J. Todd Billings’s Critique of Tom Wright’s “New View of Heaven”

J. Todd Billings’s has a short article that recently appeared in Christianity Today called “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small.” In it Billings critiques what he calls “the new view of heaven,” citing both Tom Wright’s and my own writings on eschatology.

Billings is, first of all, appreciative of the new emphasis among evangelicals on the renewal of earthly creation as the eschatological hope (a view Tom Wright and I both espouse). But he thinks that Wright’s emphasis on our righteous “works” or “deeds” (in the sense of our cultural activity) enduring into the new creation is wrong-headed.

Instead, Billings thinks that Wright (and, by implication, Middleton) should focus instead on our worship and glorification of God as the true telos of the new creation.

Four Views on Heaven

Interestingly, I have just agreed to write a chapter in a new Zondervan book tentatively called Four Views on Heaven, in which one of the chapters would be precisely on the view that Billings advocates.

Whereas my chapter would focus on the new earth, arguing that we will engage in ordinary human activities (without sin), one chapter would develop the view of a new earth in which life will be focused on the worship of God. A third chapter would be on the classic Protestant view of a heavenly destiny discontinuous with earth, and a fourth would be on the traditional Catholic/Thomistic view of the beatific vision.

How to respond to Billings? First of all, it is important to say that I greatly respect Todd Billings for his theological contribution to the contemporary church. And I specifically affirm his point that the glorification of God is of supreme importance in a Christian vision (applicable to both life today and to the eschaton).

What Does It Mean to Glorify God?

The problem comes with what it means to glorify God. I take it that it is faithfulness to God (in all of life) that truly brings God glory. However, in popular parlance glorifying God often refers to verbal or hymnic exaltation of God. That is, it is basically identified with what we today call “worship.”

I have been involved in worship renewal, in this sense, for many years, and think this is an important part of the Christian life. Such worship and glorification of God (which can, however, involve supplication, confession, and lament; it does not have to all be “praise”) is crucial to the Christian life. Whether practiced in private devotion or in communal contexts, such worship focuses our allegiance to the true Lord of heaven and earth, which then spills over (or ought to spill over) into our daily walk of discipleship.

So “worship” is important; but not when it is separated from the rest of life. Indeed, Paul describes the transformation of the mind and our doing the will of God as true worship (Rom 12:1–2).

Ethics is Lived Eschatology

Billings actually makes good points in his critique of what I would consider some offhand comments Wright makes about the results of our work lasting into the new creation. Billings asks why some work would last into eternity (a Bach concerto, which Wright mentions) and not others (the work of a mechanic, for example). I agree that it certainly should not be based on whether the work consists of high art of merely a trade.

However, this does not lead me to dismiss the idea that we will be engaged in ordinary activities in the new creation. Indeed, I think we should take seriously Paul’s idea that while some of our works will be burned up in the judgment, some would be purified and withstand judgment into the age to come (1 Cor 3:12–15).

At the same time, I find that trying to know too many details about the afterlife presses eschatological language too far, since such language is largely metaphorical or symbolic and evokes that which currently lies beyond human experience. The primary point of such language is not to satisfy our curiosity about the world to come, but to motivate us in the present to be faithful to God in all that we do. As I have been saying of late, ethics is lived eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth, p. 24).

This implies that whatever is our  true telos or goal in the eschaton should also be the focus of our lives today. However, I can find no biblical warrant for the idea that worship (in the specific sense of private devotion or communal praise) should be the exclusive (or primary) focus of our lives today.

The Biblical Emphasis on Human Works or Deeds

Both the Old and New Testaments make the claim that allegiance to God must be expressed in obedience or deeds that stem from this allegiance; thus Jesus quotes the Shema (love the Lord your God) and pairs it with the injunction to love our neighbor as the two great commandments (Matt 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28).

In the Old Testament, allegiance to God is not equivalent to worship and is not evidenced primarily by worship. Indeed, the Old Testament contains a powerful prophetic critique of what we would today call “worship” (sacrifices, sabbaths, fasting, prayer, sacred festivals) if this is not accompanied by justice and righteousness, which is what is really important (Isa 1:10–20; 58:1–14; Jer 7:1–15; Amos 5:1–25; Micah 6:1–8).

Jesus himself critiques actions typically regarded as expressing devotion or worship (such as tithing) as of less importance than justice, mercy, and faithfulness, which he calls “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23–24).

The Old Testament emphasis on faithfulness to the covenant as proof of allegiance to YHWH is matched by the New Testament claim that although we are saved by faith, we are judged by our works. This may be paradoxical, but it is a pervasive theme, showing up in Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31–46), in various statements by the apostle Paul (Rom 2:6–8; 2 Cor 5:10), and in the emphasis of James that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26).

Both the Old and New Testaments (along with Second Temple Judaism) stress the importance of “works” or “deeds” (mitzvot) as the proof of faith or commitment to God.

A Theological Lens for Reading Scripture

Another way to get at what is going on in Billings’s article is to suggest his vision of the eschaton is filtered through a later theological lens.

Of course, we all read the Bible through a particular lens. The question is, which lens?

Billings’s lens seems to be that of Reformed theology, of a sort that tends to downplay human action in order to elevate God’s glory as the telos of human life.

I fully affirm the biblical emphasis on living our lives to the glory of God, but as a Kuyperian-Wesleyan I see no contradiction in principle between God’s glory and human action.

As a Kuyperian (in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper), I have been influenced by that branch of the Reformed tradition that emphasizes Christian involvement in cultural life to the glory of God. As a Wesleyan (in the tradition of John Wesley), I have been impressed by the need for human effort in the process of sanctification.

Here it might be helpful to note that Wesley was an Anglican—as is Tom Wright.

Even Paul, the chief proponent of justification by faith saw no contradiction between faith and good works, affirming that we are saved by faith yet created for good works (Eph 2:8–9), and enjoining us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)—a motif that fits well with the Kuyperian emphasis on cultural action and the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification.

So I fully affirm that the goal of life is (and will be, in the new creation) the glory of God. But rather than reducing this to what we today call worship, we should understand that God is glorified when creation—human and non-human—functions as it was intended to, in harmony with God’s will for flourishing.

And if this is our vision of the new creation, it should affect how we live now.

As Paul affirms in 2 Cor 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ—new creation! The old has passed away, the new has come.”

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6 thoughts on “J. Todd Billings’s Critique of Tom Wright’s “New View of Heaven”

  1. Thanks Richard. I often explain “glorifying God” as living and speaking in ways which enhance God’s reputation, among both believers and non-believers. That to my mind embraces both worship and everyday life.
    Chris Gousmett

  2. While I think we *must* agree that ethics is lived eschatology, it is only so *with respect to the given stage of redemptive history*.
    So, there are obvious ethical “expressions” in the old covenant (a typological intrusion of consummation) that do not hold in the new covenant (an interim of inaugurated not-yet, anticipation of consummation). The discontinuity in ethics between redemptive historical stages is crucial to the mode in which eschatology is lived.
    This has fundamental significance for the relationship between work and worship now, and that in the consummation.
    According to Hebrews 4 & 12, our entering the consummation of eschatology is the festal-sabbath-rest-reward-worship-enjoyment of/from our works.
    So, it is incorrect to see our consummation activity as the present “ordinary” work we now do in light of that hope of future enjoyment of the fruits of our good work (which is also the Lord’s work, and will not be shaken).

    • You make an excellent point about the relationship of ethics to “the stage of redemptive history.”

      I am just now finishing up an article (which will be published in the Canadian-American Theological Review) that addresses the question of how we discern the ethical thrust of particular Scriptures (from both Testaments), based on where they are located in the overarching story of salvation.

      However, I believe that this is a different issue from the relationship of discipleship/obedience, generally, to “worship,” and the role of both in the eschaton.

      There really isn’t space here to address this issue fully. But here is a summary of some of the considerations that affect my understanding.

      1. As you note, Hebrews 4 does use the notion of Sabbath rest to describe the eschaton. However, I don’t see that this is associated with worship anywhere in Hebrews. Actually, the Sabbath in the OT is not primarily about worship either, but about rest as part of the rhythm of work. Whether it is the Sabbath day or the Sabbath year, including the Year of Jubilee (a Sabbath of Sabbaths), the point is about a temporary inbreaking of justice and mercy (especially for workers, and even for animals). Note that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, against the opposition of the Pharisees, and noted that his Father has been working all along (in the work of healing) and so he would also work on the Sabbath (indeed, precisely on the Sabbath!).

      2. Note also that the Sabbath commandment is found in two versions of the Decalogue, in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In Deuteronomy 5 the Sabbath day is linked to the exodus from Egypt, as is the Sabbath year in Leviticus 25. In both cases it is about freedom from injustice.

      3. In Exodus 20 the Sabbath is tied to God’s rest on the seventh day in Genesis 1, where divine “rest” (in both the ANE and the Bible) is about God’s taking up residence in the temple, seated on his throne, thus reigning over his world. So the Sabbath is a sign of God’s reign in the world. The Bible is pretty consistent on the meaning of God’s reign–it is when God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven.

      4. If we ask why only one day out of seven (or one year out of seven), the answer is similar to the question of why God chose to dwell in the tabernacle and temple, and not in the entire earth. Whereas the tabernacle/temple is a partial reclamation of space, a sign that one day all creation will be filled with God’s presence (the pervasive biblical motif of the cosmos as temple), so the Sabbath is a partial reclamation of time, until the Kingdom of God comes, which will be the great Sabbath era, when time itself will be sanctified.

      5. This era was inaugurated by Jesus when he announced that the Kingdom of God had come (Mark 1; Matt 4; Luke 4). Thus “the age to come” (ha’olam haba, in Hebrew) began in the ministry of the Messiah; this is the “acceptable year of the Lord” spoken of in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah 61, a text that itself draws on the language and ideas of the Sabbath year and Year of Jubilee. (I discuss this in some detail in A New Heaven and a New Earth, chap. 11.)

      6. So, a truly redemptive-historical approach to the biblical canon leads me to conclude that the Sabbath in the OT is a partial pointer to the fuller reality of the eschaton, which (on any reading of the NT) begins in the ministry of Jesus (we don’t have to wait for the parousia for this; that is the consummation of the great Sabbath age, but it has already begun).

      7. This helps explain why only nine of the Ten Commandments are rearticulated in one way or another in the NT. The Sabbath commandment is not. Rather, we are told that no one is to judge us about whether or not we keep the Sabbath, precisely because this is a shadow of the reality to come (Col 2:16-17).

      8. So, rather than take a particular post-biblical interpretation of the Sabbath as characterized by worship and superimpose this on my understanding of the eschaton, I want to understand how the biblical writers treat the Sabbath as a partial revelation of the coming age of fulfillment, in which God’s will is fully done, on earth as it is in heaven.

      9. I am aware that there are descriptions of worship in heaven in the book of Revelation, and I don’t deny that worship is an integral part of what it means to serve and love God. But much of the worship in Revelation is not even by humans, but by angelic creatures. And the defining description of what it means for the redeemed to serve God in Revelation (as God’s priests) is that they reign on the earth (Rev 5:9-10; 22:5). This is the restoration of the imago Dei, where we represent God’s presence by how we live (which includes worship, but cannot be reduced to it).

      10. In my opinion, the whole question of whether we will primarily work or worship in the after life is driven by extabiblical notions, particularly of the “beatific vision,” which has only a tenuous relationship to Scripture. I know we can find texts like 1 Cor 13:12 or 1 John 3:2 that speak of seeing God/Christ. But the main impetus for this notion comes from Patristic and Medieval theology, which has been influenced by the Platonic/Aristotelian notion that contemplation is superior to action. I have to say that this seems to me to simply go against the basic tenor of Scripture.

      I prefer to take my cues from the biblical worldview and not from later theology (valuable as that theology is).

      In this case, I can find no convincing biblical case for an eschton constituted either exclusively or primarily by worship.

      • Richard, thanks for the reply. I look forward to seeing your journal article. A few quick responses.

        1. Sabbath is very much related to worship via the tabernacle/temple as God’s *resting* place (eg, Ps 132)
        The point of the sabbath years was, rather, that the land is the Lord’s (eg, Lev 25:23).

        2. While (‘proper’) slavery is unjust (eg, Ex 21:16), redemption of God’s people from slavery is ultimately about salvation and eternal life.

        3. Yes, agreed. God’s sabbath, which we enter fully in the consummation, is about God’s dominion-enjoyment-rest.

        4. Yes, agreed. Earthly sabbath is a part of time that represents the whole.

        5. Yes, agreed. The sabbath eschaton has been already inaugurated by Jesus.

        6. Yes, agreed. We are to also enjoy now the not-yet consummated, but already inaugurated reality of sabbath rest in Jesus. We have the firstfruit, downpayment, foretaste of the consummate inheritance, in our union with Christ by the Spirit through faith. And such faith manifests love & good works.

        7. I don’t agree with that view, as only the Mosaic covenant (and its sabbaths) is/are now obsolete with the new covenant. But the creational ordinance continues in the Lordsday. (Luke 6:5) Nevertheless, I’m not sure how significant this might be for our other disagreements.

        8. It’s not only the sabbath that the Scriptures connect to worship, but also the kingdom (you see in Heb 12).

        9. It’s not just a ‘restoration’ of pre-fallen imago in the consummation, but an advance higher-glorification of it, which Adam anticipated pre-fall. (1Cor 15:45) Eschatological reign is to enjoy full-dominion, no longer in need of working for it, but enjoying it’s consummated attainment. (Heb 2:5-8).

        10. As it turns out, much before the Greeks, this notion of eschatological enjoyment of reward & rest from work goes back to the covenant of works in the Garden. The vision of consummate eschatology precedes soteriology. The prospect of rest from the probationary work was held out to Adam, not only in the promise of his own sabbath practice, but in the tree of life, signifying eschatological glorification (Rev 22).

        The conclusion we should reach is not that the consummation is constituted exclusively by what is now worship (much of present worship will disappear; eg, lament, etc). Rather, the biblical evidence is quite compelling that present labors in the Lord are *not* characteristic, but rather the rest from that work and the full enjoyment of its results and rewards in Him are constitutive of the eschaton. Nothing more glorious could be given as our hope.

  3. Gregory, from your response here I’m not sure if we have a really radical disagreement at all or if it is that we have different ways of putting things, with different emphases. I agree, for example, that soteriology finds its place within what you call a “consummate eschatology” (if I understand what you mean).

    However, there is quite of lot of detail in what you say that I (as an OT scholar) would want to nuance a bit differently (including the status of “adam” prior to the fall acc. to 1 Cor 15, the so-called covenant of works, the meaning(s) of the tree of life, the garden as probationary, etc.).

    I would love a face-to-face dialogue with you about these issues (not quite the beatific vision, but the sort of vigorous, but respectful back-and-forth that brothers in Christ can exhibit, and which I think will continue into the eschaton!)

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