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Future Hope, Resurrection Bodies, and a Coming Kingdom

Evaluating the nature of hope in Life Everlasting

June 13, 2015Filed under Theology#m. div.#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Keith Whitfield's Christian Theology III class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Dan C. Barber and Robert A. Peterson’s Life Everlasting is an introductory look at the Biblical picture of heaven and eschatological hope. The authors, noting the prevalence of near-death experience accounts, the fascination many Christians evince with life after death, and the many misunderstandings about heaven and Christian hope that are prevalent among both Christians and non-Christians, aim to reset the focus of the discussion on what the Bible has to say about these matters. After a brief introduction, they examine in turn the ideas of Creation, Rest, Kingdom, Presence, and Glory through the lens of a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration reading of Scripture. For each major idea they survey, they supply a chapter examining how how things are meant to be (Creation), how they have been distorted (Fall), how Christ’s work ushers in renewal (Redemption), and how believers may expect and hope them to turn out in the end (Restoration). In each pair of chapters, they spend the bulk of their time surveying (albeit very briefly) some of the biblical material on the topic under consideration.

Barber and Peterson open with a section on Creation in order to argue that central and essential to Christian hope—and too often overlooked or misunderstood—is the idea of physical resurrection. In their opening section, they trace out this idea effectively and substantively. However, though they continue to give nods to the idea of the resurrection’s importance through the remainder of the book, they largely fall prey to one of the traps they decry in their intro: they focus almost entirely on spiritual realities to the exclusion of physical realities. As a result their analysis of the ideas of rest, kingdom, and presence are all substantially impoverished in various ways, and even their (better) treatment of Glory leaves a bit to be desired. It is not that what they say is incorrect; they present the Biblical picture of those spiritual elements of future hope well and fairly compellingly (albeit a bit blandly). Rather, it is that in each case, they simply fail to address key and essential repercussions of the embodied nature of Christian hope.

In their discussion of rest, the authors repeatedly emphasize their view that the Christian’s hope of rest is not in fact physical, but rather is simply a matter of experiencing fellowship with God. They note that Christians will rest from their labors, and give a token nod to the idea that they may continuing doing something or other in the new heavens and new earth, but spend no time whatsoever considering how that informs believers’ view of vocation in the present. Though they acknowledge that labor in the Garden was good, they say little about the continuing goodness of work, and skip almost entirely over the prospect of the restoration of work to a human good in the coming age. Besides failing to account for the full biblical narrative, this has significant pastoral consequences. The fallen world alternately presents believers with the two dangers of resenting all work or of idolizing it. The answer to these solutions is not to look to a merely spiritual hope of rest, but rather to recognize that the shape of work must be understood in light of its creation and its promised eschatological renewal. Christians today are members of an outpost of the eschatological age in the here and now; believers are citizens of the future age, attempting to live out the realities of the age to come even as the world around remains broken and unrestored. Christians’ approach to their work, then, should reflect the inherent goodness of generative activity, the hope that their labors will produce real reward in the age to come, and a God-honoring delight in the goodness of that work. Barber and Peterson neatly lay the groundwork for this, but fail to do anything with that groundwork.

They similarly focus entirely on spiritualized visions of kingdom. While they acknowledge that the kingdom will be in the new heavens and new earth, they spend no time whatsoever on the implications of this for justice, reconciliation, or the healing of the nations—despite the fact that these are all clearly taught, and at great length, in the pages of Scripture. The consummation of God’s reign in his human agents (and specifically Jesus Christ) does have enormous spiritual implications, and Barber and Peterson’s point that Satan and his forces will be defeated and the kingdom at peace at last is well-taken. However, the Biblical pictures of the kingdom include far more than the end of deception and death; it entails the kingdoms of the world having become the kingdom of Christ, and the nations living in harmony with each other. It includes ethnic reconciliation, peace and harmony throughout the earth, the end of economic oppression, and true justice for everyone. These are not merely the concerns of this generation; they are themes that run throughout the pages of the Bible, from Jeremianic condemnations of Israelite failure to practice justice to Paul’s rebuke of ethnic divisions in the early church. No picture of the coming kingdom that misses these elements is either Biblically faithful or pastorally appropriate.

In addressing presence, Barber and Peterson once again do good preparatory work but then fail to capitalize on it. Their discussion of how God’s people originally experienced his presence nicely captures the reality that God would come and walk in the Garden of Eden: he was in some mysterious way physically present with them. However, as in the other sections, Barber and Peterson turn primarily to spiritual concerns after their introduction, and their discussion of restoration never even mentions on the reality of Christ’s everlasting incarnation. Still less does it derive from that one of the great hopes of the Christian life: that believers will see God. Christians will be able to converse with the incarnate Son, and his humanity will forever be paradigmatic for all other resurrected saints. The resurrected Messiah figures centrally in the New Testament and especially John’s vision; it is astounding that he should be set aside for a spiritualizing discussion that minimizes the physical reality of the new Jerusalem (even if that discussion is largely accurate in its description of the intent of the “new Jerusalem” sequence in Revelation).

Gladly, the authors’ treatment of glory does a little better, as they devote some time to the goodness and attributes of the resurrected body. Unsurprisingly, though, given the trajectory of the rest of the book, that discussion is soon set aside for a discussion about the nature of heavenly rewards (one that ultimately concludes that there are no tangible heavenly rewards whatsoever!). This seems a fitting summary of the book’s weaknesses in this area: when the authors do address the resurrection directly, it is largely on target—but they too rarely address the resurrection; even more rarely do they trace out its implications for future hope, and still less its impact on life in the time between the times. This failure to consider or apply the promise of physical resurrection and cosmic restoration in areas that are both Biblically significant and pastorally urgent makes the book much less valuable than it might otherwise be.