This entry is an essay I wrote on the concepts presented by Father John Spencer of St. Francis Anglican Church, Dunlap, Ill., in his 2002 book New Heavens, New Earth. All Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version.
By Michael Miller
Christian believers won’t go “to heaven” when they die, the Rev. John Spencer claims.
Heaven will — eventually — come to them.
In his book New Heavens, New Earth (Writers Club Press, 2002), the Anglican vicar from central Illinois says that Christianity has allowed its understanding of eternity to be changed from a Biblical one to one based in pagan philosophy.
Rather than understanding that everyone will have a physical existence, either on a newly restored Earth in a restored relationship with God or in eternal torment in a very real hell, Spencer says, common Christian conceptions have tended toward a disembodied spiritual existence. Think spaced-out angels strumming harps in a 1950s cartoon.
But what difference does it make what we believe about our eternal existence?
A lot, Spencer says.
“I can’t state this strongly enough: if we don’t correctly understand the unity of ‘the heavens and the earth,’ God’s relationship to His world, and our proper place in it, we will never understand what ‘redemption’ is all about,” Spencer writes.
That redemption through the price paid by Christ on the cross leads to, Spencer says, “new life in a regenerated world, a world restored to the kind of place He always intended it to be.”
“We enter that new life and world only by God’s own redemption, not by our own efforts.”
How we view physical existence can also affect how we conduct our life, Spencer argues. Believing that our physical existence is of little consequence or is evil can lead:
— To gnostic heresy, which denies that Christ was present on earth in a human body.
— To a failure to take care of those in physical need in this life.
— To a spiritualization of the Gospel, rather than regarding it as grounded in everyday life.
— And to a misunderstanding of Scripture. For instance, if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection, then how can we argue for the bodily resurrection of Christ? According to Paul, if there was no bodily resurrection of Christ, then we have no hope (1 Corinthians 15:17).
A simple question
Spencer says his book was inspired by a question asked by a young niece, a question which we all ask at some point: “What will it be like when I die?”
That question hasn’t been satisfactorily answered by Christian teachers, according to Spencer. This doesn’t help when one is trying to comfort grieving people who are asking difficult questions.
“Sadly, much preaching I have heard about death, and our life after death, is shrouded in a wilderness of language that few people understand,” he writes.
God’s Word, on the other hand, is quite clear on these matters.
What Scripture actually says on the topic, according to Spencer, is that:
— God is present in heaven and on Earth. He doesn’t live “far off in heaven.”
“Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).
— Heaven isn’t a place that has been immune from trouble. Satan has stirred things up there (Job 1-2). War broke out there at one point and may yet again (Jude 6, Revelation 12:7-12), depending on how one reads Revelation.
— The Kingdom of God is not just in heaven, it’s here, too.
“No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13).
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
However, we’ll experience the kingdom’s fullness only “in the coming ages.”
— The world is good as created.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:31, emphasis added).
“Evil only came into our world as a result of our own rebellion against God’s rule (Genesis 3),” Spencer writes.
Man also was created, Spencer writes, to live in a material world in fellowship with the Father.
“It was only after they sinned that the realms of heaven and earth become sectioned, and the barriers went up.”
— We don’t have to leave this world in order to experience goodness. Goodness, rather, is determined by whether we are in a “right relationship” with our Creator (Hebrews 12:14).
— Jesus came to save the world (John 3:17), not to help us escape from it.
— Paradise is not our eternal home, but a temporary place of comfort between death and the Resurrection. Jesus, for instance, told the crucified thief that he would be “with Me today in Paradise.” But Jesus then rose three days later in His glorified body and ascended 40 days later.
But Spencer is not teaching “soul sleep.” “In some way,” Spencer told me in an e-mail, “the individual human spirit remains alive and conscious, though in a kind of ‘dream-like’ state during death, being disembodied.” He also pointed out that when the spirits of Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in the Transfiguration, they were so “real and ‘present’ that Peter wants to make a tent for each of them.’” Also, in Revelation 6, the “‘souls’ under the altar are alert, aware, and impatient.”
To think Paradise is our permanent home and disembodiment is our permanent state “is one of the greatest misconceptions held by many modern Christians,” Spencer writes. He believes that the spirits of believers at the time of their deaths will go to the “Bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22) and then be raised to an eternal, glorified physical life at the final Resurrection.
This last point is the focus of the book. We were created as material beings and have a material future, which is “why the scriptural truth of a real Resurrection is absolutely central to authentic Christian faith.”
Our final destiny
“Many Christians today believe — they truly believe — their final destiny is simply to die and go to Heaven,” Spencer writes.
That causes problems of understanding Scriptures such as Matthew 5:5, which says that the meek “shall inherit the Earth.” There needs to be an Earth to inherit.
Spencer says that these misunderstandings are caused by New Age teachings, which are really just new versions of old philosophies and belief systems such as animism, pantheism and Platonism. The last, he says, is the chief problem in church theology. It emphasizes, much like Hinduism and Buddhism do, the need to escape our physical existence.
This influence sabotages “biblical cosmology,” which Spencer says is the understanding that material creation is good, albeit in need of redemption. But that redemption, Scripture promises us, will come.
The first fulfillment of that promise was the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scripture goes to pains to make it clear that the resurrected Messiah was not some ghost or immaterial spirit, but that He rose in a real body: Thomas touches Him (John 20:27); He cooks for and eats with the Apostles (John 21:9-13, Luke 24:41-43).
The final fulfillment is described in Revelation 21 and 22. There, John describes “a new heaven and a new earth.” Spencer says the new world “will be tangible (touchable).”
“So will you. Christ gave us many hints, but not many specifics. Why? Because he didn’t need to. We know a world when we see one. We are promised, as St. John assures us, that when we get there ‘we will be like him’ (1 John 3:2).”
It’s also possible, Spencer writes, that there will be animals there, since God saw fit to make them a part of His first creation, and possibly clouds and rain. Sun and moon? No need for it. Scripture says, “for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” It also appears that we’ll be drinking and eating (Revelation 22:1-2). After all, “Scripture describes the everlasting kingdom of God as a great feast, a glorious wedding banquet celebrating the final ‘wedding’ of the Lamb of God and His Bride, the Church (Matthew 22:1-10, Revelation 19:9).
What is happening in these passages, Spencer says, is a restoration of God’s original intention. He created Adam and Eve with the intent of fellowshipping with them. Their fall from grace ruined that. Now, all will be made new through Christ (Revelation 21:5).
“What some wrongly think of a purely spiritual existence in heaven will in fact be a glorious return to the original beauty of the world as God made it, and to human nature as God first created it,” Spencer writes.
Then God will dwell with His people again.