The first Christian heresy was an idea called Gnosticism. It held that a human is a divine soul trapped in an evil, material world and body. In order to free yourself from the evil matter of the world, you had to acquire special knowledge that was available only to a chosen few. If you were one of the “enlightened ones,” after you died, you would escape this world and turn into a spiritual being finally freed from the sinful and evil flesh. Simply put: all matter is bad, spirit is good.
For the Gnostics, the flesh was the product of a bad creation. They viewed God’s creation as such a bad thing that they began the narrative that Jesus didn’t actually come in the flesh – that He was, in fact, just a spirit…since the evil, material world was bad, God obviously wouldn’t have come to earth in physical form. This world, our bodies, and how we live our lives become irrelevant, because the real human mission and purpose of God are somewhere else – in the future after we die.
That is the heresy of Gnosticism.
The Scriptures vehemently teach us this as absolutely false, like John writes:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:2-3, ESV)
To the contrary, Scripture teaches us that God entered this world to redeem it, in the flesh, as matter, physically, as a human.
Gnosticism was, in fact, a form of escaping reality by completely (and psychotically) pretending it didn’t exist. For example, the Gnostic view and idea of afterlife was that one day we will become liberated spiritual beings because we have this secret knowledge, and start living outside this world as spirits in another realm…
…sound familiar…like “going to heaven?”
Remember…this was the firstt major heresy of Christianity.
Thank God we have the Scriptures, which start with a God who repeatedly says that Creation is “good.” He even says, “It is very good.” God loves the creation.
Moving through the Bible, the writers and prophets never wrote about heaven as a kind of recondite realm beyond Neptune. Rather, they spoke of a new heaven and a new earth, speaking of a time in the future when this earth would be restored and renewed. Isaiah writes:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. (Is. 65:17, ESV)
It is followed up by a litany of amazing promises that run identical to Revelation 21. At that time, all things and people would be reconciled to one another and to God, and the creation will again be “very good.”
Jesus Himself spoke of Heaven in a like manner. In Matthew 19:28 he says:
8 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matt. 19:28-30, ESV)
Another translation of “in the new world” is “at the renewal of all things” and the word is fascinating in the Greek: “Pali-Genesis.” Genesis meaning beginning and Pali meaning “again.”
Literally “Genesis again.”
We have to understand that God has never given up on His original creation, but we have often overlooked the vocabulary of Scripture that describes God’s plan for us. This includes words like redeem, restore, resurrect, renew, recover, reconcile, and regenerate.
Every one of these words in Scripture means to “restore to a former state.”
That shows us a HUGE piece of God’s character – that He is the ultimate American Picker…the ultimate salvage restorer…that He loves to renew and restore the things everyone usually calls junk or dead. God loves resurrection…He showed us by the empty tomb, right?
But certain teachings downplay this legitimate biblical teaching in favor of the coming destruction of the world.
For almost 200 years now, Christians have been influenced by the end-times teaching called “the Rapture.” This is not a word that appears in the Bible, by the way, but the idea it infers has garnered great appeal in American churches.
We should understand that this idea has been around only a very small portion of church history. Prior to that, the accepted theology and eschatology (study of last things) of the church was that Jesus would return and restore the world back to its perfection at the end of time after the Judgment.
Revelation is a complex and robust book. I believe it a great misnomer to look at a passage and insert a “rapture” into it that has prevented Christians from engaging and participating in the very world God says is good.
When Christians believe that God will judge the world but that they will be removed from the worst judgments, it moves their focus off of God’s restoring work on earth.
This whole idea began with a guy named John (J.N.) Darby who taught that Jesus would come back again…twice…the first 2nd Coming would be in secret to “escape” or “rapture” the church, and the second 2nd coming would be to destroy the world. He gained favor with a Bible editor named Scofield, and coincidentally, this teaching wound up in the early editions of the Scofield Reference BIble.
Though this idea has NO biblical precedent, nor was it taught until 1830, it caught on like wildfire.
Here’s why this matters: A belief that emphasizes the stealthy escape of believers from earth before a global, end-times cataclysm that destroys what God created is not consistent with historical, biblical Christian doctrine. At all.
Why should Christians care for anything if God is just going to zap us all to heaven to get out-of-the-way before he nukes the universe? Why should we fight for justice and compassion on earth if God’s bigger plan is to wait until eternity before anyone can actually live or achieve it? Why should we seek mercy and reach out to help the hurting of the world if the world is just getting microwaved? This escapist theology contradicts not just Jesus’ teachings, but also His earthly life and practices.
Jesus taught his closest disciples that He would return to His Father. Meanwhile, He emphasized their role and involvement in God’s Kingdom on earth.
He did not minimize the needs of people by pointing to a future paycheck in heaven. Working for justice, being guided by compassion, sacrificing yourself for the good of others in this life – all of these were modeled by Jesus and manifest in the lives of the first Christians.
So, then, is heaven a place that is far removed from earth? An ethereal, otherworldly realm that has little resemblance of this world? Let’s look at Scripture to see.
Jon Storment and Josh Ross write:
“Paul talked a lot about the resurrection of Jesus…and most of the time, he framed it in the context of the Exodus story.”
In Romans 8:26, he writes that creation is groaning, longing for its redemption from slavery.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the longest discourse in Scripture about the resurrection, Paul wrote that the resurrection of Jesus is the “first fruits” of a larger thing God is going to do.
First fruits is reference to a holiday the Jews celebrated, one that centered around the Exodus Narrative
“This is really important b/c after the Israelites were freed from slavery, they went up to meet w/ God on a mountain:”
16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Ex. 19:16-20, ESV)
God met w/ Israel on a mountain, in a cloud, and there was a trumpet. If we keep that in mind, 1 Thessalonians 4 has completely different ring to it:
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18, ESV)
When you read that passage with the Exodus narrative in mind, you’ll be less likely to hear something that Paul isn’t saying. We too often act as if Paul said, “Just hold on until God gets us out of here.”
Are we in danger of falling back into the very heresy the Apostles and church Fathers began to stamp out? Are we in danger of embracing an “escapist” theology that not only endangers the very good creation of God, but also our own souls? Will it cause us to forfeit the God-given mission of being “ministers of reconciliation” and “ambassadors for Christ?” I think it bears thinking about, especially a teaching such as the Rapture that has led so many astray through something that’s not even in the Bible at all?
We were not meant to “escape” the world, but to redeem it in the Church through Jesus Christ! That’s something we can live for!