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, 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.”


An Interview in the UK on Creation, the Imago Dei, Eschatology—and Jamaica

Some weeks back I blogged about my two-week trip to the UK, during which I gave a series of lectures, beginning in Scotland (St. Andrews and Aberdeen) and continuing through various stops in England (Durham, Mirfield, Leeds, Oxford, Cambridge, Cheltenham, and Bristol).

At one of the stops, in Cheltenham, after speaking at the University of Gloucestershire, I met up with Matt Lynch, an Old Testament scholar, who is Dean of Studies at the Westminster Theological Centre.

The morning after the lecture, Matt interviewed me for a podcast called On Script: Conversations on Current Biblical Scholarship.”

The interview focused on topics related to my books The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005) and A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014).

The On Scrip website made it a bit more zippy, however, and advertised it as an interview on “biblical eschatology, creation, heaven, hell, Elijah’s escape of death, theology in Jamaica, whether our pets go to heaven, and much more.”

I think I did talk about everything on that list except pets going to heaven. And I lapsed into a pretty thick Jamaican accent at one point.

The podcast is now available for those who want to listen online or download the mp3 file.

Meeting up with a Variety of Biblical Scholars in Cheltenham

This is the eighth installment about my speaking in the UK.

After my second talk in Oxford (given at Wycliffe Hall), I got on a bus to Cheltenham, in order to speak on the same topic (biblical eschatology) at the University of Gloucestershire that evening.

My host at the University was well-known Old Testament scholar J. Gordon McConville.

I first met Gordon when I was invited to be the respondent to his keynote address at the Institute for Biblical Research annual meeting in 2013, on the topic of the Bible’s understanding of what it means to be human.

That keynote address ultimately led to his wonderful book called Being Human in God’s World: An Old Testament Theology of Humanity (Baker Academic, 2016). I wrote a short endorsement for the dust jacket, and I have now been asked to write a full-fledged book review for the journal Themelios.

There were some other biblical scholars at my lecture (some of whom I had known before), and we all went out for dinner afterwards (led by Gordon McConville).

Matt Lynch is an Old Testament scholar, who is both Dean of Studies and teaching faculty at the Westminster Theological Centre, with head offices in Cheltenham and learning centres throughout the UK, Channel Islands, and Northern Europe.

Two years ago (May 2015) Matt conducted an online interview (via Google Hangout) with both me and OT scholar William Brown on the topic of “Creation, Violence, and the God of the Old Testament” (the interview can be viewed here).

The morning after my eschatology lecture, I met Matt in a local coffee shop (called the Boston Tea Party, appropriate since Matt is American) where he interviewed me as part of a series of interviews with biblical scholars called On Script.” The interview is available as a podcast either to listen to online or to download.

Matt is the author of Monotheism and Institutions in the Book of Chronicles: Temple, Priesthood, and Kingship in Post-Exilic Perspective (2014). He is currently working on a new book on violence in the Primeval History (Genesis 1-11), which I’m dying to read (one of my MA students who wants to write a thesis on Genesis 4 is also looking forward to it).

Crispin Fletcher-Louis is an independent scholar, who works on Second Temple (Dead Sea Scrolls) and New Testament materials, with a focus on the imago Dei theme. Among his books are All the Glory of Adam (2001) and Jesus Monotheism, vol. 1: Christological Origins (2016). He is especially interested in how Adam, the High Priest, and Jesus (among others) are portrayed in Jewish and Christian literature as participating in God’s divinity (you can listen to an interview with Crispin about Jesus Monotheism here). While I don’t formulate these ideas in quite the same way, I have found his work helpful, and I cited him in my entry on “Image of God” in vol. 2 of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology (2015). it was good to meet Crispin in person.

Andrew Lincoln is a senior New Testament scholar who has just retired from teaching at the University of Gloucestershire. I met Andrew back when he was teaching at Wycliffe College, at the University of Toronto (he is a friend of Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat).

Andrew was probably the most outspoken critic of my eschatology lecture (and he didn’t hesitate to raise questions); I had read his book on Paradise Now and Not Yet (2004) when I was working on my eschatology book, so I expected his questions. He is a prolific author, and has a fascinating recent book on the virgin birth, which I don’t quite agree with. Nevertheless, disagreement doesn’t negate collegiality, and we had a friendly discussion over supper. In fact, my students will know that I have assigned his commentary on the Gospel of John in one of  my biblical exegesis courses over the past few years.

My speaking tour in the UK ended at Trinity College, Bristol, the topic of my final post.