going to show up and set things right here on the earth. As a Christian, my hope isn’t that one day I will leave my body and enjoy a different kind of existence in a non-material realm. My hope is grounded in the expectation of the “…redemption of our body.”
Jesus, in his bodily resurrection from the dead, is seen as the first fruits of a resurrection yet to come. The same Spirit by whose power Jesus’ dead body was raised to life, will one day raise my dead body to life, and yours too if you share this hope. One day, Jesus will return to this earth. Our hope is not that we will one day go to Heaven, but rather that one day Heaven will come down to earth. God will not someday give up on creation and take those who are his and go home. His redemptive plan will bring about a new creation. Justice and goodness will dominate the created order and the brokenness and distortion of creation because of sin will be set right. The reality of going to Heaven when we die is a true hope and comfort, but Biblically it does not, cannot, and should not serve as our ultimate hope. In our heart of hearts, we know the goal of redemption could not have been that everything would be ok in Heaven. Heaven isn’t broken. All of creation is subject to decay due to sin. Our hope is this will not always be so. Jesus’ death and resurrection have already accomplished the victory. The Spirit is given to us as a down payment to secure our hope of the promise that one day we too will be raised in the same way. The great witnesses in heaven are still very much concerned about the working out of God’s redemptive plan here on earth. They too wait for the time when their tombs will be empty and their vocation to be God’s image bearers in the earth will be ultimately fulfilled.
Part of the problem is our tendency to view heaven as exclusively non-material. Did Jesus experience a bodily resurrection? Of course he did. Where is Jesus now? He is ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, bodily. One day he will return to earth, bodily. If Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of the resurrection to come, what kind of resurrection should we expect? We should anticipate a bodily resurrection like Jesus experienced. We will be raised from the dead, with a physical existence, and the capacity to interact and live in a context that is material and spiritual at the same time.
God’s goal has always been an earth filled with men (mankind) who bear God’s image, are animated by his Spirit, and who, as his representatives, exercise his authority in the earth. A redemption accomplishing anything less than this is not redemption. It would better be classified as tucking tale and going home. The post-resurrection narrative regarding Jesus in the gospels and Acts clearly demonstrate to us that what resurrection accomplishes is a real manifestation of God’s victory over sin and death. Jesus was raised from the dead, not with a resuscitated version of his pre-cross body, but rather with a resurrected physicality quite different from any previously seen. Jesus’ resurrected body still carried the scars from the cross. He ate fish. He could be touched, embraced. He could also apparently walk through walls and ascend into Heaven. He was raised with what Paul describes in 1Cor 15 as a spiritual body – spiritual physicality. The indwelling of The Holy Spirit in bodies presently subject to decay and death is a guarantee that one day we will all be so raised.
We do not see this yet, but because of Jesus’ resurrection, and because of the Spirit, “…we wait eagerly for it.” Our hope is that things on earth will not always be as they are now. Our prayer is that his Kingdom would come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Even so, come quickly Lord.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, whe
He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.
So…what of the present? We find ourselves called to live in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the victory he has won. At the same time, we are called to live in hope of the full implementation of his victory at the final resurrection when he returns. The Holy Spirit, given to indwell believers in the present as a guarantee of what is to come, empowers us to live with an unshakeable hope and joy in the here and now, supplying for us the reality and substance of our eternal inheritance day by day. Our lives embody the Lord’s Prayer that his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We are the vanguard of a new era yet to come, living today in light of tomorrow’s promise. Hope.
What we are called to in our generation – and to this task I invite you as fellow pilgrims, pilgrims of hope – is to the larger sacramental life of working to bring the powerful word of God to birth in acts through which Easter will come rushing forwards into tomorrow’s world, acts through which God’s final new creation will come rushing back to meet us in advance.
– N.T. Wright, from his sermon Pilgrims of Hope