5 Common Misconceptions about Heaven and the Afterlife

Here are five things that the Bible doesn’t teach about heaven and the afterlife.

Revelation 21 even mentions the “glory and honor” of the nations being brought into the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:26), suggesting that some of the best of what human beings have produced will find a place in the new creation. So our present lives can impact the new creation. Likewise, how we live now is a testimony to the sort of future we expect. As I have been putting it of late: Ethics is lived eschatology.

 

Eschatology (the doctrine of last things) has become a hot topic among Christians since the late nineteenth century, when John Nelson Darby began to popularize the doctrine of the rapture (as part of what we now call dispensational theology) through a series of Prophecy Conferences in Britain, Canada, and the United States.

Today there are many best-selling books claiming to predict how the end will come, some of them quite sensationalist. But there are also many books that attempt to expound sane biblical teaching about the last things.

Despite the good intentions of many Bible teachers, the popular views found in the church concerning what God’s future looks like (and how it ought to impact our life today) does not always conform to what Scripture actually teaches.

In this post I will unpack five common misconceptions Christians have of what the end (Greek eschaton) will be like.

Here are five things that the Bible doesn’t teach.

1. That Christians will live in heaven forever.

Although it has become popular orthodoxy to speak of Christians going to be with God in heaven when you die, the Bible promises, instead, the resurrection of the body and the renewal of creation, what we could call cosmic redemption.

Some New Testament texts, like Revelation 21:1 and 2 Peter 3:13, speak of “a new heaven and a new earth.”

Since heaven and earth is how the Old Testament understands the created cosmos (Genesis 1:1), these texts in Revelation and 2 Peter portray nothing less than a new creation.

Isaiah 65:17 is the Old Testament origin of the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth.” This verse is part of Isaiah’s vision of a healed world with a redeemed community in rebuilt Jerusalem, where life is restored to flourishing and blessing after the devastation of the Babylonian exile (Isaiah 65:17–25).

Isaiah’s this-worldly prophetic expectation, focused on the return from exile, is applied to the entire cosmos and human society generally in late Second Temple Judaism and in the New Testament.

Whereas Revelation 21 and 2 Peter 3 speak of “a new heaven and a new earth” as the context for redeemed people, other New Testament texts use the phrase “all things” to describe the object of God’s saving activity.

One such text is Ephesians 1:10, which describes God’s purpose in Christ as “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Here salvation is understood as unifying that which has been fragmented through sin; and this unifying action is applied not just to human beings, but to all things, which includes things in heaven and things on earthEphesians 1 envisions a salvation as wide as creation itself.

A similar text is Colossians 1, which explains that God’s purpose in sending Christ was “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).

Here salvation is conceived as reconciliation (making peace) between those who are at enmity, by removing the source of that enmity, namely sin, through the atoning blood of Christ.

But the reconciliation with God accomplished by Christ’s shed blood is not limited to human beings. Rather, it is applied as comprehensively as possible to all things, whether on earth or in heaven. Colossians 1 clearly affirms a reconciliation that is cosmic in scope.

In Romans 8 we find imagery of the bondage in Egypt applied to the entire creation. Just as the Israelites groaned in their bondage under Pharaoh’s oppression (Exodus 2:23), so “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22–23).

God’s children thus await the resurrection, which Paul describes as “the redemption of our bodies.” But, amazingly, the non-human world can expect a similar redemption. Just as the Israelites of old experienced their exodus, so “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

This is consistent with Revelation 21, which pictures the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth, with the proclamation that God’s dwelling is now among human beings (Revelation 21:2–3). Indeed, God’s throne, which throughout the Old Testament is said to be in heaven (Psalms 2:411:4104:1–3Isaiah 40:2263:1566:1–2Amos 9:6), is now in the midst of the New Jerusalem, which means it is on the renewed earth (Revelation 22:3).

An expectation of earthly destiny, as opposed to “going to heaven,” is assumed in Jesus’s promise: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

For many decades now I have been asking my students—whether in Bible studies, Sunday School, or in my college and seminary courses—to find even one biblical passage that clearly says that Christians will live in heaven forever (or that heaven is the eternal destiny of the believer). I have even offered a reward for success.

So far no one has ever found such a passage.

The popular view that heaven is the eternal destiny of the Christian is simply that—the popular view. It is not taught in Scripture.

2. That the earth will be destroyed in the judgment when Jesus returns.

But how can the meek “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) if the earth will be destroyed at Christ’s return? After all, doesn’t 2 Peter 3:10 speak of the earth and all its works being “burned up”?

The idea that the earth will be “burned up” is found in the King James Version (KJV) of 2 Peter 3:10, and in all major English translations of that passage, up to the New International Version (NIV), which was published in the 1970s.

Where the KJV has “will be burned up,” the NIV has “will be laid bare.”

Other recent translations have renderings similar to the NIV. The English Standard Version (ESV) has “will be exposed”; and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) has “will be disclosed.”

It turns out that these more recent translations are not disagreeing with the KJV about how to translate a particular Greek word. They are translating an entirely different Greek word.

The translators of the KJV used what is called the Received Text of the New Testament (sometimes referred to by the Latin term, Textus Receptus). This was an edition of the Greek New Testament compiled by Erasmus in 1516, based on the best ancient Greek manuscripts available at the time.

The Received Text does, in fact, have the word for “will be burned up” (katakaesētai).

But, since the sixteenth century when the KJV was translated, archaeology has uncovered many other ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, and today the edition of the Greek New Testament that modern translations use is based on manuscripts that are much older than the Received Text.

It is pretty clear that the most ancient Greek manuscripts of 2 Peter 3:10 have the Greek word heurethēsetai, which means “will be found.”

Somewhere along the way a scribe who was assigned to copy 2 Peter 3changed part of the word (the ending remained the same), probably because he thought he was correcting an error.

By this time in the Middle Ages the original biblical vision of a new creation, which included the redemption of the earth, had been largely lost. Plato’s vision of leaving behind this corrupt physical world for an immaterial realm of purity and light had become standard in Christian theology.

Perhaps we could cut that scribe some slack, since the general tenor of 2 Peter 3:10–14 seems to support an overall picture of destruction. These verses describe the melting or incineration of the cosmos (specifically, the heavens and the “elements”) with great heat at the return of Christ.

Yet close examination suggests a different picture than the obliteration of the cosmos, since it is only the heavens and the “elements” (stoicheia) that will be destroyed. The earth, by contrast, will be “found.”

The picture in 2 Peter 3 is of God destroying the demonic forces in the heavens (the Greek word for “elements” is used for demonic powers in Galatians 4:8–9 and Colossians 2:820) and stripping away the upper layer of the cosmos (the heavens or sky), in order to expose the earth to divine judgment (using the image of fire). Aspects of this vivid picture are found in Old Testament prophetic texts (e.g., Isaiah 24:2134:4–59) and had become a standard way of thinking of cosmic judgment in Jewish thought by the time of the New Testament.

This sense of eschatological “finding” in connection with the coming of God in judgment makes perfect sense of Peter’s exhortation to his readers: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be foundby him at peace, without spot or blemish” (2 Peter 3:14). Peter thus challenges his readers to be ready, by their righteous behavior, for the day when the Lord comes to judge “the earth and the works in it.”

According to 2 Peter 3, the judgment of the earth will not result in its obliteration, but in its cleansing (the image is of refining by fire). Indeed, even the heavens will not strictly be destroyed, but cleansed. The text speaks only of the “destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7) and promises “new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

3. That the new heavens and new earth will be a replacement cosmos.

Even though the Bible promises a new heaven and earth (2 Peter 3:13Revelation 21:1), some Christians think that this will be a replacement cosmos, assuming that the old one will be obliterated when Christ returns.

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