The folks at the Bible Project recently developed a terrific video on heaven and earth (see below). We at the DNA find that there is still a great deal of confusion on this topic among Christians. Many (perhaps most) evangelical Christians hold to the idea that heaven and earth are totally separate realms, heaven is holy, earth is sinful, and ultimately, this sinful earth will be utterly destroyed, and Christians will all live with Jesus in heaven.
This notion was popularized in the 1980s by Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, and it still influences the paradigm of the church today. It has many unfortunate consequences. For one thing, it shapes a particular understanding of missionary endeavor. Missions is reduced to getting people saved so they can be evacuated out of this sinful fallen earth and into heaven after they die. There is no basis or motivation for actually making this world a better place. The only work that ultimately matters is evangelism. If you do spiritual work, like evangelism, your work is more important than someone who works in the “secular world” as an artist, builder, teacher, politician, or economist.
Heaven and earth are both part of God’s mission in history
At the DNA, we’ve referred to people who hold this view as “evangelical Gnostics.” For evangelical Gnostics, the idea that we should make this world a better place sounds heretical. It comes across as a secular, humanistic idea associated with the “social gospel.”
Yes, the social gospel is a heretical movement. It wants to make this world a better place, but has largely given up on God, denied sinfulness and the necessity of salvation through faith in Christ’s finished work. It seeks to make the world better through exclusively human efforts, typically in the form of large government programs and systems to alleviate poverty and foster social justice. Such strategies inevitably lead to an abuse of government, and the accompanying loss of human freedom.
The late Catholic theologian and economist Michael Novak described this in an article titled “Don’t Confuse the Common Good with Statism.”
[Some] seem to think that the way to achieve ‘social justice,’ that is, to help the poor, is to give more money to the state to distribute … [They] equate social justice with turning over to the state the project of ‘fighting’ poverty. Where…is [the] evidence that this dependence on the state actually helps the poor? … For myself, a mountain of evidence convinces me that … giving money to the state in order to help the poor is a little like trying to feed the swallows by feeding the horses. The swallows get very little of it.
For far too long, the debate has been framed as one between evangelical Gnostics on the one hand, and social gospel folks on the other. Frankly, both are wrong. The Bible Project helps us come back to the true picture of heaven, earth, and God’s mission in history. God’s mission includes saving souls, but it also encompasses making the world better, and has Jesus right at the center of all of it.
- Scott Allen