revernaculation: “go to heaven”

July 25, 2005

Our three year old daughter is a curious one, and asks lots of questions — I mean lots. It is amazing to me how she will take to different concepts, make a connection between them, and then ask a question based on the connection. For instance, she has an understanding that people who die go to heaven. She has also become aware of dinosaurs of late, but understands that they have all died. So, of course, one of her recent questions to her mommy, which mommy told her to ask me, was “Did the dinosaurs go to heaven?”

I have found that all of these questions cause me to want to carefully choose the words I use with her. There is some language in the Chrsitian faith that I think has lost it’s meaning, or perhaps some of it was never quite accurate in the first place. I want to give her a full, rich and accurate understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Therefore, it has caused me to rethink some of the phrases I might use in conversation with her.

With that in mind, I propose a revernaculation of these phrases not just for my family, but for all those who I dialogue with about following Jesus. Yes, perhaps revernatucaltion is not a word, but if I’m revernaculating, I might as well invent words too! As a disclaimer, I should state that some of these may sound heretical to our 21st century ears, but I’m certainly not trying to be. In fact, I hope that all of them will represent a return to language that more clearly coincides with the truths we find in the Scriptures. I also could be dead wrong on some of these — that’s why I throw them out here for dialogue.

The first phrase I would propose we revernaculate is “go to heaven.” This was obviously stirred by the conversation described above. Christians have settled into what I believe is a misunderstanding of what the Scriptures say about life after death. The point is not so much that we will go to heaven after we die, but that, at some point in the future, God will renew this earth, come and live here, and a great resurrection will happen. This is described in Revelation 21:1-4. Here are some further thoughts on what the New Testament has to say about this, including some thoughts on the passages that seem to contradict what I am saying:

  • Heaven is most often cited as the place where God lives. Though God certainly continues to be active in this world, heaven is often described as the place where he is.
  • Heaven is often used as a parallel meaning for God, which is most common in Matthew. The clearest example of this is in the many uses of the term “kingdom of God” in Matthew, and how the parallel of this concept is “kingdom of heaven” in Mark and Luke.
  • Much of our misunderstanding does come from the idea of the “kingdom of heaven”. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that it describes a future kingdom in spiritual place. The reality, however, is that Jesus instituted the kingdom when he was on this earth, and empowered it with the coming of the Spirit. This is a lost understanding in much of Christianity, but one that needs to be recaptured. It gives meaning to the Christian life now, and not just as something we struggle through while we wait for something better.
  • There is a common reference to God holding on to some sort of future reward for us in heaven, but not a description of humans going there to get it. This is probably where we most common get our understanding that we will go to heaven after death. A few examples of this are found in Matthew 5:12, Matthew 6:20 or Colossians 1:5. Passages such as would best be understood as saying that God is holding on to a great reward for us which he will present to us at the time of the resurrection.

Perhaps this is splitting hairs, because I suppose you could argue that when God restores the new earth, heaven will be here, so that we wil in fact be “going to heaven.” I think it is worth revernaculating because our culture has such a mixed of perception of heaven as a place with white robes and puffy clouds. It is better understood that we will be resurrected to a restored and renewed earth. So much of the beauty we already appreciate will be without corruption and decay.

I propose we revernaculate by saying “in the resurrection” or “when we are resurrected” which, I believe better reflects some of the language of the Scriptures. An example of this language can be seen in Matthew 22:29-32, Acts 4:2, Acts 17:32, Acts 23:6, 1 Corinthians 15:12, or Hebrews 6:1-3.

For further study on this, I’d recommend you look at how the terms “heaven” and “the resurrection” are used throughout the New Testament through this lens. I’d also recommend this MP3 called “The Resurrection” by NT Wright or The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.

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