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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New Creation Has Begun—The Haverim Lectures at the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies

I am about to head off to Dayton, OH to give the Haverim Lectures at the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies (Haverim is Hebrew for friends).

I’ll be giving three lectures on Saturday, March 18, 2017 on the topic of eschatology, with the overall title: New Creation Has Begun: How This Big Idea Changes Everything.

My three lectures will address:

  • The sacred calling of being human as the image of God
  • The overall plot of the biblical story
  • The Bible’s vision of the consummation of all things

They will be based on my book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014) and will focus on how the biblical vision of the origin and destiny of creation can inspire and empower us for living today.

You can access more information about the lectures here.

The Center for Judaic-Christian Studies plans to make recordings of the lectures available for those interested.

Sane Action in a Crazy World—A Meditation on Jeremiah 32

Seven weeks ago, while I was in Australia as part of my sabbatical, I preached a sermon on Jeremiah 32 at St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide. Of the four lectionary texts that week, I chose to focus on the prophet Jeremiah during the Babylonian siege, while touching on the other three texts (portions of Psalm 91 on God’s protection, a passage from 1 Timothy 6 on the dangers of wealth, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16).

The actual lectionary readings were Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31. These four texts can be accessed here.

It has struck me that my reflections might be helpful to those struggling to come to terms with the current political situation in the US, even though it wasn’t written with this situation in mind.

Although parts of my sermon were specifically contextual, directed to Christians living in Australian society, most of the sermon is broadly relevant to what our response should be in a time of crisis. At one point I noted: “We feel under siege. Life has begun to get constricted; the walls are closing in. We need breathing room.”

I have reproduced the entire sermon below in this blog. Or you can download it as a PDF file.


  • Sane Action in a Crazy World
  • J. Richard Middleton
  • Sermon for St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide
  • Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 25 September 2016
  • Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

* * * * * *

The year is 597 B.C.

The prophet Jeremiah had been proclaiming the word of God to the people of Jerusalem and Judah for close to forty years; he’s an old man now.

But his words have fallen mostly on deaf ears.

Repent, he had exhorted them; change your ways; seek to fulfill God’s purposes in the way you treat your neighbour, and do not pursue your own selfish desires. Don’t just claim to trust in God, but bring your life into conformity with the claim.

Otherwise, you presume on God’s grace, and make a sham of true religion.

But Jeremiah wasn’t just a moralist, telling people to “act nicely.” He was calling them to covenant fidelity to God. He was calling them back to their fundamental identity as God’s people—a people with a vocation, a calling of exhibiting God’s rule to all the nations of the world—by how they lived.

And he warned of coming disaster. Initially, he spoke of an enemy coming from the north. Then later he put the name Babylon on this threat—Babylon, the great superpower of the sixth century B.C.

But the people ignored his message. The priests didn’t listen; the other prophets disdained him. His own family shunned him; various kings had him put into stocks or thrown into a pit, and the latest king (Zedekiah) put him in prison.

So here is Jeremiah, confined to the court of the guard in Jerusalem. Trapped; bound; constrained.

And wouldn’t you know it—his prophetic warnings have come true. Indeed, Zedekiah was only appointed king, ten years earlier, when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and the previous king surrendered as a way to save the city.

But now the end has come. Even the puppet king Zedekiah (placed on the throne by Babylon) has rebelled against his overlords, and the Babylonian armies have again marched on Jerusalem.

And there are the armies of Babylon, surrounding the city, settling in for a siege. Many Judeans in the countryside have already been killed. And the people of Jerusalem are panicked.

This is the end; Jeremiah knows it. The city will fall; the temple will be destroyed; many people will die; others will be taken into exile; they will become war refugees fleeing their land, which will be taken over by a foreign empire.

So Jeremiah is trapped, confined not just in the court of the guard; but even if he was let free, the city is surrounded. There is no way out.

* * * * * *

There may well be some of us here this morning who can identify with Jeremiah. Our siege may be different. It may be the breakdown of a marriage (maybe it’s been coming for ten years); or the loss of a job. Possibly it’s a financial crisis we don’t know how we will get through. Or it could be a betrayal by a friend. Maybe it’s a son or daughter who has disappointed us, rejecting all we hold dear. Or perhaps our own faith is fraying.

We feel under siege. Life has begun to get constricted; the walls are closing in. We need breathing room.

* * * * * *

Some of us are like the rich man in our parable (from Luke 16)—though we don’t like to admit it; we typically pay no attention to the suffering of the Lazaruses around us. Truth be told, we’re oblivious to them in the mad rush of our lives. As the reading from 1 Timothy puts it, in our “eagerness to be rich” we have “wandered away from the faith” (from faithfulness to God)—while remaining (respectably) in the church. Yes, that is entirely possible.

We don’t need Jeremiah—or anyone else—to tell us this. We are aware (if we’re honest) that we have (slowly, at first) begun to buy into the shallow values of this world, placing wealth and success above people and above compassion. Until we’ve bought in, whole hog.

And the result, to use language from 1 Timothy, is that we have “pierced [our]selves with many pains,” driving people away from us, leading to a shallowness of life that we are always subliminally aware of, only to push the thought away—until it comes back to haunt us in the dark hours of the night.

And we wonder how we can begin to extricate ourselves from these prisons of our own making. What can lift the siege?

* * * * * *

But there are others here this morning who can’t identify with the besieged prophet. Life seems pretty smooth for us right now. Things are going well. Investments are paying off. We’re successful at work, in relationships.

We could almost recite Psalm 91. It feels like we’re living in the shelter of the Most High, protected by the shadow of the Almighty.

Of course, we might not actually want to recite Psalm 91, not explicitly. Yet there are many in the church—and in society—who assume the posture of this psalm.

If we are good people (and, of course, we are), then God will deliver us from the snare of the fowler; God will cover us with his wings; and we won’t fear the terror by night or the arrow by day—all metaphorical language. But we know what it means. God protects good people (like us) from disaster.

It’s interesting that those putting together the lectionary left out the really extreme verses: “A thousand may fall at your side, / ten thousand at your right hand, / but it will not come near you. / You will only look with your eyes / and see the punishment of the wicked.”

Of course, none of us really believes that—that’s just too self-serving; and too arrogant.

And yet . . . if we are honest (if I am honest) we may admit that we try to sneak in some sort of magical idea of God’s protection of “us good people,” while (maybe subconsciously) looking down our noses at those “wicked” who suffer difficulty and disaster.

It’s interesting that archeologists have turned up a number of amulets, Israelite amulets that Israelites wore to fend off evil, that have verses from Psalm 91 inscribed on them.

It goes pretty deep, this magical idea that we can somehow be protected from trouble, that we are immune to disaster.

* * * * * *

But no-one is immune; not Jeremiah (who was a righteous prophet), not us (with all our moral ambiguity), not even Jesus. You do know about the cross—this Roman instrument of torture that he was executed on?

In fact, two of the verses missing from our Psalm 91 lectionary reading were quoted by the devil to Jesus in the wilderness: God “will command his angels concerning you / to guard you in all your ways. / On their hands they will bear you up, / so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

And do you remember Jesus’s response? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Because he knew that the servant of the Lord, the one who wants to be faithful to God, cannot live immune to suffering.

* * * * * *

The question before us this morning is not how to avoid suffering, but what do you do when the walls are closing in? It’s not how to prevent disaster, either personal (our own prison, in the court of the guard) or communal (with the siege ramps going up around our city); the question is whether we give up hope in a time of crisis, when things look bleak, either for us personally or perhaps when our society seems to be crumbling—when priests are complicit in sexual abuse, when terrorists bomb marketplaces, when little girls like Tiahliegh Palmer go missing and then turn up dead, discovered by fishermen.

This is a world in which aboriginal peoples do not receive justice, where race and class and wealth tilt the balance against so many; this is a world where—to put it bluntly—Babylon seems to dominate the landscape, and the city of God is compromised by the power and weapons of this world.

So it’s way too late to ask how we can avoid suffering. The question is: what will we do in the face of a world wracked by suffering, a world out of joint with God’s purposes of shalom and justice for all?

* * * * * *

It was in such a world that Jeremiah received a word from God. Or, at least he thought it was a word from God. Because it was a very strange word.

He thought he heard God telling him that his cousin Hanamel was going to pay him a visit and suggest that he buy a bit of real estate off him, some land he owned in Anathoth, not three miles north of Jerusalem. Since this was land that the Babylonian army was occupying, and Judah was sure to fall to Babylonian control, the land would be useless to Hanamel. So, no wonder he wanted to palm it off on Jeremiah!

But then this very strange word was fulfilled. Hanamel came, just as God said, and offered him the sale. “Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord,” said Jeremiah.

And he goes ahead with the crazy deal. Jeremiah not only buys the land (that is overrun by Babylon), but he goes through the process of having the deed signed (with two copies) and attested by witnesses, with both copies kept safe so that future generations might know what he did.

But why did he do such a crazy thing?

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

In other words, this was a radical act of hope in the midst of what looked like a hopeless situation. It was staking a claim on a future that looked closed off. It was affirming that God was not done with his people or with this world.

* * * * * *

And some of us have heard a word from the Lord; or we think it might be from God (it’s hard to figure out if it’s really God speaking or just our crazy ideas, sometimes).

Maybe we’ve heard a word suggesting some crazy, counter-cultural action—like stepping back from the rat race, putting the brakes on our climbing the ladder of success—to spend time with people.

Maybe with the adult son or daughter who has been pulling away. Could that be the word of God whispering in our ear to book a lunch date with them, to just find out how they’re doing, and show interest in their lives—no strings attached?

Or is that a word from God suggesting that we pay attention to our neighbour who has been going through a difficult time (that neighbour might be right beside us in this church, or down the street, or in our work place)? That neighbour might need financial help; or just a friend to talk to.

Perhaps the word we sense (is it from God?) has been prompting us to get involved in our city, entering the political process, to put into action our passion for justice and transformative change.

Maybe the word in our ear or in our heart has been suggesting that it’s high time we took seriously the racism in Australian culture, especially towards aboriginal peoples, and find concrete ways to made a difference.

Or is the whisper we hear telling us to pay our employees a living wage, to re-think the pay structure of our organization, so that people are treated with dignity and humanity, and not just as “workers.”

And, of course, God could be telling us something that no preacher could guess; but we know what the prompting is.

* * * * * *

What is the plot of land that God is prompting each of us to purchase?

What great or (perhaps) small action is God asking of us, that would be an investment in the future? That would be a signpost of hope in a world of corruption and despair?

Yes, this is a time of great upheaval, with climate change impacting many coastal peoples, including Pacific islanders. This is a world of political corruption and senseless crime; a world in which millions of refugees flee their homes, trying to find a safe place to live.

And we may personally be under siege.

The Babylonian armies may be encamped all around.

But precisely in this time of crisis God gives Jeremiah a word of hope: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

For this is the world that God loves, that Jesus died for. And God has never abandoned this world; God has never given up on us

“This is my Father’s world,” wrote a clergyman (in 1901) who lived not a hundred kilometers from my current home in Rochester, NY. “This is my Father’s world.” And he goes on to say: “And let me ne’er forget / that though the wrong seems oft so strong, / God is the ruler yet.”

And those words, like the words of the Lord to Jeremiah, give us hope.

But hope that is not acted on soon fades and dies.

Hope needs to be lived out, in concrete action.

And the claim that “God is the ruler yet” will not be believed—not even by ourselves—if we do not seek to manifest this rule in our lives.

And so the word of God comes to each of us, as it came to Jeremiah, saying: “Buy a plot of land.”

I know it sounds crazy. But if we are open to that voice, maybe some Hanamel will come to us and confirm the whisper we have heard, until—like Jeremiah—we just know that this is the world of the Lord.

And then we act on it.

Indeed, this may be the most sane action we can take in a crazy world.

Amen.

* * * * * *

The entire sermon is downloadable as a PDF file.