By Brandon Rhodes
Easter is about unbridled hope. But I never really got the holiday, about what Easter had to do with the future. Like many Christians, I grew up very confused about hope, and so also about Easter.
Best as I ever heard, the Christian hopes that he or she will go to heaven after they die, and they can do this because of Jesus’ death on the cross. Heaven is really where it’s at, where our home is. This world’s not our home, after all – or so I heard in Sunday School. “I’m just travelin’ through this world, in this life,” I’d hear many say. And at a funeral, death was sanitized as the departed “going home”. This life was just training ground, went the conventional wisdom, for heaven. What happened on Earth, or to the Earth, was of only marginal consequence.
But there was another aspect to this hope – that one day Jesus would come again and judge everyone. We’d all be resurrected, and he’d take us to heaven. It’s the very stuff of that much-loved hymn, “I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away.” Death is talked about as a welcomed doorway to escape the jail of this world and flesh, and arrive home on God’s celestial shore.
What was lost to me in all this was quite why Jesus would come again, only to take us away. And what would become of the rest of creation? Do our souls get vacuumed out of it and into heaven just as God crumbles it up and throws it into the trash bin? I couldn’t figure out, either, where to put that talk in scripture of “new heavens and new earth” – is this just fancy talk of heaven, or something more? And why would Jesus teach us to pray for heaven to come to earth, if we were only going to heaven in the end anyway? Jesus must have been terribly confused!
Moreover, I couldn’t square this “creation-as-prison” hope with the dozens of clear biblical teachings that creation is good, is to be tended, and will in the end be healed. The gap between this escapist hope and the command of creation care has felt wide indeed.
This is the conventional hope of millions of Christians. But it’s not the hope of the Bible.
This view of escaping creation, of what author Paul Metzger calls “rapture and retreat”, is often pinned on to dispensational theology. It’s the theology popularized in the Left Behind books, and supports the end-times fervor latent in many American evangelicals, whether they’ve heard of dispensationalism or not. I regularly see it blamed for the “it’s all gonna burn anyway” excuse so often used in Christianity to escape ecological responsibility. And indeed, some blame may be appropriate here.
But I won’t settle for the usual lambaste against one school of theology, of smugly poking fun at all those end-timers and letting that be that. We’ve been reading escapism into the Bible for far longer than dispensationalism has been around. The roots of our ambiguous hope go much, much deeper.
It is time for a court summons for these villainous roots, and a presentation of the true Christian hope, that we may again celebrate Easter for all it’s worth. These deep roots have strangled our task as God’s stewards, and have made Easter into a magic trick in the shadow of the cross, rather than God’s emphatic ‘Yes!’ to His good world.
Our culprits now dragged into the courtroom are Platonic Dualism, and its pseudo-Christian partner, Gnosticism. As Westerners, we instinctively read the Bible through the first, and subsequently, for all our creedal vehemence against it, functionally fall into the deceitful morass of the second. Let’s get some brief definitions on the table.
Platonic Dualism is the view that this world is fundamentally bad, and that spiritual things are good. Our bodies are cages, prisons that keep us from the bright light of a disembodied bliss with the divine. Various branches of this physical/nonphysical dualism emphasize different things. To some, it means that the philosophical or contemplative life is best. To others, what we do in the body is of minimal moral importance. And to most dualists, death is a welcome doorway to heaven, God, freedom, nirvana, or whatever. The dead will never rise, and why in the world should we hope for that anyhow, if the spiritual world we’re freed to is home?
We see creeping tendrils of this all over Christianity, as stated above. Heaven is our afterlife, to the dualistic Christian, and creation is something we’ll never have to return to, thank goodness. To borrow from a popular movie, death becomes the welcome liberator which frees our minds and souls from the Matrix of this putrid place. The gospel becomes about only going to heaven after we die, instead of receiving and sharing the life of heaven on earth before we die, much less still anticipating a God-healed world. Judgment isn’t God’s loving setting-things-aright, but a wrathful destruction. And the future is God’s final dissolution of Earth. Trees and caribou, salmon and wild places, weather patterns and springtime blossoms – none of these have a stake in the dualist’s hope. And why, then, should the dualistic Christian want to care for any of it?
Gnosticism was the explicit celebration of this dualistic theology to its uttermost extremes. It was an early heresy soon stamped out by the early church fathers. I grew up hearing that Gnosticism’s great sin was its denial of Christ’s full humanity, which then shredded the meaning of the atonement. While true, Gnosticism’s root sin goes deeper: it denies the goodness of the creation, and so denies the goodness of the Creator God. They believed that the world was made by a bad god, and so was also bad, a prison for our immortal souls; the good god revealed in their vision of Jesus taught us the gnosis, the mysterious way of inward contemplation and emancipation from creation. This led to moral laxness, a ‘prayer closet’ spirituality of inward-bent mysticism, and acquiescence to the Roman Empire’s cruelties. Easter was spiritualized, bodily resurrection denied. Escape was the new hope.
Most pastors and theologians today would vehemently deny and combat any latter-day Gnostic movement. Indeed they have: apologetics against the DaVinci Code and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Judas attest to the biblical Christian’s continuing rigor against this ancient heresy.
Yet its dualistic impulses continue to throb in various parts of the American church, as if we’ve denied Gnosticism in name only. Its dualism can continue unchecked in our lives and theologies, so long as it goes by any other name.
“God only cares about your heart” is but one of many oft-said evidences of Gnosticism’s continued creep into Christianity. Embedded within that saying is the assumption that the inside is better than the outside, that the spiritual and the physical do not go hand-in-hand, but can be neatly severed and excluded from one another. What we do with our hands, the semi-Gnostic logic of this goes, is irrelevant so long as our hearts are warm. This can lead to moral collapse regarding sexuality, war, economics, and of course creation care. While God cares deeply about the heart, it should be understood as the lotus of His solution to rescuing all of creation. God’s loving renewal of our hearts is an outworking of the power that raised Jesus from the dead, on the one hand, and so is a microcosm of what God will one day likewise do for the whole world, on the other. God cares so much about our hearts precisely because its renewal enables us to get on with being his new humanity in His new creation, His kingdom agents, firstfruits not of the Pie-In-The-Sky By-And-By, but of God’s good creation at last healed of its bondage to sin, decay, and death.
But I have gotten ahead of myself. Pardon that intrusion of the future.
We turn now to the hope of the New Testament, the Easter hope we will celebrate this Sunday: God’s bodily raising Jesus from the dead. If you want to know what the future will be like, scripture insists, look to the risen Lord. He is the shape of our hope. What God did to Jesus, He will also one day do to all people. But the hope doesn’t stop there, only for humans – all of creation will similarly experience its own resurrection! Romans 8 says that all of creation is groaning for this to happen – it’s bristling with anticipation of the day when its redemption and ours will come in full. It’s not waiting for the dualist’s hope, to itself be discarded as our spirits are uploaded to heaven. That’s no hope at all!
Consider the final picture in Revelation. It is one of heaven and earth coming together, the New Jerusalem coming down to Earth and both being mutually renewed. The angel cries “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4) This is a rapture in reverse: God peels away the grit of pollution and sin, and fills all of creation with His glory. Eden is restored, globally!
And the life of that age is what we find in the risen Jesus. Here is one who is fully physical, made of the same substance that was exhausted on Calvary, but which seems freed of decay and curse. Recognizable yet hard to recognize, radiant yet plain: the risen Jesus defied how we understand creation at all! Expert theologian on this topic N.T. Wright says that the first apostles were struggling to even create language to describe what they met in Him. Here was the presence of the future in the flesh of the risen Lord – a startling, exciting, hope-inciting snapshot of God’s intentions for the world.
Like the ancient frost of curse melting across C.S. Lewis’ Narnia as its false ruler is cast down, so also on Easter we see the long winter of sin and death crackling under Christ’s warmth – the springtime is here, assuring us that the summer of new heavens and new earth are on the way. The climate has indeed changed, and God’s own global warming is on the loose, melting our sins and idols constantly. Just as the dualist finds himself freed from creation and now in heaven, Easter shows heaven healingly burst upon an aching Earth! Better than life after death, in Wright’s word, is life after life after death: resurrection in a restored creation.
An Easter-shaped hope is not God’s throwing creation into the rubbish bin, nor the recycling bin (tempting as that metaphor may be)! No: on this Sunday we celebrate that God’s creation is indeed good, and His mission to heal it has been launched. Creation has been held captive by mutinous powers and humans for a long time, but God’s rescue operation to make it His home was decisively won on Good Friday and launched on Easter. This world is our home, and God’s too, if we are to take Revelation’s curtain-call seriously.
On Good Friday, may we meditate on Jesus taking on the pains of the world, of our sin and creation’s failed bearing of it. And Jesus bears what all creation cannot. He ached for extinct species, for clear-cut forests, for polluted rivers and smog-poisoned children. And it killed him: our exhaust, in effect, exhausting itself on him.
Easter, then, is God’s victory over it all. Where once were sad memories of extinct critters, God invites us to imagine new possibilities of animal care. The old world of oceanic dead zones are replaced with restored zones of life. The reality of the risen Lord Jesus lights up the world with God’s glorious Yes! May we this Easter give thanks to God that in Jesus we may join all of creation in this sure and steadfast hope.
Further Reading: Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright, 2008.